When you wander the grounds of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa, you might spot visitors warming their hands over a fire pit, rocking in a chair on a shady portal, or lounging by one of the pools, chatting languidly with fellow soakers. No one’s in a hurry to get anywhere.
And anyway, where would you go? Ojo Caliente is about an hour north of Santa Fe and about 30 minutes from Española; you might pass it if you’re en route to, say, Breckinridge or Crested Butte, but most people are here on purpose, not dropping by because they’re in the neighborhood. Unless they’ve booked a spa treatment, patrons at Ojo are going nowhere fast — except maybe to the Artesian Restaurant, which sits across the main path from the spa entrance and which on two recent visits was packed to capacity. I was glad I had made reservations.
The styling hints at Arts and Crafts, with divided light windows; handsome wood floors, doors, and moldings; and a coffered ceiling. Some diners are casually dressed, while others come straight from soaking in their robes and flipflops. This creates an unusual but not unpleasant ambience that’s somewhere between a summer camp dining hall and your grandma’s dining room.
The dinner menu includes appetizers, soups, salads, and entrées ranging from enchiladas, rellenos, and fajitas to seafood, elk, beef, duck, and one lone pasta dish. Lunch leans to the lighter — or at least less formal — side, with salads, soups, sandwiches, wraps, and burgers, both meaty and non. Food is also available in the adjoining bar (a limited menu is offered between lunch and dinner), which serves beer, wine, and agave-wine-based cocktails.
The exemplary tortilla soup is just the thing to take off winter’s chill — a mouthwateringly full-bodied orange broth with a hint of smoky heat, a light citrusy tang, nuggets of soft avocado, and ribbon-thin tortilla strips. The steak salad is mammoth, with heaps of greens, tomatoes, “tobacco” onions, and a generous portion of moist, roundly seasoned meat cooked a perfect medium-rare, as requested. The green chile ranch dressing was mild and too thick to easily toss with the greens.
The New Mexican pot stickers — really more like empanadas, with a firmer, flakier crust — are stuffed with a black bean puree, dappled with red chile, and set in a mild goat cheese crema. The green chile “fries” are fun and addictive planks of potato-flour-crusted poblano (probably chosen on behalf of guests who aren’t veterans of green chile’s fiery heat) served with syrupy sweet Thai chili sauce for dipping.
The fish tacos — served at lunch and in the bar — are highly satisfying, though sort of cumbersome to eat. There’s a base of typical slaw, topped with overly large pieces of fish that made the tacos difficult to bite without making a mess. The meat was painted with a sweet but not particularly spicy chipotle honey, but the piquant pico de gallo, accented with some nuggets of mango, had a lasting kick.
The grilled trout was moist, tender, and vaguely minerally. Its toasted piñon glaze had an odd texture — both mealy and oily — and the five-grain pilaf was dry and burnt in some spots, but the crisp-tender baby rainbow carrots tasted as though they’d been yanked from the soil that day (probably from Ojo’s on-site two-acre farm). Their vegetal sweetness came shining through.
The best deal on the menu? Two impressively large elk chops with a Chimayó chile rub — a touch undercooked but gloriously ruby-hued in the center — buttressed by some slightly stiff garlic mashed potatoes and more of those flavorful rainbow carrots.
The caramel-pecan square was more of a blob than anything geometric in the strictest sense, but we gobbled down the uber-sweet gooeyness and the nutty, meaty pecan halves, all of which was ringed with a slurry of auburn caramel and chocolate sauce.
The food at Ojo is good — sometimes even great — but service needs attention. On both visits, servers took far too long (10 minutes and up) to greet us at the table, and empty plates languished long beyond the end of the meal. We waited more than 20 minutes for one meal to arrive, and even then, one dish had been forgotten. Oddly, as if the kitchen crew were suggesting we had eaten enough, dessert menus and the check arrived at the same time. It’s a good thing Ojo Caliente promotes relaxation and a break from life’s typically frantic pace. In almost any other setting, that kind of leisureliness simply wouldn’t fly.