To Drive or Not to Drive

Out-of-town eatery NOSA bursts with promise, but it’s quite the time commitment and a bit of a work in progress

If I’m being honest, I’ve waffled at the thought of a long drive before a meal. It’s hard enough to get all your friends on the same page dining-wise without putting 45 minutes between you and lunch, but in the case of new-ish eatery NOSA Restaurant and Inn (49 Ranco De San Juan, Ojo Caliente, (505) 753-0881), it seemed more than worth the trek.

NOSA—which, according to the website both means North of Santa Fe and is an old Spanish word for “ours”—opened roughly six months ago just south of Ojo Caliente (its address is technically in Ojo, but a companion and I blew right past it on some kind of spa-propelled autopilot) and has since been on the lips of many a local foodie. It’s easy to miss with its nondescript driveway in an area we’ll call remote and that, frankly, will likely be a nightmare in the snow. Still, we managed to arrive early enough to take a brief look at the campus: four rooms available as Airbnbs and a pair of cozy dining rooms. Think minimal with high ceilings and a quiet but warm ambiance; a charming and tastefully decorated Christmas tree stood in the corner and I wondered aloud if the main space had perhaps been a church at some point (though I later learned it had not).

Both the restaurant and inn are operated by chef Graham Dodds, a son of Dallas with British parents, decades of cooking experience and schooling from both Portland, Oregon’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts (formerly Western Culinary, at least when Dodds was there) and the real-deal Cordon Bleu itself—the latter for pastry. His tale is familiar: Dodds visited Santa Fe on a road trip in the ‘90s, fell in love and, he tells SFR, always knew he’d be back permanently.

NOSA’s premise is simple but enticing: Dodds experiments and creates rotating lunch and dinner menus based on whatever available ingredients are most fresh. There’s an art, he says, to consistently making the same dishes time and time again and keeping them high-quality; he, however, would rather flex his creative muscle.

“My original intention was to have an a la carte menu,” Dodds told me the day after we visited NOSA, “to not commit to this multi-course tasting. It’s only me preparing the food and running the business, and it’s a lot for me to take on a multi-course menu. But we’re kind of growing into the scenario, and I think it’s nice to launch it with the multi-course thing, though I think eventually it would be nice to have a more casual side.”

My companion and I didn’t know all this when we visited, though. With visions of the recent Ralph Fiennes film The Menu (wherein pompous foodie types travel to a remote upscale restaurant and earn their just desserts) dancing in my head, the promise of a prix fixe menu weaving through various veggies, nuts, proteins and sweets was enticing but daunting. My tastes tend to hover in the single course/smother-it-with-chile milieu, but Dodd’s menu on this particular Sunday lured me in with ingredients like sunchokes (a cousin of the artichoke that somehow has more artichoke flavor than the artichoke itself) and hinona kabu turnips. In other words, things that don’t pop up on every last menu around here.

First, I can’t say enough nice things about our server. Though NOSA is indeed small and did not fill up during our 2 pm lunch seating, it’s never easy to go it alone, and she handled the room with grace and kindness. That said, we waited a good 40 minutes past 2 before our first course arrived. At $65 a person ($85 for dinner), you figure things might arrive in a timely fashion, and I get that Dodds is almost always alone in that kitchen—but it might be time to hire some backup.

The first course of spinach dip made with the aforementioned sunchoke was a revelation of flavor and texture. The parm-toasted brioche added a cheesy tang, as well as a satisfying crunch and sweetness; those sunchokes should henceforth be ever on my shopping list. We wended our way through another phenomenal course of braised baby carrots with a radicchio and pecan salad and date puree. Usually with purees I can’t help thinking, “Thanks for the goo, I guess.” Dodds, however, crafted a sublime and light little number that melted almost like cotton candy on the tongue and exploded with a semi-sweet flavor that brilliantly complemented the earthy braised carrots. This course is why you’d drive 45 minutes for lunch—so ultimately simple, but so excellently executed.

The final three courses left something to be desired, sadly. Triple-cooked Yukon gold potatoes, for example, practically amounted to fries with a little too much vinegar. And the chicken pot pie...well, Dodds employed what amounted to a flaky biscuit for the crust, and though its exterior achieved a golden-brown perfection, its innermost sections remained slightly doughy and undercooked. Dodds later told me he’s still acclimating to baking at high altitudes, though, and I completely get that—we’ve all been there. Even so, the chicken within appeared to be all dark meat, and though one wants a pot pie to be savory, this one was tragically over-salted.

By this point, nearly three hours in, we started to squirm and worry about getting back to town before dark. The final course, a so-named chocolate puddin’ cake, softened the blow, but just barely. It had obviously just come out of the oven, causing the included whipped cream to separate in its heat and its dulce de leche base to scald the tongue rather than augment the flavor. The cake itself was tasty and gooey and served in what I can only describe as a charming cast iron mini-cauldron, though, and that part I kind of loved.

Presentation, though, is not the issue at NOSA. In fact, the room itself, the plating and the atmosphere are all wonderful. The concept is also there in spirit, and it makes one feel rather special to be eating in some faraway dining room at the edge of nowhere. Look, maybe it’s naïve to think we could get through a five-course meal in under three hours, and if that’s just the way it goes at NOSA, I’ll gladly eat my words. But from where I sat, the meal took entirely too long. Having said that, Dodds’ experiment is on the cusp of greatness, and it was cool he stopped by to say hello. With a little bit of help and little extra time, we might be talking something truly special. For now, though, I’d suggest holding off just a little longer should you plan to visit. Even another month or so could make all the difference.

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