Walking through the front door of La Casa Sena, I immediately note two new aspects of the restaurant. First, the lobby feels like an entrance, which it never did before. In place of the small, cramped bar, I'm in a spacious room. Second, purple carpet lends a warm, lush color to the space. A fire crackles in the central fireplace, a large chandelier suspended in front of it.
As my brother Arthur and I follow the host to our table, I take in the new art work, contemporary brown leather dining chairs, and bright white walls. The look is clean and modern, yet still speaks of Santa Fe. We sit at a table covered in white linen in a part of the main dining room featuring attractive, colorful abstract paintings (by John Fincher, I later learn). Arthur comments that "the vision when I walked in the front door, with the elegance of the entry station and the fire going, was great."
Jazz is playing just a little too loud, and at our request Byron Rudolph, who co-manages the wine program, turns it down. A passionate wine enthusiast, Rudolph has a terrific grasp of the extensive list, and recommends a Cristom 2003 Willamette Valley Estate Syrah ($50), a versatile wine that Art and I enjoy a lot.
Almost all menu selections have a Southwest twist although nothing is overly spicy. Our waiter brings out an amusé, fried goat cheese over cajeta, slow-cooked caramelized milk sauce, with morita chile (spectacular), and fried jumbo shrimp with mango salsa (cool and tangy with a little bite). From the nine appetizers, I choose a Dungeness Crab Cake over roasted tomato-chipotle cream sauce and a sweet pineapple-tequila salsa. My brother goes for a spinach salad, livened up with figs and piñon nuts roasted with Chimayo red chile and honey. Both are excellent.
It's the beginning of what turns out to be the best dinner either Arthur or I have ever had at La Casa Sena. A couple of years back, we both independently concluded that other high end restaurants had both better ambiance and better food. Just as we finish, our plates are bussed away, part of the top-notch service by our waiter, servers, Rudolph, and bussers. Throughout the meal they exhibit excellent timing, contributing to the quality of the experience without being obtrusive.
Flavors mingle delightfully in the intermezzo of passion fruit-habanero chile granita sprinkled with Herradura tequila, a better combo than the watermelon-mulato chile version. Grilled king salmon and smoked cheddar polenta paired with a black bean sauce, loosely termed a "mole" because it uses a little Mexican chocolate and chiles, is a bold move that works. Arthur's Southwest Vegetarian Sampler features a pear-walnut-quesadilla, the tortilla quickly pan seared before baking to give it texture, along with contemporary versions of tamale and enchilada. It's all excellent. The dessert we split, a chocolate hazelnut torte, mingles flavors nicely, is very good but not as elevated in originality as our other dishes.
Thirty-nine year old chef Patrick Gharrity, who took over about a year ago after working under the previous chef for six years, shares credit with the rest of his staff for what they turn out. "Any member of my crew that has a good idea, we'll try it." He likes the remodel. "I'd already brought the food up to fine dining standards. The remodel created an environment that suits the food better. It's not an archaic space any more. It's upscale, modern."
The changes to the restaurant are the most recent in a long series of expansions and remodels to the historic property. By the time Gerald Peters bought and modernized it in the early 1980's, Sena Plaza had already been converted from a residence (where incidentally, aunts of his wife lived at the beginning of the 20th century) to offices, where her father and other relatives worked. "There'd been a restaurant before World War II, so the space was set up for it," Peters tells me. "I needed a restaurant to make the retail work. I couldn't find anyone to do it so I did it myself. It was developer's folly."
But it worked, and the building and restaurant have taken their places among Santa Fe's architectural and culinary landmarks. When the kitchen floor was on the verge of collapse in September, Peters used the restaurant closing to institute changes he'd been thinking of. "I wanted to change the feel, make it a little snappier. We had artists from the 20's and 30's there. I wanted to make it a showcase for contemporary New Mexico artists." Yet maintaining the integrity of the historic structure is crucial. "I'll do some refurbishing which old buildings need, but that's it."
So art, supplied from his well-known gallery, got top billing in the new design. "It's a brighter look, more cheery," general manager Jack Baudo notes. He shows me the nuts and bolts of what, while eating, I only sensed as a gestalt of warmth and freshness. To better show the artwork they removed "ugly, big, clunky light fixtures" and installed unobtrusive black track lighting on the high wood ceilings. They repainted the old-style two colored walls with solid white, which are touched up once a week "to keep the walls looking crisp."
Other details contribute to the new sophistication of the rambling dining rooms. A wall in the entryway hides servers punching in orders at a computer, and other walls create and hide a new bus station, replacing the all-too-visible one that diners disliked seeing. The restaurant is "a lot more pleasant," Baudo sums up, "and positive comments from guests give you a feel-good feeling."
I question one aspect of the changes, the covering of hardwood floors with carpet. Interior designer Kirk Lucas points out the advantages: a nicer ambiance because of reduced noise, a look that sets it apart from traditional Santa Fe spaces, and enhanced elegance.
Lucas, a Texan who moved to Santa Fe a year ago after many years of vacationing here, helped create the sense of elegant Southwest simplicity. He selected dark leather chairs with simple horizontal and vertical stitching that creates a certain formality while keeping away from the Old World look. Textured, transparent Roman shades with horizontal lines echo that of the chairs. After careful searching, he found a handmade, hand-dyed fabric for the bancos and window treatments that utilizes patterns from traditional Southwest textiles. "The fabric married everything together," he says.
For the time being, most of the old homey, tin chandeliers remain, although Lucas has already replaced the one in the center with a black iron one in contemporary western style. The graceful curves of the chandelier express a clean, contemporary look in an identifiably Santa Fe form.
Why didn't I notice all this to begin with? It's no accident, Lucas tells me. "Jerry wanted the art work to be the main focus. Everything else is subtle, but noticeable." A frequent diner at La Casa Sena, Lucas encapsulates his sense of the remodel as expressing "simple elegance, classic ambiance. I get a relaxed, fine dining feel, much more than before." So do others, apparently. Guests are so comfortable that they're staying much longer than they used to.
Neither Peters nor his team are through with the changes. The wine store, cramped into 500 square feet, will become a bar, a quiet alternative to the Cantina where singing waiters belt out Broadway tunes. The wine shop will take over a 1200 square foot space formerly occupied by the Eldridge McCarthy Gallery and Knitworks. An armoire is being built for a wall of the entrance lobby, and a local blacksmith will be commissioned to make more chandeliers in the style of the one already installed. The Cantina itself will see some changes. Meanwhile, the excellence of the food and service complement the new look. This time, my brother and I agree, the whole fine dining experience is worth coming back for.
La Casa Sena, is located at 125 Palace Avenue in the Sena Plaza in Santa Fe. 505.988.9232. Appetizers range from $9 to $23, dinner entrees $24 to $39. The extensive wine list (the restaurant boasts The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for ten straight years) serves over 15 wines by the glass from $7.50 to $16. Wine by the bottle ranges from $38 and up for some of the rarest wines available in Santa Fe. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily. Hours are 11:30am to 3pm and dinner from 5:30pm to 10pm.