SANTA FE, N.M. — Over the past couple of years, the long-established Palace Restaurant seems to have been suffering through an identity crisis. We dined there on a Saturday evening last fall and found both the bar and the restaurant otherwise completely deserted. On a revisit late in January, about a month after a new team took over, we were heartened to see the place somewhat busier.
Let it be said up front: On both occasions, the food was very good. So was the service. So put The Palace back on your list, please.
We started our most recent dinner by sharing a couple of salads. The Palace Caesar ($9) was the standard arrangement of romaine laced with an unassuming vinaigrette and dustings of Manchego cheese, a tasty departure from tradition.
The roasted beet salad ($7) was the better choice. A small bed of mixed baby greens underpinned multicolored slices of beets roasted just short of cooked through and still crunchy. A roasted shallot vinaigrette lent tartness, as did a nice pat of chèvre cheese. A scattering of candied pecans echoed the sweetness of the beets.
One of my guests aimed for a vegetarian meal and found a perfect entree on The Palace’s menu: half an acorn squash stuffed with a somewhat incongruous melange of New Mexican ingredients ranging from green chile to summer squash and pintos, and then roasted ($19). It was quite tasty, we all agreed.
My other guest was in a meat mode and tried The Palace’s smoked pork chop ($26). It was excellent: a succulent, thick chop with a smoky barbecue sauce. It arrived on a bed of polenta, accompanied by roasted cippolini onions and braised kale. A Southern meal, made memorable by perfect preparation and the best of ingredients.
The Palace also offers fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cream gravy, as well as meat loaf, for those intent on a nostalgic flavor. Steaks, braised short ribs and a daily pasta offering also are on the menu, together with a handful of New Mexican dishes with a similar “home-cooking” slant. Think Frito pie and enchilada casserole.
The dessert choices echo the nostalgic theme with a brownie sundae and a fruit cobbler. We opted for the Mexican chocolate pot de creme, which promised the addition of cinnamon, and flan – which turned out to be creme brûlée and excellent. (Desserts are each $7.)
Palace fans will be pleased to know that the piano still graces the bar, but there was no music during our Saturday dinner. The new team appears committed to late-night attractions: Vanilla Pop’s recent gig started at 10 p.m., for example. The Palace menu reflects this shift in focus: the list of appetizer-like nibbles is longer than the list of entrees, and ranges from nachos and chips-and-dip to oysters both raw and Rockefeller-style, chicken wings with dressings, baked Brie en croute or a bowl of polenta with roasted mushrooms and cheese. There are also a few sandwich offerings.
The service, as noted, was excellent, although the waiter’s chief challenge of the evening, given the uncrowded state of the dining room, was to be attentive without seeming to hover.