On a recent morning, Estevan Garcia sat at a table on his restaurant’s breezy sidewalk patio in his crisp chef whites, finishing up a late breakfast. His unhurried demeanor was that of a man at the top of his game savoring the fruits of his labor, and the chef, who has long been recognized as a major player on the Southwestern food scene, wore a peaceful expression as he sipped his coffee. When dining at Estevan, or sometimes just walking by, it is very often possible to play a game of spot the chef. Whether he’s drinking a glass of wine and chatting with a five-top, pouring drinks at the long, minimalist bar, or eating outside by himself, Garcia seems to be everywhere but the kitchen. But it is clear that behind the scenes, he is manning a well-appointed eatery, one that furthers his reputation as a master of traditional New Mexico-inspired cuisine.
Estevan’s section of Washington Street is a little quieter than the area closer to the Plaza, and the restaurant’s décor is unfussy and elegant. Diners can eat on the small sidewalk patio or climb the stairs and eat on the sleek yet rustic second floor, which also includes cushy balcony seating. Curiously, as the food is so excellent, the restaurant rarely seems very crowded, and it is possible — and advisable — to linger over a meal and some wine.
Garcia’s past life as a Franciscan monk is well documented, and his regard for grace and simplicity are apparent on his plates. One dinner began with a pastel de guacamole (guacamole cake), a fluffy square of avocado mousse over layers of corn and tomatoes, piquant with chiles — and was that a hint of basil? — and served with crisp tortilla chips. It was an inspired blend of the expected — it’s guacamole, after all — and the sublime (how did those vegetables taste so fresh?).
Soon a pair of tamalitos arrived, adorably fun-sized pork tamales served with Chimayó red and green chile (Estevan bills itself as the only Santa Fe restaurant that serves Chimayó chile, and seems to locally source as much of its meat and vegetables as possible). Though the menu lists the tamalitos as one pork, one vegetarian, both our masa missiles mistakenly contained meat, though we were hardly complaining about the abundance of moist shredded pork, a superior red chile, and a heady and complex green chile (its initial sweetness leading into a wall of heat). Next came a dish of carne adovada ravioli, filled with chile-marinated pork and served with a garlic red chile cream sauce. The pasta was carefully shaped by hand, and the chef’s mastery of pork was reinforced for us, though the sauce could have been spicier. The uncomplicated genius of the fusion — Italian form with New Mexico flavor — made the dish memorable.
Two roasted quail with red chile and carrots made less of an impression; though the birds were nicely roasted, the accompanying chile sauce didn’t quite make up for their lack of seasoning. But next came a perfect storm of flavor: Bolognese pasta, with a mélange of slow-cooked pork shoulder, pancetta, and tomatoes served over tagliatelle — a dish I will keep in mind as the nights turn colder and also the best Italian entree I have had dining out in this town. The cornmeal-encrusted pan-fried rainbow trout was also exceptional — creamy, lemon-buttery, and served with spinach and fingerling potatoes. Garcia’s ability with vegetables is a marvel — every one tasted as if it were mere hours away from parting with the soil, fitting for a restaurant whose outdoor sign reads “Cultivar la tierra,” or “Cultivate the land.”
On a lunch visit, it was clear that dinner wasn’t a fluke. The posole, a traditional bowl of stewed pork with hominy in a red chile broth, tasted like someone’s very skilled abuelita had prepared it, also causing more anticipation for the chill of fall. The breakfast burrito with chorizo, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, potatoes, and both types of chile expertly melded its complementary flavors, and the stacked chicken enchiladas featured impossibly tender chicken, with more of that nuanced green chile.
Desserts, too, are not to be missed: The organic goat milk flan is rich, silky, and sweet-tart. The almond cake with chocolate and almonds, served with a moat of crème anglaise, truly lived up to our waiter’s description of it as “elevated milk and cookies.”
After such indelible meals, it was a joy to discover that the spot-the-chef game actually extends to the city at large, reminding the spotter of Garcia’s dedication to his craft. There was Estevan at the farmers market, filling his own bags with fresh vegetables, and there he was again, pushing a cart at Whole Foods. If food this good, coming from a man so obviously loyal to the local flavors he grew up on, creates a cult of personality of sorts, sign me up. I’ll follow Garcia anywhere he wants to take me, as long as he cooks.