By Anne Hillerman
For the Journal
After a stressful week, most of us don’t want to worry about the possibility of a bad meal, a confused waiter, or a raucous conversation at a nearby table. When I need serious pampering at dinner, and can afford to pay for it, I love the Santacafé.
This well-established downtown restaurant gets it right, time and again. The food and service are close to impeccable. It’s hard to find a more beautiful place to eat, especially when the flagstone patio beneath the big shade tree and white tent is open for dining.
We arrived a little early for our reservation— always a good idea here— and sat inside at the bar briefly while the crew prepared our table. The restaurant occupies the historic Padre Gallegos adobe and the four small dining rooms are pleasantly cozy. Don’t miss the old well, covered and preserved as part of the bar floor.
The host soon seated us at a table for two and the busboy followed, offering us bottled water or Santa Fe tap. Then came a basket with fresh crisp, house-made crackers and two types of mild green chile bread. The Santacafé manages the little details, like butter arriving at a spreadable consistency, with the same ease that it handles the big question: What’s for dinner?.
Our waitress told us everything available was on the menu. When I told her I was in the mood for fish, she recommended both the halibut and the salmon. The entrees also include the venerable roasted poblano relleno, a mild chile stuffed with mushroom quinoa in chipotle cream— a long-time favorite— as well as grilled ribeye steak with Hatch chile, a thick pork chop with warm chipotle sauce and roasted free-range chicken breast with summer squash risotto.
Reading the options made me hungry, so I ordered a starter of Santacafé’s excellent crispy calamari, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Battered and fried into petite golden funnels and small webs of tentacles, this crunchy calamari comes with a dynamite Asian chile dipping sauce ($8.50).
My friend and I also tried the seared tuna appetizer ($16), three slices of deep red fish crusted on the outside with coriander, and balanced atop a serving of sticky rice. The plate was finished with dabs of soy and strikingly orange sriracha chile aioli that had a hint of fire.
Like the other presentations, the tuna was beautiful without being overly fussy. Appetizers also feature spring rolls, tiger prawns, shrimp and spinach dumplings and several salads including mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes.
In keeping with my craving for fish, I ordered the salmon ($28) and enjoyed every bite. The pan seared fish, cooked medium rare to keep the juicy softness, was garnished by plump Prince Edward Island mussels. The soft yellow hue of the shelled mussels matched the beautiful yellow tortellini. About the size of an extra-large marshmallow, the tortellini were filled with ratatouille that had an irresistibly fresh tomato flavor. Elegant, simple and plate-licking good.
My friend ordered the rack of lamb ($34), which came with a delightful tabouli prepared with chopped eggplant, tomatoes and other veggies. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked, presented atop the tabouli with the bones arranged in a tentlike balance resembling folded hands.
From the young man who filled our water glasses without disturbing us to Janet who checked on us unobtrusively and other staff who helped throughout the evening, service was close to flawless. The only minor glitches came late in the meal, a long lag between ordering dessert and its arrival, and a lack of Splenda to sweeten my friend’s latte. The fresh coffee and desserts (each $7.50) were worth the wait, however. The buttermilk sorbet was refreshingly creamy, slightly tart, not too rich and deliciously unusual. The fresh peaches and thin crust of the peach tart made it memorable as well. If you’re in the mood for chocolate, the warm chocolate upside-down cake here, served with a small scoop of house made vanilla ice cream is memorable, too.
Our dinner for two was $109.25 before the tip.