From the Navajo Pride flour sacks that are tacked to the walls and the chalkboard cluttered with a disorganized menu, the first blush of Desert Rose Restaurant (8380 Cerrillos Road, 470-5967) doesn’t match what chef Armand Saiia has in store.
The restaurant he's launched with partner Betina Armijo has an improbable location in what was intended to be the food court of the Santa Fe Fashion Outlets on the city's extreme southern edge.
Yet, two months into the venture, Saiia is onto something.
In his words, Saiia "opted out of an art career eight years ago" to move to New Mexico and become a farmer. His Infinity Farm in Ribera provides much of what he serves in the restaurant.
"Now I call myself a vegetable performing artist," he says.
On this day, he spends an hour with the salesman from Sysco food distribution talking about Colorado potatoes and eco-friendly soap. He won't order the black shrimp from Indonesia, but insists on a variety from the Gulf of Mexico.
Saiia says he's most interested in "shrinking the foodprint." Soon, he'll adorn the walls of the dining room with a map showing a 1,000-mile radius of the restaurant and pinpoints that identify where each food item comes from.
In addition to the hundreds of ingredients from the farm north of Pecos, the restaurant offers housemade panini bread and challah rolls for burgers, both made from flour produced on the Navajo Nation with sustainable, natural practices. He knows because he called them up to talk about it.
"Our whole thing," he says after delivering three plates to the table, "is to be chemical free here and know where our food is coming from and know the growing practices."
His artful nature is undeniable in the presentation of each dish. A simple bowl of "Crazy Veg" is the soup of the day, yet it has an elegance from the way the carrots are thinly sliced to the way a fresh collection of kale is arranged atop the turkey broth ($5 for a bowl). This version is a tasty, and perhaps crazy, mix of green things and white things: potatoes, white beans from another local farm, tender strips of turkey, collards and Italian heirloom dandelion, plus more.
Next, it was on to one of the spectacular salads he's dreamed up. I chose a half "Hijiki Very Sea," starring the rubbery brown sea grass ($6, or tack on a few bucks to add duck confit). Before I knew Saiia was the chef, I knew he was intimate with the plate he placed before me.
"This is a little kale flower," he says, gently brushing a yellow bloom at the apex of the small mountain of foliage, then points next to it, "This one is a daikon flower. There are 16 different leafy vegetables in that one salad."
Although he says he's eaten his way through 38 countries and learned a bit about the food flavors in each one, Saiia's roots show through a menu item he calls "Mom's Italian Meatloaf," and I tried the panini of the day, which sandwiched a moist slab of it between two pieces of the fresh bread, melted cheese and caramelized onions.
Don't look for a Coke to wash down this fare. Desert Rose doesn't sell soda. But you won't miss it. Wet your whistle with some fresh organic cider from Colorado's Big B's orchard or a delightful glass of iced tea with a few floaters of spearmint from the farmstead.
Leave room, however, for what's in the glass case. I chose a flower-shaped biscochito and never looked back. It was melt-in-your-mouth good, with just the right touch of granulated sugar on the outside and delicate herbal notes on the inside. Tiny carrot cake cupcakes were calling my name as I walked out the front door.
8380 Cerrillos Road at the Santa Fe Fashion Outlets
daily 9 am to 5 pm
panini of the day