Cer­ril­los by the sea

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Molly Boyle I The New Mex­i­can

Santa Fe’s nightlife may lack lus­ter, but dur­ing the lunchtime rush at Whole Foods on Cer­ril­los Road, the city’s pulse looks de­pend­ably ro­bust. A few Fri­days ago, Piñon Pub, the bar amidst the store’s eat­ing area, was of­fer­ing dol­lar oys­ters. Though Lent had just be­gun, the at­mos­phere was car­ni­val: Peo­ple were wall to wall, jock­ey­ing for seats, snaking through oc­cu­pied barstools to make or­ders, and gawk­ing at the busy shuck­ers. “Th­ese peo­ple are get­ting down,” whis­pered my com­pan­ion in awe, and it was true. Whether for the love of a good deal or pre-Valen­tine’s Day ela­tion, it felt like much of the city had come out for the bi­valve ball.

Piñon Pub is Whole Foods’ very own tap­room within a store. Po­si­tioned ad­ja­cent to the cash reg­is­ters and in front of the pre­pared-foods sec­tion, the long bar of­fers 24 ro­tat­ing beers and ciders on tap, with heavy homage paid to lo­cal brew­eries. In ad­di­tion to a lengthy list of beers by the bot­tle and a shorter lineup of wines by the glass, flights are also avail­able (with pair­ings by the cheese depart­ment’s mon­gers). For nib­bles, there’s a small menu of pre­pared foods, “tasters” (cheese, olive, and char­cu­terie plates), and se­lect sweets, in­clud­ing a Whoo’s donut of the day, for which your server can rec­om­mend a good bev­er­age pair­ing.

The oys­ters were good: Wellfleets from Mas­sachusetts, Bar­cats from Vir­ginia, and Bar­ron Points from Puget Sound. De­spite some bits of shell from overzeal­ous shuck­ing, they tasted fresh and went down eas­ily, with driz­zles of lemon and the house cock­tail and mignonette sauces. Piñon will of­fer a slightly steeper oys­ter deal from here on out, four for $5 on Fri­days, but I doubt they’ll see a drop- off in cus­tomers. From my chats with em­ploy­ees, it seems that Whole Foods sells some of the fresh­est seafood in our land­locked state (oys­ters are de­liv­ered ev­ery Thurs­day), ow­ing to the cor­po­ra­tion’s abil­ity to cover the high cost of reg­u­larly fly­ing in stock. In short, th­ese oys­ters are likely the best bar­gain in town.

We tried the buf­falo/ beef slider trio with Hatch green chile and cheese, served with nicely sea­soned, house-made potato chips. The three siz­able burg­ers were glis­ten­ing and juicy, their buns lightly toasted and the chile pi­quant. This well-priced snack ($8) might be the per­fect an­ti­dote for the dan­ger­ous state of shop­ping while hun­gry. My com­pan­ion praised the com­plex­ity of his Evil Twin stout, while a tart Grape­fruit Sculpin IPA pro­vided the nec­es­sary mo­ti­va­tion for me to pull out my gro­cery list and move on to the store.

On an­other visit, our help­ful bar­tender rec­om­mended the Pit Stop olive and char­cu­terie board as a good con­tender for most va­ri­ety. It com­bined roasted olives, pro­sciutto, salami, sop­pres­sata, Parmi­giano- Reg­giano, onion jam, Mar­cona al­monds, and flat­bread crack­ers. The gen­er­ous ramekin of de­li­ciously warm olives caused me to won­der how I would hence­forth be able to set­tle for re­frig­er­ated olives. We hap­pily went to town on the plate — the nutty sop­pres­sata, salty Parme­san cubes, rich al­monds, and sweet onion jam made good bed­fel­lows for my crisp glass of fumé blanc and my mate’s heady North Coast Le Merle Farm­house Sai­son ale.

Some of the bar’s of­fer­ings serve as a re­minder that you’re still eat­ing buf­fet-style items from Whole Foods. The chicken wings, which came with a taste­less coleslaw, weren’t crispy and lacked piz­zazz. The street tacos, which can be beef, chicken, or veg­etable (we tried all three), suf­fered from soggy corn tor­tillas that proved to be a struc­tural li­a­bil­ity. The beef op­tion, which in­cluded ground beef, black beans, and corn, was about as gringo- OK as that combo sounds. The veg­gie taco fea­tured un­sea­soned sautéed yel­low squash, zuc­chini, red pep­per, and av­o­cado, though the veg­etable chunks were too large for taco pur­poses. The red-sauced chicken won the cat­e­gory, though not by much.

The true joy of din­ing at Piñon Pub harks back to the pub’s Bri­tish ori­gins as a gath­er­ing place, com­bin­ing that func­tion with the de­lights of gro­cery shop­ping. It’s a choice spot for eaves­drop­ping and peo­ple-watch­ing: Over two vis­its, I lis­tened to a nice lady from Chicago be­moan Santa Fe’s dat­ing scene for older women; watched three bearded dudes dis­cuss hitch­hik­ing in Alaska; and heard the man next to me, who was on a first-name ba­sis with the bar­tender, de­tail his re­cent ill­ness while nurs­ing a milk stout. As I sipped my Sculpin IPA, I no­ticed that the pa­trons of the eat­ing area leaned in to­ward each other and the bar rather than their meals. Life swirled around us, made sweeter by the brine of warm olives and fresh oys­ters.

The three siz­able burg­ers were glis­ten­ing and juicy, their buns lightly toasted and the chile pi­quant.

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