“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.