On hal­lowed ground

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - Molly Boyle

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.

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