At first glance, the designs adorning the walls of Cloud Cliff Bakery and Cafe look like popular screen-shots from a 1980's video game. One can almost see Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man jettisoning through the linear landscapes, their mouths working overtime to gobble up dots within the digital labyrinth. The paintings and weavings tacked to the walls of Willem Malten's 2nd Street eatery, however, are not retired images from antiquated Atari consoles. In fact, the origins of Cloud Cliff's decor precede computer games-they are the work of the Shipibo-Konibo, an indigenous people native to the Peruvian Amazon. According to Malten, the patterns of the Shipibo textiles are the ceremonial result of ayahuasca consumption-a brew of intoxicating leaves-in which Shipibo shamans ingest the hallucinogen, enter a trancelike state, and transpose their visions into songs. The Shipibo women then interpret the lyrical visions of the shaman and represent the hymnals with visual patterns. The songs and resulting patterns are believed to have spiritually healing properties, something that Malten feels is suitable for a restaurant environment.
Malten notes that the largest Shipibo weaving, an immense tapestry of bulbous anacondas and soft, enveloping arcs, is symbolic of the union of man and woman. And in a restaurant full of groups and couples, it is apparent that in displaying the weaving Malten is speaking, even if only on a subconscious level, to the diners' desire to be joined with other living things.
"Why is Cloud Cliff special?" Malten asks rhetorically, addressing the restaurant as though it were foreign to him. "Because the surroundings are special. Why do people fall in love in museums? Because they're surrounded by beauty." And creating a surrounding that constantly inspires his diners is something the former Zen monk takes very seriously.
Cloud Cliff itself is half institution of piecemeal history, half testament to culinary Darwinism. The wooden slats underfoot, which Malten installed himself, were-in a past life-the floor of a high school gymnasium; the nostalgic kitchen counter once supported the elbows of teenagers longingly gazing into each other's eyes when it was the central fixture in a 1950's soda fountain; the surrealist "bread heads"-loaves cast in the shape of human heads-were inspired by the late French baker Lionel Poilane. Responding to the seasonal availability of organic produce, Cloud Cliff's menu is constantly evolving. And, like the menu itself, the appearance of the restaurant changes as Malten adopts pieces from art shows hosted at Cloud Cliff.
Malten entered the foodie fracas as an artisanal baker, selling loaves at the microeconomic level. Eventually, his efforts turned heads, and in 1985 Malten began serving food in a more formal setting. That setting was called Cloud Cliff, an idea that sprang from a vision Malten had before leaving the monastery.
Because of its ability to rise and expand, ferment and foment, bread plays a critical role at Cloud Cliff. The combinations of items like the crab cake benedict-served on homemade ciabatta rather than prototypical Anglicized muffins-and the pumpkin fig French toast with spiced butter, prove that Malten's bread is still the crux of the establishment. Recently, Malten hired a chef whom he felt would continue the kitchen's tradition of spontaneity and creativity, Beth Ryder.
Ryder, a native New Yorker, speaks in a blunt Yankee fashion punctuated with bursts of laughter. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she grew up in a family that fostered an interest in the kitchen through contrasting principles; her parents were "great cooks and workaholics," she says amidst kitchen clamor. This meant that Ryder, the eldest of many siblings, inherited her parents' ability to turn ingredients into mouthwatering entrees and, because of mom and pop's overwhelming need to bring home the bacon, she was relegated to frying it. And fry it she did.
"It's really so much fun," she says in reference to cooking and the freedom Malten gives her to experiment with the menu. To meet the demands of modern diners, Ryder understands that food needs to look as good as it tastes, even in a restaurant where entrées rarely exceed $12. "I'm really big on plate presentation," she reports. "I put a lot of garnish on my food to draw in that effect. A combination of sauces, foam sauces, and certain chutneys bring out the color of the food."
This factor works progressively and aggressively in favor of flavoring her dishes. "A lot of the food that's done here is pretty eccentric," Ryder says in reference to the daily menu, which, like any given side of a Rubix cube, can change from one moment to the next. "I do a lot of international combinations,"-including popular pairings of saffron, orange and ancho peppers, a poblano-coconut sauce, and a chocolate entrée- "and the customers allow me to experiment."
But there was a time when the scheduling rigors of restaurant work hampered Ryder's commitment to cooking. "I was thrown out of the loop of fine dining because of the hours," Ryder admits of the industry-standard twelve hour, executive chef shifts. Fortunately for Santa Fe palates and Malten, Ryder decided to come out of retirement and run the kitchen at Cloud Cliff eight months ago. And the restaurant's breakfast and lunch schedule allots the busy chef enough free time to pursue other interests-namely hiking and enamel work. "I'm a wannabe, try-to-be artist," she says with wry self-deprecation. "I come from a family where we're all artists, so I have the knack to [create]."
Saturday. Noon. The temperature outside is in the mid-sixties. Patrons order New Mexican quintessentials like blue corn pancakes and huevos rancheros, although specials like the butternut squash soup with toasted sunflower seeds and crème frâiche, the watercress and spinach salad with zucchini hummus, and the Mediterranean rice bowl with seared salmon and enough accouterments to fill a cornucopia are enticing alternatives.
Malten is a ubiquitous presence in the restaurant, though his European nature allows him to be aware of his neighbors without being obtrusive. Cloud Cliff's owner understands that his diners are comforted by his presence, but grateful that it doesn't equate to table-side officiousness.
"As a kid in the Netherlands I was impressed by railway stations," Malten says, pointing out the calculated incorporation of luminosity and metal, big elements that make Cloud Cliff déja vu familiar. "Railways are gathering places," he says definitively, alluding to the "watering hole" syndrome as an uplifting, if not the most uplifting, environmental and spiritual setting.
Malten makes his way from the dining room, to the kitchen, to the bakery, his hair raised in a gravity-defying wave of grain, perhaps making light of the fact that Cloud Cliff started out as a tenuous dream and is now a towering success.
It is not a rigid plan or design per se that has made Cloud Cliff a Santa Fe favorite, but rather its mutability. Change and versatility are embraced by the owner and his new chef. "This restaurant has been layered over the years," he concludes, "and there's a mysterious, communicative quality to it."
Cloud Cliff is located at 1805 Second Street in Santa Fe. 505.983.6254. Full breakfasts range from $6.50 to $9, lunch entrees range from $7 to $12. The kitchen prides itself on being local, organic and healthy...locals love it because it's a beautiful space with interesting food. Hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30am to 2:30pm, pastries until 4pm. Saturday and Sunday Brunch is from 8am to 2:30pm.