At the Inn and Spa at Loretto
211 Old Santa Fe Trail
Breakfast 7-11 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.,dinner 5-9 p.m.
Noise level: Unobtrusive elevator jazz on patio, murmured conversations from other tables
Valet parking on property, some street parking nearby
“Inventive Southwestern fare” is what Luminaria’s website promises, and by and large that is what it delivers, starting with its specialty cocktails.
There’s a strawberry-jalapeño margarita ($12) for visitors following the Santa Fe Margarita Trail, and a New Mexico green chile gimlet ($12) for those who just can’t get enough of New Mexico’s beloved pepper. We opted for the Smoking Nun ($12), a cocktail named after Sister George — a cigar-smoking religieuse rumored to haunt the halls of the Loretto, once an academy for young women. Lightly smoked rye, brandy, and Grand Marnier tarted up with an orange wedge and morello cherry (an orange Manhattan by any other name?) was a good way to settle into both the menu and the serene surroundings. (Note: Menu items and prices are subject to change.)
Luminaria’s sleek charcoal-gray-walled indoor dining room is the epitome of rustic chic, with wicker chairs, whitewashed floors, and vigas and latillas — a design theme that is repeated on its sizeable patio. There, orange umbrellas surround a tented ramada hung with natural linen-hued drapes held back with orange ties and lit with five hanging chandeliers. The color scheme extends to the well-cushioned iron chairs, the placemats, and the orange trumpet vine climbing the fences. Trees, potted flowers, and a fountain complete the fairy-tale setting. On our visit, a light evening breeze wafted through the curtains as the setting sun sent shafts of golden light through the patio.
The Loretto has seen a number of executive chefs come and go over the past decade. Jason Stewart, who is a relatively young 30-something, joined the team in May, replacing the popular Sean Sinclair, who left after just over a year’s residency to open his own restaurant at the renovated Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Luminaria’s award-winning tortilla soup ($10) has been on the appetizer menu since at least 2011, and still delivers that mild chile, roast chicken, and corn flavor that made it a hit in the first place. But we were completely taken with the blistered shishito peppers ($14). The warm white bowl of dark green peppers lounging in a paler green goddess-poblano dressing, the whole strewn with large crumbles of fresh feta, was as lovely to look at as to eat. Mussels and chorizo ($18) in a light tomato broth spiced up with diced Spanish chorizo also fared well. Excellent wedges of cornbread on the side encouraged us to soak up the remains of the flavorful sauce after we had happily dispatched the mollusks.
We were less impressed with the Santa Fe Chopped Salad ($16) and the Simple Caesar salad ($14). The first disappointment: The chopped salad was not really chopped — the crumbled bacon, halved red and green cherry tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, and hard-boiled egg sat atop large leaves of lettuces. Even the well-applied, mildly spicy chipotle ranch dressing couldn’t rescue the too-dry chunks of grilled chicken. The menu description of the Simple Caesar included cured egg yolk and anchovies along with the mandatory Parmesan and garlic croutons, but we could find no evidence of either the little fishes or the umami that a shaved or grated egg would bring to the dish. The most prominent flavor came from the very light, very lemony dressing and shredded cheese.
The Juicy Lucy burger ($18), a contender in the 2018 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown sponsored by Edible New Mexico, delivered a half-pound of nicely textured ground beef with good cheddar cheese oozing out the side. Topped with crispy onions and flavorful green chile with just a little bite, and sided with a generous tangle of crisp salty fries, it arrived exactly as requested: a medium-rare that tilted toward rare — not an easy achievement in a busy kitchen. Someone was paying close attention to the order.
We wish that attentive cook had been on duty when we ordered the tomato water braised halibut ($37). While the halibut appeared to have been prepared in the classic sear-and-simmer technique that should guarantee a moist, flaky fish, the piece that arrived at our table was neither moist nor flaky. Halibut, a firm-fleshed white fish, dries out if it is overcooked, and this fillet was seriously overcooked. A larger pour of the very nicely flavored tomato water in which it sat might have helped compensate for some of the dryness, but the bit in the bowl was almost immediately absorbed by the accompanying risotto. In retrospect, I wish I had sent the dish back to the kitchen for a redo rather than leave most of it on the plate (which our busy server never questioned). The concept is a good one that could deliver a very satisfying summer entrée with just a little more attention at the stoves.
We had no such complaints about the braised peppered short rib ($37). The tender shreds of beef were perfectly cooked and seasoned. The very fine, cheese-forward loose polenta and roasted baby carrots — which earned my companion’s unqualified praise — added just the right grace notes to the plate.
Our exploration of the dessert menu also yielded mixed results. The strawberry white-chocolate mousse cake ($10) — a somewhat dry vanilla-almond sponge layered with both white chocolate and strawberry mousse — was pretty in pink, but flavorless. Neither the berries nor the chocolate stood out.
The chocolate torchon ($10), on the other hand, was a mousse of a different color. The perfectly textured chocolate mousse arrived enveloped in a thin, log-like chocolate shell (torchon is the term for a kitchen towel traditionally used to wrap and roll foie gras). We spent much time trying to figure out how the mousse made it into the shell; it would be almost impossible to roll the airy filling, not to mention its thin chocolate coating. We finally decided the log was pre-formed and the mousse spooned into it and then capped. Cracking that shell exposed a bright orange passion-fruit puree bursting from the heart of the chocolate — a brilliant surprise. The small scoop of licorice-flavored tarragon ice cream and a scattering of juicy ripe blackberries added welcome color and texture. Our server told us that the two small brownies (not listed on the menu) that anchored the ends of the platter were added to the dessert at the request of patrons who thought the dish was too light. We didn’t find them necessary at all: Light is what we look for at the end of a full meal.
Glasses of iced tea ($3) were clear and clean tasting. The decaf coffee ($4) was better than average. The espresso ($5), double the size of the usual serving, had a welcome bitterness, with the desired crema coating the sides of the cup.
Two rolled chocolate pirouettes accompanied our check, adding a bit of sweetness to our parting, accompanied by the light patter of rain on the patio’s tin roof. ◀