Sazón Restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Chef Fernando Olea chose the perfect name, Sazón, for his gourmet restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sazón literally translates from Spanish as seasoning but means so much more. It incorporates family, legacy, and culture to transport a recipe from the ordinary to the sublime. Sazón is that special personal touch of flavors and textures that a chef brings to a recipe to produce its magical ideal.
Well-trained servers begin every diner’s experience with an educational amuse bouche tasting of six moles to be savored with mini tortillas. They are a surprise. The complex flavors bear the touch of recipes handed down to Chef through generations. Tasting the variety of moles is a pleasure in itself, but also allows guests to pair their entree choices with the house recommended mole or to choose their own personal favorite.
Although one of the moles has a taste most people expect, made with poblano pepper, dark chocolate, chili and peanuts; the moles range from the sweetest “Blanca” a combination of apricots, pecans, pinon nuts, white chocolate, and habanero pepper to “Coloradito,” the most spicy which includes tomato, garlic, onion, and guajillo and arbol chilles. Our three favorites were the “Verde,” made from tomatillo, spinach, cilantro, and jalapeño; the unusual “Rosa” that includes beets, chipotle, and white chocolate; and the most special, “New Mexican,” created by chef Fernando to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary in 2009. The sophisticated yet earthy combination of local ingredients are apricots, roasted piñon nuts and pecans, white chocolate, and chimajo pepper.
Sazón’s menu contains a wealth of gourmet Mexican and Southwestern recipes including several signature dishes. Perhaps the most famous is not for the squeamish, but most diners do try it – fried crispy baby grasshoppers paired with a spicyThai chili sauce atop mini tortillas. This adventure of flavors and textures is complemented by avocado cream and citrus chili. Even if the grasshoppers don’t become a favorite, they do make for an engaging memory with which to regale friends.
Among the many culinary spices and specialties it uses, the restaurant offers mini tortillas with corn truffle, a fungus known as corn smut on Wikipedia, or as huitlacoche in Mexico. Like many ingredients, this unusual product that imparts a deep and distinctive indigenous flavor is cured in Santa Fe.
All the food is enthralling, but one dish we have already returned for and would again and again is the delectable sopa de amore (soup of love) that we shamelessly recommended to all diners seated around us. Close your eyes and imagine a smooth cream of roasted poblano, complimented by chunks of blue lump crab, and topped with dense amaretto foam sprinkled with chocolate and cinnamon. As we were instructed by the server, begin by tasting each of the layers separately and savoring the distinctiveness before trying all in combination. In addition to having enjoyed great soups throughout the world, we also specialize in making unusual soups at home, yet there is none we can think of that we would put above this.
We could go on and on endlessly describing dishes that have been crafted and infused by chef Fernando’s passion, but you must taste them yourself. Oh, maybe just one more – the best chili en nogada (chili in walnut sauce) that we’ve ever tasted. Envision poblano chili with ground pork, lamb and beef, bits of nuts and dried fruits in a creamy white walnut sauce with jalapeño balsamic and showered with pomegranate seeds. Our palates have been graced with some wonderful examples of this dish. The most memorable was at Red Cabbage Restaurant in Puerto Vallarte, Mexico, which recreates the wedding dinner of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Further on, we will make a connection between that restaurant and this.
Lest you think that there are no recognizable choices on the menu, many of the meat, fish, and seafood dishes will be familiar, but each with a unique touch. Try the spicy, back-pepper-encrusted, aged angus beef tenderloin or the shrimp enchilada in a creamy sauce of zucchini blossoms and melted cheese. Each day Chef also prepares a variety of daily specials served with one of his signature moles.
In addition to the specialties noted above, a cornucopia of other antojitos is served, such as crudités of beef tenderloin, muscovy duck, pork loin, salmon and tuna cooked on hot stone and served with house-made infused oil, salsa, aioli and tortillas. Or savor pork belly tacquitos; mouthwatering queso fundido of melted Asadero cheese, mushrooms, and poblano strips with flour tortillas served in a piping hot cast iron skillet; or grilled St. Louis style ribs with a chili Pasilla rub. These great dishes are also available at the bar if you are looking for lighter fare or something more informal.
As a mescaleria/tequileria, Sazón curates a large and varied menu of spirits. We enjoyed a flight of Mexican liquors that included three extremely smooth varieties: a strong and smoky mescal; a bold tequila; and a (relatively) mild sotal. Lemon wedges accompany along with sangrita shots of tart pineapple juice infused with lime, jalapeño, and bright herbs, and by a tomato extract with orange, spices, and heat. They offer a full complement of cocktails with a regional emphasis and wine and beer as well.
The restaurant is a visual delight, having walls that are replete with colorful paintings by several Mexican artists. The dominant subject of the paintings is the aforementioned Frida Kahlo, whom the restauranteurs deeply respect. However, the largest mural in the restaurant presented to Chef by Artist Federico de la Vega illustrates all the ingredients of the chef’s New Mexican Mole.
Few communities in the United States possess the concentration of artistry as Santa Fe. In particular, it is noted as the country’s third largest retail art market, its finest summer opera company, and as a foodie’s delight. As the font of Southwestern cooking, it is home to a number of great restaurants that bridge American and Mexican cuisine. The AAA four-diamond rated Sazón, only three years old, reigns in the topmost echelon of Santa Fe’s fine dining experience. Sazón resides at 221 Shelby Street, Santa Fe, NM, and the phone number is 505-983-8604.