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Great food and service complement imaginative menu

Brendan Maham, a runner, serves lunch at the Midtown Bistro in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Brendan Maham, a runner, serves lunch at the Midtown Bistro in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Wonderful. That’s the adjective that springs to mind when I remember my dinner with friends at the elegant Midtown Bistro.

This cleverly named, off-the-beaten-track restaurant has some of the best food in Santa Fe. And, yes, it actually is in midtown Santa Fe, near the popular Second Street Brewery.

Friends and I arrived on a cold and snowy Monday night, and had this beautiful restaurant virtually to ourselves. Several customers had canceled or were no-shows and, besides our table of four, the restaurant hosted a handful of other guests.

Sometimes a slow night can be a negative for customers, leaving the staff uninspired. But my friends and I found both food and service top-notch. We liked the restaurant’s festive holiday look, too.

We started with appetizers, selecting calamari, rings and tentacles served with a citrus chipotle aioli – sort of like a remoulade sauce – and a yellow sweet and spicy habanera pineapple sauce ($9). I liked the calamari because it was fresh, hot from the kitchen and easy to share.

But the other appetizer, chef Angel Estrada’s vegetable tempura assortment, got higher marks for originality and yumminess. Beneath the batter, we found long, crisp green beans, soft avocado, flavorful asparagus and more, served with sweet and sour sauce for dipping ($8). Other appetizers include taquitos and crab cakes.

I love Midtown Bistro’s wide selection of interesting salads, and was pleased when my friend ordered the spinach salad and volunteered to share some.

In addition to baby spinach leaves, the salad includes thin slices of sweet fresh pear, crisp toasted walnuts, a generous sprinkling of gorgonzola cheese and a smooth, light buttermilk dressing to tie it all together ($10). This is a winner!

The evening’s menu offered two soups: roasted vegetables and butternut squash. I tried the squash, a puree of intense flavor, slightly sweet from the addition of apples. It was so good, my friend had a taste and then ordered his own bowl ($8).

Entrees also were delicious. My favorite was the grilled New Mexico lamb chops, meaty and rich with flavor, served with tamarind sauce. The chops were arranged around a pile of Moroccan couscous seasoned with mint and raisins.

Simple, tasty sautéed Swiss chard rounded out the dish. The flavors went well together, creating an ensemble on the plate that made each component better than it would have been alone ($36).

The chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese also got a big thumbs-up. My friend who ordered it had an allergy to one of the ingredients in the sauce that normally comes with this dish, so the chef made a different sauce for her. I’m not sure what was in it, but it was good, and the stuffed breast itself was juicy, tender and not overwhelmed by the cheese in the stuffing.

The crisp polenta and vegetables that came with it were excellent, too. I’d have this dish again, this time with the chef’s preferred sauce. I imagine it might be even better ($26).

I loved the soy-sesame vinaigrette dressing on the steak salad entree. The greens, a deep bed of watercress over steamed baby bok choy, were unusual and delicious, and sweet red cherry tomatoes added color and went nicely with the sliced beef, cooked rare as requested ($18).

In addition to the menu, Midtown Bistro also has specials and the night of our visit they offered a garlic shrimp pasta dish that looked and smelled heavenly. (I didn’t get to try it. Next time.)

Servings are ample here, but because we were caught up in the delicious afterglow of dinner, we ordered three desserts. The pumpkin flan tasted like gourmet pumpkin pie without the crust. It was garnished with candied pumpkin seeds and finished with a vibrant burnt sugar sauce.

The Tres Leches cake, served with a tart strawberry sauce and fresh sliced strawberries, melted in my mouth, dense with flavor but not overly rich. Amazing.

But best of all was the luscious dark chocolate layer cake. The chocolate frosting alone deserves a medal. All the servings were sharable size, too (each $7.50) .

Midtown Bistro offers wonderful food and upscale service in an elegant, contemporary atmosphere. I highly recommend it.