Fine vintage

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

“Peo­ple keep telling me this place is the best res­tau­rant in Santa Fe,” said one of my din­ing com­pan­ions, be­tween bites. “But I’ve been skep­ti­cal.”

“Well, eat­ing is be­liev­ing,” quipped his wife, steal­ing some gnoc­chi from his plate. I’d have to agree with her. My two re­cent vis­its were nights when su­perla­tives (“This is what fine din­ing should be like”) took turns at the ta­ble with wide-eyed silent chew­ing.

There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly stuffy about this small res­tau­rant at Las Cam­panas. The room is ba­si­cally a box, with a wood-topped bar at the cen­ter, eclec­tic art mounted on slate­blue walls, and spe­cials scrawled on a chalk­board. Ser­vice is de­liv­ered with for­mal­ity and pro­fes­sion­al­ism — ev­ery­one is po­lite, ar­tic­u­late, and at­ten­tive. But the food com­mands re­spect, both gus­ta­tory and sar­to­rial: You never re­ally have to dress up for din­ner in Santa Fe, but at Ar­royo Vino, you feel like you should.

As the res­tau­rant’s name sug­gests, vino is the fo­cus here, bev­er­age-wise. The list is con­cise but un­daunt­ing. You can also pur­chase any wine from the ad­join­ing shop (I spied a $13 bot­tle and a $400 one) and have it poured at your ta­ble for a $20 cork­age fee. Ar­royo Vino now also of­fers a lim­ited cock­tail menu (Man­hat­tan, mar­garita, and mar­tini are all cov­ered) at the small but thought­fully stocked bar.

Meals be­gin with a com­pli­men­tary amuse-bouche, re­cently a lovely lay­ered square of com­pressed wa­ter­melon, chalk­white feta, molec­u­lar-gas­tro­nomic bal­samic vine­gar “pearls,” and a Thai basil leaf. This sweet, juicy, tart, and salty bite does just what an amuse should do: whets your ap­petite for things to come — most of which ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions.

Juicy, vari­col­ored, boldly ripe heir­loom toma­toes, served at room tem­per­a­ture and gar­nished with bril­liant red nas­tur­tiums, met their brac­ing coun­ter­point in icy-cold, slightly sweet moz­zarella “ice cream,” with more bal­samic pearls for a touch of acid. The spring roll, served in six pres­liced bites, looks dully monochro­matic but comes to life on the tongue with a dip in zingy, mouth-wa­ter­ing nuoc cham.

Beet gnoc­chi is the sort of cre­ative dish I al­ways hope to see on Santa Fe menus. These fuch­sia nuggets had slightly chewy skin, while the cen­ters were earthy-sweet and soft. The white as­para­gus bisque was vel­vety and lus­cious — so much so that we nearly over­looked a small toast topped with lob­ster salad along­side. Be­neath the rugged crunchy crust of the spher­i­cal arancini (oddly a side dish rather than an ap­pe­tizer), a layer of saf­fron-gold rice en­cases a core of molten cheese. The duck con­fit larb (a spin on the pop­u­lar South­east Asian dish) wowed us with its rich, sweetly aro­matic meat.

The cedar-plank salmon brought to mind a Miró paint­ing: bright red (pep­per coulis), dots of yel­low and green (suc­co­tash), a peachy wedge (ten­der filet), and golden ovals (im­pec­ca­bly fried crab-stuffed squash blos­soms). A spe­cial of lob­ster tail — the meat juicy and sweet — was tucked into a pil­lowy bed of corn risotto with lo­cal chanterelles and fava beans. The moat of tan foam was dis­tract­ing, but the lob­ster-foie-gras nage be­neath gave the dish a re­mark­ably rich boost. There was a roast or­ganic chicken duo served with a golden disk of scal­loped pota­toes; a tower of lamb sir­loin with crispy egg­plant con­fit (rem­i­nis­cent of an egg roll); a ro­bust cen­ter-cut rib­eye with romesco sauce, con­fit toma­toes (like chewy tomato candy), crisp hari­cots verts, and Ran­cho Gordo heir­loom beans; and suck­ling pig served in two ways, with al­lur­ing golden-brown rounds of grits. Many dishes also fea­ture mixed veg­eta­bles cooked just enough to main­tain their fresh-from-the-gar­den fla­vor and snap.

The mignardise is a nice, light way to fin­ish a meal. Our plate of bite-sized treats in­cluded can­died or­ange peel, dainty but dense cho­co­late truf­fles, pas­sion-fruit “jel­lies,” two “ex­plod­ing liq­uid truf­fles,” and sugar-dusted hazel­nuts. Worth try­ing for their in­ge­nu­ity alone are the liq­uid truf­fles: Pop the en­tire globe in your mouth, bite gen­tly, and feel the white cho­co­late crust crack to re­lease a wave of pas­sion-fruit juice. The salted caramel ice cream had a teeter-tot­ter of creamy, sweet, nutty, and salty fla­vors that had us de­light­fully off-kil­ter for the rest of the night.

Lest you think I’m overly san­guine, each meal had its flaws. The sprouts served with the larb were ter­ri­bly tough. The lamb meat­balls var­ied from firm and juicy to crumbly and dry. The suck­ling pig loin was over­cooked. The mis­named stone fruit “cas­soulet” of­fered only a few wedges of fruit and an over­whelm­ing layer of crème Anglaise. But these kinds of com­plaints feel like pick­ing nits — and they were the only sort of crit­i­cism I was able to sum­mon af­ter two lengthy meals. Other restau­rants should have such prob­lems.

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