Have you seen the Hipster Business Name Generator website (www.hipsterbusiness.name)? Poking fun at the linguistic framework recently popularized by hip restaurants, coffee shops, cocktail lounges, and boutiques across the country (Cane & Table, Salt & Straw, Landmarks & Lions), it creates an endless stream of ampersand-linked suggestions. When word about Radish & Rye — the new restaurant at Ristra’s old address — began circulating, I wondered if the owners used that website when choosing a name. After all, the kitchen is helmed by David Gaspar de Alba, who comes to Santa Fe from that hipster mecca, Portland.
Taking its name to heart, R&R aims to serve “farm-inspired cuisine,” which means attention to seasonality and some vegetable-centric dishes (including, yes, radishes). The bar focuses on the American whiskey family (try the refreshing Bourbon Cider and Dragonfly cocktails) but also offers beer and wine. Rather than the youthful, forward-thinking, unfussy cuisine its name suggests, the food here more closely resembles what’s served by other upscale establishments in town. Some of it is pricey, fancy, and not particularly exciting, but some is intriguing and has promise.
The pickles are a pretty ensemble, although they look more like garnishes than an $8 appetizer. The carrot, bean, radish, cauliflower, and garlic scape were crunchy and briny, but only three of each pickle were offered to our table of four. Similarly, a ramekin of indulgently fatty duck rillettes was served with only five crostini.
There were high points, of course. The kitchen gets creative with ham hocks, making that soulful, satisfyingly salty meat into croquettes. The ribs are remarkably tender, pulling off the bone in the best way. Their veneer of sweet “Carolina” glaze creates an exciting flavor seesaw with the vinegarand-mustard-dressed corn salad. The scallop ceviche has an invigorating acidity, the shellfish denatured just enough to be pleasantly firm.
I’m in love with R&R’s Caesar salad spin — mildly bitter radicchio, rich piñons, and a perfectly salty, tangy dressing. In an alluring snap-pea-zucchini salad, the peas popped with freshness, and the still-firm zucchini looked like velvet ribbons in the well-balanced plum vinaigrette. Pellets of duck chicharrónes were incongrously strewn on top.
There’s a silky corn chowder, with green chile and jalapeño offering mellow heat. Its pairing with a giant marrowbone seemed like unctuous overkill, though — meltingly rich marrow begs for a sharp, bright partner. If nothing else, we longed for some bread to spread it on.
The menu does include entrees — larger dishes with price tags to match. The hanger steak, served with super-smooth cauliflower-chèvre purée, was nicely cooked but forgettable, its ancho-chile accent notwithstanding. The salmon filet with spring garlic, fennel, and greens was pretty and moist but otherwise unremarkable.
Coco Chanel supposedly said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” The kitchen might heed that advice with regard to the peculiarly tough pork chop, ringed with a half inch of fat and draped with smoky but superfluous pork belly. This dish — which includes polenta and morels — seemed discordant on a July menu anyway. Given its focus on seasonality, I wondered why the kitchen didn’t opt for a summery combination, with peaches or apricots, say.
Had this been my first time eating fried green tomatoes, I wouldn’t have understood what all the fuss is about. The fruit was thick, firm, and tart, as it should be, but rather than traditional cornmeal, the batter is puffy and tempura-like, and it becomes soggy. The pimento cheese would please my grandmother, with its mouthwatering sharpness and soft, nubbly texture. It’s typically served with bread or crackers, but here it’s layered between the piping-hot tomatoes, where it melts and gums up the crust.
The only dessert we sampled was the pecan “pie” — really a muffin-sized tartlet. The delicate crust was too thick, but the filling was caramelly sweet, nutty, and lightly salted, beautifully accented by a vanilla-infused Chantilly cream.
R&R’s décor is the muted fine-dining sort, heavy on tan, taupe, and beige. The patio is idyllic; indoor spaces — particularly the bar — are inviting and lively, which means they also get loud. Service is professional, polite, and typically quick, although on one visit our server was curiously forgetful and absent for unreasonably long stretches.
But these bumps can be smoothed over. I suspect R&R’s talent and creativity just need fine-tuning. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and few restaurants are flawless right out of the gate. Some words to keep in mind on the road to greatness? Sweat & Time.