Jour de vivre

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Su­san Mead­ows

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.

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