Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Santa Fe Notes (May 31 - June 3)


Santa Fe is an art town. Artists have been attracted to northern New Mexico for years (Georgia O’Keefe being the most famous), and the city is bursting with galleries as well as several top-notch museums. I’m restraining myself from writing too much about art in Santa Fe because I don’t think I have the background to write credibly about it. Still, I was so taken with one artist’s work that I can’t let it go unmentioned.

Emilio Lobato - Vago (World Traveler), oil & collage on panel, 48" X 48"

Emilio Lobato, who is represented by Santa Fe’s Nuart Gallery, is a Colorado painter and printmaker who works within the tradition of geometric abstraction, adding collage elements from book pages to his work. To this mix he brings a Southwestern spirit and color sense that creates a compelling, eye-riveting beauty, at once mysterious and concrete.

Canyon Road is home to quite a jumble of galleries, representing everything from Native American crafts, Southwestern cliche, Hallmark kitsch, Russian kitsch, and some truly excellent contemporary painting (there's at least one gallery, Deloney Newkirk, that hedges its bets by featuring almost all of the above). Nuart is one of the best of the bunch, representing several other interesting artists in addition to Lobato. Besides Nuart, the gallery that most caught my eye was Patricia Carlisle Fine Art. Sucker that I am for clouds, I enjoyed Jim Alford's cloud paintings, and I also got a kick out of Melinda K. Hall's whimsical work.

But enough of art. I trust my mouth more than I trust my eye.


My visit to Santa Fe afforded me the opportunity to spend some time with a couple of old friends, Melody Sumner Carnahan and her husband Michael Sumner. I consider Melody, who now publishes as Sumner Carnahan, one of the most compelling innovative prose writers of my generation, and I don't say that just because she's a friend. Visiting with friends who maintain their integrity and a strong commitment to their work always inspires me. I hadn't seen Melody and Michael for at least 17 years, since they left the Bay Area for New Mexico, yet it seemed as if hardly any time had passed.


Food was, of course, one of the main reasons I made this, my first visit to Santa Fe. New Mexico is known to have a very particular cuisine, albeit with similarities to Mexican, that somehow has never really been exported. You can find Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex all across the U.S., and much of the rest of the world too (authentic or not is another matter), but you rarely find New Mexican cuisine outside of New Mexico. I had to travel to its natural habitat. The chile pepper is at the heart of New Mexican food, but not all of it is incendiary; tastes and preparations vary.

Mark Miller took Santa Fe by storm 19 years ago when he arrived from the Bay Area (shortly before Melody & Michael’s exodus) and opened his Coyote Café, combining a California sensibility with local ingredients. I didn't eat at the very high-end Coyote's main dining room, but I went up to the casual, affordable Rooftop Cantina, which serves what I'd call near-Mexican bar food. I had a decent, but hardly memorable meal of grilled duck quesadillas (served with a nice spicy slaw with mango & pineapple), and a pretty forgettable sopa Azteca (tortilla soup). The Margarita was also forgettable, but I made up for it by ordering a Don Julio añejo after dinner.

I went to The Shed, which is famous for its red chile, and ordered an enchilada/taco combo with posole (a/k/a pozole) for lunch. In Mexico pozole (a stew of hominy and pork) is usually served as a soup with lime, radishes, and tostadas with refried beans on the side to be mixed in by the diner. In New Mexico it tends to be less of a production number, and is often served as a side dish on the plate with the other items (and, of course, without all the broth). The combo was a traditionally heavy New Mexican plate. It was absolutely delicious, but still, I can tire of that kind of heavy, cheesy stuff fairly quickly.

Melody & Michael took me to Maria's, a Santa Fe institution not far from their home. Frankly, I was not too impressed by the green chile stew, a soup with pork, green chiles and potato that was surprisingly mild. The ribs appetizer, however, nicely smokey with a red chile glaze, was excellent. But I think the real highlight of the meal was my introduction to sopapillas, a staple of New Mexican cuisine, and generally unknown elsewhere. What is it about fried dough that's so great? That's what sopapillas are–puffy, chewy, flaky, crispy, delicious fried dough, usually eaten with honey. Beignets, crullers, zeppoles, Indian pooris, Modenese gnocchi fritti, and now sopapillas–I love 'em all.

Cafe Pasqual’s is another Santa Fe institution. They're famous for their breakfasts, which are served until 3 PM. For my 11 AM brunch I had “EL PRESIDENTE – Our Sauté of Smoked Poblano Chiles and Niman Ranch Beef Strips on White Corn Tortillas with Two Eggs Any Style and a Circle of Pinto Beans with Cotija.” The spice of the chile was bold but not overpowering, and it married so nicely with everything else. Niman Ranch are organic farmers who raise their meat without cruelty, leading to their products being called "happy meat." Happy meat is tasty meat.

The Plaza Restaurant is a time capsule across from the Plaza. It’s been there since 1918, and now has the look of a ‘50s American diner. I love the laid back vibe of the place. My cup of posole was not as good as the posole served by The Shed, and I learned that all sopapillas are not created equal, as Plaza’s were rather disappointing after Maria’s. I was, however, very happy with the Guatemalan tamal (stuffed with chicken, olives, pimentos and raisins), topped with green chile.

My one departure from southwestern cuisine was a dinner at El Farol, a highly regarded Spanish restaurant on Canyon road with a specialty in tapas. I ordered three tapas to start, two of which bowled me over.

The boquerones fritos, fried, sesame-coated Spanish anchovies served with a spicy lemon aioli were delicate and wonderful. The Israeli couscous (similar to egg barley) with creamy Idiazabal, a lightly smoked Basque sheep cheese, was rich and rewarding. The grilled pulpo (octopus) was less successful. It was overly charred and could have used more smoked paprika. It was, however, served with a very nice black olive tapenade. I should have quit there, but I wanted to try one more since two of the dishes were so good. Unfortunately, the dish I ordered was by far the worst of the bunch, the setas (Crimini mushrooms) with Jamon Serrano and Sherry. The thickish slivers of cured ham were too salty when cooked, and there was too much of it, so the ham ended up hijacking the mushrooms.

A mediocre ½ carafe of Sangria at $18 was a ripoff. I’d have been better off ordering two glasses of wine.


During my stay in Santa Fe I had weird, vivid dreams, each and every night, throughout the night. At first I thought it must have been the altitude, but I wonder if the chiles could have been the culprit.


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