Restaurant Week in New Mexico
If Restaurant Week has come to a city near you, thank Joe Baum and Tim Zagat, the brains behind the concept. In 1992, they developed Restaurant Week as a four-day, New York-based event, intended to feed the reporters covering the Democratic National Convention. Since then, Restaurant Week has spread across the nation, and both high-end and more relaxed dining establishments offer you the chance to sample their food for a fixed price. Last year we explored New Mexico’s Restaurant Week.
“Hiiiiyaaahhh,” Lane cried.
“What’s that?” I queried, wondering if she was about to break out into some kind of martial arts move.
“It’s what I’m going to do with my knife,” she said. “Aren’t you excited about the knife skills class?”
Up until that point, I had been. However, eager anticipation morphed into concern at the idea of standing next to Lane, while she killed onions.
There are many demonstrations and cooking classes that take place during Restaurant Week. In past years, we’ve watched an Italian chef preparing some signature dishes. This time, we wanted a more interactive experience. The knife skills class at Ristra seemed the perfect choice.
We’d eaten at Ristra once and Lane still talks about their butternut squash soup, which really was excellent. Despite the New Mexican implications of the name, the restaurant’s chef is French. He was friendly, open to questions and very knowledgeable. He also had a charming accent that made all his observations seem like culinary gems. The description of the class had clearly stated that it was hands on and that we should bring our knives. I pitied any muggers trying to snatch my purse that day, as I was weighed down with blades, two of which could have been produced as murder weapons on Law and Order.
There must have been a slight miscommunication between the person writing the class description and the chef, as we didn’t get to practice any of the techniques—the class proved to be a demonstration. We were disappointed but still learned a lot. We covered seven different techniques. We were familiar with some of the terms, such as julienne and chiffonade. Others were new to us: ciseler, brunoise, mirepoix, concasser and salpicon.
The good-natured chef trotted back and forth to the kitchen to gather additional vegetables, as we quizzed him on the best way to flatten a pepper prior to cutting, or how to prepare a tomato properly. Lane and I decided that the ciseler was the most likely to result in finger amputation—we’ll be trying that one out asap!
The ciseler is intended for bulb vegetables, such as onions or shallots. First, cut the bulb in half, before laying the flat side against the chopping board. Then cut the bulb lengthways, leaving an uncut band at the top. (To visualize this, imagine the waistband of a hula skirt, with the cut strands hanging off it.) Next, the chef ran his knife horizontally through the vegetable (this is the point at which a slit wrist or maimed finger seems probable). For the last step, finely dice the bulb, by cutting against the grain. Voila! You now have a pile of identically-sized vegetable pieces that will cook evenly—or else a trip to the ER.
Here are some of the things we learned:
- The longer your cooking time, the larger you should chunk your vegetables.
- Small vegetables are chopped with small knives and large vegetables with large knives. (It seems obvious, but I tend to grab whichever knife is clean, regardless of size).
- Smashing garlic cloves leaves the flavor on the chopping board.
- Onions should be chopped on a bias. (The chef didn’t specifically tell us this, but he cut his onions this way. As he is French, all of his actions automatically become culinary law).
- Unless you are making a salad or tomato sauce, always remove a tomato’s seeds. Before cooking, remove the skin.
For our first restaurant of the week, we chose Restaurant Martin. We’d eaten here before and the food is always creative and delectable. Chef Martin Rios calls his cooking style American progressive and he has won more awards than Meryl Streep. To give you an overview, he has received the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence, is a semi- finalist for the 2011 James Beard ‘Best of the Southwest’ Award and has competed on Iron Chef America. He was also exceedingly kind to Brittany, who met him while on a culinary tour of Santa Fe. When he found out she was studying to become a pastry chef, he gave her a tour of the kitchen. That last part made us fans for life.
Dinner at Restaurant Martin was $35 per person—the more expensive of our two choices for the week. However, the plates served more than stood up to the price. My entrée – seared opah – was meaty and juicy. The accompanying sauce had a delightful tang and I discovered that I actually do like cooked fennel—we’d been slicing it far too thickly at home. Apparently we really needed that knife skills class, as no one likes fennel so chunky that it’s like an intravenous shot of licorice.
Lane tried the French Lentil Veloute, which included a duck confit, crème fraiche and candied pecans. The smokiness of the duck nicely complemented the earthiness of the lentils and the sweetness of the nuts. For her entrée, she selected braised short ribs and hangar steak, served in a red wine reduction sauce, with a potato pave. This was a Midwesterner’s fantasy come true.
A few days later, we hit Swiss Bakery Pastries and Bistro for lunch. My entrée was a curried chicken sandwich, with side salad. As expected, the baguette was freshly baked— satisfyingly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. But it was the curried chicken that made me grin. It was very similar to Coronation Chicken, a cold, curried chicken salad commonly eaten in the UK–my mother makes it extremely well. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it.
Lane ordered the chicken vol-au-vent. The puff pastry was golden, the chicken lightly browned and the accompanying cream sauce was light and flavorful. We got our dessert to go and picked between bite size offerings. I went for the mini éclair stuffed with chocolate-flavored cream. Lane opted for a little strawberry tart, which was very fresh. At $12 per person, this meal was as pleasant in mouth as it was on the wallet.
Although it varies from city to city, Restaurant Week usually falls near the end of winter, providing welcome excitement in the more dreary months. In 2012, we learned to massacre vegetables, so this year we’ll keep an eye out for something equally exciting–a flambé class perhaps, although I’d like to start spring with both eyebrows intact! Have you ever been to Restaurant Week? What was your experience like?