I have known about Geronimo for about half of its life.
This year (2009), this Santa Fe fine dining institution turned 18. In that time span, the restaurant has passed through a number of owners.
After a string of failed ownerships (I’ve heard two of its previous owners had gone bankrupt), Geronimo was recently reunited with Eric DiStefano, its original chef, who had left the restaurant a number of years ago to take over Mark Miller’s acclaimed Coyote Cafe.
I’ve read Geronimo’s cookbook many times. I can’t say that DiStefano’s Asian-inspired food has ever called to me; it intrigued more than tempted. But the place itself, a small porch-lined house along the historic and locally important Canyon Road, has. With DiStefano’s return, I figured that this Santa Fe institution deserved a visit.
There’s some dispute as to which Gerónimo the restaurant is named after. Gerónimo Lopez built the adobe house in 1756. Subsequently, a Gerónimo Gonzalez bought the place in 1756.
Either way, this house is steeped in history, none of which has anything to do with that famous Apache Indian chief by the same name.
The restaurant is larger than it looks from the outside, owing to two large rooms tucked behind the front dining room. The decor can only be described as upscale Southwestern: moose antlers, clay-colored leather high-backs and booths, and large horse prints. I love it.
The staff uniforms, however, are something to puzzle over. They look like a failed Project Runway experiment involving Ralph Lauren and a regatta crew. (I believe those uniforms are for sale on their website under “Merchandise.”)
Prices here are high – most of the main courses were situated well within the thirty-dollar range. Portion sizes are certainly commensurate within that bracket. They are enormous – almost absurdly so for the single diner.
Here is what we three ordered. In the main course section, the last two dishes were halved and plated together upon request.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos, or on the hyperlinked dish titles below for the individual links.
Organic Hot House Rice Vinegar Cucumber Salad
Spicy cremini onion chop sticks, truffle vinaigrette. ($11)
Steamed Shrimp & Chile Purses
Spicy sesame yuzu & sweet and sour lychee sauces. ($14)
Chilled Melon Soup
Cucumber, sake, key lime, fresh mint & Dungeness crab. ($15)
Green Miso Sea Bass
Black truffle, scallions, fresh made ramen noodles,
lobster miso and citron rouille. ($36)
Ginger Glazed Rock Hen & Udon Miso Bowl
Buttermilk fried hen, lemongrass,
udon noodles, baby bok choy, miso dashi. ($28)
Fiery Sweet Chile and Honey Grilled Mexican White Prawns
Jasmine almond rice cakes, frisee red onion salad, and
yuzu basil aioli. ($35 full main course)
Grilled Maine Lobster
Semolina rigatoni pasta, spinach, soy beans,
creamy garlic chile sauce. ($42 for a full portion)
Coconut and Jasmine Ice Cream Bombe
Blueberry soup and Feuille de Brick Tuille. ($10)
Green Tea and Star Anise Ice Cream
Sesame Croutons and Fresh Lychee. ($10)
Mandarin Orange “Creamsicle” Cake
Orange Soaked Genoise and Creme Fraiche Whipped Cream. ($10)
Lemongrass Pineapple Tarte Tatin
Lemongrass ice cream & Mango Compote. ($10)
I’m fairly skeptical about Asian fusion cuisine. It’s rarely good, and even less likely to be convincing.
But overall, the food at Geronimo really impressed me.
DiStefano certainly isn’t afraid of flavor. The food here is intense and bold.
He’s not afraid to use spice. Almost every dish had a touch of heat to it.
In some cases, the use of seasonings was a bit heavy-handed. “Fiery Sweet Chile and Honey Grilled Mexican White Prawns,” for example, were too fiery. While I enjoyed the heat, it obliterated the flavor of the two, giant, grilled shrimp, and rendered the yuzu-basil aioli impotent. The jasmine rice cake had a golden, crunchy shell, but the fragrance of the rice was also lost amidst the chile.
The “Organic Hot House Rice Vinegar Cucumber Salad” was aggressively salted, but otherwise fine. The “cremini mushroom chopsticks” were a curious creature. I expected them to be crunchy. Instead, they were more like long, thin strips of breaded and fried cremini-onion jerky/sausage. They were tasty.
The rest of the dishes, however, were quite balanced.
Our main courses were better than our first courses.
“Green Miso Sea Bass” was my favorite dish of the night. There was enough fish to feed two. Coated in a fragrant green miso paste, the fish was incredibly silky and moist. It sat in a generous bath of warm lobster miso broth that had been thickened with a touch of citron rouille and thoroughly perfumed with slices of black truffles (or, I suspect, truffle oil). (The server nor the kitchen could tell me whether the truffles were canned or summer truffles. This was confounding.) The noodles were correctly cooked and generously threaded with black trumpets.
The “Ginger Glazed Rock Hen & Udon Miso Bowl” wasn’t far behind. The hen (dark meat) was juicy, moist, and incredibly flavorful. It had been fried, then glazed with slightly sweet ginger sauce. Flocked with chopped peanuts, the nuggets were a sticky, delicious mess.
