Amuse-Bouche [Culinary Musings]

What becomes a legend most

Molly Boyle | Posted 3 hours ago

“She was a typical madam — a jolly, fat blonde. She was a hell of a great gal, and she started El Nido. The first saloon,” recalls Charles “Chuck” Barrows in Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog, John Pen La Farge’s oral history of Santa Fe. El Nido — the recently revamped spot in Tesuque whose name means “the nest” — has long been a local touchstone. For more than 80 years before El Nido’s closing in 2010, its adobe walls variously housed that 1930s-era den of ill repute; a diverse dance hall and democratic juke joint where atomic secrets were rumored to have been imparted by tippling Los Alamos scientists; a world-class flamenco cabaret; and a fine dining establishment known for its efficient pre-opera service of steaks, lobster tails, and oysters Rockefeller. The storied digs are remembered by La Farge’s old-timer interviewees as “a nice place where you could dance” and “the food was really good” — it was “a big hangout” where at least one owner “made sure that we didn’t disappear around the corner with anybody.”

In November, chef Enrique Guerrero opened the most elegant incarnation of El Nido yet, a sparkling trattoria serving wood-fired entrees, pizzas, and handmade pastas. Guerrero punched a culinary-credibility card at the French Laundry and Le Cirque before putting his stamp on several eateries in Santa Fe, including the dearly departed La Mancha at the Galisteo Inn, the now-sold Mangiamo Pronto!, and the beloved bright-orange Bang Bite Filling Station food truck. It’s evident this chef can’t sit still for long, and at El Nido, he wields a restless, lavish creativity that suffuses most of the cuisine and the vibe of the restaurant.

On each of two visits, a different type of aromatic wood fired many of the appetizers, entrees, and pizzas on the kitchen’s open-flame hearth in the middle of the restaurant: One night a server informed us that it was mesquite, the sweet scent of which lingered in the chill outside after dinner. Another night, Guerrero had used cedar.

The kitchen may already be churning out classics in the making — and that hearth burns as brightly as I imagine the old El Nido’s did. The sleek main dining room features outsize landscapes by John Hogan among its whitewashed vigas and kiva-warmed nook. A kitchenside bar affords a view of burnished rotisserie chickens on a spit or flatbreads sliding ovenward. Soon after you’re seated, a small enticement of battered and fried salt-and-pepper chickpeas with lemon zest and serrano peppers is placed on the table; the light, addictive snack portends the good times ahead.

Everything cooked over the fire makes for a solid dinner plan, but especially the pizza. Arriving on bubbly ash-painted flatbread that leaves a fine dust on the fingers, the Invernale pizza is dotted with hunks of roasted butternut squash, spreading milky pools of burrata, and spears of fried sage and is brushed strategically with black-pepper honey. On another appetizer plate, a line of plump grilled scampi forded a river of melted garlic butter and basil flecked with hot peppers and two crispy sails of crackling prosciutto, served with more pillowy, barely salty flatbread for sopping purposes.

Each of the options chosen from the Rosticceria portion of the menu bore out their mesquite-cooked flavors differently: The rotisserie chicken al limoncello was a velvety-tender half-bird over crispy roasted potatoes; the accompanying mermelatta di limoncello made a nearly too-sweet pair with stalks of grilled broccolini. The salmon al passato — topped with a blistered-tomato conserva and resting on garlicky polenta and glossy sautéed spinach — was a balancing act, the mild smokiness of the wood bringing out the richness of the fish. Portions, uniformly sizeable, mostly correspond with their price.

Chianti-stained pappardelle in a robust wild boar ragù under a shower of sharp Montasio cheese is a bowl of seductive comfort, save for a sizeable hunk of fat and a few glued-together noodles. Better yet is the Figgy Piggy, a radiant honey-brined pork loin over delicate Gorgonzola-creamed pastina and bold charred radicchio. Topped by a dessert-worthy roasted fig and pear conserva, this dish brought to mind the earnest distinction of Guerrero’s Bang Bite concoctions (like the bacon-and-Amish-blue cheeseburger with maple-bacon jam and garlic aioli). Wines by the glass include the refined and local Vivác Sangiovese, a crisp Cantina Zaccagnini Rosé, and a soft Zaccagnini Montepulciano.

While it’s a far cry from “some slapped-together booths with green barn paint,” as one of La Farge’s fogies recalled it, the new El Nido boasts a nestier back bar area — a dimmer and quieter place to disappear around a corner with someone on a cold night. I heard tell from a server in that room that 150 more seats open on the patio come spring, so that clandestine feeling may not last into opera season. But for now, while sipping a glass of something and listening to the Rat Pack-heavy soundtrack, it’s possible for a soft-focus, romantic nostalgia to filter through that cozy back room. You may wish to sit back and let Dean Martin croon you to a vintage flight of fancy, “way up to the clouds, away from the maddening crowds.” ◀