Gorgeous, delicious … progressive

The Berries and Cream ($11) at Restaurant Martín looks almost better than it tasted. ( T.M. Collins/For Journal North)

SANTA FE, N.M. — As my mentor and dear friend The Good Doctor has said, some people eat to live and some people live to eat. It’s not original, we know, but it sounds so good when he says it. We being of the former persuasion and the Good Doctor being definitely of the latter, it makes for perfect gastronomic relations.

The Good Doctor’s dictum came to mind the other evening stepping into the magical garden dining area of notable Restaurant Martín. Verily, at magic hour beneath the dramatic open latticework pavilion, amongst beds of flourishing herbs and roses, it is a Garden of Eden and enough to convert us into one who “lives to eat.”

And before we go any further, the interior of Martín and its petite bar area is no slouch either, with a cool elegant modernist feel and a dash of Arts and Crafts thrown in for good measure (much of the fine work is by Santa Fe’s Jeff Carbine Woodworks).

The minimalist-Japanese teahouse feel and appearance is echoed in a dinner menu that offers classic fare, the vast majority of it locally sourced, with a Pacific Rim touch, such as appetizers of pork with umezuke glaze, tuna tartare with an avocado-wasabi purée, entrées with smoked miso and eggplant purée, etc.

The culinary style and approach may be called “fusion” in some quarters (“fasian,” perhaps). But owner-chef Martín Rios calls his creations “progressive American cuisine” and that sounds good enough for us. And it’s good enough to have garnered much critical attention: from 2010 semi-finalist for the James Beard “Best New Restaurant in USA” Award to 2017 semi-finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef of the Southwest” Award, and many more accolades in between.

And so finally to dinner, and our companion starting off with (and sharing, of course) the Chilled Spring Pea Soup ($14) over a crab and apple salad. It’s a paper-thin curl of zucchini and assorted petite leaves, topped with a rye bread cracker and three dollops of buttermilk mustard cream with fermented carrot oil. The delicacy and subtlety of flavors (was that the fermented carrot oil in that buttermilk mustard cream?) comprehensively belies the assorted components. It is less than the sum of its parts, which is its brilliance. Not one of its ingredients predominates.

We opened with a trio of Sautéed Gulf Prawns ($17) on a chorizo and black bean pancake, with Mexican spices, roasted garlic-buttermilk cream and avocado, cucumber pickled lemon salad and pretty little leafy things thrown in (flower petals from the garden?). This time, conversely, the mix was actually greater than the sum of its varied parts. That is to say that every component accompanying the prawns announced itself with authority. A lot going on, from the chorizo to the tart lemom twist.

And let us pause after appetizers to say that the plating and presentation of every offering are nothing short of visually stunning and an added delight, as if any were needed.

Main courses: for madame, the Pan Seared Salmon ($31) with Florida rock shrimp (not necessary), jasmine rice cake (spicy with a bit of chopped bell pepper), baby bok choy, heirloom tomato-tarragon salad, and a tomato and fennel broth. Madame was not keen to share, but our powers of persuasion are formidable and a little bite was enough to explain her reluctance. Sublime.

We ordered a hearty dinner of Pan Seared Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast ($34), two tender, juicy hunks of duck breast, not the usual slices, a king trumpet mushroom flan, a tangy duck sausage patty, slivers of asparagus and an asparagus purée, corn-sunchoke crumble, and a splash of a tart and tangy wild blueberry-sumac reduction. Superb.

For dessert, the pièce de résistance, a Berries and Cream ($11) that looks almost better than it tasted, with white chocolate citrus custard, chiffon almond cake, blueberry cremeux, basil ice cream and a spring berry syrup.

In sum, Restaurant Martín is even better than it looks, and that goes in spades for the “progressive American cuisine.”

Save your pennies and dine.

Impressive selection of wines by the glass and bottle