Last winter and spring the permanent closing of the 28-year-old El Nido restaurant in Tesuque was announced by the former managers, Dennis Dampf and Don Scharhag, and then refuted by the owner of the building, who promised to reopen it soon. A dance hall and saloon in the 1920s, the vintage adobe building became El Nido, a classic surf ’ n’ turf eatery, in 1982 under Dampf and Scharhag’s direction.
Over time, it acquired a distinctive niche in the local restaurant scene. Los Alamos scientists, operagoers, norteños, and occasional members of the Hollywood tribe intermingled over martinis and margaritas, Dampf’s classic chicken liver paté, decadent oysters Rockefeller, lobster tails, and New York strip and a baked potato with the works on the side. The professional servers assumed you were more interested in the cooking of your steak than their names and always defined precisely how medium rare translated in color and temperature at El Nido. Prime rib was offered in two sizes, both big enough to coldcock a linebacker. But surf ’ n’ turf went out of fashion some time ago. And then the economy tanked.
If this seems like a lot of preamble about what El Nido used to be, it’s because the new management has only tweaked — not changed — the formula. Comparisons are inevitable.
The good news is that the charming and skilled bartender is back behind the old bar at the new El Nido, reopened in June by Tom Vimont, operator of Steaksmith at El Gancho. The margaritas are tart and potent and reasonably priced by Santa Fe standards. The menu now offers family-oriented burgers and ribs plus a few New Mexican dishes, though half were not available (as they were being “reworked”) when I visited. Steaks and prime rib come from a ranch in Colorado where the cattle are grass-fed and corn-finished, according to the only server to return from El Nido’s previous incarnation. Salads still come with the meal, as in days of yore, but there is no house dressing now, no clarified butter for seafood. The generally insipid dressings and cocktail and dipping sauces make you wonder why the restaurant bothers to serve them. Oysters Rockefeller are still on the menu, but in this version, the oysters are simply broiled with spinach and a little grated cheese. Decadence is so ’90s — or so it would appear. Flashfried oysters are apparently what management does with oysters that don’t survive the flight to New Mexico; they came as battered-and-fried oyster mush. A gazpacho starter is a sort of chunky chopped salad in cold tomato broth, or is it juice?
The prime rib was cooked exactly to order, overwhelming and palatable, but the beef jus on the side tasted like bouillon-cube reduction. Horseradish can still be had straight-up. A lone fresh charred chile on the side was good. Baked potatoes arrived three times at a temperature that wouldn’t melt butter. The bittersweet chocolate fudge cake and bread pudding would have been better served warm, too. Well-grilled Canadian wild Coho salmon came with a surprisingly decent dill tartar sauce and pickled onion. Lobster tails were particularly sweet, of truly surprising quality, and worth returning for — when service, among other things, improves.
With only two of three dining rooms open and neither full, we were seated with a wine list and no menus and left to wait. It was the harbinger of a long night. Fried oysters came soon after ordering, but the wine apparently had to be flown in from France. A good deal, however, the 2007 Moillard chardonnay, paired perfectly with seafood. After salad and soup, another long wait brought main courses with the signature cold baked potato and some limp snow peas. Then our two tag-teaming servers disappeared completely. They never returned. It was the veteran server who delivered our food, sailing in from the other dining room like the U.S. Navy on a rescue mission. Marooned on our no-dessert island, with no check and no servers, we finally went to the bar to pay.
If you go to El Nido, go for the prime rib and lobster tail or something delicious to drink. Perhaps, given time, Vimont will realize that more than just the New Mexican dishes need reworking.