Promis­ing sparks

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - James M. Keller

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.

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