Ragged rein­car­na­tion

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Su­san Mead­ows

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.

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