Geronimo - April 14, 2011

Geronimo, the Apache warrior, slew thousands of soldiers in defense of his people and land. Geronimo, the restaurant, has slain thousands of palates in defense of their heralded place in the Santa Fe food scene.

As I drive down Canyon Road to dine at what for a long time has been one of my favorite restaurants, I am reminded of the ever-altering landscape of the artsy avenue -- galleries change names, artists move in and out of fashion, restaurants come and go, chefs hop kitchens, and food trends change. Somehow the stylish and trendy Geronimo stays on top, slipping only slightly, occasionally, as it treads the waters of owner changes, chef moves and economy shifts.

A steadying rudder certainly is front-of-the-house man Chris Harvey whose square jaw and movie star good looks start the night off with a smile. Warm welcomes and great service will never go out of style. The décor, too, shall never age; diners will always love to slide across the leather banquettes and face into the cream-colored room observing what the other patrons are eating, drinking, and loving. With the return of Eric Distefano as Executive Chef and Charles Thompson back by his side as Chef de Cuisine, happy days are here again.

Though Distefano left Geronimo almost two years ago to take over and re-energize The Coyote Café, his return here is not a step backward for the talented chef, but a rethinking of the food that made him famous. If Coyote Café is a thrilling, wild rollercoaster ride in the Santa Fe food amusement park, Geronimo is a breathtaking and calming spin on the ferris wheel. Both rides are exciting and a must-visit, but satisfying in different ways.

To dissect the menu at Geronimo is to realize that the team of Distefano and Thompson both set trends and follow them; they lead the pack as well as tune in to what's happening in the global food world and bring it home. As artists they use the plate as a palette. The goal — to make the food look as good as it tastes. A crab, lobster, and heirloom tomato salad from the summer menu is a gorgeous case in point. The nonconventional pairing of sea and garden easily works; the acid of the ripe tomatoes tarts up the sweet crustaceans in a pop art design — summer on a plate.

I love a menu that challenges my vocabulary for exotic ingredients. Elements of Asian cooking: the lemony yuzu, spring rolls, hoisin, sticky rice, lychee, sake, Sichuan pepper, and miso dashi meld comfortably with touches of French: gastrique, beurre rouge, cider honey vinaigrette, rouille. How Distefano prevents French Asian fusion from becoming con-fusion is his understanding of the integrity of each ingredient; he doesn't force flavors to get along like communists and capitalists. He respects each gastronomic regime.

Fancy dishes like a Maryland Jumbo Lump Crab Cake get a luscious dressing-down with a simple chive egg salad. (Uptown swells have always loved mixing with the downtown set.) Crispy foie gras is tucked into a won ton wrapper with sun-dried apricots, becoming dramatic pillars that are crisp-fried and given a sweet-sour orange dip. The flavor pairings might not sound like they will enjoy each others company at first read but when they do, which is over and over again, the palate is surprised and delighted. Even tastes that I can't quite wrap my taste buds around make sense on the first bite; a faith in the chef fills in the blanks.

As waiters whisk plates stacked with the architectural "futomaki" style Caesar salad, customers crane their necks to take in the theatrics. We already love buttermilk fried chicken, so buttermilk fried rock hen seems familiar despite its Udon noodle perch set afloat in a rich smokey dashi broth.

Happily the Geronimo "greatest hits" from menus past are still on the bill of fare but with new incarnations. The Peppery Elk Tenderloin and Fiery Grilled Mexican Prawns are too famous to delete; Distefano knows that and simply tweaks them instead.

The creativity doesn't stop there. Desserts are complex and downright fun. Tempura Banana Chopsticks are served with dips of caramel sauce and banana toffee ice cream. The ordinary Lemon Meringue Pie gets Distefan-ized with yuzu, the intense Japanese citrus sauce, and Thai basil ice cream. A star anise ice cream jumps off the spoon and socks you in the mouth with its intensity and vigor. Lemongrass Pineapple Tarte Tatin — yum!

To set the culinary bar this high takes guts and determination. The fact that Distefano has the knowledge and understanding for such a vast collection of ingredients, cooking styles, and flavor components is testimony to his growth as a chef, as a restaurateur, and as a person. No big ego here just a big heart. Geronimo is back, our appetites re-conquered.