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Find foods worthy of a standing ovation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If you are looking for impeccable service, an elegant and original version of Santa Fe-style ambience and memorable food, I recommend The Compound.

Under the leadership of owner/chef Mark Kiffin, the restaurant sets a high standard. Kiffin was recently nominated for two James Beard Foundation awards – the Oscars of the restaurant world – for Best Service for The Compound and for Best New Restaurant for his Albuquerque establishment, Zacatecas. Congratulations!

Friends and I made a dinner reservation at The Compound during Santa Fe Restaurant Week, a promotion designed to encourage customers to try something new or, as with us, revisit an old favorite at a compelling price. For $40 each, we received a superb three-course meal.

The Compound
LOCATION: 653 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, 505-982-4353
HOURS: Lunch, noon-2 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; dinner, 6 p.m.-closing nightly. Bar opens at 5 p.m.

Lunch or dinner, The Compound treats guests like royalty with white tablecloths and an array of sparking glassware on each table. At lunch, natural light brightens the white walls. In the evenings, the restaurant glows with candlelight. Don’t miss the painted rainbow above the window that offers a view of the patio.

At dinner, we received our choice of soup, a salad or a fried oysters appetizer, and then one of three entrees: salmon, beef short rib or polenta with mushrooms. Then came dessert: lemon tart, chocolate cake or ice cream.

When we arrived, the restaurant was packed – not a single empty table – and the staff scurried about. Even Kiffin delivered meals from the kitchen. The food was fabulous, first bite to last. We liked the crisp oysters served up with whimsy on a tray you’d expect with oysters on the half shell. The potato soup arrived in two parts: a copper pot with the hot liquid and a white bowl with a fingerling potato dressed like its big baked cousin. Delicious! I didn’t try the salad, but it looked beautifully fresh and the serving was generous.

The salmon entree was a standout among standouts. It was perfect, crisp on the outside and tender beneath without a hint of overcooking. The meaty short rib was fall-off-the-bone tender. The vegetarian option, the polenta, had a creamy richness complemented by the sliced oyster mushrooms and a bit of arugula.

The desserts were all good but the tart gets the gold star for both flavor and presentation. It was petite, just three bites of intense lemon filling in a sweet crust topped a tiny crown of meringue, plated with a festive ribbon of raspberry sauce.

But perhaps because The Compound was filled to the capacity, service became an issue. We had a rotating parade of personnel at our table, all male, each trying his best. We waited at least 10 minutes between entrees and dessert. Then, the staff confused our dessert order with the table next to us. When that got straightened out, they brought a flavor of ice cream we hadn’t ordered. During the meal, we had to request more water and were never asked if we wanted coffee. Considering the circumstances, I thought they managed well, but it wasn’t the A-level service for which The Compound is known.

Happily, this gave me a reason to try lunch. This time, service was flawless from the reception by the hostess to filling our glasses with ice water with a napkin in position to catch any splashes, to menu recommendations.

The chicken schnitzel ($17) deserves a standing ovation – tender, juicy chicken breast beneath a crisp crumb coating with a fresh lemon caper cream sauce. My friend compared it favorably to schnitzel he’d eaten in Austria.

The waiter recommended the shrimp po’ boy ($19) so we tried it. One of my guests rated it just above average, but I loved it and would have it again. The chef had dipped the shrimp in a tempura-like batter that seemed to accent the shrimps’ natural sweetness. They arrived almost too hot to eat on a fresh bun with a slice of red onion, other garnishes, and a side of potato salad.

The only flaw at this meal was the overcooked chicken breast sliced atop the stacked salad. The salad, a luscious tower of chopped lettuce, avocado, blue cheese, ham, egg and more, didn’t need the additional chicken anyway ($17 including $4 for the chicken). Our lunch for three with two teas was $64.37 with tax, before the tip.

We received just the right amount of courteous staff attention during our lunch, from the presentation of fresh rolls and crisp crackers to the final settlement of the bill. The table next to us enjoyed their meal with a bottle of champagne. That’s the kind of place The Compound is.