SANTA FE, N.M. — When Mark Miller left the Bay Area and Chez Panisse, the Santa Fe Grill and the Fourth Street Grill, where he became known as the “founder of Modern Southwestern Cuisine,” he landed in sleepyish Santa Fe with Coyote Cafe in 1987. He made a pretty big splash, regionally and nationally.
It was a perfect storm of timing, theme and location, as an almost instant icon of stylish Southwest nouvelle cuisine was created by the “celebrity chef” and his shiny, tres chic restaurant and bar with exotic cocktails upstairs on Water Street.
A screenwriter friend of ours from LA and frequent visitor in those days would always find time for at least one afternoon of mojitos there and then rave about it for the rest of his stay. You had to be a working screenwriter to afford it.
CUT TO: Thirty years later, and plus ça change, etc. Recently reopened after a swift, successful and dramatic interior makeover, the emblematic establishment is now owned by a young and energetic local, Quinn Stephenson, who started working in the restaurant as a busboy in the late ’90s. (My screenwriter pal would’ve loved to pitch this story.)
In a brief pre-dinner chat, the handsome and amiable Mr. Stephenson commented, “For me, it’s all about a sense of place. I think you should be able to wake up out of a coma after five years and open a menu and be able to tell immediately where you are: France, New Orleans …”
Check that box. His menu is unmistakably Santa Fe.
But were one to awake from a coma in the renovated CC it might not be Santa Fe that first comes to mind, but LA, maybe? Santa Monica-with-a-twist, specifically?
In any case, it’s a real visual stunner. There’s now a high, open atrium and long, curved skylight at the entrance with a quasi-nautical feel, formerly concealed by a half-dozen chandeliers. The open kitchen is to the left and the bar is in the same spot but a little reconfigured and more user-friendly – and very popular on our night.
Curtains have come down along the far wall and much more window and wall space has opened up, combined with minimalist form and use of lighting – red neon stripes, a halo of white above another table, glowing white columns on the walls. The atmosphere hums and goes POP!
Adding to it, as if possible, are the big, internally lit, blown-up photos of the wildly colored woodcarvings of Oaxacan artist Nestor Melchor. Dominating the room, and centrally placed, is a big, Dale Chihuly-inspired chandelier of over 300 wiggling bright filaments like red chiles (now we’re talking Santa Fe). Wow! And each of the filaments assembled by hand during scores of hours by Mr. Stephenson himself, with some help from a friend.
Perhaps we make too much of this new feel and look, while maintaining the good ol’ vibe and the impeccable staff with executive chef Eduardo Rodriguez, but it is well worth remarking.
And so, still, is the fare at Coyote Cafe. Superb service from familiar faces, extensive wine list (Mr. Stephenson is a sommelier), more exotica from the mixologist – we had a simple house margarita ($12), straight up in a generous martini glass, pluperfect, to go with mini-tostadas ($14) with black beans, calabacitas and queso fresco. Tasty. As Mr. Stephenson noted earlier, “In modern Southwest we use chiles for flavor, not for heat.”
While we had heard great things about the Patagonian sea bass with potato and spinach ravioli ($40), we decided to go small-ball from the “starters” list. We chose a very zesty stuffed quail ($24) with chorizo and cornbread stuffing, subtle ancho chile and cherry demi-glaze, followed by the crab and corn enchiladas ($22), in Veracruz cream salsa that might be served for dessert. Intense.
Our companion, struck with crustacean cravings, would share no more than one bite, each, of a glorious cold lobster salad ($24) and two mesquite-grilled lobster tails ($42) on pappardelle pasta with house-made sweet corn sauce. I can see why.
Dessert was an order too far. By the way, when we visit the Cantina upstairs (soon), we will tell you all about it.
Meanwhile, Coyote Cafe is ready for that close-up after 30 years, and still has that movie star sizzle.