We tend to think of chefs as exalted beings, godlike in their miraculous and mysterious abilities to transform ordinary old food into manna, whose time is largely spent creating their gorgeously presented entrées in huge, bustling kitchens from whence, at the end of the day, after taking a bow, they retire to some glorious pantheon in the sky. So when a chef is having major renovation done in order to open his or her own restaurant, we’d expect them to be hovering up there, removed, as others do the grunt work of making it ready. But Martín Rios, whose meteoric career includes having presided as executive chef at such fine-dining Santa Fe establishments as the Old House, the Inn at the Anasazi and Canyon Road’s Geronimo, is a chef who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. Whether perched in the cab of his backhoe, up on a ladder wielding a nailgun or down on his knees laying landscaping and setting flagstone for the two patios out back, Martín is right in the midst of the makeover.
“I help the guys,” he says with an amiable grin. “I do whatever they tell me to do.”
This dream of opening his own restaurant has been at least ten years in the making, according to Jennifer Rios, Martín’s wife. Finally, earlier this year, the historic home at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Galisteo, once the site of Café Oasis, came up for rent and, excited by its potential, they called and asked to buy it instead. They started working on it this spring, continuing on through the summer, knocking down interior walls to open the space, enlarging the kitchen by some 850 square feet.
“We’ve completely changed the flow of the building,” says Jennifer, “taking it from seven rooms to three, plus a cozy eight-seat wine bar. We wanted to maintain the original integrity of this historic structure, to restore and respect as much of the original intention as possible.”
The plumbing and electrical wiring have all been completely replaced, central heat and air conditioning installed and the floors stripped back down to their original hardwood, then sanded and polished. As Café Oasis, the site transported customers back to the Age of Aquarius; as Restaurant Martín, the old home, built in 1944, transports us back to its simple yet elegant origins, filled with light.
“We took the WPA-era radiator covers with a lightning bolt design and incorporated them into the face of the bar and the host stand. And we installed sound-deadening material into the ceilings to counteract all these hard surfaces.” They’ll have bamboo butcher-block tables with linen napkins, along with “the big white china Martín’s known for, which make such a great canvas for his food.”
Meticulous attention is also being lavished on the outside dining space. “If this isn’t the best patio in town, we’ve done something wrong!” Jennifer laughs. “We added enclosed walls, landscaping — and the chef laid the flagstone himself!”
And they love the neighborhood feel of the place, its downtown accessibility with parking both onsite and close by. “We want to be a friendly, come-as-you-are restaurant, not one you have to change clothes for, not an occasion restaurant. We’re members of this community. We want to be attractive to locals.” She tells the story of an older woman who drove by recently and honked, flashing them the thumbs-up sign. “Everyone’s been amazingly positive. One early Saturday morning this summer, Martín took our old beat up pickup truck to the dump. He hadn’t shaved; he had a baseball cap shoved on his head. When he drove up on the scale, the woman asked to see his driver’s license, and then she said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re chef Martín! We’ve missed you!’”
Martín can hardly wait to get into his new tailor-made kitchen and start cooking. “I felt so strained, working in more of the fine dining side of it all — there wasn’t the freedom. I was always worrying, ‘Oh my God, are they going to take a star away from me?’” He laughs. “My biggest challenge will be to maintain great quality. Now I can expand, getting to use more of my creative side. I’ll be using the highest quality of different cuts of meat rather than the primes. It’s wonderful what you can do with other parts of the animal. For the fall, I’ll be doing a lot of braising, things like lamb shanks, pork knuckles, osso bucco — these are beautiful, tender and full of flavor when cooked the right way. And I’ll use Alaskan cod rather than Mediterranea Sea Bream, things like that. I’m very excited — I’ve missed getting to include the fun of it.”
Restaurant Martín will serve brunch, lunch and dinner at prices close to half what they were in his previous establishments. Jennifer adds, “To be truly excellent, an entrée doesn’t have to come in at $48 or $50. We want to be affordable to as many people as we can. And we want to build a great lunch crowd with the workers from the Capitol. The South Capitol area is a great neighborhood and we’re anxious to be a part of it.”
With their beer and wine license already in place, the new restaurant is slated to open in the early half of September, at which point, Martín can put down the implements of construction and put the chef hat back on. Lucky for us!
Restaurant Martín is located at 526 Galisteo Street (at the corner of Paseo de Peralta) in Santa Fe. They are open for dinner daily from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Call ahead to confirm their exact opening date.) 505.820.0919.
Photos by Gabriella Marks