Date July 31, 2006 at 10:00 PM
Imagine a moment like this: you are walking down Marcy Street in the bustling downtown plaza neighborhood of Santa Fe. It's a late summer morning. Chef James Campbell Caruso, a white apron tied loosely around his waist, is outside of his new restaurant, La Boca, watering the red geraniums in the flower box, or perhaps sweeping the front walk. He greets you cordially, his smile an invitation to pursue your curious thoughts of "What happened to Paul's?" or perhaps, "What is this new place?" and "Who is this guy?" Sunlight streams through the flung open top half of the Dutch door to La Boca, and you peek inside. Chef James, former executive chef of El Farol, has been waiting for you. Waiting for this. "I might have stayed at El Farol forever but for this vision of having a small restaurant of my own kept nagging at me." Caruso and his wife, Leslie, a pastry chef who will be helping run the new place, would pillow talk about what they would put on those menus if such a place came to be.
He has recreated the formerly folk art themed Paul's Restaurant into a clean, minimalist space with a European aesthetic and filled it with Mediterranean flavors. The elbow to elbow intimacy of the forty-eight seat restaurant remains, but the cantaloupe colored walls now have mahogany painted wainscoting topped by a rich cream color. Simple track lighting illuminates the dining room, punctuated by several pieces of art work and a few mirrors. The impetus behind the simplicity of the setting puts the focus on the plates of food. The old server station in the back has become a ten-seat wine bar, awaiting a guest needing a mid-afternoon snack, or if the reservation books on Friday or Saturday nights are full. "We'll definitely be taking reservations and hosting high-end wine dinners," Caruso explains, but he's also committed to the idea of a neighborhood bistro, open from 11am to 11pm, seven days a week, for casual diners to drop in anytime.
When Paul's became available, Caruso knew it would be the perfect space. The history was definitely part of the appeal-in its 30 year life it has only changed hands twice. (After sixteen years as a successful restaurant owner, Paul Hunsicker said he needed to "get a real job," Chef James says laughingly.) Small seems to be a new trend, perhaps a literal and metaphorical return to the kitchen after "expand and multiply" became the mantra for name brand chefs. Small was important to Caruso because that way, "I can be hands on, and do most of the cooking and guarantee the quality of the food."
The menu at La Boca is similar in style to the El Farol menu, with Mediterranean cuisine and tapas portions, however none of the same items will be present. Whereas El Farol was more strictly traditional Spanish fare, La Boca will stretch between Old World and contemporary. "There's going to be a whole lot of Spain on the menu, some Italian influences as well as Moroccan and Lebanese," he says after telling me of his journey to Andalusia four years ago. It was during this period of training with Chef Sam Clark in southern Spain that the world of Mediterranean cuisine opened up to Chef James.
But before you even look at the menu, there will be little housemade panini set before you on the white linen tablecloth with lots of good olive oils. "There will be about fifteen different tapas to start, in addition to a chalkboard of five specials that changes daily, a handful of salads, and mostly fresh fish and pastas for entrée options," Caruso explains. "For lunch, mostly the same; maybe a few more salads and grilled sandwiches instead of entrées. The wine list will feature most, if not all, European wines." There's also a small section of crudo; raw seafood (contemporary styling of sashimi grade fish without the Asian treatment) such as oysters, clams, or mojana (a southern Spanish cured tuna).
He intends to change the listing on a pretty regular basis at first in order to suss out the more popular items to include on the permanent menu. An addition he seemed particularly excited about was the four course chef's tasting menu, which will feature inspiring market fresh ingredients of the day. This will give guests who perhaps aren't familiar with the fare or are unsure of what to try a chance to say, "Have James cook what he thinks is best for me."
"A lot of chefs don't like to have it done that way, but I really enjoy it-it's when I'm cooking at my best and it's a nice way for folks to get a feel for what we're doing." And if you're so inclined, he'll also be happy to pair wines with each course.
In the midst of all the rigorous preparation in early July, Caruso went to New York City to cook at the James Beard House and apparently did quite a bit of tasting around the city to garner some inspiration (and probably with the realization that upon opening his new place he wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon). He joked that "he'd be surprised if there was any food left in New York," but it was helpful in facilitating the creation of the new menu.
Though the final touches were still being put on when this article went to press (OK, let's be honest, the stove hadn't even been put in the kitchen yet), Caruso set up a preview tasting of some of the tapas. We tried a wonderful lean, house made lamb sausage-Spanish style with lots of garlic, coriander and cumin-grilled and served with an always pleasurable sweet and spicy combination of fig mustard and Basque chile sauce. Calamari that had been marinated in honey, mint, garlic and capers was thrown on the grill next and with a squeeze of fresh lemon just might have been the most unusual and most enjoyable squid I've ever eaten.
Coca, a Majorcan flatbread, was the next dish hot from the oven topped with vinegar marinated anchovies and roasted red peppers. The dough was light with a nice, slight goo factor and the more mild style of anchovy didn't overpower the other flavors. Simple, fulfilling. Same with the pasqualina-a spinach and artichoke pie with a similar dough to the coca, but this time with parmesan and a sprinkle of nutmeg (a classic Italian combination).
We talked about how this idea of "small plates" is something of a newer concept these days, but these combinations of Old World ingredients and style of cooking have been around for ages. The food was great, and comforting in a way that a really tightly knit circle of flavors can be. Like a friend of mine says, "Your tongue shouldn't have to think about what it's tasting."
Believe it or not, all of this food love will happen in a kitchen approximately the size of a pool table. One thing about wanting a small restaurant is it's usually paired with a teeny, tiny kitchen and that elbow to elbow intimacy is extended to the cooks preparing the food. Because he rarely writes any recipes down (an interesting statement for a guy with a few cookbooks), Chef Caruso's cooks will be doing a whole lot of observing the first few weeks of commencement. He wants them to learn in a somosensory manner, so they'll know the dish is right when it tastes right, smells good and is making the appropriate sounds in the pan while cooking, rather than because of a specific ingredient list.
"Then," he says, "I'll be the one watching them. We'll figure out in a hurry who's good at what." He laughs as he recalls a story about when "he was just a kid" doing breakfast prep for a high volume hotel. The older chefs brought in a huge box of potatoes needing to be peeled. Clearly not one to be deterred, the young James finished peeling them in a manner efficient enough for the chefs to bring over the other six boxes. "I didn't mind it really," he confesses, "I actually enjoy that kind of deep prep." But despite the close quarters and figuring out specific talents, the food "will be cooked from the heart. I believe you can tell the difference when somebody really cares."
La Boca-the name itself makes your mouth open to take a bite. "I just liked the sound of it," Caruso tells me when I inquired about the naming process. "I also liked that it means pretty much the same thing in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese-'mouthful, bite.'"
Go ahead, take it.
La Boca is located at 72 West Marcy Street in Santa Fe. Call ahead for the exact opening date, times, and to make reservations. 505.982.3433.