I love the feeling in the air on a morning of a road trip departure. No matter when it is, they always feel the same to me. Cool, breezy with potential in the air. I love the ‘get out of jail free’ card that comes with a road trip. Relief from routine daily logistics. Time to talk about the subjects no one has the time for in a normal day. The sense of discretionary time.
I marvel at the vast expanse of space on the drive from Colorado to New Mexico. As one drives south along Colorado’s ‘Front Range’ (the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains) there are three significant cities and a sprinkling of towns with lots of space in between. I find myself wondering who lives in that one house you can see for what seems like 100 miles. Do they get lonely? What if they get the flu and can’t go to the grocery store? What is their occupation? Who lives in those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ towns? Do people grow up, get married to their neighbor and stay the rest of their lives in these 45 population bergs? Lots of space to ponder mindless things.
For those who have not had the opportunity to visit The Land of Enchantment it has a very particular look. Though there are mountains around Santa Fe and a respectable ski area, they are not the mammoth peaks defining the landscape. That is reserved for the vast open spaces and mesas, long flat-topped structures looked to have been pounded up from the underside of the ground to present a punctuating mark in the level landscape. The colors are earthen reds and rich browns with the dry feel of a dessert in the best way. Adobe (a mixture of clay, sand, water and some textured fibrous material such as straw) is a standard building material especially historically so if you are to see a photos that will be in it no doubt. It gives Santa Fe the cache visually of tone-on-tone dressing in the fashion world.
I usually research dining options before I land somewhere for a few reasons. I want to enjoy authentic cuisine of the region. I want to try to dine at places that use locally sourced food. I also always need to check they can accommodate gluten free diners. Generally places that are cooking from scratch are not an issue for gluten (in terms of easy navigation around it) though in New Mexico chile sauces often have flour. This trip was no different. I started Googling for any locally sourced dining.
I found a wonderful local project called the Farm to Restaurant Project. It is full of local food providers who source from local farms. Right up my alley. I reviewed their list for restaurants serving Southwestern cuisine in tandem to checking with my long time friend Colleen who recently moved from Santa Fe. As fate would have it the restaurant which had caught my eye was one she declared her all time fave in Santa Fe. A local favorite, always crowded with great food. La Casa Sena. I booked it.
La Casa Sena is on East Palace Avenue; one block east of the Plaza (the center of downtown Santa Fe) and across the street from the St. Francis Cathedral. When you enter the courtyard of the La Casa Sena compound you are transported back to old Santa Fe. This was the oldest house (really a sprawling estate) in Santa Fe built in 1868. It was purchased in the early 1980’s and renovated, maintaining the original architecture by Gerald Peters, a local art dealer who has tastefully adorned the restaurants. It opened in 1983 and has been a beloved local staple ever since, staying committed to local style cuisine and the finest of ingredients.
La Casa Sena offers multiple options. There is a wine store and lounge providing admirable selections rivaling any urban shop. La Cantina is a lively lounge with local cuisine and waiters serenading tables with Broadway show tunes (which sounded more than I could muster after 6 straight hours on the road to get here). We opted for the Dining Room, which offered an exciting menu in an upscale chic setting yet with a relaxed charm.
I pulled out an old Santa Fe travel guide, The Irreverent Guide, which reminded me the demand to dress ‘up’ is rarely called for here and might entail wearing a white shirt for a gent. By that standard La Casa Sena represents the finer dining experience in Santa Fe though I felt right at home in jeans and an embroidered Moroccan top with sandals.
I scanned the menu for items that would be unique and typify the region and was not disappointed in the least. For the table we chose to share the Quinoa ‘Tamale’, with caramelized sweet onions, crimini mushrooms, sweet corn with a tomatillo-avocado sauce all nestled in a pig-tailed open corn husk pot. The presentation was totally fun and unexpected and the flavors rich and perfectly balanced.
Our waiter informed me all produce is locally sourced and available at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market on Saturdays at this time of year. Most of their meat is from New Mexico (fish is the exception but all from ‘clean’ sources). For my main course I selected Red Chile crusted Natural Pork, roasted root vegetables, red chard, with Veal Jus and opted for their suggested wine pairing of their own blend of red (2008). I loved the crusting of the pork which added an earthy almost paprika-ishness to the meat but by no means overpowered the natural flavor of the pork itself. Nor was it ‘hot’ as you might think if not familiar with variations of New Mexican food seasoning. The root vegetables were delicious, perfectly cooked, as was the chard adorning the top of this innovative dish.
Other entrée options included Ruby Trout baked in adobe clay wrapped in banana leaves with lemon and basil served with apple risotto and parsley sauce. New Mexico lamb shoulder mixiote, chayote stir fry, roasted purple potatoes, huitacoche demi-glace. The list goes on but you get the drift.
I felt as great as these first two dishes were, the roof was blown off with the desserts. We ordered two for the table starting with Lavender Vanilla Crème Brulee with caramelized habanero sugar. All the lusciousness of a classic and perfectly made crème brulee with the simmering heat in a bite of the sugar top.
The second was something we pondered before ordering, really unable to visualize. Chocolate Red Chile Soup with sugared pinons and fresh strawberries. Incredible. Our wait staff helped with the ordering describing it a bit like melted ice cream in taste but taking us through the process of heating the cream, adding the chocolate and whipping it up. This was unusual to anything our table had enjoyed and was nothing less than spectacular in flavor. The chef was masterful at integrating the various chilies in all the dishes, harvesting their best flavor but not coming down heavy handedly on heat. Definitely recommend!