Playing the numbers
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.