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Chef David Caruso of La Boca
Chef James Campbell Caruso leans on the Dutch door that leads into the tiny dining room of his tapas restaurant, La Boca. Photo: Colleen Hayes

LA BOCA: SFR's Restaurant of the Year 2007-2008

October 17, 2007, 12:00 am
By
There are two things that make Santa Fe such an interesting place to eat. First and foremost is the 500-year-old cross-cultural potluck that is New Mexican cuisine. Green chile stew, smothered breakfast burritos, stuffed sopaipillas: It may seem like a regular day's menu to us but you don't have to travel far to be reminded that this stuff really is unique. The other cool thing about Santa Fe is the great culinary curiosity of its people. As folks living in a town that is so small, our enthusiastic embrace of foreign flavors, ingredients and movements is remarkably visible and pervasive. Think about how often you've seen a menu offering seared ahi tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes next to barbecued ribs, flatbread pizza and something slathered in vegetarian red chile sauce.

Santa Feans are simultaneously obsessed with traditions and eager to break them down. A town compelled to make every building look like something straight out of the 1600s sees nothing at all strange about shitake and cactus spring rolls with Southwestern ponzu dipping sauce or raw, vegan, wheat-free pad thai made with zucchini "pasta." Here, in the midst of this schizophrenic culinary zeitgeist, is chef James Campbell Caruso, a Boston-born Basque/Italian former anthropology student who is doggedly pursuing a fascination with the ancient roots of Spanish cuisine. Last year, he opened La Boca, a restaurant that has nothing to do with green chile or green chile egg rolls, but is nevertheless so Santa Fe.

At El Farol, where he cooked for the better part of the last decade, Campbell Caruso oversaw a big restaurant and a big Spanish menu. La Boca is a fraction of the size of the rambling El Farol, but he doesn't mind. "I love it. It's the perfect size," he says of La Boca's diminutive dining room and little kitchen. While the responsibilities of being a restaurant owner do take up a lot of his time, he's thrilled to be able to spend much of his day at the stove. "I really want to cook," he says. "I'm still not that good at all that other stuff." He means things that have to happen at a desk. So this downsizing has allowed him to focus more on food and to delve deeper into the mix of Iberian, Roman, North African and Middle Eastern influences that have combined to become what we know as Spanish food.

Exploring widely within the narrow focus of Spanish food, the chef creates menus (they change often) that feel fresh and new-using ancient ingredients like goat cheese, figs, pomegranates and saffron. "I really like the combination of raisins and capers or olives and citrus," he says. "That balance of sweet and tart is where you create excitement." The effect is most visible in dishes such as smoky grilled eggplant topped with rich manchego, sweet saffron honey and briny capers. A plate of tuna carpaccio dotted with olives, drizzled with blood orange aioli and sprinkled with smoked sea salt delivers a different constellation of flavors in every bite.

By concentrating his menu mostly on tapas, Campbell Caruso taps into the small plates trend, but by keeping those dishes tightly focused on Spain, he satisfies the desire for authenticity. "I've fallen into the trap of being the young guy who wants to put everything into one dish and it just doesn't work," he confesses. "If there are three ingredients that fit together right, you can almost hear it click together. Something happens, some kind of alignment. I'm trying to strip everything down to three main ingredients, to keep it simple so you can taste everything." The strategy is working. Fennel- studded pork sausages are served naked but for a drizzle of pomegranate syrup. A mouthful is meaty, spicy, sweet and tart all at once. After devouring a plate of fried egg with chorizo and potatoes, one is sure that it could not possibly be improved by the addition of another ingredient.

The food at La Boca is simple in an honest way, not the way something tremendously difficult is made to seem simple. The chef's style hints at deconstruction without actually going there. He succeeds in highlighting individual flavors without succumbing to the most compelling food movement of the day: the concept, most often associated with Spain's Ferran Adriá and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, that dining at a restaurant should be more about having an "experience" than about "eating." Hence, there are no bite-size courses that arrive on spoons, no shot glasses full of soup that must be drunk in one sip, no foie gras foams or beet "textures." Here simplicity means pimientos de padrón (Spanish green chiles) fried in olive oil and tossed with sea salt.

One of the most appealing things about La Boca is the price. Because the plates are small, light eaters can order just as much as they really want-instead of ordering a $35 entree and consoling themselves with the idea that they'll take home half and eat it for lunch the following day. Big eaters can certainly run up a sizeable tab, but it takes a little effort when the tapas start at $4 (for a bowl of fried marcona almonds). During our most recent visit, the most expensive tapa cost $17 (for grilled beef tenderloin with smoked paprika and sea salt caramel) but most offerings fell in the range of $6-$9. And they are big enough to share. It may be tempting to hoard a mini casserole full of canelones (seafood-filled pasta in an intoxicatingly rich manchego cream sauce), but eventually guilt takes over and one feels compelled to offer bites to everyone else at the table.

With so many ambitious restaurants competing for our attention, it's refreshing to find such satisfaction in a small, comfortable restaurant where the atmosphere is casual, the food fantastic and the chef humble. "I've never considered [La Boca] fine dining. This is casual to me," Campbell Caruso says, and although it is undeniably fine it does lack the napkin refolding, chair pulling and exorbitant pricing that we're used to at restaurants that describe themselves as fine dining. And anyway, the chef says, "you can have a great food experience almost anywhere. On a good day it could be Bobcat Bite."

