Primed and Ready

Palace Prime surpasses our expectations across the board

That one spot on Palace Avenue downtown has seen a lot of businesses come and go. You know the one—it housed the Palace Saloon, Señor Lucky’s (with the mechanical bull) and, likely, lots of other things in its aged and storied history. What’s in there now, though, is the kind of thing that likely has staying power, and having eaten at Palace Prime (142 W Palace Ave., (505) 919-9935), let me tell the community that we’ve gotta hold onto the place.

A little history: Palace Prime opened in January last year, right around the time we were all starting to think we’d never come out of the pandemic. At the time, the restaurant had tapped local celeb chef Fernando Ruiz to run the kitchen. Ruiz wound up leaving for reasons still unknown a few short months later (though he’ll open Midtown eatery Escondido soon, likely in the spring), and Blue Heron chef Rocky Durham took over some months later. Durham, then, moved to Poland with his wife last March to aid Ukrainian refugees, once again leaving Palace Prime in flux—but you needn’t worry, Santa Fe, because new chef Doug Hesselgesser has things well under control.

Before we get further into the review, it’s important to note that our meal at Palace Prime was comped. Generally speaking, SFR pays its way, and though myself and my dining companion did offer to slap down some cash or plastic, maître d’ Austin Flick kindly heard none of it. Still, the gesture in no way affects our experience, which Flick, Hesselgesser and general manager/wine director Julian Martinez more than understand as long-serving members of the restaurant world. But it’s not like they (or bar director Todd Walker) have anything to fear, as our dinner at Palace Prime was one of the best I’ve had in Santa Fe bar none, and I’d say the same even if I’d sold my own kidney to get it—which I think I’d seriously consider going forward.

Palace Prime is not cheap, that’s for sure, though with prime meats coming in through Hesselgesser’s connection with meat distributor Pat LaFreida, that’s hardly shocking. Additionally, Marintez’s wine selection is inspired with literally dozens of options by the glass or bottle, plus a handful of fresh seafood options, a concise but enticing dessert menu and, perhaps most importantly, a killer vibe.

We dined in the lounge to maximize a more laid-back counterpoint feel to the fine food. If you’re like me and find yourself engaging with fine dining only rarely, you know what I’m talking about. Our server Sasha was among the most excellent I’ve had anyplace—a combination of knowledgeable and professional and relaxed enough that we didn’t feel like we’d get in trouble for cracking jokes. As we perused the food and wine menus, she patiently listened to our questions and had answers for all of them, making suggestions here and there, but never pressuring us.

While we started with calamri ($18) and hamachi sashimi with ponzu, serrano chile and local micro greens ($16), Sasha suggested a mocktail of simple syrup and lemonade for me ($16, and yes it did come with a dehydrated, candied lemon slice) and a rich Alexana pinot noir from the Willamette Valley for my companion ($17), who was dead set on a nice steak for his main course.

The sashimi came ice cold and buttery, the exact kind of melty goodness you want from a good bit of raw fish. We didn’t much expect to find it on a steakhouse menu, but Palace Prime is the home of the $130 seafood tower, and learn. Hesselgesser’s calamari was a revelation of crisp textures and subtle flavors served with a Thai chile aioli that kicked things up a notch. Flick appeared at the table to let us know it was made with a brown rice breading, which eliminated greasiness; a genius move, honestly.

Selecting a main course proved challenging, what with the myriad cuts of beef and housemade pasta selections. Ultimately, my companion landed on a New York strip served with pickled mustard seed gnocchi and smoked mushroom ($65). He wondered aloud to Sasha whether someone who didn’t like mushrooms would be OK with this particular dish, and she gently suggested that he’d love it if only he tried it. She was correct, and he remarked how glad he was to have listened.

Flick tells me the steaks are butchered in-house and that Palace Prime sources vegetables fresh from the Farmers Market. The latter item was readily apparent in my dish, a Scottish salmon served with fiddlehead ferns and an English pea -puree alongside a kohlrabi salad and beurre blanc. Hesselgesser’s chops with fish are no joke, either, and the crusty exterior giving way to the somehow-all-at-once soft and firm fish proved an utter delight. He even included the skin on the plate, which appeared grilled down to an almost chip-like texture. This was not for me, though I could see others loving it for some added salty crunch.

Hesselgesser comes to Palace Prime after time as a sous at Arroyo Vino (where Martinez formerly worked), but Flick told me some days later that this titan among chefs also came up opening restaurants along the East Coast and in the South. I’m shocked the dining public of Santa Fe hasn’t been clamoring for more from Hesselgesser so far, but consider this your warning that you’d better make it happen.

We closed the night with bread pudding and creme brulee ($8 and $12, respectively). It’s been ages since I’ve seen a bread pudding on a menu, but there it was, and it was sublime. Ditto the brulee which, to my surprise and enjoyment, was served in a ramekin more shallow than I’ve found elsewhere in Santa Fe. The thing with custards and chantillies is that you want to leave wishing you’d had more, not the other way around. Perhaps if we’d tried one of the digestifs suggested on the dessert menu, a larger serving would have worked. We didn’t imbibe, but will next time. I was later surprised to learn the restaurant doesn’t currently have a dedicated pastry chef, though it’s comforting to know Hesselgesser runs that department, too, for the time being.

And as I racked my brain looking for anything to nit-pick, any flaw at which to pick, any misstep on which to pounce, I kept coming up blank. No notes, Palace Prime. No notes.

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