SANTA FE, N.M. — Service falls short, but visit overall leaves desire for return
The Palace Restaurant patio is a sweet downtown oasis. From the street, you wouldn’t know it was there. You go through the big doors, walk past the bar/saloon, one of Santa Fe’s popular hangouts, and through the dining room which has added a dance floor. Go down a short flight of stairs and there you are in the land of umbrellas and blooming plants in tall attractive pots.
The menu had changed since I’d been here, and I liked what I saw. The Palace offers selections with an international flair, including gourmet-style items such as warm kale salad and a portobello mushroom steak stuffed with quinoa. But comfort food, including a green chile “Smash Burger” – with the cheddar cheese and chile sandwiched between two beef patties, is also well represented.
The starters reflect this philosophy, and include the standard calamari and spinach artichoke dip, and the unusual – at least for Santa Fe. How about a broth-based clam soup seasoned with vermouth, chicken satay with a coconut curry sauce or polenta fries with gorgonzola cream?
We picked yellow fin tuna wontons along with the calamari. This seared tuna appetizer ($9) was exceptional, a first-rate dish that places in my top 10 appetizer category. The presentation added to the enjoyment of this dish. The wonton skins had been fried and looked more like phyllo or crackers. The seared tuna, deep red inside and ringed with gray where it had cooked, sat atop a slice of creamy, perfectly ripe avocado. The sesame seed finish and the drizzle of a soy-based sauce added to the magic. This was delicious as well as beautiful. The calamari was good – a fresh, hot, lightly battered assortment of rings and tentacles served with a two dipping sauces, a chile lime and fresh basil lemon aioli with plenty of garlic ($9).
My three friends and I were glad we’d ordered the appetizers because our lunches took awhile. And, when the four entrees arrived, one of them was wrong – a schnitzel sandwich instead of Italian chicken sausage.
Of the three meals that arrived first, the beet salad with goat cheese ($10) and the fish and chips ($12) were exceptionally good. The salad, like the wonton appetizer, was art on a plate. The yellow beets, creamy white goat cheese, fresh greens and garnish of chopped hazelnuts tasted as good as they looked. This is the kind of salad I imagine Georgia O’Keeffe enjoying. The modest-sized serving left room for the luscious chocolate dessert. More on that later.
The fish of the fish and chips was cod which, the server explained, was cut in-house and soaked in milk before it was lightly breaded and fried to crisp up the batter and leave the fish succulent and tender inside. The fries were thin – but not too thin – and cooked with some of the skin left on. We got plenty of them, too. I realized as I was looking at the menu to write this review that we should have also received “green chile slaw.” Maybe the absence of the slaw led to the abundance of fries. We did get tartar sauce, ketchup and vinegar on the side.
The third entree was one of the day’s specials, lettuce duck wraps. The flavors were good, but the dish was difficult to eat. The juice and sauce from the slivers of duck meat made the lettuce slippery. I ate it with a fork, enjoying the flavors of duck and the fresh crisp jicama salad that was wrapped with it. The serving size, two wraps on a plate without even a sprig of parsley, would have been more appropriate as a appetizer than an entree. I asked for some bread. It was great, fresh — – they make it in house – and crusty with a nice texture, served with soft butter.
The Italian chicken sausage, when it finally arrived, proved to be worth the wait. Juicy and packed with flavor, it came with grilled onions and tender saffron rice, and the combinations worked well together ($12).
We shared two desserts. Both of them pass the “worth the calories” standard, but the chocolate mousse was stellar. This is a rich treat, a glass of chilled soft, fluffed-up dark chocolate with some secret ingredients added. It was beautifully served in a wine glass with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. The “Lavender Crème Brûlée” was delightful, too. ( I was surprised the that menu states that the lavender comes from Oregon. We do grow lavender here in New Mexico.)
Service was mixed – great when we had the staff’s attention, but getting them to our table could be a challenge. In addition to our table, there were five other tables of customers on the patio and a table of 12 inside. Perhaps understaffing the day of our visit was an issue here.
For a location about a block from the Plaza, the Palace Patio is remarkably quiet. The shade, the big pots of flowers, and the overall quality of the food are reason enough to forgive the service missteps and entice me back.