Amuse-bouche Gourmet To­day Café, re­viewed; cook­book au­thor Susan Purdy

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Gourmet To­day Café

410-A Old Santa Fe Trail 903-649-2128, www.gourmetinsantafe.com

Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tues­days-Satur­days; dinner 4:30-7:30 p.m. Tues­days-Satur­days

Vege­tar­ian and gluten-free op­tions Noise level: Quiet Pa­tio din­ing in sea­son No al­co­hol Credit cards, cash

The Short Or­der

Tiny Gourmet To­day Café, tucked into a niche be­tween The Pink Adobe and Río Chama Steak­house, of­fers vis­i­tors and lo­cals a break from Santa Fe’s pre­dom­i­nantly South­west­ern restau­rant scene. Stan­dard sal­ads and sand­wiches an­chor the menu, but the real stars are the daily spe­cials — well-pre­pared soups and en­trées that meet (and some­times ex­ceed) the chef-owner’s “com­fort food” cri­te­ria. Rec­om­mended: Broc­coli and cheese soup, old-fash­ioned pot roast, house salad, and shrimp-stuffed av­o­cado half with ré­moulade.

T.J. Grif­fith is a brave wo­man. As a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, she trav­eled the world teach­ing lead­er­ship skills in Europe, the Mid­dle East, and Africa. Af­ter a brief re­tire­ment, with ab­so­lutely no ex­pe­ri­ence in the restau­rant busi­ness, she took an­other bold step and opened Gourmet To­day Café. Tucked be­tween The Pink Adobe and Río Chama Steak­house, the café is the per­fect size for a new restau­ra­teur, with just 16 in­door seats and the po­ten­tial for an­other dozen or so on a pa­tio fac­ing Old Santa Fe Trail.

Gourmet To­day’s dé­cor is more South­ern than South­west­ern. The lovely white cur­tains are long and lacy, and there’s not a coy­ote, antler, Na­tive pot, or rug to be seen. The menu does not re­volve around red or green chile (although they do make an oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ance in the daily spe­cials) — some­thing that could ap­peal to both cap­sicumweary lo­cals and ten­der-tongued vis­i­tors. “Good old com­fort food,” pre­pared as much as pos­si­ble with or­ganic pro­duce, an­tibi­otic-free meats, and nonGMO food­stuffs, is what Gourmet To­day’s web­site says it wants to pro­vide, and by and large Grif­fith meets that goal. The menu of­fers spe­cial soups and en­trées that change daily, bol­stered by an on­go­ing se­lec­tion of sand­wiches and sal­ads.

The al­ways-avail­able sand­wiches in­clude ham and cheese, roast beef, ad­e­quate but un­re­mark­able tuna and chicken sal­ads, and an equally ac­cept­able but undis­tin­guished BLT. The pi­mento cheese sand­wich, also on the ev­ery­day list, is a bit more ex­otic (at least in Santa Fe). A mash-up of finely grated sharp ched­dar cheese, pi­men­tos, good mayonnaise, and a dash of hot sauce, the South­ern sta­ple can be thick enough to spread or loose enough to dip. Grif­fith’s ver­sion is prop­erly salty and creamy but a bit too wet to stay within the bread — a prob­lem eas­ily solved with a fork.

The list of sal­ads is bright­ened by a ripe av­o­cado half stuffed with per­fectly cooked shrimp, the two com­ple­mented by an ex­cel­lent red­dish house-made Louisiana-style ré­moulade. The house salad of bright, crisp or­ganic greens and finely diced cu­cum­bers, toma­toes, onions, beets, and shred­ded car­rots ar­rives dressed with Grif­fith’s well-bal­anced sig­na­ture poppy-seed dress­ing.

Although she has taken classes at La Varenne cook­ing school in Paris, Grif­fith is ba­si­cally a self­taught home cook and host­ess who is per­haps at her best when she is pre­par­ing some­thing she loves — like the soups and en­trées that change daily. One week, the soups of the day in­cluded cream of potato, chicken tor­tilla, bean-based chili, and a very sat­is­fy­ing broc­coli and cheese. Not as thick and gloppy as some and more fla­vor­ful than many, with shards of car­rot and tiny flo­rets vis­i­ble in the golden broth, this ver­sion of the clas­sic com­fort soup tasted of chicken stock as well as milk or cream. The crunchy, salty, deeply browned house-made crou­tons pro­vided the per­fect tex­tu­ral con­trast.

Grif­fith is proud of her corn­bread, baked fresh daily, so we were puz­zled when our first or­der was as dry and taste­less as the Chi­huahuan Desert. There was much con­fu­sion and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion in the café that day, so it may have been popped into a warm­ing oven and forgotten — a sup­po­si­tion val­i­dated on our sec­ond visit, when the wedge that ap­peared on our ta­ble was moist and ten­der, with just the right amount of struc­ture and crum­ble. South­ern­ers en­gage in an end­less de­bate as to whether corn­bread should be made with sugar. Be ad­vised that this one falls on the sweeter side of the Ma­son-Dixon line.

The café also fea­tures one en­trée per day. A spaghetti casse­role, San Fran­cisco crab quiche, and a pulled-pork BBQ sand­wich were among the re­cent of­fer­ings. The “old-fash­ioned” pot roast spe­cial on our first visit was just what your grand­mother might have made — if your grand­mother had a deft hand in the kitchen. The beef, car­rots, and pota­toes were per­fectly cooked, the gravy rich and sa­vory.

The beef stew en­trée sam­pled on an­other visit was less suc­cess­ful, per­haps be­cause the chef and I de­fine “clas­sic” beef stew dif­fer­ently. I was ex­pect­ing a vari­a­tion on the pot roast — ten­der chunks of meat, car­rots, and potato cloaked with a thick, beefy brown gravy. What ap­peared tasted more of the corn and toma­toes in the dish — although both beef and potato were in the mix.

House-made desserts also speak with a South­er­nac­cent.Hum­ming­bird­cake—rich with pineap­ple, bananas, and nuts — ro­tates with but­ter­milk and pecan

pies and a Texas-style choco­late sheet cake, among other choices. Ap­ple and cherry cob­blers also make fre­quent ap­pear­ances. The but­ter-rich cherry cob­bler topped with a very good vanilla ice cream was quite sweet, the cherries tak­ing on an al­most can­died taste. The gen­er­ous serv­ing was too much for me; my dessert-lov­ing com­pan­ion cleaned her plate.

About that afore­men­tioned con­fu­sion and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion: We spent close to two hours hav­ing lunch on our first visit to the café — not be­cause we were busy chat­ting but be­cause the ser­vice was slow and er­ror-rid­den; even our credit card had to be run three times. Although there were few cus­tomers present at the time, Grif­fith was clearly dis­tracted — per­haps be­cause, as she told us, she was fac­ing hand surgery the next day.

There were more din­ers in the café on our sec­ond visit, and Grif­fith did not seem as scat­tered, even though her hand was wrapped in a ban­dage and she was work­ing alone. Nei­ther the or­ders nor the check were in­cor­rect that day, just ex­ceed­ingly slow to ap­pear.

Most — if not all — of the ser­vice prob­lems we en­coun­tered dur­ing our two vis­its could be re­solved with the ad­di­tion of an as­sis­tant with front- and back-of-the-house ex­pe­ri­ence. With an­other per­son to help take or­ders, fill drinks, and as­sist with the plat­ing and run­ning of food, the din­ing room might run more ef­fi­ciently and Grif­fith could take a deep breath and spend more time vis­it­ing with her guests — some­thing she does very well.

T.J. Grif­fith

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