Aug. 22, 2017

SFR's Restaurant of the Year: Santacafé

October 26, 2005, 12:00 am
Where Casual Meets Elegance and Flourishes 

231 Washington Ave.

Santacafé put the "style" in "Santa Fe Style" decades ago, eschewing elaborate fussiness for the simple but sublime, a theme that runs through the food and surroundings at one of the city's most beloved restaurants. Because of this simplicity, the focus on approachable, wine-friendly food, the relaxing and welcoming atmosphere and the remarkable ability to be a special event dinner destination and a quick, cheap lunch spot, we have chosen Santacafé as the 2005-2006 Restaurant of the Year.

The guiding hand of owners Judy Ebinghaus and Bobby Morean and the creative restraint of Chef David Sellers are evident every moment spent at the restaurant. The atmosphere here combines a spare modern aesthetic with the traditional features of the home of infamous 19th century politico José ***image2***Manuel Gallegos. The walls are mercifully free of the cluttered art that clogs so many dining rooms in this town, and the simple white-and-neutrals color theme allows your eyes to focus on the important stuff: food and friends. Ebinghaus and Morean deliberately keep the décor to a minimum in honor of the extraordinary Gallegos house and highlight its most charming features-like the glass-covered 150-year-old well you walk over on your way to the bathroom-rather than rotating art exhibits.

Although Santacafé is legendary for its top-shelf dinner menu-each plate a classic with a well-balanced twist from Chef Sellers-it is beloved by locals for its shamefully good and mercifully inexpensive lunch service. "We try to keep the prices very reasonable, Ebinghaus says. "I mean, you can get a burger here for eight bucks. And we make our own potato chips!  I make the ketchup!" Lunch and dinner both offer the opportunity to see curious tourists thread through throngs of savagely loyal locals, a scene that draws people in suits, overdressed travelers and locals in shorts and sandals. "Hopefully people feel comfortable and relaxed," co-owner Morean says of his restaurant's popularity. "My staff is professional but ***image4***relaxed. We're not stuffy, but we have tablecloths." The restaurant's disparate elements mingle peacefully by virtue of shared sedative pleasure-comas induced from following a curried summer squash bisque with a bed of Serrano ham, Spanish chèvre, grilled peaches and arugula.

If eating on the generous covered patio during the summer is too see-and-be-seen for you, you can always join the hooligans and malcontents at the bar or hunker down in a discreet back room-after all, everyone pleasures himself in a different way. And admit it-eating out is all about pleasure.

Making the dining experience a pleasant one takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the part of a huge team of employees. "My biggest concern as a restaurant owner is that I am responsible for feeding a bunch of families," Ebinghaus confides, referring not to her guests, but the people who cook, bus tables, mix drinks and serve food at Santacafé. That's why the restaurant offers health insurance to all employees ***image3***and pays part of the cost for full-time workers. "We've all worked for somebody else," Ebinghaus says, and then does some quick math. "I didn't become an employer until my 40s."

One of those employees is the chef, who attributes Santacafé's Asian influence to the restaurant's opening chef, Michael Fennelly. "It was something really different at the time," Sellers says of the 1980s Asian fusion trend, "and that was what gave this restaurant its reputation." Sellers is also a fan of Asian food and that passion is apparent on the menu. But Santacafé's current chef doesn't like to mix Southwestern and Asian. "My style is that I like to be true to a type of cuisine," he explains, adding, "Some chefs make the mistake of putting too many things in one dish and it's confusing. So here if it's an Asian dish it's Asian; if it's Southwestern it's Southwestern." The commonality between the cuisines comes from ingredients like chiles that show up in a tiger prawn tempura with red chile sweet and sour, and a poblano relleno with quinoa and chipotle cream.

***image5***Sellers' menus change every week and he strives to put forth an uncomplicated array of dishes that highlight one or two perfectly in-season ingredients. He also tries to make his food wine-friendly-a challenge when it comes to the Asian dishes on the menu. "Honestly, I think beer goes best with Asian food," the chef confesses, sounding like he thinks he might get a lot of flack for saying it. And though any wine salesperson worth his end-of-year bonus will tell you that it's possible to pair nearly any Asian dish with a wine, most of them will agree (off the record) that they reach for a cold beer with their green curry or General Tao's chicken.

But Asian dishes generally make up less than a quarter of the menu here and the extensive wine list is put to good use. The non-Asian dishes tend to be straightup New American plates with New Mexican influence. But Southwestern ***image6***flavors aren't applied willy-nilly; a pankocrusted salmon comes with sesame noodles and ginger, while a piece of halibut is served with calabacitas and chile butter.

The chef is eager to incorporate local ingredients, but says, in some ways, that's harder than it used to be. "When I first came here I had tons of back-door purveyors who would come [to sell their produce at the restaurant]. Now that the Farmers' Market has gotten so big, they mostly go there to sell their produce." He has taken to making arrangements with certain farmers to supply him with items such as salad greens all through the season.

Yet you won't see paragraph-long descriptions of the dishes on the menu at Santacafé. Primarily, this is because the food isn't ridiculously complicated. But it's also due to Sellers' reluctance to tell the whole story before dinner. Just as you wouldn't want a film review to divulge the entire plot, the chef says he prefers not to reveal every ***image7***ingredient. A recent menu included a thick pork porterhouse garnished with a small grilled plum that was delightful, but mysteriously unmentioned in the dish's description. "Sometimes it's nice to get a little surprise," Sellers says, and we agree. Every meal at Santacafé is a little surprise and that's what keeps us coming back for more.

231 Washington Ave., 984-1788. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Sunday dinner only. $$$

Santacafé Green Chile Vichyssoise

Serves 8


3 leeks  (white part only, diced and washed)
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme (leaves only)
2 quarts vegetable stock
1 quart heavy cream
2 cups green chile
4 Russet potatoes (Peeled and diced)
¼ pound unsalted butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
Cooking Instructions:

• Combine olive oil and butter in a medium to large saucepan and cook leeks and garlic slowly until translucent, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.

• Add bay leaves, thyme, stock, cream, chile and potatoes, bring to a simmer and cook slowly until potatoes are very cooked through and soup has thickened slightly.

• Check seasoning and adjust using the vinegar to add a little acid. Puree and push through a medium sieve. Allow to cool completely before serving. Adjust thickness of soup if necessary with a little milk if it is too thick.


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