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James Beard Award contender sleek, friendly, charming

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Two things impressed me at Izanami, the new restaurant at Santa Fe’s Ten Thousand Waves spa, before I ever stepped through the door.

Outside the entrance is a stone waterfall that flows into a beautiful large rectangular pool. Not only is the water feature elegant, it is so well constructed that not a drop of water splashes on to the adjacent sidewalk.

Secondly, tantalizing aromas of good food welcome you before you open the front door.

Japanese paper lanterns decorate the dining room at Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves spa. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Japanese paper lanterns decorate the dining room at Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves spa. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Although in business only a few months, Izanami has created quite a buzz. A flock of articles has celebrated its opening and it won accolades as one of only 30 restaurants in the USA under consideration for a James Beard Award as 2014′s best new restaurant.

Part of the charm of Izanami is its sleek but friendly design, complete with a sparkling open kitchen and counter seating that allows guests to watch chef Kim Muller and her staff at work. The rest of the restaurant is equally fine, with natural wood, tile, cozy benches, a long community table and optional Japanese-style dining on low tables. The high-ceilinged central dining area is filled with natural light during the day and lit with beautiful paper lanterns in the evening.

Izanami is as much a bar with interesting snacks as a restaurant. In addition to the lengthy and well-explained sake menu, Izanami offers a wide choice of beers, including Japanese microbrews, and wine. The restaurant highlights a well-chosen assortment of Japanese teas served hot and cold, and even has espresso drinks.

The food, designed around the small plate concept, features many vegetable choices, with options sourced locally and organic as much as possible. The menu is also interesting for what it doesn’t include: no fish or seafood either cooked or as sushi, and not one noodle dish. In addition to the menu, the restaurant also features nightly specials.

The night friends and I visited, we found service to be the weakest element at Izanami. The hostess and each of our servers were gracious and polite, but communication problems created glitches. The friends, who arrived after I did, were mistakenly told I wasn’t there and asked to wait in the reception area – while I waited for them at the table. We had another long delay to order drinks and food, even though fewer than half of the tables were filled. Even when a server arrived, friends had to ask more than once for a glass of wine. We were told that snow peas were the vegetable special and we ordered them. When we received carrots, the server who delivered them acted as though we were too slow to know the difference. Our waitress apologized and took them off the bill. Any new restaurant is bound to have a few rough spots. The food was wonderful!

Although we didn’t realize it when we made the reservation, Izanami is a good place to come with a group of four. All of the dishes we sampled were easily shared and we had an opportunity to try much of the menu. I’d heard that Izanami was expensive, but our dinner for four was $91 (without drinks), about standard for a meal of this fine quality in Santa Fe. While portions were small (no leftovers here!), we each had enough to eat. Our plates ranged in price from $5 to $24 for the delectable grilled Wagyu beef.

We started with the daily pickles, a selection of cauliflower, beet greens and thinly sliced carrots, which looked like art on the plate and had wonderfully bright flavors. I loved the delicate shimeji mushrooms, buttery and nutty, served over a handful of fresh spinach leaves. I could eat these every day! The eggplant in miso sauce was slightly sweet and arrived sliced into servings that were perfect for chopsticks and for sharing. The grilled carrots were interesting because they were chopped into uneven pieces, which made some crisp – even blackened – while others stayed soft. I found the Japanese sweet potatoes less pleasing because of their mushy texture. My friends and I loved the special fried avocado, large soft slices lightly battered and fried until crisp outside and custard soft within.

In the non-vegetable choices, my favorites were the gyoza, dumplings with a mild pork filling in a soft noodle-like shell that was crisp on one side. I also loved the Wagyu beef, although $24 is a lot to pay for a 3-ounce serving. Good thing the meat was tender and full of flavor! It arrived beautifully sliced with a small bit of wasabi, the hot Japanese condiment. The delicious skewered chicken livers were simply grilled and still pink inside.

We finished with a light sweet treat, banana sections coated in bread crumbs and fried to make the fruit as soft as custard.

Izanami is on my “go to” list and I highly recommend it.

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