Amuse-bouche Paloma, reviewed
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.