There is a saying that circulates in the creative community, "The poem is smarter than you are," which articulates a notion that shows deference to the creative process and artistic form being created, whether it be a sonnet, a watercolor painting, or a six course tasting menu with wines to pair. Whatever it is the artist is creating has its own life force, to borrow from novelist William Bradshaw. The artist cannot entirely decide, and an effective artist knows this notion relieves them of total control over their work. We've all tasted food wherein the chef was wound just a little too tight. Not good, not fun. Creativity is a slow stewing of inspiration, talent, knowledge and perspiration and somewhere between the stew and its reification, art is born.
Woven into this notion is the utmost respect for the medium-for a poet it would be the language itself, for Chef Martin Rios it is his ingredients. In fact, this respect acknowledges that the ingredients themselves are already an art-and I believe that part of Martin's humbleness in his work comes from that place. After a three-year stint at CIA in New York, Martin and his wife Jennifer (who is, not coincidentally, the director of Public Relations for the Eldorado Hotel) moved to France for six months. In Vonnas, Martin worked with Chef Georges Blanc at a three-star Michelin restaurant. "He would make me stare at the ingredients." Martin recalled. ""Martin,' he would say, "look at the mint! Look at how green it is, how beautifully shaped each leaf is-not broken, not yellowed.' He was crazy, but he taught me respect for each ingredient." It was there that Martin also opened his eyes to the colors. "Everything at the markets was at its peak-Chef Blanc was able to utilize the beauty of the earth-how to perfectly blanch chard to bring out the green, how not to tear the skin when plucking each quail."
Part of how this attention to the beauty of food manifests itself is in Chef Rios' plating techniques. He is a maniac about plating, and while some might pshaw about aesthetics on the plate, I would argue that this only becomes an issue when the food looks better than it tastes. And at The Old House, this is not the case. As men are apt to be, Martin is a very visual guy. He used to wander around museums, looking at modern art and would work on "drawing" some of those colors into his sauces and onto the plate. He starts each dish by sketching it out in the composition notebook he carries with him everywhere like a schoolboy, which makes me think of what his wife said about him. "Martin is a perpetual student, he would always be in school if he could. He loves to learn." After drawing out the shapes of things on the different plateware, then he will put it all together in the kitchen a few times to see how the flavor combinations work. "Then," he tells me with a lopsided grin, perhaps a bit embarrassed at his own perfectionism, "I literally bring the dish to the table because the light in the dining room is so different from that in the kitchen, and I want to make certain it looks as good out here as it does in there." And when the four amusèes of seared scallop atop morel mushrooms with heirloom tomatoes in the frame of carrot and parsley puree were set before us at dinner, we all looked up from our plates and smiled. "Could you bring me another one to look at," one of my companions said to our server, "while I eat this one?"
I struggled at first with the quote printed on the menu, which mentions simplicity twice, because Chef Rios' dishes don't seem simple. Take, for example, our second course-sashimi of Hawaiian ahi tuna and hamachi with ginger-soy sauce, a fennel-orange salad, verbena oil, tataki syrup and sake-watermelon gelee toped with salmon roe. Ten different ingredients, in my mind, does not necessarily belie simplicity. "Martin," I asked him because I want it to be known I've never been accused of literalism, "how is that simple? Break it down for me." And he does. "First," he says, "I look at what the seasons will give me." Stop right there. Do you see that? His language is very revealing-it's not, what is "in season" or "what I take from the seasons" but his ingredients already have agency, graciousness-they are a gift to him.
"Then, I am intrigued by the combination of ahi and hamachi," he continues. "They have similarities-a good amount of oil, a meaty taste-and both must be served raw because in no way do you want to hide the true flavor of the two items together." A little ginger soy to highlight those flavors, then the "refreshing" elements of fennel and citrus (punctuated even more so by the verbena oil) to alleviate a bit of the heaviness of the fish. The tataki syrup adds creaminess, and watermelon a hint of sweet and even as I write it seems like too much, but my palate remembers vividly when I ate it-it worked.
There's a lot more than ingredients going on for Chef Rios. Since this past September, he has taken over executive chefdom of the whole hotel, and he is excited about the possibilities of the promotion to be sure, but readily admits that the first thing he misses is being on the line as often as he used to be. The Eldorado is smartly utilizing Chef Rios' talents to their full extent. By mid-July, he will have created an entirely new menu for banquets, as well as a menu for lunch to be served exclusively in The Old House and on a new patio space. By mid-August, the entire restaurant will be renovated, which has not happened since its inception in 1987. The bar attached to the restaurant will also be revamped, inclusive of a new menu. Additionally, the lobby bar will also be privy to its own menu.
The four of us who ate at The Old House that Friday night had the intention of enjoying our meal as a prelude to the Santa Fe Opera. We certainly weren't going to rush dinner, but we quickly realized that food that had taken this amount of time and love to prepare required our full, slow attention. Happily, we never made it to the opera. How often do you get to say that sentence? I would eat at The Old House a thousand and one nights simply because Chef Martin Rios knows that the food is smarter than he is.
The Old House is situated in the Eldorado Hotel at 309 West San Francisco in Santa Fe. 505.995.4530. Now open for lunch in the Tavern Room and on the Portal from 11:30am to 2:30pm, Monday through Saturday. Dinner daily from 5:30 to 10pm