It's a Tuesday night in late September; by all logic, it's about the worst time to open a new restaurant in Santa Fe. But new kid on the block, Maize (225 Johnson St., 780-5125) is buzzing with energy, with the dining room almost at capacity and the bar equally as popular. The warm golden walls, dramatic driftwood-esque accent pieces and Native American-inspired art are a drastic departure from Georgia, which inhabited the space up until just a few weeks prior.
When Georgia rebranded as a gastropub in 2016, foodies around Santa Fe mourned. After all, the draw of the 2015 SFR Restaurant of the Year was the casual elegance and date night-appropriate food. And anyway, if you throw a Brussels sprout in Santa Fe, you're likely to hit a gastropub.
Enter Maize, which aims to take up the fine dining mantle, albeit in a different tradition. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, at the helm is Charles Dale, whose 35 years of restaurant experience culminated with City Different staple Bouche. Fans of the French bistro will be relieved to know that he's still actively involved with his pet project; it's simply become part of the quickly growing New Mexico Fine Dining group, of which Maize is also a member and Dale is a key player.
The menu at Maize is a fascinating study of the cuisine of the Southwest and specifically Northern New Mexico. The name itself honors this heritage; corn is the staple crop of Native Americans, which Dale says is sacred and life-giving. "We wanted to take the ingredients of the area and filter them through a modern lens," Dale says.
A prime example of this vision is the elk tenderloin carpaccio ($16). Elk has long been part of the Northern New Mexican diet, but never quite like this. The raw meat is delicate and flavorful, contrasting impeccably with the spice of its accompanying frisée greens and fried capers.
Dale also cites the influence of the various traditions that have called the region home—Native American, Spanish, French—and their trade routes. That's how the restaurant is able to incorporate fish and other seafood items into its menu, much to the diner's good fortune.
I reaped the benefits of seafood inclusion with the blue corn blinis ($16), which come topped with smoked trout, caviar and crème fraiche and alongside a salad of arugla, baby cilantro and jalapeño. The smoke of the trout, savory of the caviar and spice of the salad bring out a subtle complexity in the blue corn, melding together to create something entirely new and poignantly Santa Fe.
The attention to culinary history extends to more classic offerings as well. The rack of lamb chops ($42) will make any carnivore's mouth water—crisp on the outside, tender and juicy in the middle. It doesn't hurt that the meat is served atop a generous helping of soft grits and mouth-watering wilted greens and completed with a garlicy balsamic reduction.
The dessert menu reads like a sweet New Mexican dream: The dreamcatcher ($10) includes piñon meringue, and the tres leches cheesecake ($9) is topped with crema de mezcal. I opted for the lavender flan ($8), which has a faint but full flavor of the purple herb. The restaurant's namesake makes a guest appearance in the form of a caramel corn topping, which adds some needed crunch to the smooth, creamy, caramelly goodness of the flan.
Prices of entrees aren't the most budget-friendly, but between the shared plates and starters menus, it's easy to curb your spending as well as your appetite. The extensive wine list comes mostly by the bottle, although it does include a few offerings by the glass, and the Abiquiu rose ($14), the highlight of Georgia's cocktail menu, is still available.