Bowl of Confusion

Smoke and mirrors at Sassella

When the initial reports came through that Sazon was closed due to a fire, I was sad. A summer without a bowl of sopa de amor is not a summer at all—but then came news that its owners Lawrence and Suzanna Becerra and chef Fernando Olea were planning to open a new restaurant, along with former El Nido chef Cristian Pontiggia, with their eyes on a big prize.

The restaurant is Sassella (225 Johnson St., 982-6734), which opened in July, and the prize, as Lawrence Bacella recently told the Santa Fe New Mexican, is earning a Michelin star, adding "Sazón should be a Michelin star, but they don't focus on Mexican. Italian, they do."

That's a bold opener. And not entirely true.

Michelin stars are the gold standard of restaurants. The Michelin guide didn't make it to the US until 2006, and since then only 15 restaurants have achieved its coveted three-star status. Earning one or two stars is no sneeze, either, and within those ranks one will surely find Mexican cuisine: Californios in San Francisco has a two-star rating, and Rick Bayless' Topolobompo in Chicago as well as Casa Enrique, Claro and Oxomoco in New York City all boast one little twinkler.

So, it's not true that Michelin doesn't focus on Mexican cuisine. For local restaurants aiming for the big prize, it isn't recognizing one cuisine and not
another that's the problem, it's the fact that Michelin guides are not published for Santa Fe. Nor anywhere near it. Sazon may be deserving of a star, but currently New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the only US cities in which the notoriously secret reviewers operate.

Anyhow, it was all this big talk that had me waiting a bit after Sassella's opening to visit. If this restaurant is opening with the intent of being good enough for a
Michelin star, I wanted to be sure that the menu, setting and service had time to groove.

Sassella's website highlights the accomplishments of its chef and part-owner Pontiggia, who hails from a town near Sassella, Italy. Pontiggia has worked, it says, in Michelin starred restaurants, received many awards, and his schooling includes "a culinary degree that certifies him as a Doctor of Enogastronomy." Enogastronomy, by the way, is a fancy word for "the art or science of good eating."

Excited to try what a Doctor of Good Eating had in store, my friend and I set our bags on Sassella's generously-offered purse stools and prepared for greatness. Starting with drinks, we found a good selection of Italian wines but strangely, not one that gives you much of a break for a bottle. We settled on a crisp Sardinian
Vermentino that, at $18 per glass, basically added up to the bottle's $70 list price. While I understand wine markups as part of the business of restaurant-ing, I noted to myself that I had recently picked up a similar bottle for $12.

We started with the zuppa fredda d'asparagi ($25), a chilled asparagus soup with, according to the menu, Alaskan lobster in a "spiraled potato basket," and the cacio y pepe ($17), a classic pasta dish of cheese, butter and black pepper. Cacio y pepe is deceptively difficult to master, and I was excited to try a high-level interpretation. The fist-sized ball of hand-cut pasta was chewy and rustic but the cheesy, peppery coating was pasty, as though it were missing the all-important ingredient of pasta water that thins it into an actual sauce.

The soup was pretty, with a fresh asparagus and herb flavor, but it was the "Alaskan lobster" that threw me off—mainly because it doesn't exist. Thinking maybe I was just miseducated, I inquired among some chef friends who specialize in seafood who confirmed there is no such thing. So what is it that we're being sold in a $25 bowl of soup? As of this writing, it's off the menu, but at the time, I was becoming uncomfortable about Sassella. Was this truly a restaurant looking to achieve something near-impossible with inventive food? Or were we being sold a line with nothing more than a pretty price tag as proof? As we waited nearly 25 minutes for our next courses to arrive, I took a tour through the restaurant, its walls bedecked with mirrors, and I began to feel like I was being had; that Sassella was maybe nothing more than smoke and (lots and lots of) mirrors.

The mar nero ($26), squid ink spaghetti with tiger shrimp, arugula, tomatoes and roasted garlic in white wine sauce, came swirled in a sea of rich butter, the prawns cooked tender and sweet. The cacciucco alla livornese ($38), a seafood bouillabaisse in a tomato, pesto, garlic, and white wine sauce, featured a sauce so thick it could be eaten with a fork. It was also so rich in acid and spice that it overpowered the delicate seafood flavors within it. I had to remove a couple of unopened mussels and, with no dish in which to dispose of them, attempted to place them in the crook between my bowl and plate, leaving my eating space a splattered mess.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating at a Michelin starred restaurant knows it will be worth the pretty penny it costs; sitting in a space unlike you've ever experienced, eating food transformed by expert preparations you can hardly imagine and with service so inventive it transcends the word; an experience of inspired ingenuity, not smoke, mirrors and big prices. Sassela, if it wants to rise to the Michelin rank—or even claim to be worthy—has a lot of work to do.

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