“Have you been to ¡A la Mesa!?” a friend inquires, her eyes alit. “It is, by all accounts…a perfect restaurant.”
Indeed, there are a lot of us in love with the place. So much so that I grieve inwardly when I cannot get a reservation and, even though I know we are seeing other people, I still want a sleek, sexy square of bar top all to myself. Gone are the walls of old Café San Estevan—all the walls—including the boundaries that can breed bad or tiresome fare; this is a world away.
Chef Jacob Hilbert appears to be much like his food; when this North Carolinian, by way of Las Cruces, storms purposefully out of and back into the kitchen, he is focused, thoughtful but also subtle and unfussy. It’s an unabashed pleasure to hear Hilbert talk about food—and I don’t know him but, if he’s as generous as his food intimates he might be, his posse is full of lucky folk.
This is real food, not surrealistic food. What a relief. For the jaded palate thwarted by too many cheap tricks pulled out of hats elsewhere in town, consider this your dual antidote and gustatory Viagra. Nobody feels like a rube when stacks of white side plates arrive on the table for shared dishes.
Hilbert’s food enlivens the view in a continuous stream: gorgeous portions that bob and weave as they’re whirled away between darting eyes and through the space.
When was the last time a local restaurant welcomed this degree of acclaim in its opening days? Owners Jan Brennan and Patty Gibson are both there—all the time, it seems—to witness every modicum of their restaurant. Though I hate waiting, I endure it in order to enjoy the first-come, first-served bar top at ¡A la Mesa!, where the best seats in the house can be had and where master barman John Strand performs his cool and inimitable ballet amid the squalls of restaurant chaos. A word of warning: If Strand isn’t serving, skip the bar; the discrepancy in service might make you wish you’d never come.
And now we eat. There is something primal about having so much of something good with nothing superfluous on the plate, and most forkfuls make me smack myself—and my friends—in resolute glee. The odd little menus unfold and contain all the restaurant’s offerings from soup to nuts, or in this case, from land to sea. Hilbert describes his dishes here as having “a core of French bistro with a tangential international element,” assuring us that he gets playful with the flavors at his disposal.
The endive salad ($9) with frisee, marinated goat cheese, roasted pistachios and cranberry-red cabbage vinaigrette is Hilbert’s seasonal riff on last season’s coveted version. The rillettes of salmon were the dark horse of the fall menu, so here’s hoping winter’s duck, cognac and green peppercorn rillettes ($11) with orange, cranberry and ginger relish don’t disappoint. The wild mushroom flatbread ($10) with roasted garlic, Manchego and truffle oil is very good but if you have room for bread, save it for mopping up the curried coconut milk in the lemongrass mussels ($12, or $18 with frites and aioli), the favorite of three mussels variations offered.
In addition to moules, there are also three preparations of another bistro classic: steak frites ($25), sauce au poivre, sauce forestière and sauce Cabrales. Hilbert’s signature dishes are the waterzooi ($18), a deliriously good Flemish specialty that means “watery mess,” the salmon scallopine meunière ($18) and Hilbert’s sublime tagine of lamb shank ($20). The wonderful scallops Madagascar ($22) have been rechristened and replated as scallops vanilla ($22). New winter dishes I can’t wait to try include the rabbit dijonaisse ($19) and the Alsatian staple choucroute garnie; here it’s served with grilled pork chop, glazed confit of pork tenderloin, braised pancetta, roasted apples, house-cured choucroute (sauerkraut) and a sauce of mustard oil and Belgian beer.
As with any relationship, I’ll take the good with the lukewarm. For example, I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to the mushroom bouillabaisse or the curiously inconsistent wok-fired chicken wings, which have been replaced with Flying Piggies ($9): coriander and cilantro braised pork “wings” over curried cauliflower.
I was left largely underwhelmed by the desserts, save for the house-made ice cream, which is invariably superb. In general, the desserts’ components were not integrated and had some structural difficulties. I was flummoxed by the pithivier ($8), but have heard so many others rave about it I feel a second audition is warranted
Now that it’s over, go on: Look at your receipt. Ask to be pinched. Yes, it feels like your birthday and Christmas all rolled up in one, but the numbers are right, and if you don’t feel like you just got away with theft then you must not eat out in Santa Fe very often.
It’s no secret either; walking past the restaurant on a Monday night, I hear the din and burble of voices from within and see people clustered on the patio blowing cold puffs of breath into the frosty air. It’s a beautiful sight.