I give (and take) directions in Santa Fe based exclusively on restaurants, so when trying to explain to a girlfriend where to meet us for dinner at 401 Neighborhood Fine Dining (401 N Guadalupe, 989-3297), I told her, “Remember that place on Guadalupe that used to be the Swiss Bakery and before that Corazón and before that WilLee’s?” (Trivia: In the 1980s, it was a deli called Becker’s, where my electrician had his first job as a teenager.)
Well, the venue may be familiar, but this is the first time I can remember the space housing something like a date-night dinner restaurant, which is how I'd describe its most recent incarnation.
The menu is heavy on small plates, although all of the dishes are presented on one page without being separated into categories. There are about a dozen things that appear to be starters and salads, including a nice plate of burrata ($15), a creamy-centered relative of fresh mozzarella. The cheese was lovely, and it was paired nicely with a grilled half peach. It was showered with green pumpkin seeds and swimming in sweet balsamic, and though they were good garnishes, a lighter hand would have kept the focus on the cheese and fruit.
Other small plates include spicy rosemary cashews ($6), Castelvetrano olives ($6) and fried dill pickles ($8). These are all appetizing options for munching while deciding on the next move.
A starter of potato chips ($6) had mixed success at our table. The chips themselves were perfect—thin, crunchy and salty—but the smoked tomato aioli was strange. The first impression was a pleasant smokiness, but as the flavor continued to unfold, it got weird. One of my dining companions was sure it tasted like fish; after a few bites, I couldn't shake the flavor of burnt marshmallow. It was deeply perplexing.
It was kind of like going in for a white Jelly Belly, thinking it's gonna be French vanilla, but then it turns out to be buttered popcorn, and your brain computer gives you the spinning wheel of death for a minute while your taste buds try to reboot.
How can smoked tomato aioli taste like fishy marshmallow? Instant reality check: Did I ingest hallucinogenic drugs before dinner? Not today. Am I having a seizure? Don't think so. Could the tomatoes have been smoked on a rack above fish and maybe picked up some of the fish's aroma? Mayyyybe.
There is a smoked salmon croquette on the menu ($14), and we tried that, too. The pretty pink disc had a thin, crisp breading, and it was a good size for a starter, but the interior was too dry, and there was no sauce to moisten it. If it came with something like dilled sour cream and a heartier bed of greens, it could be a very shareable appetizer or a satisfying low-carb main.
In the middle of the menu are some options that fill what is perhaps an overlooked middle ground between little snack and big old dinner. There's a steak tartare ($18), daily ceviche ($16), a Caesar salad with duck fat croutons and a very tempting plate of pâté and pickles ($15) that comes with a chicken liver pâté, marmalade, mustard caviar and toasts. An addition of duck rillettes costs $6, a cold piece of poached foie gras is $12.
At the bottom of the menu are more traditional entrees: lamb chops with wild mushroom risotto ($22), steak frites ($29) and a daily fish special. The night we visited, it was an orange roughy with fingerling potatoes and fava beans ($28).
We opted for the only pasta on the menu, which was a dish of delightful handmade pappardelle, for some reason wrongly advertised as linguine. Not that the discrepancy mattered to us—the noodles were great—but some people do feel strongly about certain pasta shapes, so somebody probably should have mentioned, "Oh hey, the menu says linguine but the chef actually made pappardelle tonight."
That glitch aside, the service was as close to perfect as anyone at our table had experienced in Santa Fe. Our waiter was kind, friendly, helpful and informative; always there when we needed him but never interrupting our conversation. Maybe it was because we found out he was from Spain, but the service felt European in its efficient minimalism.
That was juxtaposed by the aggressive friendliness of the host and proprietor, Jack Shaab, whose face is familiar from the many restaurants he's been involved with over the years (Bistro 315, Il Piatto, Jack's). While we were there, Shaab held court at the bar, sat down with friends at their tables, mingled with friends who popped in just to say hi. You can take that as the absolute definition of a neighborhood restaurant—or as a distraction from otherwise extremely refined service. The interpretation is up to you.
The restaurant has only been open since June, and it feels like everyone is still figuring out exactly what 401 is supposed to be, including chef Laura Licona, a New Mexican who has just returned to Santa Fe after years of cooking in Seattle.
Her food can be great! That pappardelle with mushrooms and parsley was simple and fantastic. But it can also miss (the salmon croquette or the apple galette that was all crust and no apple). 401 has great potential to be the kind of place we love: comfortable, unpretentious and with great food at reasonable prices.
We hope in the coming months the menu will develop more personality, more of a unique identity and more consistency. Then we'll be telling people to meet us for drinks at Cowgirl: "Turn on to Guadalupe, go past Tomasita's, past 401 and it's up there on your right."
At a Glance
Open: 5:30 - 9:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday
Best Bet: Burrata with grilled peach
Perfect For: Date night