Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or so the saying goes. This French quip translates roughly as “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” and we often deliver it with an eye roll. A new city administration is elected, but the potholes are as bad as ever. You get a new job with a fancy corner office, but you still get the “PC load letter” error message on the printer. Plus ça change.
In the case of Santacafé, however, that saying might not have such cynical overtones. Earlier this year, the beloved dining establishment that had held court at 231 Washington Avenue for some 36 years passed into new hands — namely, those of local restaurateur and mixologist Quinn Stephenson — and Santa Fe gourmands held their collective breath. The trepidation wasn’t because of a lack of faith in Stephenson. After all, he is one of the forces behind Coyote Café’s mini-renaissance and was a cofounder of Radish & Rye, among other things. Rather, in many diners’ eyes, when it came to Santacafé, yet another old saw seemed to apply: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But while it was well-loved and not exactly broken, Santacafé had certainly been begging for a fixing.
Well, dear reader, I’m here to tell you that Stephenson and his executive chef Dale Kester have, for the most part, pulled it off. The soul of Santacafé is alive and well — very much revitalized and refreshingly, delicately, thoughtfully changed. Despite the pressure of the massive undertaking, Stephenson was able to discern the restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses, retaining and tweaking what worked and consigning the rest to the annals of dining history.
Gone are the O’Keeffe-inspired cattle skulls, the paper-topped tables and cups of crayons, the wire baskets filled with various slightly stale breads. But the ambiance is as minimalist and upscale as ever, the palette still soothing and spare — just in a 21st-century way. Tables are generally in the same spots, and the chairs have been replaced by trendier, cushier ones, although some have been eliminated altogether in lieu of upholstered banquettes. During the day, the uncluttered white walls create a gentle glow, while at night, they reflect the low, indirect lighting, eliminating the need for glaring overheads or pendants, tabletop candles, or cellphone flashlights. And yes, the calamari is still on the menu.
The most noticeable physical transformation, perhaps, took place in the bar, which for years felt stuck in the ’90s. The staid black countertop has been replaced by a smooth, organically curvaceous slab of richly hued wood streaked with graceful grains. Plush leather chairs have supplanted the boring wooden counter stools. And the formerly mirrored nichos are now ornamented with glowing backlit cross-sections of stone whose pattern subtly mimics the wood’s fibers. Stephenson is flexing multiple muscles here: As you’d expect from one of Santa Fe’s most lauded mixologists, he has created a list of 16 custom cocktails (which is presented neatly bound, while the restaurant’s wine list — not to be sniffed at — is merely fastened with brads). The drinks include versions of numerous classics (the boulevardier, the gimlet, the cosmo, and even hot buttered rum) and some novel creations (the Chimayo Cocktail and the Pumpkin Maiden). The Squisito ($14) riffs on the lately and wrongly maligned Aperol Spritz, adding grapefruit and peach to create a delightful, exhilarating flavor experience — immediately bitter and lingeringly sweet. Best not to stray too far from the menu, though: If you do, perhaps stick to familiars like a martini or a margarita (order a sidecar, for example, and you may be met with a deer-in-the-headlights look).
Brunch here practically epitomizes the word, with menu offerings that address traditional morning cravings as well as the savory requirements of midday, all treated beautifully. Eggs ($10) seem more angelic than deviled: creamy, smooth, dusted with a silvery powder that your 6-year-old niece would adore, set just-so amid gangly sprouts and vibrant edible flowers.
Don’t let the miniature nature of the lobster rolls ($24) fool you. Served warm and without a trace of mayonnaise, they’re every bit as meaty-rich and buttery-indulgent as their full-sized kin. The components of the Cobb salad ($18) — with black beans added for good (Southwestern) measure — are arranged in colorful rows that render the lettuce beneath invisible. So what? If you’ve ordered a Cobb, you aren’t really that interested in greenery anyway, are you?
The avocado tartine ($12) is as pretty a dish as I’ve seen lately. Essentially avocado toast having its Cinderella moment, this veritable garden on a plate strews greens, peppery sprouts, edible flowers, and pickled carrot and watermelon radish across delicate bread, spread with a luxurious garlic cream and perfectly ripe avocado. One wonders how the kitchen will assemble or alter this summer-capturing beauty now that the first hard frost has passed, but I feel confident they’ll find a way. (Incidentally, the dishes mentioned thus far also make appearances on the weekday lunch menu, in case the very idea of brunch makes your skin crawl.)