The soup was spot on – a mild dashi full of elastic udon noodles threaded with finely cut bok choy. Together with the rock hen, it was high-end Japanese comfort.
My main course, assembled from a half order of each, the fiery prawns and the “Grilled Maine Lobster,” was the weakest of the three.
The lobster tail had been split, grilled and served on thick rings of polenta pasta dressed with a warm, rather bland, creamy sauce. As far as grilled lobsters go, it was alright. The meat could have been just a touch less firm, but it was more than palatable with a good smoky char at the fringes. The edamame beans tossed in were a bit of a non sequitur, but they were good.
Our first courses weren’t bad, but they were not nearly as solid as our main courses.
In addition to that over-salted cucumber salad, my chunky “Chilled Melon Soup” was a bit flat on flavor. And the crab meat mounded in the center of the bowl was a touch fishy tasting. But that crab had a nice texture and was coated with a delicious, mildly spicy dressing, which was cooled by the honeydew and cucumber soup.
The dumpling dough used for the “Steamed Shrimp & Chile Purses” was absurdly thick (though it was nicely cooked). I don’t understand how they could have cooked these by steaming alone, as boiling seems like a much more plausible method. The filling was comprised of finely minced shrimp spiked with chile paste. The texture was more crumbly than meatball-like. But it wasn’t dry, which was its saving grace. Of the two sauces that came with the purses, the soy sauce one was much more familiar and traditional. The sweet and sour lychee sauce was not bad, but utterly foreign.
The pastries at Geronimo were not only beautifully presented, but were delicious.
More of a Baked Alaska than a bombe, the “Coconut and Jasmine Ice Cream Bombe” was probably my favorite of the four desserts we tried. The meringue coating was way too thick, gooey, and sweet. But the ice cream inside, a swirl of milky, white coconut ice cream and purple, jasmine-perfumed ice cream, was excellent. Sitting atop a deep purple blueberry sauce, it was a gorgeous marriage of tropical and floral flavors.
Simply presented with sesame candy wafers, both ice creams in my “Green Tea and Star Anise Ice Cream” duo were very good. The plate was filmed with a very thin layer of light green jasmine syrup – the color was very pretty. Overall, it was so pleasing in its simplicity that I was willing to overlook the dragon eyes that were billed on the menu as lychees.
When I think of tarte tatin, I expect something rich and caramelized. The “Lemongrass Pineapple Tarte Tatin“ was more of a “refreshing” tarte tatin than a comforting one. I’m not sure if I wanted the shredded pineapple topping to be more caramelized, or if I liked it the way it was. Had it been more caramelized, I suppose the delicate lemongrass flavor in the the pineapple might have been lost.
The tatin was composed of thin layers of chopped pineapple layered with what appeared to be a thin pancake, which had gone soft. I expected something either more flaky or hearty. Instead, this was just wet and crumbly. The tatin came with a small scoop of lemongrass ice cream, which I didn’t get to taste.
In addition to those three desserts that we ordered, the “Mandarin Orange “Creamsicle” Cake” arrived as a gift from the kitchen. Spongy, soft, moist, creamy, and lightly flavored with orange (think orange tres leches cake), this cake – a layered, cylindrical tower of genoise saturated with orange cream and topped with layer of mandarin orange gelee – seemed impossibly (and harmlessly) light.
Service was excellent – nothing short of what the prices or the purported “seriousness” of this sort of restaurant would demand and offer.
Overall, our dining experience at Geronimo was very positive. We were ready to leave this restaurant quite happy.
And then the valet lost the keys to our rental car.
At first, a cab was offered to take us back to the hotel. After a good half hour of waiting for the valet to find our keys – while facilitating other patrons (there was only one valet on duty) – the cab option seemed to have disappeared.
The valet ended up taking my guests and me back to our hotel. The restaurant did nothing more than to offer to have the car re-keyed in the morning. When I got back to my hotel, I called the rental company and was told that they could send a locksmith right away. When I called the restaurant to tell them this, they informed me that they had found the keys (apparently, the valet had given the keys to another patron, who spent a few hours down the street at a bar before realizing they had the wrong set). An apology was made over the phone, and the restaurant promised that the valet would be contacting me to come pick me up at the hotel to take me back to the restaurant.
More than half an hour later, the valet called, apologizing for the mix-up and delay. Apparently, he couldn’t leave the restaurant until all of the other guests had left. Thus, three hours after my meal had ended – in the dead of the night – I was picked up and rushed, at dangerously high speeds, back to the restaurant, where I was left in an empty parking lot alone. I was not impressed. At all.
Despite the rather botched ending to the evening, I maintain that Geronimo was one of the two best dining experiences I had in Santa Fe (Cafe Pasqual’s was the other). The food was surprisingly good (DiStefano was in that night, a factor that many have cited as being crucial to a successful meal at his restaurants) and the service in the front of the house was excellent.
Geronimo is clearly a first-class institution in Santa Fe. It’s a pity that our otherwise lovely evening ended on a sour note.
Executive Chef Eric Distefano
724 Canyon Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico