Play­ing the num­bers

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Pa­tri­cia West-Barker

After al­most a decade’s ab­sence from the Santa Fe din­ing scene, Jack Shaab — a se­rial restau­ra­teur for­merly as­so­ci­ated with Bistro 315 (now 315 Res­tau­rant & Wine Bar), Il Pi­atto, Jack’s, Spaghetti, and Rooney’s — opened 401 this sum­mer in a space on South Guadalupe Street that has also hosted a num­ber of eater­ies, in­clud­ing Becker’s Deli, Co­razón, the in­fa­mous WilLee’s, and sev­eral it­er­a­tions of the Swiss Bak­ery.

401 lacks a street pres­ence — you could walk right by without notic­ing it — but open the door and you know you’re in a spe­cial place. The dé­cor is both min­i­mal­ist — a few pieces by lo­cal artists hang on mostly bare walls — and ec­cen­tric — a bril­liant red wall with hand-painted leap­ing ze­bras fills the main room, Shaab’s homage to Gino of Capri, a fa­vorite New York res­tau­rant whose fa­mous Scala­man­dré wallpaper once sported 314 of the crea­tures.

Opened for din­ner in late June, 401 added lunch ser­vice about three weeks ago. While the evening menu is largely Ital­ian with a French ac­cent, lunch is more eclec­tic, pulling from stan­dard midday choices like tacos, burg­ers, soup, and sal­ads.

The chicken soup with mush­rooms served at lunch was quite sim­ple but far from or­di­nary. The deep golden color and glis­ten­ing sur­face sig­naled a rich broth with an un­ex­pected pep­pery kick at the fin­ish. The shrimp salad was also a stand­out, the per­fectly cooked crus­taceans gen­tly dressed with a light cel­ery aioli en­hanced by the dis­tinc­tive fla­vor of tar­ragon.

The street tacos were de­li­cious vari­a­tions on the usual suspects: pork car­ni­tas, beef brisket, and roasted veg­gies — with roasted rab­bit the out­lier — wrapped in Ali­cia’s fresh corn tor­tillas and topped with stand­out condi­ments, the ex­tra hit of vine­gar in the es­cabeche and pico de gallo a wel­come con­trast to the rich­ness of the fill­ings.

The ver­dure ar­rosto (roasted veg­etable) sand­wich fea­tured egg­plant, onions, mush­rooms, and squash that melted into each other and were en­livened by fresh basil pesto. The duck leg patty melt was our least fa­vorite dish; it wasn’t badly pre­pared — just too heavy and brown for our taste.

While the lunch menu has so far been sta­ble, the din­ner choices can vary nightly ac­cord­ing to the sea­son, the avail­abil­ity of in­gre­di­ents, and the whim of chef Laura Li­cona, who grew up in ru­ral Nambé, trav­eled widely, pur­sued doc­toral-level work in en­vi­ron­men­tal and food an­thro­pol­ogy, stud­ied at Le Cor­don Bleu, and cooked in Seat­tle be­fore re­turn­ing to Santa Fe and join­ing Shaab to cre­ate 401’s culi­nary foot­print. She knows her mind and trusts her palate:

A note at the bot­tom of the menu warns that re­quests for menu sub­sti­tu­tions and al­ter­ations will be po­litely re­fused. There is no salt and pep­per on the ta­bles — and none was needed.

Li­cona ex­cels at tweak­ing fine-din­ing stand­bys. The steak tartare — one of the an­chors on the din­ner menu, along with steak frites and lamb chops — was a stand­out. The rich hand-chopped raw beef was mixed with a cured rather than the tra­di­tional raw egg; the fried capers were crispy lit­tle salt bombs that ex­ploded in the mouth. Sided with a mus­tard­seed caviar, a fruity mostarda, a few cros­tini, and a heap of the chef’s sig­na­ture house-made potato chips, it was a meal in it­self. The roasted beet salad, a mélange of pa­per-thin beets, toma­toes, car­rots, and leeks lightly napped in a creamy sauce, was a good ex­am­ple of sim­ple foods lov­ingly pre­pared.

Three house-made pas­tas are menu stal­warts, with sauce op­tions that change from time to time. The wild mush­room cream sauce that dressed our toothy fet­tuc­cine was both light and fla­vor­ful. The pork shank and porcini sauce we chose for the airy ri­cotta-based gnoc­chi was deep, dark, and de­li­cious but per­haps a lit­tle over­whelm­ing for the del­i­cate dumplings.

Osso buco and short ribs el­bowed their way onto a re­cent din­ner menu, a sign that fall has in­deed come to Santa Fe. The lemon-pep­per osso buco fell off its bone, as it should, and played beau­ti­fully with the gritty Span­ish po­lenta it rested on. The well-lac­quered short ribs were crisp on the out­side, melt­ingly ten­der in­side, and per­fectly com­ple­mented by an earthy side of but­ter­nut squash ravi­oli.

The desserts were not as stel­lar. An ap­ple cake with vanilla but­ter­cream was a bit cold and dry, com­plaints mit­i­gated some­what by a volup­tuous dol­lop of whipped cream. A cho­co­late “baby­cake” frosted with an un­usual, but sur­pris­ingly har­mo­nious, lemon but­ter­cream fared bet­ter, as did a sen­su­ous tiramisu.

The ser­vice at 401 is in­tel­li­gent and re­fined. Our waiter on two evening vis­its was the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional — friendly without be­ing in­va­sive and knowl­edge­able about the menu, the chef’s tech­niques, and the wine list. We trusted his rec­om­men­da­tions and were re­warded with per­fect pair­ings.

Each of the four peo­ple I dined with said, un­prompted, that they liked 401 enough to re­turn on their own — a good sign that the fledg­ling res­tau­rant is achiev­ing its goal of “fine neigh­bor­hood din­ing.” Hope­fully, ex­cel­lent food, ex­em­plary ser­vice, and rea­son­able prices will en­cour­age re­peat vis­its from lo­cals and fill that as-yet quiet ze­bra-stud­ded din­ing room.

Chef Laura Li­cona knows her mind and trusts her palate: A note at the bot­tom of the menu warns that re­quests for menu sub­sti­tu­tions and al­ter­ations will be po­litely re­fused.

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