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Coyote Cafe still meets diners’ highest expectations

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Restaurant Week, which ended Sunday, offered those of us who like to eat out a fine opportunity to try a new spot or revisit an old favorite. The genius of Restaurant Week is that it lures customers with discount prices for a set menu at a traditionally slow time of the year. My theory: People have a great meal at a bargain and return and pay full price.

Coyote Cafe in downtown Santa Fe is under the direction of Chef Eric DiStefano. (Morgan Petroski/Albuquerque Journal)

Coyote Cafe in downtown Santa Fe is under the direction of Chef Eric DiStefano. (Morgan Petroski/Albuquerque Journal)

Encouraged by friends who had just moved back to Santa Fe, we decided to re-visit the Coyote Cafe, one of Santa Fe’s most famous and well-regarded restaurants. Our dinner rated as wonderfully memorable from first bite to last. Founded in 1987 by celebrity Chef Mark Miller, Coyote Cafe has become a destination restaurant and one of Santa Fe’s culinary attractions. Chef Eric DiStefano took the helm in 2008, adding his signature elk tenderloin to the menu. The Coyote remains as enchanting as ever.

At least in my mind, the fact most entrees at Coyote Cafe normally are more than $30 sets high expectations. The desire to get one’s money’s worth runs deep – and you get what you pay for here. The restaurant week menu, at $40 for a three-course meal, featured outstanding food at an outstanding value. With the exception of the Atomic Horseradish Salad, all the featured selections were also on the regular menu. And that salad, I learned, will be there soon.

The Atomic Salad is the Coyote’s original and delicious take on a Caesar. Romaine lettuce that tasted as though it had been picked that morning, garnished with thinly sliced radishes and a generous dusting of Parmesan cheese. The creamy dressing made my taste buds sing. Despite the name, it wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy.

Wedge salads can be formidable hunks of iceberg lettuce buried under bottled, paste-like blue cheese sauce. The Coyote takes a cliché and turns it to poetry. The perfect bed of crisp lettuce was topped with lovely pungent blue cheese crumbles, crisp bacon, cherry tomatoes and a sprinkling of toasted piñon nuts to remind us we are in New Mexico.

I love the lobster bisque here, so I had to try it again even though it wasn’t included in the Restaurant Week menu. The savory broth, rich but not overly so, is studded with bits of red and white lobster meat and a few small crisp croutons. It arrived, fresh and fragrant, beautifully presented in a white bowl on a white plate with a soup spoon swaddled in a white cloth napkin.

Despite the fact that every table was filled the night of our visit, service was excellent. Entrees followed the starters with enough time for conversation. The staff politely removed used plates, refilled water and brought the entrees without being intrusive.

The osso bucco, prepared from pork, not veal, deserves a gold star. The tender, slow-cooked meat brimmed with savory goodness. The light Israeli couscous and the tomato-based sauce added great contrast of flavor and textures, and the serving size was ample but not stupefying. The salmon, cooked to perfection with a slightly crisp exterior and moist inside, arrived on a platform of risotto with a side of spinach dotted with piñon nuts and topped with a bit of cream. The chicken, served with an outstanding light but creamy caper sauce, came with beautiful zucchini ribbons and spinach. It was some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. The breast and bit of a wing were juicy and tender. The sauce would probably make a to-go box taste good.

We shared two desserts and enjoyed both. The beautifully plated rich chocolate torte served with raspberry sorbet would satisfy the most ardent chocoholic. The exemplary crème brûlée was not too sweet, pleasingly rich and totally excellent. The two went together well for sharing.

The three-course dinners were each $40 and the lobster bisque added another $18 to the total.

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