If there's anything that ought to manifest a natural synergy between local food and the larger local economy, it's New Mexico Restaurant Week.
Restaurant Week is a new marketing initiative, produced by Wings Media Network, designed to encourage a boost in restaurant traffic. The theory holds that if eateries offer an affordable prix fixe, three-course menu for the week, curious diners will come out of the woodwork to check it out. The event—which ran in Santa Fe from Feb. 28 to March 6 and continues in Albuquerque through March 13—certainly put some local eaters into local restaurants, but "local" as a concept could have been pushed a lot harder.
Exactly how many local butts sat in local restaurants will be left to Restaurant Week organizers to tabulate, but anecdotal evidence from my own visits indicates turnout was regrettably slim. My experience also indicates that many restaurants didn't feel capable of hitting the price point ($25 per person in most cases) while still relying on high-quality, fresh, local ingredients. There were, of course, dedicated exceptions, but most of those restaurants are already full-time local, seasonal converts.
For many customers local doesn't trump flavor. Ideally the two go hand in hand, but the excitement of restaurant week is the sense that chefs are courting customers. The notion of a special menu puts a certain onus on the chef, and more than a couple of Santa Fe restaurants sadly chose to phone it in rather than truly engage the idea of a week-long celebratory selection of meals.
At one generally lauded restaurant in a fine hotel, the salad was as wet as a fresh-watered lawn, but significantly less flavorful. A honey-glazed chicken was imperially plated but it was a royal facade: The skin-deep glaze didn't cover for flavorless, factory-farmed meat. A disc of "smoked" polenta was as hard as a biscuit. Fresh jicama (it is in season at least) slaw went some distance toward adding freshness and snap, but left the tongue listlessly casting about for flavor. In a blind taste test, I would have bet my salary that I was eating an airplane meal. None of this was made more appetizing by asking where the chicken was sourced and being told "nowhere special."
A friend made skeptical by the proposed courses wisely ordered from the same restaurant's standard menu. A dish made with local Talus Wind Ranch lamb was exquisite: a coyly sauced mid-rare rack of lamb with meat that was playfully hesitant on the bone before it submitted to a gentle tug and a mouthy, indulgent dissolution.
At the other end of the spectrum was the O'Keeffe Café. Its strategy is the perfect application of Restaurant Week—great incentives to finally pay the visit you've been meaning to. This was my first visit since the former executive chef, Laurent Rea, left to manage the increasingly intriguing Ze French Bistro, and sous chef and native New Mexican Leo Varos stepped into the executive role.
Like other restaurants I visited, the turnout was sparse. Here, though, the menu was generous. Not all the proteins were local, but the servers knew the provenance and the carefully selected sources. Varos had painstakingly constructed each dish with craft and attention to detail.
A hard lamb and pork pâté with spicy mustard and pistachio is still haunting me. The lentil soup with whole chunks of fresh, steamed carrot shifted my senses from winter chill to warm summer soil. Someone in the kitchen needed to have the salt taken away from him, but overall the combinations were subtle and the results remarkably sharp and satisfying. Add the O'Keeffe Café's commitment to its wine list, and the bar was set for how chefs and owners ought to tackle such special events.
In the sense that Restaurant Week tweaked my list of favorite Santa Fe restaurants, it was a local success.
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New Mexico Restaurant Week
Open 11:30 am-2:30 pm
5-8:30 pm Wednesday through Sunday
217 Johnson St.