The City Different is as perfect a place as anywhere to eat, drink and be merry before the world ends.
In order to equip you to do just that, we've changed the format of this year's Restaurant Guide. Instead of a single Restaurant of the Year, the 2011-12 guide profiles the 10 local restaurants we consider the city's very best.
And despite continued economic gloom, four of these—Azur, The Palace Restaurant & Saloon, Raaga and Shibumi Ramen Ya—are new ventures, each with a wholly unique interpretation of top-caliber food with rich cultural relevance.
Santa Fe’s local food love affair may not match up to the current West Coast mania, but considering how much more challenging farming in New Mexico is, we’re making rapid strides toward a bigger, better regional food economy. But dishes prepared with locally sourced ingredients don’t necessarily taste better—unless you put them in the skilled hands of Amavi executive chef Megan Tucker. European dishes somehow leap with the flavor and brightness that Tucker squeezes from New Mexico ingredients. Her thoughtful, flavorful creations seem to suggest that she feels the rhythm of the harvest in her bones and is composing dishes even before the farmers and vendors arrive. The kitchen makes all pastas in house, which means the tortellone wrapping your grass-fed lamb has never been dried—a fact for which your tongue will be grateful. Skilled sommelier Mark Johnson ensures that very few restaurants in Santa Fe can compete in terms of wine selection or suggested pairings. (Zane Fischer)
221 Shelby St., 988-2355. Dinner nightly. $$$
Grilled Hawaiian opah with herbs, couscous, grilled local vegetables and cherry tomatoes with sweet pepper coulis Photo: Joy Godfrey
This little gem of a restaurant—part tapas joint, part wine bistro, part Mediterranean minibreak—opened in late May, but by high summer, Azur was already running a brisk trade in flavorful dishes that combine the best of the region's meats, spices, sauces and sweets. Azur may owe some of its success to being situated just north of the blossoming Railyard district. But location alone doesn't explain the way chef Xavier Gremet steams mussels with spicy, smoky chorizo (genius!), making them every bit as addictive as, well, crack. The wine list is thoughtfully chosen, and Gremet's sauce-concocting abilities may well be unrivaled. Add a friendly, unassuming staff, and you're in for a delightful escape to the Mare Nostrum.
428 Agua Fria St., 992-2897. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday. $$
Hurry to Jambo while you can still feel a sense of discovery, because this restaurant is only going to get hotter. Despite its strip-mall location and unobtrusive signage, Jambo is consistently packed with an eclectic mix of in-the-know diners. The cuisine is a blend of East African and Caribbean, but instead of being pulled in too many directions, it's an inspired interpretation of their nexus. The red beans and rice embody the best kind of simple soul food, while the coconut chicken curry is light, sweet and distinctly East African. The goat stew, too, somehow turns the exotic into unpretentious comfort food—and converted one diner skeptical of all things goat. Although the various iterations of jerk chicken on offer are tasty, the more unusual dishes better showcase chef Ahmed Obo's distinct flair. Waiting for a table in the bustling dining room, you can't help but feel lucky that Obo, a native of Kenya's Lamu Island, chose to land here in Santa Fe. (Wren Abbott)
2010 Cerrillos Road, 473-1269. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. $$
This intimate space just off Guadalupe Street has an earthly plane—you can pop in and grab a quick dinner to sate the belly—but if you're game to indulge, something else is percolating in the sizzling ether around Max's. The oyster platters are consistently surprising, changing subtly or dramatically each night according to the whims of chef Mark Connell. The rest of the menu revolves around reliable centerpieces—sous vide steak, suckling pig, roulade—but the trappings of each dish adjust to harvest, season and inspiration. Almost everything is made in the kitchen, including butter and desserts. Nasturtium sorbet peppered with huckleberries, anyone? For those unlucky enough to miss Max's, a new sister restaurant, Tomme, is now at the corner of West Alameda and Galisteo streets. (ZF)
403½ S Guadalupe St., 984-9104. Dinner Monday-Saturday. $$$
Even if you're not old-Santa Fe enough to remember The Palace in its heyday, the décor alone will take you back. But chandelier-lit intimacy and saloonlike bonhomie are modest aspects of this venerable eatery's triumphant revival. Under the gifted direction of local celeb-chef Joseph Wrede, the restaurant boasts culinary offerings that are creative, smart and inspired. The decadent beef carpaccio, paired with Caesar salad and hints of delicate cheese, and the mustard-crusted grouper filet are worthy of adoration, even lust, but save room for deep, dark chocolate bark—its innards a mezcal-infused burst of white chocolate, its pairing a marvelously refreshing lime sorbet. In sum, we'll be back—nightly. (AS)
