Amuse-bouche Paloma, re­viewed

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The mourn­ing dove memo­ri­al­ized in Mex­i­can songs like “Cu­cur­ru­cucú Paloma” and “Paloma Ne­gra” may sym­bol­ize wild grief and heart­sick­ness, but there’s no de­pres­sion at the vi­brant new Paloma Restau­rant. Var­i­ous busi­nesses have tried to make over this some­what awk­ward rec­tan­gu­lar space on the corner of Guadalupe Street and Mon­tezuma Av­enue — in re­cent years, it’s been home to the Swiss Bistro & Bak­ery and then 401 Fine Neigh­bor­hood Din­ing — but none has suc­ceeded quite so charm­ingly as owner-man­ager Marja Martin.

Martin has gussied up the joint into a har­mo­nious riot of Oax­a­can tex­tiles and art, com­plete with el­e­gant light fix­tures and shabby-chic touches like a dis­tressed mir­rored win­dow­pane that ex­pands the small din­ing room. The six-seater bar is a vision of ex­posed brick jux­ta­posed with ma­jolica tile, while retro Aca­pulco-style chairs and leather ban­quettes add some flair to the seat­ing. The over­all ef­fect re­calls un­der­stated eater­ies in places like Los An­ge­les and Mex­ico City’s hip La Con­desa district. Even the bath­room is worth the trip — with its calm­ing aqua walls and or­nate white dove mu­ral on a frosted-glass win­dow, I once ab­surdly en­vi­sioned my­self curl­ing up on its cushy bench with the novel in my purse.

But in­tro­ver­sion has no place at the so­cia­ble Paloma, where Martin, a long­time Santa Fe caterer, teamed with chef Nathan Mayes and bar­man Joseph Hag­gard to open the restau­rant in late July. Their mis­sion is clear: to cre­ate Mex­i­can-in­spired fare that sits at the happy-medium price point be­tween a taco truck and higher-end places in town like Eloisa (where both Mayes and Hag­gard have put in some time). Judg­ing by the crowds that ac­com­pa­nied two re­cent din­ner vis­its, the plan is al­ready a suc­cess, borne out by Martin’s and Mayes’ cre­ative con­cep­tion and ex­e­cu­tion of the small but stunning menu.

One im­pres­sive din­ner be­gan with a small plate of sea bass ce­viche, its silky tex­ture the ideal ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a spicy tan­gle of soft diced av­o­cado, juicy red toma­toes, onion, and cilantro. The cu­cum­ber and ji­cama salad mar­ried crisp rib­bons of the veg­eta­bles with lime and chile, the salad made sa­vory by a gar­licky green god­dess dress­ing at the bot­tom of the bowl. Whole-grain chips — made in-house, along with the restau­rant’s tor­tillas, from non-GMO Oax­a­can corn — ar­rived with a bowl of gua­camole that was bless­edly left to its own de­vices. The un­adorned fresh­ness of creamy av­o­cado, tomato, ser­rano, and onion com­mu­ni­cated the kitchen’s will­ing­ness to let well enough alone.

Two large plates show­cased the chef’s ca­pa­ble spin on the clas­sics. The half roast chicken, im­pos­si­bly juicy and ten­der, had an in­tense chile-spiced crust, and our server’s ca­sual aside as we or­dered it — that we’d be pulling the last morsels from the bone with our fin­gers — proved pre­scient. It was sided with a tangy mole verde sauce and a heap of tasty cal­abac­i­tas stud­ded with jalapeño, thick cubes of ba­con, and crunchy pepi­tas. The enor­mous Paloma burger, whose char­broiled scent turns out to be the en­tic­ing aroma that beck­ons pa­trons in from the side­walk, should surely make an ap­pear­ance at next year’s Green Chile Cheese­burger Smack­down. It’s al­ready got a fol­low­ing, judg­ing from a ca­sual poll of those who have had the plea­sure of scarf­ing down its dou­ble-stacked 4-ounce full-fla­vored pat­ties with asadero cheese, green chile, and onion. The zesty pa­pas fritas with chipo­tle mayo that ap­peared along­side it were a gen­er­ous sup­ple­ment, mak­ing the burger’s $14 price tag seem like one of the bet­ter deals in town. The most pricey dish on the menu, the sea bass Ver­acruz, tops out at $26. It’s a gor­geous plate, fea­tur­ing flakysoft fish with a crunchy black­ened top, en­livened with a ver­dant chimichurri and a sweet-and-sa­vory melange of roasted tomato, man­zanilla olives, more pick­led le­mon, and ca­pers.

