I just returned from my 22nd (or 23rd) trip to Santa Fe. As usual, the emphasis was on food and drink. We tried some new places, made the mandatory trips to others and revisited a couple we hadn't been to in a while. My report will not be a dish by dish recitation although I will be more than happy to expound on any item if requested to do so.
A question we see on this board often, worded in different ways, is "Is Geronimo worth the price?" And I have a very definite reply--"It depends." If you just cannot enjoy a fabulous appetizer of fois gras served with a marvelous port reduction sauce because the portion is tiny and the price is $24 then it isn't worth it. Moreover, if you are one who feels robbed by the price tag of $48 for a perfectly prepared "Maverick Ranch" filet mignon over country ham and reggiano butter gratin with baked provolone potato cake then you should steer clear. You, fine diner, may be the type for whom no level of service (and let there be no doubt--the service at Geronimo is without peer in SF) and no quality of stemware or china or ingredients makes the excellent elk tenderloin worth $30 or the small pours of wine worth their cost. I am not in your camp, however. I only travel to SF once or twice a year and would never consider NOT eating at Geronimo. Go. Go gladly. But know that the prices are higher than anything in the city and the overall experience is tops, too. If nothing else, stop by the bar and have a glass of wine before coffee with the best dessert in Santa Fe--the banana cream pie with french meringue and caramelized bananas served with an orange or other fruit coulis and toasted pine nuts.
Which brings us to one of those places I had not been to in several months--The Compound. There is a theory I heard in SF that Kiffin's Beard award of Best Chef Southwest has taken his cooking to new heights. I don't have an explanation but I do know that the food there is better than it has ever been. For the first time in years Geronimo does have a real rival and it is the Compound. The restaurant is architecturally stunning, of course, and has been since the place opened. Now the food matches the ambiance. The consensus was that the best bite we tasted on the trip was the appetizer of pan seared diver scallops with apple smoked bacon, english peas and fava beans. Unbelievable! The sweetbreads and fois gras was as wonderful as ever and, for those keeping score at home, was $8 less than the fois gras at Geronimo for the same size portion. The "classic" dishes (as described on the menu) are, indeed, classic--the buttermilk roast chicken with fois gras pan gravy and creamed spinach is to die for and the "Harris Ranch" natural beef tenderloin with fois gras hollandaise is every bit its equal. The service is excellent although not quite up to Geronimo heights. The wine list is very good for Santa Fe and, also, priced "reasonably" for the city, a place with generally outrageous wine prices. I recommend The Compound without hesitation. Make a reservation for the patio which is perfect on a summer evening.
Two quick lunch suggestions--the Shed for anything with red chile (I am by no means an expert on red or green chile, but the red at the Shed is very flavorful if not quite as hot as I would like) and the Bumblebee for wonderful fresh grilled mahi mahi fish tacos. The salsa bar at the fast food Bumblebee is alone worth the trip. And the tap beer is cold. Also, the prices at both places will help minimize the American Express headache caused by Geronimo the night before.
We had not been to 315 is a couple of years but a pang for frites done right made a trip necessary. When we arrived the patio was full and we decided to wait in the bar the short time it took for a table to clear. 315 has probably the most diverse and well priced wine list in SF so it is worth a visit for that reason alone. When seated on the comfortable patio we were told that they had already run out of mussels but that was okay because I wanted to try the squash blossom beignets with goat cheese fondue. This is a special that I think appears quite often. If it is on the menu when you go do not pass it up. We also tried an excellent special of roast chicken served with (but without explanation) a potato galette instead of the advertised mashed potatoes. Very good dish as was the special of tenderloin and sweetbreads which the waiter talked me into (no regrets) over the lamb shank. I know from past visits that the pate is fine and the french onion soup is as well. We ended the meal with a good creme brulee--two thumbs up.
Our other dinner was at a place that has very seldom been mentioned on this board--Aqua Santa. The chef once plied his trade at the very fine Escalera in SF. The menu is small, the place is small and informal and every single bite we had was very, very good. We fought over flash fried oysters breaded in breadcrumbs, cooked just so, and served with lemon aioli and organic greens. Another starter was a pizzetta with taleggio cheese, tomato sauce and white truffle oil. Entrees were whole roasted quail with baby wild greens and caper salsa and ragu of chicken served with brown butter noodles. The waiters are friendly and knowledgable about the menu and the wine list. As you may imagine, we had plenty of food left over to take home for breakfast the next morning. Which leads to breakfast....
We had one breakfast at the venerable Pasqual's which has been discussed here and elsewhere enough. Go realizing it is a little over priced but that is the cost one pays for setting up shop in the high rent district a stone's throw from the Plaza. Further away but absolutely worth the drive is Harry's Roadhouse. I had a special of soft poached eggs in a tomato/fennel broth and served over a grilled polenta cake. We also tried another special--a coconut/macadamia nut waffle served with pure maple syrup (the syrup was $1 extra). This was by far the best breakfast of the trip, including the reasonably priced and expertly done eggs benedict at Sol restaurant on Canyon road. Stop by Sol for an inexpensive and perfectly decent breakfast or lunch while looking at art on Canyon Road.
Well, there you have it. We are home and trying to get over the shock of so much great food in such a short period of time. I encourage you to give Aqua Santa a try--the prices are very reasonable and it certainly deserves more chatter than it is getting on the foodie websites. Also, by the time you read this Senor Lucky's at the Palace will have opened (by the Geronimo folks, or parts of that team anyway) and we will be expecting reports. Let's hope someone has the good sense to keep the killer roasted tomato soup, late of the Palace, on the SL's menu. I also heard a rumor from a very reliable source that the liquor laws in New Mexico have changed or are about to change to allow corkage and, almost as important, to allow patrons to take unfinished bottles of wine with them from the restaurant. Can anyone confirm or deny?