When I put my fork down at the end of this meal, I felt utterly satisfied. Even as I carried my paper containers of leftover food between poker tables and ringing slot machines, each plate that crossed my table that evening lingered in my imagination.
Red Sage Restaurant (30 Buffalo Thunder Trail, 819-2056) at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino might not have made your list of places to go. Put it there now. The 12-mile drive north of Santa Fe opens into lovely views, the parking is plentiful, and afterward you can stroll the hotel to view its collection of antique and contemporary Native art or test your luck with the one-armed bandit.
Yet the restaurant is far removed from the cacophony of the gambling floor. Upstairs on the resort's main level, its airy windows overlook the patio and pool. I'm not sure what red sage even is, but the tables were decorated with sprigs of blooming lavender on our visit—a pleasing touch.
All the dishes I tried from the varied menu had an intentional combination of sweet and savory, balanced in a way that kept them exciting. Even the Beatrix Kiddo cocktail I sampled—chosen from a list of $10 drinks with monikers from Quentin Tarantino movies—was a tasty collision of strawberry purée, ginger beer, basil and jalapeño (the latter was both infused in the vodka and floating between the ice cubes).
Corn is a central feature of the region's traditional Native diet, and there's no shortage of it at this restaurant located on the lands that belong to Pojoaque Pueblo. But we're not talking about a pile of kernels on one side of the plate or mushy masa in a tamal. Witness culinary success with green-chile-studded corn muffins that are baked in the shape of tiny ears the way Grandma did and in the chewy two-hour grits that came under my Scottish salmon entre ($30).
A slow-roasted pork belly appetizer with fennel and cherries ($14) was paired with cornbread croutons and honey yogurt, looking and tasting fantastic. My favorite corn standout of the night, however, was the cream of elote soup ($9), which I found deceptively complex and remarkable. At first blush, it's a bowl of creamed corn, but each scoop with the spoon revealed fresh cilantro, a smudge of hot red chile paste and something called vegetable ash that left black speckles along its edges.
In addition to the steaks and chops on its menu, Red Sage offers a range of seafood, including diver scallops, which we didn't try, and lobster tail, which we found irresistible. Served sans shell, this hunk of delicacy from the ocean was prepared well and accompanied by a cluster of red peppers sautéed in olive oil ($27).
The aforementioned salmon and grits were topped with a vinegar-dressed heirloom tomato salad that offered an appropriate acid component.
Lest I forget the supporting actors, the calabacitas my companion selected from the sides menu came in a small cast-iron casserole dish. This standard with squash, corn and green chile was the perfect vessel to highlight the spicy roasted New Mexico peppers. Tucumcari sharp cheddar on top gave it the right amount of salt and the requisite goo factor.
And, get ready for it, after plenty of one-word utterances and low moans about the whole offering, dessert had me saying "wow" and "damn!" Already stuffed from the first two courses, my companion and I shared a goat cheese cheesecake with Frangelico and macerated raspberries. This perfect disc of graham crust with an inch of creamy filling was another great matchup of contrasting flavors. The mild goat taste came through the subtle tang of the cream cheese and the berries (macerated is "elegant for smashed," as my friend noted) cut a line straight to my heart.
Attentive service that wasn't overbearing and a spacious dining room with few snippets of overheard conversation are also points in favor of the restaurant that opened with the large Hilton hotel in 2008. There's also a contemporary private room with a long table for special group dinners and a glass-lined, temperature-controlled wine room with red lights that give a tempting glow.
Casinos in our neck of the woods are known for their all-you-can-eat buffets, and Buffalo Thunder has one of these, too, along with a nightclub, burger joint and other options. Red Sage is the winner. While the price tags in the dining room decidedly put it in the "fine" category, the creative food fits the bill.
AT A GLANCE
Open: Sunday-Thursday 5-10 pm; 11 pm on Friday and Saturday
To die for: Slow-roasted pork belly with cherries and fennel will make you moan
Best Bet: Anything starring corn