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Lush surroundings only short drive away

Pools of lilies, goldfish and koi offer an oasis from the desert environment at the Blue Heron restaurant at Sunrise Springs south of Santa Fe. (Journal File)
Pools of lilies, goldfish and koi offer an oasis from the desert environment at the Blue Heron restaurant at Sunrise Springs south of Santa Fe. (Journal File)
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I loved the live jazz. But the giant raccoon stole the show.

My friend and I were getting ready to leave the Blue Heron, having enjoyed a light dinner on the deck overlooking the pond. A flash of movement in the huge old cottonwood tree near the walkway caught my eye. A large healthy-looking critter, maybe 50 pounds, scurried up the bark.

I didn’t see the characteristic black mask, but the striped tail provided a good clue. I asked the waiter. A whole family of raccoons – mom, dad and babies – live in the cottonwood, he said. The adults sometimes approached him when he went to clear off the dishes, attempting to claim the leftovers.

I’ve seen the unusual and eaten the unexpected in my years as a restaurant reviewer, but this was a first. (I’m glad they don’t have raccoon on the Blue Heron menu.) Outdoor dining can mean sharing the space with critters, but up to now I’d encountered insects, birds, dogs, cats and the delightful barnyard menagerie they keep at San Marcos Cafe. I once watched a seagull steal a sandwich off a plate at a wharf-side restaurant in Tiburon.

Its lush environment and the presence of so much water in our high-desert climate make the Blue Heron special. The restaurant, part of Sunrise Springs Resort just south of Santa Fe in La Cienega, is blessed with one of the loveliest locations I can imagine. It uses the space to great advantage in summer when the large deck becomes an outdoor dining room.

The wildlife, flitting birds, turtles and an occasional chirping frog, provide an extra touch of ambience. Sunday brunch includes mellow live jazz from a trio that sets up on the deck by the pond. What a wonderful place to enjoy a meal with friends.

It’s strange to realize that after more than 20 years, the Blue Heron remains a hidden gem. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of marketing or the out-of-the-way location (the restaurant is about a 30-minute drive south from the Santa Fe Plaza). Also, the restaurant was closed for a while and has had a parade of chefs. Whatever the reasons, the quiet makes a meal here all the sweeter. The place only had three other occupied tables the night my friend and I visited; Sunday brunch was busier, but far from crowded.

The Blue Heron
LOCATION: Sunrise Springs Resort and Spa, 242 Los Pinos Road, La Cienega, 505-428-3600
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; brunch on Sundays noon-3 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays
FULL BAR

Although we came for the ambience, my friends and I liked the food. In the evening, two of us shared a plate of nachos topped with delicious juicy pulled pork. We also split a standard blue cheese wedge salad that had a nice creamy dressing. Like our choices, most of the menu reflects the tried and true: burgers, enchiladas, noodles with tofu or chicken and vegetables, crab cakes, fish and chips, a steak, pizza and salads. Nothing whispers “innovation” or begs “try me,” but nothing will scare anyone away. Food prices top out at $24.95 for a sirloin with most choices less than $11.

At brunch, in addition to the regular menu, customers can select from the specials, most under $10. When my friends and I ate here, the menu included an omelet (with spinach and feta cheese), salmon, pancakes, breakfast burrito, bread pudding and lemon sorbet with berries. The blackened salmon ($14.50) was good, not a bit overcooked and just spicy enough. The cucumber salsa added a nice bit of cool, and the skin-on pan-fried potatoes were good. I especially liked the fresh-tasting corn kernels in the calabacitas, a traditional New Mexican blend of zucchini, onions and corn.

The light blueberry pancakes ($8.95) had plenty of berries inside and on top and came with crisp (as requested) bacon. The breakfast burrito ($8.95), stuffed with eggs, potatoes and choice of bacon or sausage, did the job. Next time, we’ll ask for more chile sauce on the side. The pretty slice of watermelon was a nice addition.

Evening service was fine. On Sunday, when the restaurant was busier, the establishment seemed understaffed. We ultimately refilled our own coffee cups from the hotplate on the deck. My friends and I didn’t mind the leisurely dining on that beautiful music-rich afternoon, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

My main regret about the Blue Heron is its slightly untended, unloved subtext. No one returned my call for reservations or my second call for information on handicapped accessibility. The outdoor space could use a good cleaning and a coat of paint or sealer. Even a few hours with a broom to remove the fallen leaves and cotton from the trees would make the place more inviting.

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