Side dishes are a treat all their own, par­tic­u­larly the Mex­i­can street corn salad of es­quites,

where plump ker­nels are swirled with shal­lots, epa­zote, and chile pe­quins, or the strong es­cabeche, made up of lo­cal spicy pick­led jalapeños, onions, and car­rots. The mush­room sopecitos — small disks of crunchy masa topped with a hearty smear of black beans, huit­la­coche, and cotija — make for a sub­lime bar snack.

Lamb bar­ba­coa tacos sported soft, slow-cooked, shred­ded meat, though ours were miss­ing the lime ad­ver­tised on the menu, which was clev­erly switched out for bits of pre­served le­mon with cu­cum­ber and cotija. Tacos come in twos but with dou­ble-stacked tor­tillas, and the plate con­tained enough meat to fill four. Ve­gans will de­light in the saucy cau­li­flower op­tion, which pairs 2017’s most fad­dish vegetable with golden raisins, Span­ish olives, and the un­ex­pected but wel­come crunch of Mar­cona al­monds. Pico de gallo, beans, and rice must be or­dered sep­a­rately, but the fla­vor pro­files and heft of most of th­ese tacos make it un­likely you’ll need them.

The bar menu is as thought­ful as the food, fea­tur­ing five clas­sic and four sig­na­ture cock­tails that are $11 at most, along with an in­ter­est­ing list of $10 wines by the glass and the wel­come ap­pear­ance of some in­ex­pen­sive non-craft beers — think Sol, Bo­hemia, and Miller High Life — that pair well with Mex­i­can food. Here we en­coun­tered some star­tling in­con­sis­ten­cies. On one visit, the Ne­groni Oax­aca, a cock­tail of Del Maguey Vida mez­cal, Cam­pari, and Punt e Mes ver­mouth, was served up in a small Ma­son jar, which in­creased its smoky-tart po­tency; an­other night, it came on the rocks in a larger wine­glass, the ra­tio thrown off bal­ance by too much mez­cal and wa­tery ice. The sig­na­ture Paloma, too, suf­fered on one oc­ca­sion from a weak pour of Re­posado te­quila and the pu­trid­ness that can rear its head with fresh­squeezed grape­fruit juice. On a sub­se­quent evening, the drink was over­loaded with agave; it could have ben­e­fit­ted from some lime rather than the ex­tra sweet­ness. We were put off, too, by the Paloma’s pretty but use­less gar­nish of a de­hy­drated cit­rus slice, an ined­i­ble bit of form over func­tion.

The at­ti­tudes on dis­play by more than one bar­tender, too, were dis­may­ing; on two oc­ca­sions, I wit­nessed pa­trons ask in­no­cent ques­tions of the bar only to be met with snap­pish, dis­in­ter­ested replies. The restau­rant and the bar are akin to two dif­fer­ent worlds that co­ex­ist un­easily in one space — bar­tenders, in­con­gru­ously out­fit­ted in stiff Carhartt aprons more suited to me­chan­ics, tended to ig­nore cus­tomers sit­ting right in front of them, while ta­ble ser­vice was so­lic­i­tous and in­for­ma­tive. The restau­rant also has a ris­ing star in pas­try chef Irma Ruiz, for­merly of the Four Sea­sons Ran­cho En­can­tado. Ruiz knows her way around a mean tres leches cake ac­cented with fresh fruit and basil syrup, as well as dense choco­late co­conut cake paired with creamy co­conut sor­bet and a sweet-tart key lime pie with torched meringue — th­ese are des­ti­na­tion desserts.

The few kinks at Paloma will most likely be ironed out, in the man­ner of newer restau­rants, in the com­ing months, which also hold the prom­ise of the start of week­end brunch ser­vice. But for now, my fond­est wish is that the ex­cite­ment sparked by the uni­formly de­li­cious food will be enough to make the spot a Rai­l­yard standby, as con­sec­u­tive vis­its con­sis­tently re­ward din­ers who seek to ex­plore the menu. Though the plain­tive vo­cal stylings of Chavela Var­gas and Lola Bel­trán would not be out of place among the bright Mex­i­can dé­cor, this joy­ful Paloma is a de­cid­edly sweet spot.

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