Jour de vivre
The winter blues are apparently rife among Santa Fe chefs. Midwinter last year, I had a high-low experience at one of Santa Fe’s longtime favorite restaurants, and in an eerie echo at Ristra, celebrating its 15th anniversary, the same sequence repeated itself: a disappointing dinner one cold, dark night followed by a luscious lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Maybe we should queue up the Netflix and put a pot of chile stew on the stove for those long winter nights instead.
But people will try to cheer themselves with dinner out, so if your heart is set on Ristra, go for the black mussels served in a thick cream soup with flavors reminiscent of a Thai curry and studded with celery and carrots. The plump, fresh mussels will make you forget you’re landlocked. Figs stuffed with goat cheese on a bed of arugula take you on a mini-Mediterranean vacation in midwinter. Fried calamari are tender, sweet, and crispy — no chewy breaded rings to toss — and served with a tangy lime chile sauce that errs a little on the sweet side of sweet and sour.
Our attentive server told us that because Ristra was celebrating its 15th anniversary, all main courses on the dinner menu were $15 when ordered with a starter. Unfortunately, the dry Berkshire pork chop — advertised as a “pork rack,” which sounded temptingly like ribs — in a molasses whiskey sauce tasted like barbecue gone bad, and I don’t mean that in a good way. When the crispy king salmon on seafood risotto arrived, the fish was both crispy and fresh, but I couldn’t fathom what the lumpy cream sauce with little rubber bits pooled beneath it was until I found a plump mussel and remembered the risotto. I would have preferred just a fresh vegetable side beyond the six carefully arranged fava beans. The Chilean sea bass on the menu shocks; it’s like seeing snow leopard listed there. Eating an endangered species to extinction is not my idea of a good time, and these days in Santa Fe, the best chefs generally seem to agree. (Chilean sea bass, wild and farmed, is considered a fish to avoid by the Marine Stewardship Council.)
The Dr. Jekyll to our dark night’s Mr. Hyde is a lunch menu that includes house-conserved duck confit. It is served in a bowl with lentils and mixed salad so the juice from the delicious duck, the lentils, and the vinaigrette form a pool of ducky goodness at the bottom. The lentils are listed as lentilles du Puy, but they weren’t — just standard good brown lentils. Tiny green lentilles du Puy would elevate the dish even further. A sandwich of braised lamb on ciabatta with harissa mayonnaise confers respectability on a Parisian street food vice, “le sandwich grec.” Fallingapart lamb nestles in the tender ciabatta with unctuous mayonnaise. I’d turn up the heat on the harissa, though. It’s served with cool, crunchy cucumber slices and crisp hot fries; I’d have swooned had the fries been the hand-cut variety. These hearty options are also available on the bar menu at night and would make emerging from your cocoon into the cold worthwhile.
A special dessert of chocolate soufflé, however, was not worth the wait. The irresistible smell of warm chocolate wafted across the room, but that proved to be the best part. Dry and inexplicably lacking chocolate character, it made me wish I’d ordered something else. The crispy lemon tuile filled with berries was pleasant and light, but at nearly $20 for these two selections, dessert was no deal. A 2010 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list could soothe the sting, but prices are high there, too, even for a glass of the 2007 MâconVillages Caves de Lugny Chardonnay, a fine pairing with seafood. The Louis LaTour Pinot Noir is also a good food wine. The well-made espresso is atypical for Santa Fe restaurants.
An ambience that seemed coldly minimalist at night proved warmly inviting during the day from the perspective of a cushy banquette in a cozy windowed room, watching sunshine slide across a drift of leaves and up a coyote fence. The bar is welcoming, too. Service is professional and amiable. Let’s hope Ristra’s executive chef Xavier Grenet, who 20 years ago worked in Paris with Joël Robuchon, finds more inspiration in the lengthening days.