When you only have a few hours to get away – and you need to escape, there is a unique destination less than four miles from downtown Santa Fe that feels a world away. Established in 1981, Ten Thousand Waves is an internationally-recognized spa and Zen-like paradise carefully carved into the Sangre de Cristo mountains near the Santa Fe National Forest.
Drive toward the Santa Fe Ski Basin and you will land upon the Japanese-inspired spa and restaurant on the left.
Spa guests, tourists and locals are magnetically drawn to Izanami, Ten Thousand Waves’ restaurant that is inimitable – and that’s part of the mystique and magic of this izakaya concept – the most popular type of restaurant in Japan – that focuses on small plates made to be enjoyed with sake.
As you walk towards Izanami, you may notice yourself begin to relax as the soothing sound of the water fountain, the serenity of being outdoors and the calming Japanese architecture penetrates your mind, body and spirit. This is intentionally built into the Ten Thousand Waves experience. We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
Almost 10 years after opening – and being quickly named a semi-finalist for a “Best New Restaurant” James Beard award, Izanami continues to maintain high standards and dazzle diners with distinctive, shareable dishes from Japan, Korea and a little influence from Mexico to spice things up. Reservations are highly recommended as this is a hot spot, especially on the weekends. Sit at the bar, in the restaurant or in the large outside dining area where heaters and blankets keep you extra cozy during the winter.
With more than 50 sakes (broken into seven profile categories), the exceptional but daunting beverage menu is curated by Deborah Fleig, “the creative genius behind the restaurant,” says Duke Klauck, owner, of his life and business partner. As a sake sommelier, Fleig specializes in namazake, unpasteurized sake. But if you aren’t into sake, there are seven other drinkable categories to engage your senses, including white, red, rosé and sparkling wines, beer, green tea and nonalcoholic sips, including sodas, matcha, coffee and iced tea.
My three dining companions and I started with a glass of cold sake and we leaned on our waiter, Victor, to guide us. In the future, I will opt for the sake Flight of the Week, which offers an assortment of samples. We settled on the Tae No Hana ($14), Indigo Sky Nama ($21), Chogetsu ($10) and Yuki No Bosha Ginjo ($14). Not being sake experts – much less sake novices, we all laughed when we realized we had only had hot sake. Klauck enlightened me, “If you heat good sake, it will kill the taste.” So, we sipped our cold sake and passed our glass to the right until we had tried all four varieties. It was hard to identify the subtle differences, but we enjoyed the experience and the sake paired well with our food.
To accompany the astounding selection of adult beverages, Executive Chef Kiko Rodriguez’s menu features cold, hot, grilled, fried and sweet dishes. We wanted to try the entire menu, but controlled ourselves. The food is artfully created and plated, which amplifies this culinary experience. On the night we visited, Klauck was the affable host wearing a Japanese uniform delivering dishes from the kitchen and checking on guests.
We started with a few appetizers including Spicy Cucumber + Avocado Salad ($12), Black Sesame Noodles ($12) and Pork Belly Tacos ($16 for three and $20 for four). Crisp, cold chunks of cucumber and avocado are coated in a spicy serrano vinaigrette, dusted with crushed Marcona almonds and togarashi.
This is a delightful starter, but it was not spicy and feels more appropriate for the summer months. We were all charmed with the seriously tasty sesame noodles with burdock root, carrots, edamame and scallions tossed in a black sesame dressing. For the tacos, unctuous slices of pork belly are placed on a soft corn tortilla and topped with an Asian slaw, avocado aioli and pickled red onions with a sriracha-sesame sauce on the side.
Being a vegetable fritter freak, the Kakiage Fritter ($13) was quite a surprise. Julienned vegetables are coated in a tempura batter and fried until lightly golden. Served as a single, flat, square-shaped fritter, eating this dish presented a challenge – as we only had chopsticks and a fork – but we managed to cut it into chunks. A bit of soy sauce made these delectable, crispy vegetables quickly disappear.
The Miso Mole Gyoza ($14), pot stickers filled with kurobuta (Berkshire) pork belly over a bed of mole.
The Oaxacan mole with hacho miso overwhelmed these tender pot stickers, but the mole is seriously delectable and these pot stickers were gobbled up.
The Nasu Dengaku ($13), eggplant grilled with a traditional and sweet miso sauce, was another winning dish. Japanese eggplant is sliced in half, cut into chunks, cooked until tender and topped with sesame seeds. This dish needs a side of rice, but luckily, we had the Steak Bibimbap ($29) which comes with plenty.
Korean bibimbap arrives in a molten 500-degree vessel with a raw egg on top. As soon as you break the egg and stir it up, the egg is cooked. Sliced steak, thick chunks of carrots and daikon radish are served over white rice. Like a good paella, the crispy rice (socarrat) is the best part. In previous visits, I have been wowed by the Vegetable Bibimbap ($19).
The Grilled Miso Bass ($34) is another stunning dish that wowed us. Sea bass, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside, comes in a bowl with sauteed bok choy and a generous serving of the best pickled ginger we have ever had.
If you are a sushi lover and wondering about sushi, fear not – the Chirashizushi ($28) is the dish for you.
A bowl of rice is topped with a daily selection of raw fish, cucumbers, wakame and fresh grated wasabi root.
The Yuzu Cheesecake ($13) is a light and naturally gluten-free option. A Japanese citrus sauce, yuzu, is a brilliant addition to this sweet dish. Shavings of orange peel add both a pop of color and another punch of citrus to make this a stellar ending.
Creative dishes are paired with a signature beverage menu to position Izanami as an exceptional restaurant situated in an extra special setting. And if you don’t want to cook for the upcoming holidays,
Izanami offers spectacular take-away meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And isn’t that special?