By Karen Peterson / For The Journal
Friday, December 30th, 2016 at 12:02am
SANTA FE, N.M. — Well over half a century ago, El Nido was the place. You could hear music, see a not-yet-famous Maria Benitez dance, encounter eccentrics, enjoy a meal. That recipe – part road-house, part Santa Fe Style, part neighborhood hangout – persisted, in various iterations, until 2010, when El Nido shut its doors.
A tragedy. And now, a resurrection: El Nido is open again, a phoenix in quiet splendor.
We enjoyed a Saturday-night dinner there recently, gratified to find the iconic rambling adobe on the southern fringe of Tesuque much the same. The menu is an update of the old-style steakhouse that El Nido once was: There was steak, yes, but also pasta, and the kind of imaginative flourishes to chicken and fish, along with interesting appetizers, that we now expect in an upscale American eatery.
We started with a grappa-cured salmon ($13), a quite wonderful plate of basically raw fish garnished, sashimi-style, with slaw mix of fennel and mild little cippola onions. It was impeccable. So, too, the roasted beet salad ($9), slabs of roasted red and yellow beets with peppery arugula vinaigrette and a dusting of goat cheese.
One of my guests chose El Nido’s grilled chicken with limoncello marmalade ($26); the other opted for a house special, the “best pasta ever” ($29). That left the red meat selection up to me. Poor me – I asked for the “meat and potatoes” platter ($24), which the menu described as “always meat, often potatoes, sometimes vegetables and some kind of sauce.” It was all of that!
To be specific, it was a thick-sliced, medium rare tenderloin, surrounded by nicely grilled new potatoes and a bouquet of better-than-broccoli rapini – the vegetable du jour – together with a “sauce” that was chimichurri-like: lots of garlic, plenty of mild herbs and robust enough to stand up to the rare meat while not being cloyingly rich. I loved it – and I loved the little bit leftover for lunch the next day.
My guests enjoyed both their choices, too. The chicken was bathed in a lemony sweetness and was perfectly roasted. El Nido boasts that nearly all their dishes are roasted over wood fires, and we glimpsed racks of chickens turning to perfection over same.
The pasta brought smiles, too. Shrimp and clams simmered briefly in tomato and lemon garnished the homemade tagliatelle. My guest demolished the whole thing before any of us got a taste. Well, it must have been good!
El Nido’s dessert menu is heavily Italian, which meant we could have tiramisu, a zeppole fritter, a wine-poached pear ($7 each). Surely there were some classic chocolate choices on the list, but we eschewed those and felt no deprivation.
The zeppole was a new one to me, a doughnut-sized fritter with custard topping and a fruit garnish. It was good, crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy elsewhere. The tiramisu was all that it should be, too: creamy, cake-y, and laden with the bitter overtones of coffee and unsweetened chocolate.
The poached pear was a contrast to the pastries. It was not too sweet, nicely flavored with wine. But we thought it was slightly underdone; surely the winter-hardened Bosc pear should have been simmered to fork-tenderness.
The “new old El Nido,” as the restaurant’s website describes it, is a wonderful update of the “old old El Nido.” It has been remodeled, but the comfortable old-adobe atmosphere has remained. Its menu is updated and a little different, but not pretentiously so.
Chef Enrique Guerrero, whose culinary experience has ranged from upscale restaurants like El Nido to food trucks (he’s the owner of the Bang Bite hamburger stand) has a light and humorous touch that serves him perfectly here. Someone else might have been overly serious about reopening such a storied and well-loved institution. Not Guerrero: meat and potatoes it is, maybe sauce, maybe vegetables. Whatever. But so nicely and so deftly done.