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Palace needs a bit of work to rule again

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Re-opened in September, the Palace is a mixed blessing. Tremendous anticipation accompanied the re-invention of this site, once perhaps Santa Fe’s most popular and most upscale restaurant. It gave chef Joseph Wrede and owner David Bigby a lot to live up to.

Operated as a popular upscale Italian restaurant for about 20 years (and as a Continental restaurant, also first-rate, before that), the Palace began a downhill skid when it was sold in 2003. After several failed re-incarnations, it closed in 2007.

The history of the Palace serves as both a handicap and an advantage. I’m optimistic that in the months to come, the Palace will move forward to again stand as one of Santa Fe’s “destination” restaurants. In the meantime, there’s work to be done creating consistently good food here.

Palace Restaurant and Saloon
LOCATION: 142 W. Palace Ave., Santa Fe, 505-428-0690
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Fridays; 4 p.m.-midnight Saturdays

I like the look of the restaurant, clean and simple with white, beige and brown as the main colors. Natural light streams in from Palace Avenue at lunch. In the evening, a large crystal chandelier is a focal point. The dining room has comfy-looking booths on one side, and a long bench with tables against the other, the wall that adjoins the bar with its with red flocked wallpaper and dark wood.

The restaurant was relatively empty the night of our visit, but the already popular bar had drawn a standing-room crowd of noisy celebrants. Our waitress told us carpet was due in a few days. When I went back to check, the carpet was in and I’m sure the place will be quieter. Service was good: informed, polite, efficient without smothering us.

So what about the food? What I sampled ranged from wonderful to marginal. I visited once for lunch and again, six weeks later, for dinner with five friends. One of my dinner guests astutely remarked that when it comes to food, sometimes simple works best. Like the new kid on the block, the Palace makes its missteps by trying too hard to make things special.

The menu offers traditional American fare, several Italian-inspired entrees and some eclectic choices. It gives a tip of the hat to the Southwest with a squash enchilada and a green chile cheeseburger at lunch. The day of my visit, evening specials included a vegan corn chowder, mussels and venison. We started off well, with good bread, warm, crusty and shaped like icicles, served with soft herb butter.

An appetizer, the marlin sashimi appetizer, put a new spin on “simple.” This delicious, creative dish paired soft, translucent slices of fresh pink raw fish with big leaves of kale fried as crisp as a potato chip. To counterbalance the subtle flavor of fish, the dish came with a salty and tart orange soy vinaigrette and a few small orange segments along the edge of the white plate. Original and beautiful, it was a highlight.

Speaking of starters, I liked the foie gras. Although the serving was small, the quality was high and the price, $16, seemed appropriate to the portion. The tender liver was garnished with crisp fried garlic slivers and served with a swirl of piƱon mole that added flavor and an attractive presentation. The waitress brought pitalike crackers immediately on request.

We tried two salads, the Caesar and the wilted greens. The Caesar came with fresh romaine chopped bite-sized, lots of grated Parmesan and a nice anchovy flavor in the dressing. The wilted salad, a small plate of simple greens, included chewy bits of bacon in the dressing.

Among the entrees, the excellent lamb tagine reflected a harmony of flavors created from slow cooking and a thoughtful hand with the spices. The meat was fork tender and the presentation included a separate tray of condiments.

The chicken also gets a thumbs up – the breast in a bit of herb broth and the thighs crisp confit. The grouper filet in mustard sauce with the fried green olives (more olives, please) was good, but needs a bit of tweaking. The combination of mustard sauce on the fish and the tomato puree that encircled the plate made the tastes confusing, but the crisp potato pancake worked well. The mussels were plump and tender but the broth had an overwhelming and bitter citrus flavor.

Our final two choices seriously reflected the “too much of a good thing” problem. The rib steak, served with a mushroom au jus, melted butter and a horseradish sauce, arrived floating in sauce. The meat itself was unexceptional, especially for $30. The scallops suffered from overcooking and a sauce that disguised their flavor, leaving a bitter aftertaste.

We tried three desserts and loved two of them. We devoured the luscious carrot cake packed with nuts and pineapple, crowned with a cream-cheese frosting. The flourless chocolate cake was dense and redolent with dark chocolate flavor, finished with a deep chocolate glaze. The chocolate gateau was nicely chewy, almost like a milk chocolate brownie, but very dry.

Our meal of six entrees, five appetizers and three desserts was $254.75 before tax and tip and without alcohol. Because we were six, the restaurant added a 20 percent gratuity. They graciously gave us three checks, one for each couple.