California is heading for Santa Fe.
Not only is this distinctive American city drawing tourists by the million -- including vacationing Californians -- it is attracting chefs to feed them. Chefs from some of San Francisco's most prominent restaurants are transferring their basic training in California Cuisine to the land of the blue corn tortilla.
Mark Miller, for four years chef at Chez Panisse, then owner and chef of the Fourth Street Grill and the Santa Fe Bar and Grill, all in Berkeley, said that 20 years ago he was pronouncing taco TAY-co. Now he has moved to Santa Fe and is on the verge of opening the Coyote Cafe, which will have what he calls "modern Southwest" food. Similar emigrations have been sighted from Greens and Campton Place in San Francisco, though neither of them involved a defection of the head chef.
In the meantime, the old guard is changing in Santa Fe. Josie's moved a year ago, though just down the street, and doesn't seem to be any worse for the transplanting. Maria's has been sold. And the number of traditional cooks is shrinking. "It's a little bit of a time warp," said Miller, adding that the cooking is frozen into a moment about 20 years ago, an arbitrary point that has come to represent authenticity.
* Miller considers the food of that particular moment heavy, redundant. Everything is red. "You have beans and enchiladas for breakfast and beans and tortillas for lunch," and more of the same at dinner. Furthermore, said Miller, "Southwest food here is monotoned in flavor." There is red sauce -- made with dried chilies -- and green sauce -- made with fresh chilies. But it is all one kind of chili, and the seasoning seldom goes beyond that to include herbs or even garlic. There is no range of flavors, the food dies on the palate, Miller has concluded. Furthermore, complained Miller, even cornmeal is underutilized -- used only for tortillas, not for dumplings or pancakes or crepes or pasta.
Miller wants to go back further in time in order to create something new. He is going to bring back wild Indian flavors, he said, and wild herbs. He'll serve dishes like Navajo lamb stew with wild sage dumplings, made with real wild grazing Navajo lamb. He'll have smoked chili cilantro crepes with shrimp and tomatillo sauce and cre me fraiche, and tamarind squab, and sweet potato tamales. Being tired of mesquite, he will grill with pecan wood instead.
Marie O'Shea is already creating such an old-new cuisine at the Galisteo Inn in Galisteo, just south of Santa Fe. Originally a New Yorker, then "a vegetarian and health nut," as she put it, O'Shea was breakfast chef at Campton Place when she was hired for the Galisteo Inn, which finally opened a year ago.
At this quiet, peaceful inn, where people often come to work with psychic therapist Chris Griscom, who lives in Galisteo, O'Shea cooks breakfast and dinner five days a week for guests, Sunday brunch for outsiders -- advertised as "Sunday brunch and a hot tub $18."
O'Shea sees chefs like Miller and herself "creating a whole new cuisine" with southwestern ingredients, she said. She had never cooked with green chilies before coming to New Mexico, though southwestern food was already appearing in San Francisco by the time she left. In a wonderful old adobe house that is the Inn, with fireplaces even in one of the bathrooms and handmade furniture as well as handwoven rugs, O'Shea is learning how to use new ingredients and make do without old ones.
"One of my first brunches was scrambled eggs with cre me fraiche and caviar. I don't do that anymore," she explained. It didn't fit the place. Also, some foods are less available. "It's not like California, it's not like New York. You don't have the choice," she said, and she has to go shopping herself to three or four stores twice a week to find the quality she wants.
With the ingredients she has been introduced to, she has already devised an original and wonderful variation on the standard New Mexico breakfast. It starts with fresh orange juice as rich and thick as apricot nectar, and often includes her spectacular maple pin on nut cornmeal muffins. For her huevos rancheros she uses basically the same blue cornmeal, green chilies and eggs that serve tradition. But she uses them differently -- the chilies raw as well as cooked, the blue corn in thick, light tortillas rather than the familiar flat, firm ones. Instead of frying the eggs, she poaches them, and because she likes her plates to look neat, she does not just pour sauce over a mess of tortillas and eggs, but arranges all on a plate, garnishes with cilantro and cre me fraiche and an untraditional raw tomatillo salsa.
Signs are already pointing to the lone exploration of a few individual New Santa Fe cooks coalescing into a communally shared cuisine. Mark Miller has adopted Marie O'Shea's pin on muffins. They may become the blackened redfish of the Southwest. Tabletalk
Finding delicious southwestern food in New Mexico is a hit-or-miss proposition nowadays, and even within one restaurant the red sauce may be terrific and the green sauce terrible or vice versa (just as red may be hotter in one restaurant, green in another). So after a week of eating from Santa Fe to Taos, here is a guide to the scattered highlights; keep in mind that other dishes at the same restaurants didn't warrant mention -- for good reason.
* defrr Santa Fe: Blue corn enchiladas and desserts such as lemon souffle' and fresh apricot pie at Josie's; salmon tamal at Casa Sena; tamales from a wholesaler named Merandero La Posas off Cerillos Road; posole and carne adovada at Saab House in La Posada; breakfast burritos at Cafe Pasqual's; red chili sauce and beans at Beva's.
Outside Santa Fe: Breakfast at Galisteo Inn; appetizers and margaritas at Rancho de Chimayo in Chimayo; enchiladas con huevos with green sauce, breakfast burrito with mushrooms and cheese, blue corn and whole wheat tortillas and beans at North Town restaurant in Taos. The most ridiculous meal was at El Nido in Tesuque, where the chopped liver was far better than the bland, watery southwestern dishes, and we had such trouble getting our check that we asked three people, and eventually got two checks -- one for $54, another for $123. We paid the former and left. GALISTEO INN'S MAPLE PINON CORNMEAL MUFFINS (Makes about 18 muffins)
* 1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup toasted pin on nuts (pine nuts), ground
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, warmed
2 extra-large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pure maple syrup
In a large bowl combine flour, cornmeal, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Stir in ground pin on nuts. Put butter and cream in a saucepan and heat until butter is melted and cream is warm. In another bowl lightly beat the eggs. Add butter-cream mixture to eggs along with vanilla and maple syrup. Whisk until blended. Combine liquid and dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Spoon batter into oiled muffin tins, filling each 3/4 full. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, rotate the tins and bake another 4 minutes or until golden brown.