Anyone wondering if the South might rise again should direct their attention to Radish & Rye, Santa Fe’s brand-new bourbon bar and upscale farm cuisine restaurant, where the spirit of everything delicious that ever grew out of that fertile soil has crystallized into fresh, satisfying cuisine and jewel-like shot glasses of 90-proof nectar.
Radish & Rye is the brainchild of Camille Bremer, Dru Ruebush and Quinn Stephenson (who is the mixologist and part-owner of both Geronimo and Coyote Cafe), and is located at 548 Agua Fría behind Sanbusco, in the space that formerly housed Ristra. The new owners bought the place the day after Ristra closed, then spent six months remodeling the interior into an airy, light space with a subtly masculine vibe, full of smoke-imbued meats, dark wood and bottles of dark bourbon lining the bar. A giant rooster painting greets you at the hostess stand, and you can eat dinner sitting under a faded 48-state American flag from 1912 (the year New Mexico became a state, after all).
The food at Radish & Rye is distinctly Southern — not in a “deep-fried heart attack” way but in a “fresh from grandma’s farm” way. Fried green tomatoes, grilled cauliflower, lovage, rapini, etc., explode out of almost every dish. The emphasis is on farm-fresh produce (90 percent of which is from the Santa Fe Farmers Market) and a refreshingly eclectic selection of meats, many of which are smoked outside on the porch. The menu is definitely geared toward the old-fashioned carnivore, featuring grilled pork chops served with smoked pork belly, polenta and earthy morel mushrooms, back ribs with Carolina glaze, duck rillettes (a kind of paté), a seared lamb rib served with flageolet beans and roasted root vegetables, and a rabbit ragu with spaetzle and, poetically enough, baby carrots.
Bremer met chef David Gasper de Alba, formerly of Portland, Ore., and El Paso, when he was working at Izanami as the sous chef. Gasper de Alba has a background in Japanese cuisine, having formerly helmed the Portland eatery Yakuza, but Radish & Rye snapped him up soon after he moved to Santa Fe.
“We have a Southern twist and a little French influence, but really it’s just fresh, clean, basic food prepared in an innovative way,” Bremer says. “We just wanted to create a restaurant that we wanted to eat at.”
The menu is divided into small plates and “larger plates,” with steak tartare with calabria chili, lime oil, quail yolk and crostini, sea scallop ceviche, or corn chowder with smoked bone marrow on the small plates side, and mesquite-grilled ribeye and the aforementioned rabbit ragu on the larger plates side. But it’s the details that make the dish, and as a nod to perhaps both Japanese and Southern cooking, the menu at Radish & Rye is liberally sprinkled with the tang of pickled vegetables. Indeed, there are enough pickled items to satisfy every hipster or Southern grandma in town: pickled shallots, pickled corn, pickled chile, pickled baby turnips, etc., and enthusiasts can have all of them together on the house pickle plate.
And to complement the food is Santa Fe’s first bourbon bar, a wood-paneled wonderland stacked with a vast array of bourbons, with more than 60 labels of golden-brown bottles gleaming like a hot Southern fever-dream. This is the biggest bourbon list in town, with most labels coming from Kentucky, of course. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, the house bourbon is by Buffalo Trace Distillery out of Kentucky, unanimously selected by the owners and chef via blind taste test. That same bourbon infuses many of the sauces and lends a rich flavor to the bourbon pecan pie on the dessert menu.
The love that Southerners have for their golden, corn-based spirit is best summed up in a letter Stephenson has had hanging on the wall in his office for 15 years, written by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. of Kentucky (the highest ranking U.S. military officer lost to enemy fire in World War II) to Maj. Gen. William Durward Connor. In this letter, Buckner relates the most poetic recipe for a mint julep in existence, including directions that Connor obtain water from “a spring where cool, crystal clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns” and collect mint “growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze.”
The loquacious words of the poetic general longing for the cool beverage of his old Kentucky home may have whispered to Stephenson, willing Radish & Rye into existence. All the house cocktails are bourbon-based, each recipe lovingly constructed to bring out the flavors in the spirits. Many are plays off of traditional cocktails, like the 505 Manhattan spiked with spicy molé bitters and cacao, or the bourbon punch with piñon-infused milk. Those who want some extra meat with their bourbon can try the “B&B” with bacon-infused bourbon and maple powder, or for something fresh with a Southern drawl, there is the “Dragonfly” — chamomile-infused bourbon, honeyed soda water and lemon. And for the man’s man, the “Abuelito” is a classic Manhattan poured tableside in a decanter full of smoke.
“Knowing that our guests wouldn’t necessarily order a neat shot of 90-proof bourbon, the idea was to introduce them to bourbon through a craft cocktail,” says Stephenson.
But if you’re not sold on bourbon, the wine list at Radish & Rye can rival any restaurant in town. The owners want diners to try things, to branch out, to experiment. To that end, the wine list features more than 100 half-bottles.
“ ‘Small plates, small bottles,’ was kind of our catchphrase for the wine program and the menu,” Stephenson says. “The idea is that the menu is intended to be shared, especially the small plates. People are encouraged to come in and try multiple courses family style and try different half bottles throughout the course of the meal.”
For obvious reasons, many people think of this as a tequila town. But Radish & Rye has been open less than a month, and so far, the bourbon bar concept has been pretty easy for Santa Fe to warm up to. The restaurant isn’t huge, but it’s already popular, so reservations are recommended. Radish & Rye is only open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, though they plan to be open for dinner seven days a week starting July 12.
“It was kind of a risk for us. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not,” Ruebush says. “But the success of the bourbon program is unbelievable. Even our distributors are scratching their heads.” The crowd, according to Ruebush, is refreshingly eclectic, with young, trendy hipsters in plaid sipping cocktails next to opera-goers in their jeans and jewels. Ultimately, Radish & Rye is approachable, a high-end restaurant with a corn-fed vibe, like eating upscale food in the back of a pickup.
“Kind of like tailgating at the opera,” says Ruebush with a smile.
In a perfect world, every restaurant would be like this: a labor of love.
“I still have a scratch book from the three of us sitting at the old Ristra bar, where we drew it,” Bremer says. “We drew the bar, and it looks exactly like that. We had it in our head, we just made it happen.”