Santa Fe abounds with world-class restaurants. So much so that knowing which ones consistently serve a worthy dish can almost be a full time job. To that end, I felt it would be good to take a tour of the tried and true eateries as well as some of the new ones that are garnering immediate celebration so I may share my own, and the Inn’s guest services staff’s, recommendations with a more personal, intimate perspective.
I started with Chef Matt Yohalem’s Il Piatto, an Italian Farmhouse Kitchen; given my last three experiences there had been nothing short of perfect. Please, have your napkin ready and prepare to salivate. My companion and I sampled different dishes each time - Gorgonzola and Walnut Ravioli, Heluka Pork “Osso Bucco, and Braised Duckling Pappardelle - just to name a few. A particularly lush Panarroz Jumilla 2011 quickly became our favorite wine to cleanse our palate between each savory dish.
Located at 95 W Marcy Avenue - a short walk from the Inn, Il Piatto resides in an old adobe home; the smooth, double, cappuccino colored walls decorated with a series of pictures capturing the different restaurants Chef Yohalem has visited around the world. Each photograph represents restaurants that have inspired him or validated his culinary expressions - one such practice centering on creating close relationships with local farmers and producers well before “farmers market fresh” became the staple of restaurant standards. Chef Yohalem prides himself on his working relationship with Romero Farms, a local farm that consistently grows quality produce. Not only do they work together to keep Il Piatto’s menu fresh and local, they also work together for community events, raising money and supporting a variety of local businesses and non-profits. Naturally, he also works with other local farms to maintain his food staples as well as get the best that day based on weather issues, etc.
It was a cool, bright morning when I walked from the Inn to chat with Chef Yohalem. As I sat waiting for him to complete some business, I took in the soft, mood inspiring music and the steady bustling of the staff’s preparations. Large windows fill the street sidewall, letting Santa Fe’s natural light blanket the barn wood style hard floors. Before I could even sit down, a server had a bottle of still water for me, eagerly asking if they could get me anything else.
Chef Yohalem joined me shortly thereafter and we dove into his history as a restaurateur and his love of Santa Fe almost immediately. His story resonates true to many others - having been drawn here for a job interview, he immediately took a liking to Santa Fe’s skiing, opportunity for the quieter lifestyle, farmers market, opportunity for land, dogs, and scenery—all that, but still the ability to provide world class cuisine to discriminating patrons. So when that opportunity didn’t pan out, he decided to make it happen himself. Much like one of his dishes, the flavor of his experience prior to that was varied, vast, and nearly overwhelming in its richness. Having started in his youth, like many of us in the hotel/restaurant business, he learned from the veterans around him--cooks, sous chefs, and chefs in the variety of kitchens he sweated in over the years. Quickly into the conversation I gave up keeping track of the multiple restaurant names in New York and throughout the country that he cut his teeth in. Ultimately, I learned that after his talents became apparent he was encouraged to do whatever he could to learn in Europe, which he immediately did; seeing first-hand the heartfelt dining and farm relationships these restaurants cultivated as though there was no other way of doing it.
Knowing how hard it is to succeed in the business and often incredulous as to what motivates someone to yet become a restaurateur, I asked him what started him on his path: “I was hungry.” No metaphor there. His parents worked many hours and often late, leaving him to take care of himself and his sisters via a collection of to-go meals. He quickly figured out that the $20 left for a handy to-go order could be parlayed into a much better meal if he bought his own groceries and started creating his own dishes. At 14 he got a job delivering pizza, both for the money and the exciting social life it provided a young man in New York. The rest is an round-about yet delicious journey leading to downtown Santa Fe.
So here he is today, successfully running one of Santa Fe’s steady, prized restaurants. I asked the silly question of what dish was his favorite, to which he explained there was no such item. Instead, his favorite thing about the menu is its constant rotation, responding to the best available produce and meats at the time for the season and what currently inspires him. Certainly there are the non-negotiable standards demanded by his local following, but I whole-heartedly recommend going back sooner then later if a particular item has especially pleased you. If you are more of a night owl, they offer an amazing Late Night Prix Fixe from 9pm-10:30pm, which includes three courses for just $20.14 per person.
For those out there that have special dietary needs, Il Piatto is well equipped to work with you, yet another example of the attention to detail and guest service found there.
Until next time, Buen Provecho! SamG of IOG