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Rio Chama bar serves up tasty noshes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Rio Chama, occupying a key location in Santa Fe – right next to the state capitol – is one of those restaurants that has become a Santa Fe destination. This is especially true during the legislative session when it attracts lawmakers and those who want their attention; and now, when the weather allows patio and courtyard dining.

When I eat here, I prefer the beautiful outdoors or the bar. Less formal than the dining rooms, the bar is one of the best places in town for a good drink and creative noshes. The menu includes lounge classics such as nachos, potato skins, calamari and burgers. You also can get salads, “small plates” – sort of fancier appetizers or light meals – and large plates that are full dinners. Steaks and prime rib, including the prime rib burger, are specialties here.

One thing that has made Rio Chama a survivor in a town where restaurants come and go is the quality of the service. This was especially true during a recent visit with friends. Our server, Andres, could lead a class in the art of being a waiter. He knew the food and wine, and when asked, offered us his educated opinion. The problems we experienced with the food could have left me and my companions with a less-than-favorable impression of Rio Chama, but thanks to Andres’ graciousness, we decided that what happened was a fluke. Running a restaurant is a complicated business and sometimes things go askew.

But first, the good stuff.

We started with fondue ($16). You don’t see much fondue these days, at least not in Santa Fe. The blend of white cheeses, white wine and Rio Chama Amber Ale created a delicious, warm treat that paired creamy saltiness with a pleasant hint of sweetness. The fondue comes with the traditional long forks and several choices of dippers.

The fresh bread cut into cubes and rectangles worked well as the base for the melted cheese. The tart green apple pieces had a lovely flavor and a great crunch. The broccoli and cauliflower added variety. I appreciated the way the kitchen had steamed them to make them easier to eat. This was a lot of food – more than enough for our group of four. In fact, with another appetizer or a salad, it’s dinner in itself.

Also, from the appetizer/small plate menu we ordered scallops, pan-seared and served with a small salad and ginger sauce ($12). The dish was tasty and the presentation beautiful. My friend (a man who never fails to order scallops when he sees them on the menu) said these were among the best he’d had anywhere including restaurants by the ocean. He also ordered the Wedge Salad, a slice of crisp iceberg lettuce beneath creamy blue cheese dressing, garnished with cucumbers, marinated olives, grape tomatoes and a bit of bacon ($7 for half).

My friend’s prime rib burger ($10), however, was a disaster. When she removed the bun, she noticed it was frozen in the center even though it had grill marks on the outside. She got Andres’ attention and he apologized and took it back. When the meal reappeared, the bun was different, even more solidly frozen! And the meat was cold, too. Rio Chama is famous (in a good way) for this burger because they grind the beef, a mixture of prime rib and chuck, in-house. I’ve enjoyed it here several times and never had this problem. The burger sat uneaten, and the three of us shared our meals with our friend.

Another friend wanted a slice of prime rib but Andres informed him that unless he craved “well-done” the prime rib was unavailable. Andres recommended the buffalo rib eye. He ordered it after I agreed to share and requested medium-rare. At $48 and 16 ounces, this is a huge and expensive meal. The steak, which the chef divided for us in the kitchen, arrived blackened on the outside. Although the interior was still pink, there was no juice. I’d call this temperature “medium.” My friend didn’t consider it overcooked – and he hadn’t asked what “medium-rare” translated to at Rio Chama. A tip: if you’re paying this much for a steak, be sure you understand what the chef means in the cooking style. The meat was flavorful, tender and very lean.

It came with two sides, and we selected garlic mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. (Other options include creamed spinach, calabacitas, burgundy button mushrooms, asparagus and green chile mac and cheese.) The potatoes were creamy with just enough garlic flavor. I loved the Brussels sprouts, grilled to retain a touch of crispness and garnished with bits of bacon.

As a finale, Rio Chama is famous for its Chocolate Pot served warm with vanilla crème anglaise ($8). This dessert was even better than I remembered, and bigger too. The chef uses first-rate dark chocolate and the sauce, a light custard, is the perfect complement.

When we got the bill, we realized that Rio Chama, probably — thanks to Andres — had not charged us for the burger and had given us dessert for free. A sweet end to what was, overall, a pleasant evening.