142 W Palace Ave., 428-0690. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. $$$
Good Indian food is subtle, complex and surprising, exhibiting a unique interplay of spices (fenugreek, coriander, cinnamon) and Indian chefs' wondrous skill in exalting the humble lentil. Raaga takes the staples into a new dimension. Whole curry leaves elevate the creamy chicken madras; and the tomato dalcha, made with yellow lentils, scratches the itch for a delicately flavored lentil dish, but tops most dal preparations with its inclusion of pinela (preserved bell pepper). The decadent, garlicky lasooni gobhi (cauliflower) appetizer is unexpectedly sweet, and anticipation of dipping the garlic cilantro naan in mint chutney could prove dangerously intoxicating to the diner reaching Raaga by car. The restaurant has been open only a few months, and on some nights, the servers are stretched thin—though it's a credit to the food, and the convivial staff, that no one seems to mind. Chef Paddy Rawal has been known to humor curious diners with translations of some Indian words—such as "tikka," as in the familiar chicken tikka masala, which means "chunk"; and "raga," which suits perfectly because it means "beautiful melody." (WA)
544 Agua Fria St., 820-6440. Lunch and dinner daily. $$
Real Food Nation
Santa Feans who live on the eastern outskirts of town are lucky enough to consider Real Food Nation a neighborhood establishment. But the upstart operation fits more niches than a multi-tool: It's a farm-fresh cafeteria offering a case full of raw, vegan, vegetarian and meat options; a casual dining restaurant; a fast-paced drive-through for diners on the go; and also a supper club offering "farm fine dining" in a discreet space with excellent service and an evolving, enchanting menu. (Try the chicken "under a brick" or the locally foraged mushroom plate when it's in season.) Of course, RFN is practically a farm in its own right; it has more space dedicated to orchards, gardens and greenhouses than most restaurants allot for parking. Like any exceptional restaurant, RFN is greater than the sum of its parts, but it has more parts than most. (ZF)
Café: 624 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 466-3886. Breakfast, lunch and early dinner Tuesday-Saturday. $$.
Supper club: 628 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 466-2440. Dinner Wednesday-Saturday. $$$
Restaurant Martín bears all of the telltale signs of highbrow dining: modern décor that borders on the austere, an understatedly sophisticated clientele and those knives that balance counterintuitively on their blades. But don't be fooled. Chef Martín Rios has made a career of putting together dishes that sing—the sweet, salty, ooh-ahh-inducing pork belly and prawns, for instance—without skimping on portion size or ingredients. At $30, the beef tenderloin is impeccably cooked and surprisingly hefty. And if the world does indeed end in 2012, we'll come here for one last slice of chocolate truffle cake before the apocalypse. Add welcoming, unobtrusive service, and you'll wonder whether you've already died and, heathenism be damned, gone to heaven. (AS)
516 Galisteo St., 820-0919. Brunch Sundays; lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday. $$$
Shibumi Ramen Ya
In 2011, in a building connected to his famous Trattoria Nostrani, unpredictable restaurateur Eric Stapelman suddenly opened a ramen house and started slinging soup as though he'd been doing it since feudal Japan. Stapelman's new endeavor is a cleverly basic affair, with minimalistic design sensibilities and a menu without frivolity. Four ramen dishes are routinely on tap—kurobuta pork, roasted chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Four small plates are always ready to accompany; if you can only choose one, it's a fistfight between the burdock root and the bunapi mushroom bowl. The spicy pork gyoza is a must (unless religion tells you otherwise). The sake and beer selection is artisanal and elegant, and a newly extended menu offers kaiseki (multi-course meals) and a host of other options. (ZF)
26 Chapelle St., 428-0077. Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday. $$
Terra Restaurant at Encantado
People come from all over the world to rest and relax at Encantado, but executive chef Charles Dale and his staff are working their asses off in the kitchen at Terra. Dale has distilled the craft of Southwest fusion into an enviable art practice, but it takes prolonged focus and hustle to churn out Anasazi bean ragout, mezcal-steamed mussels and clams with red chile flakes, and cumin-grilled quail with pumpkin seed mole. Who knew you could even make a tempura out of the huitlacoche corn fungus? It's expensive; it's off the beaten path; and it's absolutely worth it. (ZF)
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