Merveilleux from A to Ze
Santa Fe, it’s time to try Ze French Bistro, where you can get a four-course prix fixe dinner for a song. Now this might not be interesting if the chef were mediocre, but Strasbourg-born Laurent Rea is a master. Formerly chef at O’Keeffe Café, Rea now turns his hand to “more affordable food to attract more locals. Creative but casual,” as he put it. The man is too humble. The food is meticulous, the ingredients fresh. Rea cooked under some of the best fine-dining chefs in France, which is to say, the world, and it shows.
Perhaps you’ve missed this restaurant, open nearly a year, because of the location. Several very good and interesting restaurants have been sucked under by the black hole space at Garrett’s Desert Inn. Perhaps it’s just bad juju. However, the ambience is pleasant and modern — black, white, and neutrals with burntsienna accents. A shady patio overlooks Santa Fe’s river walk and Old Santa Fe Trail.
We found ourselves almost alone in the dining room twice. We started with appetizers and wine — the Willamette Riesling ’ 08 and the Pinot Noir Fire Road, New Zealand ’ 08 were food friendly and affordably priced. The bread that came with the wine, however, was stale both times. A Saint-Sulpice Bordeaux arrived too hot, so we sent it back. The waiter graciously replaced it with a very drinkable Italian pinot grigio. Delicious appetizers like a warm caramelized onion and brie tart — a round of puff pastry, caramelized red onions, and sliced warm, creamy brie — began the meal in fine form. The prix fixe choice was a clean, classic frisée salad with pecans and bleu cheese.
I was wary of the tuna and salmon tartare, but it was fresh as sea mist and paired with tomatoes, shallot, avocado, capers, and a side of mesclun salad. Fresh hot blini were a wonderful base for the raw fish. An intense roasted tomato and coconut curry soup with a creamy crab-salad garnish was even better than it sounded. Seafood vol-au-vent (French for “flight in the wind,” the name describes the airy puff pastry shell that contains the seafood) had basmati rice on the side. Moist cooked salmon, crab, bay scallops, and mushrooms in a light lemony cream sauce were sparked by just a little dill. The asparagus and carrots were small and perfect.
A well-chosen flat iron steak à l’échalote (a shoulder cut with shallots) came on the rare side of the medium rare we ordered. Great pommes frites and an arugula salad with a lovely vinaigrette made with lemon juice finished the plate. Rosy seared duck breast with sweet and sour sauce partnered with potatoes dauphine (sliced and cooked with milk and/or cream and cheese), asparagus, turnip, and carrot: Isn’t it nice that Rea trusts us enough to give us turnip with duck?
A slow-cooked, fork-tender pork roast special with fingerling potatoes arrived in a casserole with asparagus spears. It’s all I want when the snow is deep and the skies are dark. We devoured it anyway on a hot summer day. A quite wonderful rum-raisin crème brûlée had a crispy melted-sugar top that hid sultanas. Bread pudding à la Normande came topped with cinnamon ice cream and apples — pure folk style yet not heavy — and it was also a treat.
Strawberry-rhubarb crumble, served hot with vanilla ice cream, echoed the simple fruit-dessert theme. Hot, intense chocolate fondant— a flourless lava cake — had a scoop of pineapple-coconut ice cream that disappeared much too quickly. We would have liked more ice cream on both hot desserts; they turned the ice cream to liquid in no time.
In general, the service was very good, in keeping with the Continental feel of Ze French Bistro, but one night our lovely server was quite unknowledgeable about the menu, wines, and beers. She didn’t try to hide it, though, and ran to get information as we asked. I don’t want Ze French Bistro to close from lack of business (or any of our other fine local restaurants; please get out and help keep them afloat!). Go, sit on the patio, have a glass of wine and an appetizer, and congratulate yourself on having been clever enough to have a real French bistro meal without having to make the awful transatlantic flight — or take out a second mortgage. ◀