Merveilleux from A to Ze

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Pa­tri­cia Greathouse I For The New Mex­i­can

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. ◀

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