Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In a 410-year-old city, it’s part of the life cycle for new ventures to sprout in some very old shadows. The magic comes in watching the upstart channel the same spirit as its predecessors.
Seated in the dim red glow of the heated portal outside the opulent new Palace Prime Steak and Seafood, it’s easy to trace the spot’s lineage to the bordello, saloon and gambling hall operated in the same space by the infamous courtesan and card shark Doña Tules in the mid-1800s. From sumptuous steak tartare to a silky chocolate-rosemary pot de crème, decadence is the flavor of Palace Prime. The monthold restaurant is helmed by executive chef Fernando Ruiz and owner Randy Edwards, who consulted closely with longtime Santa Fe restaurateur Charles Dale. After a long, delightful dinner, I walked out into the night feeling – as visitors to the so-called “woman of shady reputation” probably did, back in the day – like the cat that got the crème.
Two years after the closing of Palace Restaurant and Saloon, its signature blood-red flocked wallpaper is gone, replaced with sleek styling by architect Eric Enfield, interior designer Keith Johnston and lighting pro Michael Cornelius. With indoor dining off-limits, I only got a quick glimpse of the dining room. However, loyalists of the former Palace may be heartened to hear that the roomy booths not only remain, but also have proliferated, that the ceiling is red, and that the bathrooms have been updated with some truly wild (or so I hear), state-of-the-art sinks and automatic faucets.
In the outdoor annex, a thick curtain and several large heaters guard against the chill, and red chile lights set the atmosphere. Waitstaff operates as a remarkably efficient team: charisma and kindness radiate from behind each mask.
An Ilegal mezcal Negroni ($13), chosen from a list of seven creative cocktails, was piquant and balanced. Ten far-ranging wines are available by the glass, and many more from the off-menu bottle list in consultation with the wine steward. Our server expertly steered my companion to a glass ($11) of Rogue Vine’s lush red blend of Carignan, Malbec and Syrah from Chile’s Itata Valley. A mezcal and Fresno chile-spiced ceviche, topped with creamy avocado mousse and microgreens ($12), primed us for the feast ahead, along with a large mound of gleaming, scallion-flecked steak tartare with pickled onion, fried capers and waffle potato chips ($18).
We chose Chef Ruiz’s famous chile en nogada ($24), stuffed with ground pork and veal, then bathed in walnut cream and dotted with pomegranate seeds, as a mid-course primer. No wonder it beat Bobby Flay’s version during Ruiz’s tenure at Chama Land & Cattle Co. – it’s a popping, textural menáge Ã trois of meat, sweet and salt.
Three separate sauces and rubs are available for a selection of three prime Angus steaks. We opted to share an 8-ounce filet mignon ($48) rubbed with red chile and served with a flight of sauces: buttery red wine demi-glace, peppery au poivre and creamy guajillo béarnaise. The beef was a fuschia-colored medium rare with an impressively crusty sear. We rounded it out with a raft of ample sides, our favorite of which were the luscious Tucumcari cheddar grits ($8). Old-school steakhouse purists, however, should not miss the creamed garlic spinach ($9) or the grilled asparagus with spicy béarnaise ($12).
“Hell, let’s get it all,” we said to each other, probably echoing centuriesold bon vivants who said the same thing in the same place. This was when our server sold us on the rotating Forest Mushroom Medley ($12), a mélange of thick-cut shrooms that were fantastically redolent of dark, rich earth. A modest, yet full-flavored, hominy and pinto bean ragout ($7) was another elegant tribute to Ruiz’s Mexican heritage.
By dessert, we were groaning, but more is more at Palace Prime. At her suggestion, our host happily packed up most of the pot de crème, sided with a delicate almond-orange sablé cookie ($10), for a midnight snack. “You’re welcome,” she wrote on the container, and we did indeed silently thank her later.
The talented Chef Ruiz shares a checkered past with his predecessor in hospitality, Doña Tules – he credits a few youthful stints in Arizona’s Maricopa County jail with setting him on the path toward culinary greatness. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even amidst a pandemic, Santa Fe should welcome this purveyor of absolute pleasure with open arms and appetites.