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Fine dining in Santa Fe pivots to take-out

Steak tampiquena with cilantro rice and rolled red chile-cheese enchilada from Paloma Restaurant at 401 S. Guadalupe St. in Santa Fe. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In 2020, necessity was the mother of invention in the restaurant world. In 2019, Santa Fe had never heard of curbside sushi at Kohnami or parking lot omelets from Dolina. But, in the face of pandemic restrictions, a few local chefs are pulling out all the stops in the take-out game.

We’ve entered the era of the multi-course meal to go. I recently enjoyed some beauties from Paloma, Open Kitchen and Joseph’s Culinary Pub. Here’s how they work: Instead of choosing an appetizer, entree and desserts from a large menu, you order a curated experience of three or more courses from a chef who is most likely exclusively focusing on those preparations for the evening. These meals are carefully wrapped, boxed and bagged by restaurant staff who probably never thought they’d be transferring their fine-dining plating skills to cardboard and Styrofoam.

The restaurants adopting this new model are using a mix of old-school culinary wisdom – thinking more than ever in terms of seasonality, volume and economy – and technological savvy. With social media advertising and online ordering, diners can make orders several days in advance, which gives chefs time to allocate resources and plan for deliveries or pickups. It also gives the customer – with cupboards full of dried beans, pasta and stalled-out sourdough starter – something delicious to anticipate.

Even with a tip of 20% or more on these elaborate take-out dinners, customers are coming out the winners in terms of price and value. I recently enjoyed a three-course solo dinner from Paloma for $35 (plus tip). That’s a low, low price I’ve never paid even on a split check when dining in owner Marja Martin’s vibrant interior or on the bright, cheery patio at Paloma.

The South Guadalupe Street mainstay pivoted to what they call “Paloma Supper” in early December, advertising a new weekly menu for Fridays and Saturdays, along with “take and bake” enchilada trays and such extras as chips, guacamole and queso. I watched a few stunning-looking entrees slide by on Instagram and was on the hook by week three of the new program.

I pulled up 15 minutes late to Paloma for my allotted pickup time, greeted by a surprisingly cheery staff member who slid a carefully packed paper bag into my passenger seat. At home, I unpacked the still-warm containers. I started with a creamy potato-leek soup with a hint of roasted poblano flavor, made smokier by the addition of separately packed bacon bits and morita chile oil. Immediately, I was basking in elevated comfort food, including flavors I wouldn’t normally find in my own kitchen.

That mingled sense of familiarity and discovery continued with an 8-ounce steak a la Tampiqueña: a skirt steak marinated and grilled with multicolored peppers and onions. It was smoky, it was charred, it was fatty and meaty, and sizeable. Tucked under it was a sturdy rolled cheese enchilada soaked in fruity, tangy guajillo chile next to a mound of poblano-flavored rice, a dollop of refried black beans and a fan of avocado slices. Everything held its shape and flavor perfectly.

Knowing the wizardry of pastry chef Jessica Bransford, I knew the grapefruit and mezcal cake with salted honey would be a treat, and it was: a generous square of a simple, but delicious, batter crowned with whole citrus slices, and dressed in an array of smoky, sweet and tangy flavors.

Another early December evening, in search of more far-flung flavors, I sampled “Let’s Nhau! A Feast of Vietnamese Tapas.” This assortment of Vietnamese appetizers ($65) came via delivery from Chef Hue-Chan Karels’ Open Kitchen. Open Kitchen has moved from the catering business to meal delivery and pickup during the pandemic, and its pop-up dinner events have now become multi-course delivery events.

Nhau, pronounced “neow” and meaning “together,” refers to food in the context of small plates, socializing and drinking – it’s the Vietnamese version of tapas. And, indeed, any of the six plates that arrived contact-free lent themselves well to beer or white wine.

Clockwise from top, Vietnamese pickles, prawn chips, roasted peanuts; fish sauce, ginger and honey chicken wings; green papaya salad with lemongrass and chile beef jerky make up a dish from Open Kitchen, which has locations in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

There were dark, sticky chicken wings redolent of fish sauce, ginger and honey, sided with pickled veggies (cauliflower, carrots), roasted peanuts and big white prawn chips, which I dipped in a sweet, plummy sauce. A vinegary green papaya salad with lemongrass and bits of spicy beef jerky cooled my palate before I wrapped grilled shrimp skewers and rice noodles with basil and cilantro in large lettuce leaves, dipping them back in the sauce.

A warming bowl of cháo vit, a duck and rice porridge, was the flavorful sum of its intricate parts. A duck egg marinated with ginger and fish sauce, braised shiitake mushrooms, pickled mustard greens and crispy shallots, all wrapped separately, rounded out the soup with a symphony of separate notes.

A pair of bánh tieu, small hollow doughnuts sprinkled with sesame, finished Karels’ careful orchestration. (Every culture has its own fried dough and these reminded me, wonderfully, of a smaller, rounder sopaipilla.)

I write this on New Year’s Eve, salivating over my scheduled 6 p.m. pickup of “The 2020 Lonely Gourmand,” Joseph’s Culinary Pub’s version of a traditional end-of-year fancy feast ($38). Soon, I’ll dine on lobster tail drenched in garlic butter, a whole artichoke and aioli, an asparagus tip, caviar and egg salad, and a whole fresh-baked baguette.

And at the end of that pretty great multi-course meal deal, I’ll have a whole new year of culinary creativity ahead of me.

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