In northern New Mexico, where red and green chiles reign supreme, it’s unusual to encounter a restaurant in Santa Fe that is 100% “chile-free.” But that’s exactly what you will find nestled in a historic, quaint and cozy adobe building on Johnson Street. Lucky for us, chile is the only thing missing from TerraCotta Wine Bistro.
At the entrance, a lovingly maintained garden that explodes with colorful roses and flowers in the spring and summer sets the tone for your culinary experience. This is the beginning of an evening filled with warm and gracious hospitality and attention to detail.
The dynamic duo behind TerraCotta are chef Catie O’Brien and front-of-house wizard Glenda Griswold. For the past 30 years, they have been best friends and business partners – they also have Peas ‘N’ Pod Catering – and their skills and talents are complementary to make the sum greater than its parts.
Together, they have curated a welcoming space and a popular restaurant frequented mostly by locals. The comfortable interior is dotted with terracotta chairs and place mats to create a true sense of place that feels like home. The fact that this old building has been home to countless people isn’t lost on O’Brien, Griswold and their team, who take pride in this responsibility.
The menu is diverse, with global flavors that reflect the owners’ travels around the world. The offerings include choices for carnivores, pescatarians and vegetarians, and a dessert menu that promises to tempt.
“I cook comfort food. It’s what people want,” O’Brien says. “I learned to cook from my nanny, and I cook food I like to eat. But mostly, I want you to feel at home when you are at TerraCotta.”
Several patrons, including us, arrived before the owners opened promptly at 5 o’clock and hung out the open sign. With an appealing, well-priced menu serving quality food, it’s no surprise people come early to enjoy the casual but soothing ambiance, and be taken care of for a night. In addition to the interior seating, there are also two patios that have heaters during the winter. The musical playlist was speckled with Latin sounds to bring energy to the space until the guitarist arrived to serenade guests with live music and special requests.
TerraCotta has received the annual Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its stellar wine selections since 2018. With a robust wine list of 500 bottles, it’s easy to see why. The selection is broad, and the prices are fair, with only one bottle at $150, but plenty of $30-$50 options to make good wine accessible to everyone. Happy hour is from 5 to 6 p.m. with select wines at $6 a glass.
Start with the onion rings ($8). Thick-sliced onions are dipped in a tempura batter for a crisp and indulgent appetizer for two or up to six, as there are typically six onion rings in an order. For something lighter, the marinated olive platter ($14) with pita and pesto sauce is perfect for nibbling.
The wedge salad ($9) features tender, yet crisp, gem lettuce topped with tomato, cucumber, bacon and blue cheese crumbles, as well as sliced hard-boiled eggs, to give the salad a bit more heft. Though I prefer blue cheese dressing instead of ranch, this lighter version is likely the smarter choice. Two dining companions commenced with a bubbling crock of French onion soup ($10) which was hearty but not heavy. The crouton was crunchy, and the melted Jarlsberg and provolone cheese reminds us why we love French onion soup.
Living in the high desert, many people believe we can’t get good seafood here, but TerraCotta prides itself on proving those people wrong. “I grew up on the coast, and seafood is an essential part of my life. It’s also something I love to cook, so we will always have a few seafood dishes on the menu,” O’Brien says.
Word on the street is that TerraCotta makes the best fish and chips ($24) in town, and I agree. The halibut provides a meaty texture that feels substantial, while tempura batter keeps it light and crispy. But on this visit, I ordered the nightly special – a big, steaming bowl of mussels with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, onions and shallots swimming in a delectable white wine broth ($30). The broth was so divine I used my spoon to drink it and then took the toasted bread to sop up the last savory drops.
One dining companion had the branzino ($32) and, previously, I have ordered the planked salmon ($26). These entrees are plated with perfectly sautéed and seasoned vegetables and TerraCotta’s signature roasted Yukon gold potatoes. O’Brien says her secret to puffy and crisp potatoes is an air fryer.
Two others opted for the Portuguese pasta dish, which they “can’t take off the menu.” This is one of three entrees in a three-course, $45 prix-fixe menu that is one of the best deals in town or a la carte for $30. Fresh pasta, clams and Spanish chorizo are tossed with ripe tomatoes and red peppers and bathed in a perfectly seasoned white wine sauce. Another diner ordered the ratatouille ($25) and was delighted with this flavorful vegetarian option.
The impeccable service was everything we needed. The staff never missed a beat, picking up plates, pouring wine, changing glasses, removing overflowing plates of mussel shells and making sure each of us felt special.
Although you may want to order every dish on the menu, refrain and save room for dessert, because these well-executed options are worth feeling a little too full for. There are two gluten-free options – a light and airy but rich chocolate mousse and a melting chocolate cake. However, I couldn’t resist the sea salt caramel coffee chip ice cream ($6) while my friends ordered the crème brûlée cheesecake ($9) and chocolate mousse ($9). All the desserts were insanely rich and creamy. Generously sprinkled with chocolate chips and combed with sea salt caramel, the coffee ice cream made me wish I could take a pint home. The perfectly sized slice of cheesecake was creative without being ridiculously sweet. A crispy brûlée topping complemented the creamy interior, and the crust was barely there, so the cheesecake is the star.
TerraCotta delivers a dining experience you will want regularly. Perhaps that’s why most of the clientele are regulars who appreciate genuine hospitality and outstanding food and wine for a reasonable price. The next time you want to be pampered without the stodginess of a “fine dining” experience, make a reservation at TerraCotta and get ready to experience true hospitality that makes you feel like you’re dining at a well-heeled friend’s home.