On hallowed ground
On a chilly fall evening, it is possible to slip into the warm vestibule of Sazón and become somewhat disoriented. The new restaurant’s renovated quarters have a hallowed, cloistered feel, accented by bright contemporary paintings by Mexican artists and twinkling tin star lights. Though the architecture sports familiar Santa Fe touches (kiva, vigas), as you look around and begin your meal, it becomes clear that you are in a very special place. Hours later, after a luxurious, sublime dinner, it feels almost impossible to leave this dreamy den and come down from the cloud it has set you adrift upon.
Sazón has no direct translation in English, though the menu emphasizes that in Spanish, it means something like “just the right taste” or “the perfect time,” as in “The squash blossoms are en sazón.” The restaurant bills itself as New World cuisine, and though it clearly takes the majority of its direction from Mexican flavors, it is easy to taste Asian and Middle Eastern influences as well. What diners must be prepared for is the restaurant’s realization of “the perfect time,” which translates into a relaxed, unhurried pace. Both my visits to Sazón took well over an hour, and the second lasted three — but I never felt neglected or had to wait too long for the next taste.
Moles and mezcal are the hallmarks of chef Fernando Olea’s game, though he’s got several other tricks up his sleeve. Once seated either in the cozy bar alcove or the elegant dining room, you are treated to a multi-mole amuse bouche — on one visit, we were served a mole negro and a mole poblano along with tiny warm tortillas. Another night, we received six kinds of mole, including Olea’s celebrated New Mexico version, created to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary (it contains white chocolate, Chimayó chiles, and piñons). As a creative accompaniment to the mole, the dining room’s large, colorful centerpiece painting serves as a primer for the rest of the ingredients. The moles are complex and heady, like most of what happens at Sazón. They made a fine companion to a flight of three Oaxacan mezcals, each differently aged and served with two delicious sangritas, one tomato and one pineapple-based.
The sopa de amor is the best illustration of Olea’s worldly sleight of hand. Blue crab is submerged in a piquant creamed poblano broth and topped with amaretto whipped cream and red chile dust. Each taste is an experimental sensation — the chile heat rising, cooled by foamy nectar and sweet crabmeat. We stared at each other in stupefaction. Our minds may have expanded a bit.
Other appetizers are earthier: traditional offerings of crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers) or huitlacoche (corn truffle) both served taco-style on those tiny tortillas. Along with the simple yet rich pork belly tacos, each provided rustic flavors.
Cocktails are prepared with affectionate care; we tried the Sazonrita, with mezcal, Patrón Citrónge, lime, agave nectar, and a red chile salt rim, and the Homegrown, which combined tequila, tonic water, basil, and lemon. Both were tart and transportive.
A special of lamb served with mole and sweet potatoes came with a visually impressive yet somewhat incongruous side of rice noodles. The lamb was a marvel, the mole and sweet potatoes its bosom compadres; I felt sorry for the unnecessary noodles. They worked much better with the very peppery, impossibly tender Angus beef tenderloin, every bite of which met with a spontaneous moan.
Shrimp enchiladas are served in a garlicky sauce of creamed squash blossoms and accented with a soy-sauce smear. The result is so wildly different from the enchiladas I have known that it contributed — wonderfully — to the meal’s discombobulation. A trio of meats, presented chile en nogada-style in a poblano with walnut sauce and pomegranates, was sumptuous, though the sauce’s sweetness slightly overwhelmed the savory meats.
Curiously, while they were perfectly fine, our desserts lacked the spark of the rest of the offerings. Flan is good in most iterations, and this one was no exception, but the pumpkin bread pudding was short on pizzazz. No matter, though — with such an extensive mezcal and tequila list on hand, along with the helpful expertise of the waitstaff, I’d rather take advantage and drink my dessert. All the better to add to the out-of-body experience Sazón provides.