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Santacafé holds rightful place on Santa Fe dining scene

Trout with saffron risotto, spinach and cilantro pesto awaits consumption at Santacafé. (Courtesy of Karen Peterson)

Trout with saffron risotto, spinach and cilantro pesto awaits consumption at Santacafé. (Courtesy of Karen Peterson)

Santacafé opened in 1983, just as the innovative American cuisine tsunami finally reached – and transformed – Santa Fe.

We ate there then and remember best the Asian flourishes, very exotic here in those days. Asian traces remain, together with the imaginative and subtle use of other once-unusual flavorings for what is nonetheless largely a menu of meat-and-potatoes standards.

Thus, we recently enjoyed a birthday celebration that included steak and trout, calamari and potstickers, as well as a trio of utterly sublime desserts. We overheard French and German conversations, were amused by an extended family get-together and admired various fashion statements without feeling out of place in our more practical costumes.

In short, Santacafé still represents the best Santa Fe can be: very simply fine.

We started with two offerings from Santacafé’s list of classic appetizers and I regret to say that calamari were on the menu, as they are in so many places. It seems that whomever I invite always wants to order these.

I like them, too. But there’s not a lot to write about this dish so long as the batter is crisp and the squid bits are not overcooked.

At Santacafé, I can report that both those criteria were met and, fortunately for me, the dipping sauce rated a rave. I’ve tasted enough aioli- and even marinara-dunked calamari for a lifetime, so I was more than pleased with Santacafé’s choice of four-chile lime sauce. It carried a hint of heat and the citrusy-spicy flavor of lime raised serious questions about the suitability of the more usual lemon as a seafood accompaniment. Three of us finished off most of a large helping ($12.50) just to keep on dipping into that delicious stuff.

We completely demolished a large order of spinach-and-shrimp Asian-style dumplings ($12.50 for six ) for similar reasons. The dumplings – like Chinese potstickers or Japanese gyoza – were lightly steamed and packed with bits of shrimp and just a little spinach.

But the tahini-based sauce kicked this dish into the four-star category. The ground sesame lent a sumptuous texture and richness. We guessed at a little soy sauce, at least, among other ingredients. It was very clear why this dish has stayed on Santacafé’s menu all these years.

As an entree, one of my guests chose trout, on the list of the evening’s specials ($29). Two filets of ruby trout arrived, dazzling atop a pile of saffron risotto and fresh steamed spinach. Everything was perfectly cooked and the bright green cilantro pesto lent an unusual flavor note without overpowering the trout.

My other guest chose a Santacafé standard, ribeye steak ($32) served with frites, a dark and savory port reduction and a little dish of mayonnaise-like red chile béarnaise for dipping the frites. The steak was large and perfectly cooked, the frites shoestring thin and crispy, and the béarnaise just the right extra touch.

Prime rib ($29) was among the specials and I was unable to resist. It, too, was excellent and was served with frites rather than the more usual mashed potatoes, as well as the same port reduction and chile-laced béarnaise as the steak.

In retrospect, and only because of its similarity to the steak, I regretted not choosing a wildly different entree. Santacafé’s standing menu offers choices ranging from chicken with champagne risotto to lobster salad, a chile relleno or lamb chops with basil mashed potatoes.

Or, by choosing from the short “casual favorites” section of the menu, I could have gotten enchiladas or a even a green chile cheeseburger (with house-made ketchup, of course).

Dessert quelled my momentary disappointment and left both my guests, including one passionate francophile, breathless with admiration. She praised that silky classic, the créme brûlée, and appreciated the more countrified texture of the lemon-and-coconut tart (each $8.50).

But it was the chocolate mousse ($10) that proved the show-stopper. It was thick enough to qualify as ganache, bittersweet enough to satisfy the most discriminating chocofanatic and astonishingly imaginative in presentation. The mousse filled a large, teardrop-shaped hard chocolate shell. Small pools of caramelized pineapple and blood orange sauces complemented the chocolate. (Revelation: chocolate and pineapple is much more interesting than the more commonplace chocolate and raspberry.)

A dollop of barely sweet whipped cream with a scattering of red-chile-and-sugar-glazed pecans completed the presentation. It took all three of us, but we managed to eat every bit.

Santacafé’s service remains impeccable and its Georgia O’Keeffe-like, minimalist decor remains pleasing, despite three decades of familiarity. Reservations are in order here – by the time we left, both the restaurant and the adjoining bar were packed.

In summer, when dining on the interior patio is so delightful, you may have to make your plans well in advance.