For a minute, I almost forgot where I was. Surely I was in another city — not New York but possibly L.A. — because this was definitely not the ambience of a typical upscale Santa Fe establishment. The light was cool and white. Trancy music, some of it with Spanish rhythms, pulsed in the background. The décor blends rugged painted exposed brick and hardwood floors with the smooth surfaces of chic modern tables, chairs, and banquettes. The room was packed, but everyone was chatting at a reasonable level.
The vaguely cosmopolitan L.A. vibe seems fitting at Eloisa, which chef John Rivera Sedlar opened in the new Drury Plaza Hotel to herald his return from the City of Angels to the City Different. He named his restaurant for his grandmother, a fact you’ll learn from your menu. Sedlar pays homage to his Northern New Mexico roots by including traditional dishes — rellenos, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Frito pie — often given a creative personal spin. So many of them are remarkable in texture, flavor, and seasoning.
Service is cordial and exceedingly professional, although some staff members seem nervous. When things are busy — and even when they’re not — service can be neglectful. More than once on a slow afternoon, I sat unattended, water glass empty, for inappropriately long periods of time. But these sorts of glitches can — and should — be fixed.
The lunchtime sandía salad is a composed plate of jewel-like watermelon cubes, swirls of cucumber, greens, sprouts, mint, and perky peach-colored shrimp — none of it seasoned or dressed in any noticeable way, unfortunately. The niçoise is a jumble of green beans, greens, other vegetables, and olives, with a whole boiled egg served separately in a small bowl. Eloisa prepares it with impeccably cooked, moist, and yielding salmon rather than tuna. Fine by me. The Caesar is a six- or seven-inch-diameter bowl containing a few handfuls of greens unpleasantly lacquered in dressing, and I’m not convinced that it’s worth nine bucks. The menu also includes a burger — the tender, pleasingly minerally meat topped with cheddar and green chile, naturally, along with a thick slice of tomato and pickled red onion. The curiously fluffy, uniformly golden chips needed salt.
In the evening, make a stop at the bar, where the team creates some of the finest cocktails I’ve had in New Mexico. The Don Aji, the Zest-a-Rita, the Agua de Rosas, and the Fresa are distinct but remarkably balanced and refreshing in their own ways.
The chile primavera is one of the menu’s small plates: a roasted whole chile with queso, fresh peas, favas, and a swath of pistou. It’s fresh and light and fully rounded in flavor. Also successful are the pastrami tacos. With mildly crispy blue corn tortillas sandwiching smoky, peppery meat; tender, briny sauerkraut; and tangy yellow mustard with a pickled serrano on top, they’re a full-flavored nosh.
At dinner, you can order a basket of house-made corn tortillas decorated with flower petals and served with “Indian butter” (a creamy spread reminiscent of guacamole). This is a lovely, authentic offering, but at nine dollars for four tortillas, it’s overpriced. The duck enfrijolada is an unimaginably tender confit tucked under a blue corn tortilla and swathed with New Mexico cabernet red chile. Sedlar’s version of carne adovada is a juicy, meaty sous vide pork chop served with savory white beans. The inventive maize budino sounds peculiar, but it is a delightfully smooth, putty-colored custard that capitalizes on corn’s natural sweetness. The dish that wowed us all was the potato-wrapped scallops. This fanciful, fancified version of fish and chips winds long, thin filaments of potato into balls around succulent, briny scallops. The only flop was the nopal paillard, which combined vegetal grilled cactus pad with earthy mushroom stuffing and bitter radicchio — a confusing combination of flavors and textures that just didn’t make sense.
Sedlar’s Frito pie is served at lunch. It is delicious. What it is not is a Frito pie. The menu describes it as “chile verde chicken with cotija, red onion, and cilantro,” with fried wonton chips standing in for the Fritos. It’s served in an open Frito bag. There’s nothing chile verde about the tender, rich meat, though; rather, the sauce is salty-sweet and clearly Asian-inspired. The waxy shavings of cheese were not like any cotija I’ve ever tasted, and there wasn’t a sprig of cilantro in sight, though the plate contained plenty of other green things. It was like Lilly Pulitzer’s dream salad, that jumble of beautiful emerald baby bok choy, pickled red onion, purple cabbage, radicchio, and long curling shoelaces of daikon.
The house desserts are enticing in a predictably fancy way. But is there a better way to end a meal designed to honor Sedlar’s family traditions than a plate of simple, perfect bizcochitos? An old Coca-Cola commercial is having a cultural moment thanks to the finale of Mad Men; you might find yourself humming its tune as you eat, because I’m telling you, this is the real thing. ◀