Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe: Dress-how-ya-like

Restaurant Martin is one of the newer players on Santa Fe's dining scene. Given the fact that I can't even keep up with dining trends in my home city of Denver, I won't pretend to know anything about Santa Fe's dining scene-- but I am familiar with Chef Martin Rios. Chef Rios, formerly executive chef of such renowned New Mexican dining heavyweights as the Inn of the Anasazi and Gernonimo's, is also famous for his 2008 appearance on Iron Chef America's Battle Tomato, where he went head-to-head with that one chef with all the TV shows. In 2009 Chef Martin opened his own restaurant, just south of the town center in Santa Fe.

It is an elegant and simple building from the outside, well-lit and sleek inside. Despite the inviting environs, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical after my first five minutes inside. We admittedly were a tad late for our reservation (OK, 40 minutes late), but the dining room was only about half-full, and it was Sunday, so seating didn't seem like it would be a problem. Somehow, however, we waited for quite a long time while several different waiters and hostesses fumbled around with menus, napkins and the reservation list. With plenty of time to take in our surroundings, my friend and host for the weekend pointed out the tag-line embroidered into all the staff's polo shirt uniforms: "Progressive American Cuisine". And while this name is admittedly much better than "Conservative" American Cuisine, or certainly then "Republican" American Cuisine, fancy and elusive naming is not my favorite.

There were also quite a few 60-some year-old guys with orange tans, penny loafers, pleated khakis and (this is the key) sweaters knotted loosely around their necks, draped over their shoulders and hanging like some kind of preppy merino-wool mullet down their backs. I have been to Santa Fe before, so I understand that this population sub-type is inevitable, but there did seem to be a disproportionate number of them concentrated around the entrance at this particular moment. And while I am a true believer in the "Doowhutchyalike" way of life (which of course includes "Wearwhutchyalike"), these guys were getting seated much faster than us and I didn't like it one bit. I was starting to think our long wait for a table had more to do with our out-of-touch sweater-style compounded be my friend's own "doowhutchyalike" shoe choice.

"Just eat food, try not to be crude or rude, 
Kill the attitude, chill the serious mood, 
And doowutchyalike..."

I am very glad to say that the good people at Restaurant Martin did not in any way turn out to be crude, rude or with attitude; nor did they show any particular favor to those of us who, unsure of what the volatile Santa Fe weather may do that night, and too old and weak to carry an extra layer by hand like a normal person, draped that layer instead over his shoulders. In fact, it was very much the opposite: we waited because the staff was busting its chops by graciously opening up an otherwise closed section of the patio for us to occupy.

And the patio was wonderful. And everything from that moment on was worth the wait. Even the not-yet-quite-there service of a growing restaurant was hardly a detraction at all because the food was so good and the staff was so friendly.

It all started with three plates for the four of us. First up was an Ahi Tuna Tartar. Now, there is little that is more overdone than a tuna tartar, but I was curious as to how Chef Martin would use one particular ingredient listed in its description: jalapeno blinis.

It turned out that the blinis were a little dry and plain, but the rest of the ingredients, when all eaten together, made for a delicious and complex, refreshing and intense bite. In the mix of the ideal bite was a small salad of mandarin, cilantro, greens and radish. Also a sweep of fresh avocado-wasabi sauce and a little "cirtus foam". The key, however, was scooping up some of the smoked sesame seeds, which gave all that citrus and tang a deep contrast, yet still letting the tuna be the star.

Next was a perfectly cooked risotto of scallops and mushrooms. In a creamy sauce of mascarpone, with peas, bacon, leaks and truffles, it was thick and sinfully rich.

Speaking of sin, we were also dining with my friend's Uncle, a Catholic priest in for just one night who, in retrospect, we forced into eating there. Being raised a God-fearing, guilt-ridden Catholic myself, I couldn't help but think of the sin of gluttony in which we were all partaking on this night. Or did the fact that we were dining in the company of a priest instantly absolve us? I think it just might have.

Moving on to the next dish, I was glad to be free of my guilt and openly enjoy the succulent and (I want to say "sinful" yet another time, but again, that must just be my Catholic guilt) savory pork belly. It got a little covered up in this photo by the greens, but it was also bathed in a delicious Asian-influenced sweet chile-glaze.

The entrées were up next and two of us ordered the duck. The duck was thick slices of perfectly cooked breast over what was essentially a bed of duck confit. Either one by itself would have made a fine meal, but together (here I go again) were sinfully good. Drizzled over the top was a blackberry gastrique, candied Marcona almonds, and halved cherry tomatoes. Two big squares of crisp bacon-polenta cakes finished this masterpiece of a plate.

The other entrée on the table that I tried was my wife's salmon, which was seared and served in a shrimp broth with sambal. It also came with a few prawn potstickers, peas, corn and seaweed. It was also very good and perfectly cooked--but not as good as my duck.

For dessert, all sin long ago absolved or at least forgotten, it was all about "Eatwhutchyalike". We ordered a delicious assortment of sorbets which included a guava, strawberry and melon; a chocolate truffle cake with pumpkin seeds; and something called "Elements of Chocolate and Banana". We ordered the last one in spite of its pretentious name, and it turned out to be a good (it's chocolate and banana) but not great mix of a flourless chocolate cake, caramelized banana, pudding and a creamy chocolate sauce. The star of the dessert was actually the wonderful cinnamon ice cream that came with the truffle cake. OK, and the cake was pretty damn good as well.

The meal was fantastic and the service is just about there. Everyone was enormously friendly. Things like clearing the table before serving the next course, having enough flatware when the courses arrived, and the flood lights that lit the back patio and shone directly into my friend's face for a while, were not as crisp and ironed out as they ought to be, though surely will be once the restaurant completes its first busy summer season this year.

In the end it turns out that I do know something about the dining scene in this small Southwestern idyllic town of 70,000 people: there is an impressive array of fine dining options that just got a lot better with the addition of this one. On your next trip to Santa Fe, a mere six hours driving from Denver, you want to eat at Restaurant Martin.

Restaurant Martin on Urbanspoon

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