Despite having been very clear in a recent food column about chef Joel Coleman giving up his stake in local gastropub Fire & Hops so he can dedicate himself more fully to his La Lecheria ice cream company, readers seemed to struggle with the idea that, umm, that happened. Rest assured, the Guadalupe Street eatery remains in capable hands under chef Austin “Gus” Emery, a guy you might know from his days working at The Matador bar, or maybe even just because this is Santa Fe and people know each other.
Before we get deeper, you should know things are looking A-OK at Fire & Hops (222 N Guadalupe St., (505) 954-1635. The atmosphere contingent on a little old house downtown remains solid, from the small dining rooms and bar area just off the foyer to the huge drag that is parking along that particular stretch of road. Still, it’s a testament to the eight-year-old restaurant that people work it out, and on the Saturday night me and a companion popped by for dinner, the restaurant was bustling.
We treaded water a bit while trying to choose whether we’d go splitsies on a number of items from the snacks and small plates sections of the menu, ultimately deciding we’d just go along in a staggered fashion, ordering whatever sounded enticing as we went. Our server, none other than local metal mainstay Ben Durfee, was fantastic, too. Full disclosure: I’ve known Durfee a long time, though in my own waiting days the appeal of having folks you knew in your section was in knowing you didn’t have to serve at peak efficiency. Even so, we were treated with professionalism and kindness from Durfee, even as we asked irritating questions and struggled to make choices.
We began with a starter of house pickled veggies ($5), a generous helping of items like carrots, onion, fennel and more. Later in the meal, we learned Emery pickles everything himself, and his style is a winner—sweet where you want it, but tangy and flavorful in just the right ways. These pickles also served as an excellent palate-cleanser between other items, and it didn’t sting to have plenty left over for later. Yes, everyone knows the fried Brussels sprouts at Fire & Hops are amazing, but we eschewed that well-known item for a bowl of the chilled pea soup ($11) with a relish of fennel and artichoke. It’ll sound like a funny criticism, but the soup was a little too pea-foward; in small bites making use of the relish, one can really get some exciting flavors, though I might suggest the restaurant offer a cup version for those who want a refreshing respite from the otherwise very meat-heavy menu and can’t eat such a massive serving.
We followed those items with the poutine—sans the bacon that comes by default—a slightly more upscale take on the fries ‘n’ gravy dish invented in Quebec. With locally sourced green chile, fresh green onion and a balanced white gravy, Emery scored major points, and the dish avoided congealing as if by magic. The chile, though not majorly spicy, was flavorful and added bright acidity. To be fair (a-to be faaaiiiirrrrrrr), it later occurred to me just how many things could go wrong with a chile and gravy dish, but it was about the only plate I couldn’t stop myself from eating, even as my dining companion tearfully begged me to stop.
The large plates menu proved more challenging to choose from, with Fire & Hops standbys like the Cubano sandwich and grass-fed burger ($17 each). For the bazillionth time, I don’t eat most meats, but seeing a burger delivered to a nearby table made me wish I did. Pescatarians will likely want to try the pan-seared trout dusted in blue corn and served with a jicama salad ($20, and hats off to a restaurant that gets why jicama and fish is a smart combo). That little touch of Asian fusion set in place by Coleman ages ago also remains intact, with items like a sesame noodle bowl with chicken, veggies and a soy ginger sauce ($18) and a miso ramen served with pork, mushrooms, nori and egg ($17; and there’s a simple kid’s broth version for $8). We opted, however, for the Thai red curry ($16), an absolutely sumptuous item made with local veggies, fish sauce and coconut milk and served with a bit of rice. While true that we longed for more rice, this was also a dish with which Emery outdid himself. The curry offered up an earthy spice that never dominated the flavors of the coconut milk, and the fish sauce added complexity. Emery can make it completely vegetarian, too, though I’d be loathe to suggest a single change to this one.
We closed the night with the toffee pudding ($10, and think more British type pudding), a sweet-meets-savory item served with a miso butterscotch sauce. On its own, the dessert was a rich marriage of textures and salty goodness. The butterscotch topper erred too far into salt, however, though it was a misstep I don’t ultimately hate. I’d get it again and maybe ask for sauce on the side. We also snagged a couple scoops of the mocha java ice cream on our way out. With Coleman gone, La Lecheria is off the menu, but Emery’s house-spun version is in a league of its own and made with Java Joe’s coffee he concentrates himself. Later, when that nighttime sweet tooth reared, the ice cream proved a wise order thanks to a subtle sweetness and deeply satisfying coffee flavor.
Emery also told us he plans to add his own touches to the menu once he’s been there longer than two seconds, and that diners might soon see some specials and other surprises. It can’t be easy taking over a known entity, but in my book, he’s proven that he’s already there. Here’s hoping ownership gives him the space and support to put his own imprint on the operation at some point, too. Change can be so good and I just kind of wanna see what he does.