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Continental fare with a rustic twist at Galisteo

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Galisteo Bistro is a gem of a place: quite small and intimate, given to eclectic fare with interesting twists. Who imagined it possible to make something like a cracker out of eggplant? But each dish has its roots in continental fare, decidedly on the rustic side, despite the bistro’s gourmet transformations.

Smacafam? The word turns out to be Italian patois for “hunger killer,” and the bistro’s rendition is a sturdy stew, but so elegantly prepared you might not guess its association with northern Italy’s Carnival festivities.

We sampled dinner recently and came away smitten. The eggplant “crackers,” by the way, are listed on the tapas menu as “grilled eggplant,” and served up with tomato jam and Parmesan cheese ($11). The thinnest of eggplant slices were toasted up crispy brown, and plated with a dollop of thick, savory-sweet tomato confection and curls of parmesan.

We sampled the bistro’s version of Caesar salad ($14) and found it well above average. The standard romaine had been chopped, tossed with a house-made Caesar and topped with a few white anchovy filets, house-made croutons and many of those impressive Parmesan curls. If you love these aggressive flavors as much as we do, this is the Caesar for you.

Also on the tapas list is a crabcake and salad combo ($11) that won raves from my guests for its flavor and lemon aioli accompaniment. (It’s served on a bed of romaine, and a more robust version of the same combination, augmented with a side of roasted orzo, is on the bistro’s “entree salad” list.)

Among our entrees, the “duet of lamb” ($31) was the showstopper. The large porterhouse lamb chop arrived with a wonderful mushroom demi-glace and the accompanying house-made lamb merguez sausage has to be one of the best such I’ve ever tasted. Gratin potatoes and grilled asparagus were the perfect accompaniments: modest, but excellent in their own right.

The smacafam ($24) was excellent, too. Calabrese sausage and mushrooms had been simmered in marinara and herbs, and were served up alongside slices of oven-toasted polenta. The stew was wonderfully savory and, as far as I was concerned, the golden-brown polenta proved that oven roasting is the redemption of what otherwise amounts to cornmeal mush.

The only less-than-perfect note of the meal was one of the evening’s specials, a creamy oyster stew ($15) that sounded (and might have been) heavenly. Much was right about it: the cream sauce was unctuous, the oysters plump and very fresh. The bowl appeared on the table garnished with a lemon wedge and that was the source of what we all agreed was part of the problem. The other part seemed to be the artichoke hearts.

Artichokes have a pronounced and particular flavor, and combined with even a little lemon, the result clashes with the rich if somewhat bland direction the stew was heading with the cream and oysters. All four of us, after samples, agreed, by the way. This dish needs rethinking.

Galisteo Bistro’s desserts made up for the sour note, however. The bittersweet (and flourless) chocolate decadence ($10) was, if predictable, one of the very best such in town. It needed no enhancement, but its topping of fresh whipped cream

But the lemon semifreddo with blackberry coulis got our vote as the evening’s most exceptional dish. Semifreddo is, like panna cotta and zabaglione, one of those chilled, custardy-creamy desserts that seem to be quintessentially Italian. The bistro’s version the night we dined was half-frozen, as the name implies, and intensely flavored with lemon. Garnished with a raspberry coulis, it was irresistible on a summer evening. My spoon kept going back seemingly of its own volition.

The service at Galisteo Bistro is very good, as you’d expect, and despite the open kitchen, conversation was possible and our experience every bit as pleasant as we’d expected. A plus at the front of the house: tables with a view to Galisteo Street, with its pedestrian parade.

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