Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
“While Spring is in the world my blood approves,” the poet e.e. cummings wrote, and so I thought dreamily to myself in the back room of the recently reopened El Nido in Tesuque. I was under the influence of the blooming trees outside, the cozy old restaurant’s Sinatra soundtrack, and a lush, tingling serrano-and-cucumber-infused El Nido-Rita on the rocks with a red chile rim ($17).
I’d headed to El Nido – just as I went to The Compound, Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine, La Boca and Tender Fire over the past couple of weeks – to dine on the essence of spring. As the city’s restaurant scene thaws out from its most difficult winter yet, Santa Fe chefs are showcasing the flavors of nature’s rebirth – grassy, earthy, tart and sharp – with a trove of exceptional dishes.
El Nido executive chef José “Ziggy” Montalvo Alas is serving a deceptively simple standout with a prosciutto-wrapped asparagus appetizer ($12). Sautéed spears are wrapped two at a time with thick ham, slightly charred, then bathed in a heavenly spread of béarnaise and anchovy sauces. A pliant poached egg and earthy tangle of microgreens top off the substantial small plate.
For an equally delicate hit of spring, El Nido’s parchment-wrapped grilled rainbow trout ($29) opens to reveal tender, tangy sliced artichokes over the buttery, sage and thyme-scented fish. A roasted baby carrot, more asparagus, and a garlicky mound of zucchini, pea and red pepper-studded quinoa are elegant companions.
Come late May, El Nido is set to introduce even more enticing warm-weather fare in the form of Su, a pop-up sushi and sashimi concept at El Nido headed by former Sushi Land East chef Masa Hattori. With last year’s permanent closure of Sushi Land East, that means Hattori’s loyal following has an opportunity to sprout anew in Tesuque. (“Su” means “nest” in Japanese, to complement El Nido’s moniker.)
Over at The Compound on Canyon Road, chef Mark Kiffin’s show-stopping pea soup ($13) is practically a rite of spring. Under the plate-spanning drawbridge of a skinny Parmesan cheese straw, a server pours a verdant green moat of soup, flavored with a heady, elemental wild mushroom escabeche and squares of smoked bacon. Creamy mascarpone smooths out the bowl. Other first courses are a tour de printemps – ramps and romesco sauce are sided with scallops ($24), the handmade tagliatelle is accompanied by truffles, shell peas and green garlic ($20), and a pastel-hued Little Gem salad is drizzled with Green Goddess dressing, and nestled with asparagus, more peas and a soft egg ($15).
No one is babying young spring vegetables more tenderly than Chef Nath at CHOMP Food Hall’s Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine, where I was hypnotized by the forest-green color of a green vegetable curry ($18) last week. Lemongrassy, garlicky, redolent of turmeric, coconut and ginger, the life-affirming curry was packed with pineapple, green beans, asparagus, mustard greens, carrots, red pepper and even some kabocha squash. After I ladled it over brown rice for a sinus-clearing vegetarian feast, it was even better the next day with a cup of New Mexico Tea Company’s jasmine green tea ($6 for 2 oz., nmteaco.com).
The mild, dulcet notes of lump crab are a perfect spring snack and La Boca chef James Campbell Caruso is resurrecting a throwback from the early days of the Marcy Street tapas stronghold in celebration. The lump crab cannelloni ($16) is a classy roll of house-made pasta that blankets a wealth of pale-pink crabmeat, bathed and baked in a smooth Manchego cream sauce. Pair the pasta with the alcachofas ($15), grilled long Roman artichokes served with sharp goat cheese, orange zest and mint.
Finally, make a midweek plan to snag one of Tender Fire’s wonderfully blistered sourdough pizzas Thursday through Saturday nights outside the El Rey Inn. There, on a grassy expanse accented by twinkling lights, picnic tables and a new bar, last summer’s artisan pizza king Ben Crosky has once again set up an outdoor shop with his blue-tiled wood-fired oven. Order online starting Tuesday, but be nimble about it – most of the menu tends to sell out by Wednesday night.
If you walk up to Tender Fire starting at 8 p.m. without a reserved pizza, you may still be able to snag a pizza that celebrates ultra-local farmers and the freshest greens around. The rightfully Santa famous cream-soaked nettle pizza ($17) is mild, bitter, chewy and creamy in all the right places, accented with green garlic, mozzarella and fontina, crushed red peppers and a sprinkle of Maldon salt. We loved the bolder rapini pizza flecked with pancetta, smothered in garlicky mozzarella and ricotta salata ($17), and vegans will flip over the weekly special ($16.50). In recent weeks, it has involved cashew cream, asparagus, pistachio, red onions and beet pesto – or several ways to eat the rainbow, as a spring-mad poet such as e.e. cummings might say.