Dinner’s plump pork dumplings ($16) are generously stuffed, well-salted, deftly seasoned with lemongrass and ginger, and given a hot-pan bronzing, although the meat was a razor’s edge from being dry. The tahini ponzu dipping sauce’s sweet nuttiness and impeccable emulsification had me mesmerized.
The menu doesn’t clue you in on what to expect from the ahi appetizer ($24) — the listing simply reads “Crispy Rice|Tacos” — and this is sort of a pet peeve of mine: What good is a menu if diners have to guess at or ask about what they’re going to get? But I put that aside to enjoy a palate-pleasing textural daydream: nearly butter-soft fish in two distinct Asian-inspired dressings and mounted two ways, in crisp wonton “taco” shells and atop rice “cakes”— oblong mounds reminiscent of nigiri — that were crunchy on the outside and toothy-chewy within. Impressively tender Brussels sprouts ($12) and tangles of yarn-like carrot are sauced with a potion that’s rigorously salty and sometimes quite spicy — particularly if your fork also snags a ring of bright red Fresno chile. The menu-prescribed mint was undetectable but not necessarily missed.
If Kandinsky were in the kitchen, he might construct something artfully similar to Santacafé’s plate of generously cut lamb lollipops ($38), oversized batons of floral foam-green parsley panisse, and dollops of olive coulis and no-foolin’-spicy harissa that look like savory versions of Hershey’s kisses. The lamb was a jewel-pink medium rare, as requested (this was the only dish that ever made me think about a salt shaker), the panisse light as air and vaguely suggestive of chickpeas and herb. The tabbouleh hit every one of that dish’s iconic flavor notes.
Lightly tangy and sauerkraut-crunchy grilled cabbage serves as a nest for piping hot, juicy, and tender chicken thighs ($26), the flavors of the grill providing smoky, charred depth. When it comes to this dish, swiping your fork through everything applied to the plate makes a difference: the sprightly lime pan jus and the inexplicably rich, naturally sweet carrot puree add wonderful, critical dimension.
Desserts are limited and hew closely to a classical repertoire: panna cotta, chocolate mousse, one evening’s special crème brûlée, “cookies and cream” (meaning walnut-chocolate-chip cookies served with whipped cream and milk), and a seasonally apropos apple tart ($11). The crust of our tart was too thick and tough to be broken easily with a spoon or fork, the ice cream was too fatty and not cold enough, but the fruit was pitch-perfect, and we smiled at the adorable silhouette of a spoon cast on the plate by a dusting of cinnamon.
I still have some nits to pick. The restaurant’s website speaks of “locally sourced cuisine” and “an experience [reflecting] Santa Fe’s traditions, while infusing contemporary flavors, local ingredients and modern tastes.” Yes, the menu name-checks two local purveyors — Beneficial Farms and Talus Wind Ranch — but no others are mentioned. Seafood isn’t exactly what springs to mind when considering traditional local cuisine, yet more than half of Santacafé’s dinner appetizers are seafood based, as are three of the entrees. Few dishes, in fact, pay homage to New Mexico at all, whether in form or ingredients — red chile appears in mashed potatoes alongside a filet mignon, and corn cameos in a component or two. Nearly every dish we sampled was exceptional, no doubt, but to say that this experience reflects local traditions is a stretch — classical and Asian influences are much more clearly on display. As far as dynamics go, some tables are too close-knit, requiring diners to squeeze sideways to get their seats and servers to lean awkwardly when delivering plates, their hips and backsides coming perilously close to wine and water glasses on neighboring tables.
Regarding service: In recent years, it had declined precipitously at Santacafé. On both recent visits, during brief waits at the bar, we were only able to gain someone’s attention after several minutes (and in one case, just as our table became available). Otherwise, service is spot on these days — delightfully polite, patient, professional, and friendly in a matter befitting a restaurant of this stature. Do note, however, that unless you object, a $4 “kitchen appreciation” gratuity is automatically added to every bill.
To be frank, I approached this review as a critic, of course, but it also felt a tiny bit personal. My family and I cherished the old Santacafé over the years, often turning a blind eye to its flaws. My husband and I had some of our first dates here, toasted the signing of our mortgage papers, and celebrated after we were married at the courthouse. Every year, our tribe gathers for a late lunch on the day before Thanksgiving, relaxing and fueling up before the serious prep begins. Over the last few months, we’ve all wondered whether we’d want to return and make it a regular. With a sigh of relief, I say to myself, “Relax. Change can be a good thing.” ◀