ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Although the small plate syndrome in restaurant dining is fading in New York City, giving way to “family-style” dining and ultra-expensive tasting menus, the trend still rules in Santa Fe.
The newish Arroyo Vino and Izanami both have built their menus around appetizer-size servings. At least four of the city’s most popular restaurants offers tapas, the Spanish version of small plates. Tapas are more than a fad. This style of dining is a long-established tradition in Spain and a familiar part of Santa Fe’s dining scene, beginning with the opening of the Canyon Road classic El Farol back before I was a kid.
Another of my favorite spots for tapas is El Mesón. I like this downtown restaurant because, especially in the main dining room, the tables are large enough and far apart enough to give you a sense of space and privacy. The bar serves up tapas on smaller tables alongside live bands and a livelier ambiance.
The tapas menu is well organized to make it easier to select a variety of different and interesting tidbits. If you’ve never tried tapas, the number of choices can be intimidating. What does one order and how much? Our waiter at El Mesón had fine advice. He encouraged us to order two plates each, which we could share and would arrive with staggered pacing. Take our time and savor the dishes, then order more if we still felt hungry. The menu includes cheese, olives and other vegetables, as well as beef and lamb.
The lamb stew ($8) was a special of the evening. I enjoyed the tender bits of meat, the mint-infused broth studded with peas, onion, potatoes and other vegetables. The kitchen staff divided the bowl in half so it was easier to share, too. The complimentary bread and olive oil made a nice accompaniment.
The Coquetas de Cangreio, or blue crab cakes, deserved a standing ovation. They were bite-sized, shaped like tiny footballs with a moist interior of shredded crab and crumbs, served with a garlic aioli that made them even more delicious ($8.50). Put these on the shortlist when you come to El Mesón. Although not as fancy, the battered and fried oysters with Romesco sauce ($9.50) were excellent, and arrived freshly cooked and too hot to eat without a moment’s rest period. The shrimp dish, Gambas al Ajillo ($8), was only average. The small shrimp in a bit of seasoned olive oil were nothing to complain about, but lacked the interesting touches found in many of the other dishes.
I especially enjoyed the chicken skewers, moist but perfectly cooked chicken meat partnered with bits of mild leek and a spicy but not overwhelming sauce for extra flavor ($8.50). One of my friends raved about the mushrooms stuffed with chorizo ($9). The combination of the soft mushroom as a cup for the chewy, slightly spicy, sausage worked well.
We shared three desserts. The orange-infused flan ($7) is some of Santa Fe’s best. The custard is smooth, dense and barely sweet – the sugar comes in the caramelized sugar sauce. Nicely done. It’s a relatively light dessert, especially if you share it with a friend.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the enticingly rich chocolate mousse ($8.50), served in a tall glass with a dollop of whipped cream. Created from Belgian chocolate, this dessert is a chocolate-lover’s dream, dense dark chocolate saturated with flavor. Luscious! It’s great for sharing.
Also designed for sharing is the churros with hot chocolate ($7.50). The churros, sturdy pastry ropes, arrived warm and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The chocolate was thin enough to drink (even though the menu described it as “thick’) and had a pleasant cinnamon-infused flavor.
Around 7 p.m., you’ll often find music in the bar at El Meson: jazz, Latin, blues, flamenco and some surprises. In the dining room, in addition to the interesting tapas menu, customers can order several different kinds of paella and platos, full-plate entrees of steak, salmon, chicken, seafood and lamb chops.
El Meson was one of about two dozen Santa Fe restaurants that participated in Kitchen Angels Night Out by donating some of the evening’s profits to the nonprofit food program. The crowd, filling every table, included children but it didn’t seem to throw the servers off their mark. I was pleased with the responsiveness and knowledge of our waiter.