Empty Nest

The only-OK-ness of Tesuque’s El Nido

Wagyu burger with boar bacon (Alex De Vore)

While I readily concede that I perhaps did not read El Nido’s website as carefully as I could have, some days later I still maintain that the revered Tesuque restaurant has an odd system in place for its dual concept menus.

I made reservations at El Nido (Spanish for The Nest) assuming I could order from both the regular dinner menu and its Su concept sushi menu. Was this the appropriate choice for someone who wanted sushi? No, as it turns out. According to a very nice server and a very nice manager, diners seated in the restaurant’s Su section can order from both the sushi and the main restaurant’s menus; those in the main restaurant may only order from that menu. And though El Nido’s workers tried valiantly to slip my companion and I into a table at Su—and my lack of understanding was absolutely not their fault—alack, alas, it was not meant to be, thanks to the current boom of patrons stopping in for a bite before attending the Santa Fe Opera this season.

Now, I’d never begrudge a Santa Fe restaurant its popularity and busy summer season, and I mainly mention this self-inflicted snafu as I assume a similar scenario has and/or will befall other diners. I’m the first to exclaim “Mea culpa” for this boneheaded move. As for the so-so meal at El Nido itself, however, that’s on them.

First note that El Nido’s building and dining areas are real lookers following a 2016 interior renovation. According to that aforementioned nice manager, El Nido’s space is roughly 100 years old and was once likely a brothel. At other times over the years, the space has also housed a dance hall, a flamenco venue for dancer María Benítez (it still hosts flamenco sometimes) and a steakhouse. Cut to 2021, and chef Jose Montalvo Alas (aka Chef Ziggy) took over the kitchen. That same year, El Nido began offering sushi specials from chef Masayuki Hattori, which evolved into what is today: a full-fledged operation under chef Alexander Gaytan (aka Chef Alex). I’ve heard nothing but positive chatter surrounding sushi at Su, so fingers crossed I get it right next time, particularly as I’ll be in no rush to dine at El Nido proper anytime soon.

The night started out well enough, thanks to a number of mocktail options. Neither I, nor my companion, are drinking currently, so it’s nice to have choices. She opted for the margarita-adjacent La Norm-ita with boozeless tequila, orange blossom, cucumber, jalapeño and a tajin-encrusted rim, while I sampled the Can’t Believe It’s a Spritz with fake prosecco and a zero proof aperitif alternative ($13 each). The Norm-ita was every bit as tasty as the real deal, though the spritz erred too far into bitter territory. My companion’s empty glass sat on the table through the rest of the meal after she drank it; I could not finish mine.

Dining-wise, we began with stuffed artichoke hearts ($18), a pair of hearts crammed with spinach and mushrooms, plus pecorino and a creamy gorgonzola sauce. This would be the high point of the evening, in particular thanks to the richness and borderline sweetness of the sauce.

Perhaps in a bid to make up for the whole no sushi thing, we moved on to a half-dozen oysters ostensibly baked in a wood fire oven with a green chile butter ($24). OK, to be fair, Chef Ziggy does pretty much everything with wood fire techniques, so I don’t question that part. As for the green chile butter? If it was in there, it proved mild to the point of imperceptibility. Even so, the oysters themselves hit that salty taste you want, so the disappointment was at least tempered.

For mains, we selected the roasted poblano ($26) and the wagyu burger with boar bacon ($21, add $5 for the bacon), and in both cases, the descriptive conversation that followed hovered almost exclusively around “it’s only OK,” territory.

The poblano, for example, bore very little taste and certainly no bite. The barley, calabacitas, mushrooms and smoked gouda within were nothing to write home about, either, though the huitlacoche sauce derived from a fungus found primarily on corn—and a common delicacy in Mexico that I’ve rarely seen on another menu in Santa Fe—did at least add a certain earthy flavor to the overall dish.

So why the wagyu burger? For one thing, fine (or fine-er) dining can seem scary to folks, and I’d hoped to describe a more accessible entry point for newbies. For another, boar bacon is also somewhat rare to come by around here, and boasts a semi-sweet flavor and chewy texture that are to die for. Wagyu is all well and good, too, though had it not been for the aforementioned bacon (and some excellently crispy fries), the price tag would have stung a lot worse. As far as flavor goes, I could rattle off a list of more enjoyable local burgers than El Nido’s, but suffice it to say that Santa Fe Bite is still going strong, as is Jambo Bobcat Bite.

We closed the night with a honey lavender creme brulee ($13), partly because I’m a sucker for cracking a caramelized shell, but also because the neighboring table had ordered one and it both looked and sounded heavenly. Like the other dishes, our dessert came with the faint whisper of flavor, but it lingered ghost-like and out of reach. From someplace within the deepest part of the shallow custard dish, we caught the briefest note of honey. The lavender, however? Perhaps they forgot to include it.

And look, I know that some might say I’m taking my bungled sushi attempt out on El Nido, but I’m not so petty as all that. I whole-heartedly salute the restaurant’s attempts to help me out in that department, as well as the kindness of its management. With a bill clocking in at just over $150 for two, however, one expects a poblano quite literally bursting with flavor or the type of burger about which you might call your friends to describe. Instead, we had an only OK meal in a very pretty building within a very pretty village.

El Nido

1577 Bishop’s Lodge Road, (505) 954-1272

+Beautiful space; pleasant ambiance

-Food was lackluster at most points


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