Well, you already knew about Bobcat Bite. Now you can add La Boca to your list of must-do restaurants in Santa Fe.

La Boca is located at 72 W. Marcy St. Call 982-3433 for reservations. From Monday through Saturday the restaurant serves lunch and dinner, with tapas available between the two meals. On Sunday it serves only dinner. $-$$



Grilled Eggplant with Melted Manchego, Saffron Honey and Capers
This dish balances the sweetness of honey with the briny acidity of capers. The unmistakable flavor of saffron ties it all together.
***image7***
Serves 6 as a first course
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 pound manchego cheese, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons saffron honey (recipe follows)
  • 2 teaspoons capers
- Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium.

- Brush the eggplant slices lightly with the olive oil and sprinkle them
with salt and pepper, then grill until tender, about 5 minutes per side.

- Transfer the eggplant from the grill to a cookie sheet and reduce the grill heat to low. (If you're using a charcoal grill you can rake the majority of the coals to one side to create a cooler area.)

- Sprinkle each piece of eggplant with some manchego then return the cookie sheet to the grill and lower the lid for about 5 minutes, just long enough for the cheese to melt.

- Equally divide the eggplant slices between 6 plates. Drizzle each with saffron honey and sprinkle with capers. Serve warm.



Saffron Honey
Stirring saffron threads into a little white wine helps to distribute the color and flavor of the spice throughout the honey.

Makes 1/2 cup
  • 2 tablespoons white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/2 cup honey
- In a small pan, heat the wine until it bubbles then turn off the heat and stir in the saffron, then the honey.

- Use a rubber spatula to scrape the mixture into a glass jar and allow it to cool completely before putting on the lid.



Garbanzo-Carrot Hummus with Grilled Yogurt Flatbread
Grilled yogurt flatbread, similar to the naan you find in Indian restaurants, is one of the easiest breads you can make.***image8***

Makes 2 cups
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup cooked garbanzo beans, drained
  • 4 teaspoons plus 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
  • 21/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 11/2 teaspoons coriander
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons chile pequín flakes
  • 2 teaspoons Moroccan Spice Blend (recipe follows)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 batch Yogurt Flatbread (recipe follows)
- In a medium saucepan, combine the chopped carrotswith 2 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 8-10minutes, until the carrots are tender.

- Remove the pan from the heat and allow the carrots to drain and cool in a colander.

- Combine the carrots and remaining ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with the remaining cilantro.

- Serve with fresh, hot Yogurt Flatbread cut into wedges.



Moroccan Spice Blend
This is also a great spice rub for grilled shrimp or pork skewers. Simply grind a few cloves of garlic in a mortar and pestle and add the spice blend, a little salt, a splash of lemon juice and 2 splashes of olive oil.

Makes about 2 tablespoons
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon fi nely grated lemon peel
- In a small resealable glass or plastic container, combine all of the ingredients.



Yogurt flatbread
You can also top this bread with chorizo and manchego, then bake it briefl y to make Spanish pizza, known as coca.

Makes 4
  • 1 cup all-purpose fl our
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 21/2 cups plain yogurt
  • Olive oil
- Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook.

- Add the yogurt and mix at low speed (setting 2 on a Kitchen-Aid) for 2 minutes.

- Cover the work bowl and allow the dough to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

- Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium.

- Scrape the dough from the work bowl and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a long log and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and use a rolling pin or tortilla press to flatten it into a 1/4-inchthick "tortilla" shape.

- Brush each "tortilla" lightly with olive oil. Grill them for about 40 seconds then turn and cook 40 seconds more.

- Sprinkle the flatbreads with a little more salt as they come off the grill. Serve hot.



New Mexican Lamb Chops with Chile-Mint Agridulce
Look for local, organic Shepherd's lamb at La Montañita Co-op and Kaune Foodtown.***image9***

Serves 4-6
  • 4-6 lamb chops
  • Olive oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Chile-Mint Agridulce (recipe follows)
- Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high.

- Grill the lamb chops for about 5 minutes per side, or until it is cooked to your preferred liking. (Use a thermometer to be sure. Remove the meat from the grill when the interior reaches 130° F for rare or 140° F for medium rare.



Chile-Mint Agridulce
You can use this sweet and sour sauce on any kind of grilled meat, even tuna or swordfish.

Makes 1 cup
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup chopped mint
  • 3 tablespoons chile pequín flakes
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- In a small bowl combine all ingredients.



Cardamom Saffron Crema Catalan
This rich, creamy dessert is much more fl avorful than its better known relatives, crème brûlée and flan.

Makes 4
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 21/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
- In a saucepan, combine 11/2 cups of the milk with the saffron threads and ground cardamom. Bring the mixture to a boil then remove the pan from the heat.

- Using an electric mixer, beat together the egg yolks and powdered sugar until the mixture is fluffy and light in color.

- With the mixer running, slowly pour the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan.

- In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and remaining 1/2 cup milk. Add this to the saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.

- Pour the hot mixture into 4 ramekins and sprinkle the top of each custard with 1 teaspoon sugar. Arrange the ramekins on a cookie sheet and put it under a broiler just long enough for the sugar to caramelize. (If you have a propane torch you can also use it to caramelize the sugar.) Serve immediately.

 

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