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Estevan brings gourmet inspiration to NM fare

SANTA FE, N.M. — When a friend and I stopped by Estevan Restaurante in the Hotel Chimayó for a dinner early in the new year, we were a little at a loss what to do when there was no obvious host or hostess to guide us to our table. But no problem – executive chef Estevan Garcia soon emerged from the back and graciously did the honors.

Now that’s personal service!

The room itself set a beautiful atmosphere, from the crackling fire in the large fireplace to the tiny lights wrapped around the hanging chile ristras (I assume leftover Christmas decorations) to the large religious wall murals and abundance of wood in the furniture and ceiling. It felt somewhere between a centuries-old hacienda and a church. We settled in to nibble and converse, with no trouble hearing each other in the low-key, quiet space.

Before we ordered, the waitress brought us a complimentary plate of blue and yellow corn chips around a delicious red chile dip, which had both smoke and spark. It was a tasty, restrained way to pique our appetites.

Garcia focuses on northern New Mexico cuisine with a gourmet twist. The restaurant’s website stresses the use of regional ingredients and fresh produce from the Farmers Market. And, indeed, the ingredients of my friend’s opening Estevan’s salad ($11) could have been gathered that morning: mixed spring greens, small slices of watermelon radish, carrot bits and more, all delicately flavored with a light vinaigrette.

I opted to begin with the calamari ($12). OK, it’s not a traditional dish of the region, but it is one of my favorites. The thin slices of calamari steak were breaded with panko and flash-fried, then served in a lemon parsley butter that added a tart explosion on the tongue. When not done right, calamari can be rubbery or stringy or hard to chew. Not a problem here. It was tender and tasty.

I declared I was in love.

The red bird chicken paillard ($26) was my guest’s entree choice, and she was pleased. The chicken breast was pounded into a thin layer that was both tender and moist. The white wine garlic sauce was a delicate complement to the chicken – she liked that the garlic was used with a light hand and didn’t overwhelm the taste of the meat. Served in a dish to the side was a medley of mixed vegetables, cooked to just the right texture, and wild rice.

I decided to pair a salad and another appetizer for my entree, which turned out to be quite enough. The cooked red cabbage salad ($12) was mixed with smoked bacon and Roquefort cheese vinaigrette. The ingredients did lend more saltiness than I usually like, but I knew what I was asking for and enjoyed it. A few small toasts gave some crunch at the side.

The chile relleno ($12) was a meaty Anaheim stuffed with a mushroom duxelle and surrounded by a garlic, pinto bean demi-glace. It was quite mild, probably a good introduction for sensitive tongues to our state vegetable – well, vegetables, actually, since that designation is shared by the chile and the pinto bean. The bean appeared as tiny pieces scattered in the sauce, though, so its flavor contribution was minor. I felt that the chile could have been cooked to slightly more tenderness, but that’s a minor quibble.

We didn’t want to overlook dessert, so we shared the almond torte ($11) with, at our request, its creme anglaise on the side. The nutty dessert wasn’t as rich or sweet as many, and we were happy with that. It was just the right grace note on top of our already near-full stomachs.

Estevan’s has a patio that I’d like to explore in the warmer months. It would be a good time to also pay some attention to the well-chosen wine menu for something to sip as the world walks by.

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