From its understated beige-and-brown upholstery to the Zen-like arrangement of polished stones anchoring its napkins, Fuego — despite its fiery name — projects an extravagance of calm. Too much calm, we felt, when one night we wandered through its unoccupied expanses, precisely at the hour of our reservation, calling out repeatedly for someone, anyone, who might point us to our table. Too calm, we felt again, standing at the reception desk another evening while the maîtresse d’ remained engrossed in her newspaper until roused by a passing waiter.
A new executive chef has recently taken the reins at Fuego: Eric Hall, arriving from a RockResorts property in Colorado, a cousin of La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa, in which Fuego resides. His talent in the kitchen was evident, but his restaurant’s success hinges on the imposition of consistency. At this point, things are all over the map. Servers range from conversant and sensitive to clueless and indifferent. A dish prepared ineptly one night may be faultless another.
Our first visit added up to a string of demerits, the warmly spiced roasted corn and green chile soup with a generous mound of duck confit was an exception, its chowder thickness revealing layers of texture and flavor. Seared Maine sea scallops arrived sandy and slightly overdone, though in a delectable pistachio and parsley cream sauce punched up with unanticipated pepper. (Another night, however, the scallops were perfectly prepared, now astride strips of pork belly.) A fennelcrusted pork chop, perhaps an inch and a quarter thick, looked beautiful, surprisingly sliced on the bias; but it, too, proved overdone. A side of Chimayó-chile-coated onion rings was tasty, but the breading failed to adhere to the onions — a technical gaffe. Duck breast was ordered medium rare, which our server relayed as the chef’s suggestion. It arrived medium-well at least, without a trace of pink within, far less appealing than the hillock of shredded duck confit that set next to it. It was accompanied by a squash and celery dice that was crunchy, starchy, and manifestly undercooked.
I couldn’t believe the duck was anything but a misstep, so I ordered it again on another visit. Now the server reported that chef recommended it medium, which I requested, and it arrived cooked precisely to medium-rare over the same vegetable combination, now fully cooked, though flavorful and retaining texture — truly al dente.
So it went with dessert. What could go wrong with a “chocolate trio” of crunchy “tagliatelle” (in this case, chocolate-coated phyllo), white chocolate ice cream, and a milk chocolate mousse cake? Well, the ice cream could arrive at our crumb-strewn table mostly melted, while the “cake” (actually a pyramid with chocolate-bar walls surrounding the mousse) could remain so frozen that its casing simply could not be breached by the spoon provided. Another night, the pyramid’s walls were silky soft, the ice cream solidly cold, the tabletop clean, the whole experience a delight.
A few other dishes pleased entirely: nutty farro risotto, creamy but not limp, with winter vegetables and pecorino; meaty short ribs and carrots lightly scented with cumin; a glazed salmon with “crispy Brussels sprouts” — which turned out to be, unexpectedly, a delicious salad of not-at-all-crispy sprout leaves. Others are best avoided, especially the unseasoned tuna tartare, drowned in medicinal truffle oil.
The wine list is deep and fully priced, including many treasures in multiple vintages but no bargains that I noticed. (And what’s with the “chapter” headed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in which only two of the 17 offerings come from that producer?) By-the-glass selections are expensive and range from the characterful (Bonterra chardonnay, Magness cabernet sauvignon) to the meager (flabby Atalon merlot).
Perhaps the boss was away during our disappointing visit; I know he was there during our excellent ones. But of course, diners don’t get a discount for chef’s night off. The menu is small, with eight entrees divided between the à la carte and the prix fixe selections, the latter representing a good value. Mastering that repertoire should not stretch the kitchen staff. I sense improvement in the offing.