Having lunch on the glorious patio of the historic La Casa Sena restaurant can turn into an all-afternoon affair. Get there early, as outdoor seating is not guaranteed.
Courtesy Photo
At the helm of the O'Keeffe Caf only since November, classically trained French chef Laurent Rea is making big waves on the highly competitive Santa Fe restaurant scene.
Courtesy Photo
The intimate interior of the O'Keeffe Caf provides guests with a peek into the domestic side of Georgia O'Keeffe, one of America's most iconic artists. Photos of her in her Abiquiu kitchen adorn the walls throughout the dining areas.
Courtesy Photo

Santa Fe Stories: Something Old, Something New

La Casa Sena and O'Keeffe Caf offer dining unique choices

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Sept. 5, 2008 - When it comes to choosing a place to eat in Santa Fe, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices. Even if you can make up your mind, you must always keep a watchful eye on your pocketbook, because there are some places in "The City Different" that seem to pride themselves in pricey fare.

I've been traveling to Santa Fe since the early 1980s and have enjoyed most of what the city has to offer in the way of Northern New Mexico dishes.?

Some of my experiences have been more pleasant than others. During our recent trip, we decided to stick with what we know. However, several locals suggested a hip new place, so we changed our plans a bit and visited both La Casa Sena, tried and true, and O'Keeffe Caf, hot and new.

La Casa Sena, located just a block off Santa Fe's historic plaza, opened its doors over 24 years ago and has become a favorite for locals and tourists alike.

"Our excellent service and our outstanding food are what keep people coming back," said restaurant manager Jack Baudo.

Consistency is also one of La Casa Sena's trademarks.

"We have a lot of employees who have been with us a long time," he explained. "We've got two people who have been here 24 years and several who have been with us for 10 to 15 years."

Having experienced people on staff pays off in times of crisis, according to Baudo. We visited La Casa Sena the day after a freak hail storm hit the city.

"When things come up like hail storms, like yesterday, they can react and recover," he said.

Consistency also comes into play with guests.

"We get the same tourists every year," Baudo said. "They make their reservations a year in advance, especially for Indian Market (the largest juried show of Indian artwork in the country and also the city's biggest weekend)."

Tradition also plays a part in La Casa Sena's success.

"Christmas Eve is a big deal here in Santa Fe," Baudo explained. "People do the Christmas Walk up Canyon Road (the city's art gallery district) and then come here for dinner. Not only are thet bringing their children, they've been guests long enough to have their grandchildren coming with them."

According to Baudo, the lunch favorites are the fish tacos and the sampler platter. At dinner, the restaurant's famous adobe trout is at the top of the list.

The day we were there, we had La Casa Sena's Blue Corn Muffins (see recipe at right) for starters. The muffins are such a delicious surprise and a great way to begin a meal.

Our table had the sampler platter and the ruby trout as our main course. Both were spot on in flavor, texture and portion size.

To finish the meal, our attentive server Michele (whose charming French accent came at no extra charge) suggested chef Patrick Gharrity's Chocolate Red Chili Dessert Soup (see recipe at right). Pairing chocolate and chili is all the rage right now, and with good reason. It's just yummy.

The chilled dessert was surprisingly fresh and full of flavor. It was initially sweet, then the chili kicked in.

La Casa has an impressive wine list, with over 1,000 bottles to choose from.

La Casa Sena is a bit on the costly side, with lunch at about $40 and dinner starting at $50, not including wine, but, like Baudo said, you can count on the food, service and atmosphere to combine for a satisfying experience. The beautiful patio is the premiere place to enjoy a good meal in the lazy Santa Fe afternoon or under a gentle evening sky.

My new favorite place in Santa Fe is the O'Keeffe Caf.

Although opened in 1997, the same year as the nearby Georgia O'Keeffe Museum as a place to eat, the place has undergone an amazing transformation since November of last year.

Proprietor Michael O'Reilly, owner of Pranzo's Italian Grill, general manager Andrew Sharpless and French chef Laurent Rea have made it their mission to bring a new and exciting dining experience to town.

"We've been blessed," Sharpless said one afternoon as we enjoyed a late lunch. "We've been fortunate."

Everything at the O'Keeffe is extraordinary. From the moment you step into the outdoor dining area until you've had your last sip of wine with dessert, you know you're being served by people who have a passion for what they do.

"Everyone here has a passion for food and wine," Sharpless said. "We serve from the heart."

Most museums offer visitors a place to grab a quick bite. Although the caf carries the O'Keeffe name, it is not officially affiliated with the museum.

"The museum has always leased the space," Sharpless explains. "They're not interested in running their own place."

Sharpless and his staff have had to overcome the museum-cafe image.

"A lot of people think we're just open for lunch and that we're attached to the museum, that we're just another museum caf," Sharpless said. "But they come in here and they see something different. This is a whimsical kind of place."

The group came together late last year to make a new start in the 150-year-old territorial home that had formerly been outfitted as a cafeteria.

"We hand-selected our staff," Sharpless said. "They're here because they get it. They understand our mission to bring the freshest food, best wine and most competent service to the table."

The day we were there, we began with aged New York Strip carpaccio, wasabi aoili and the most delicious eggplant dishes I've ever had.

"Chef likes eggplant," Sharpless said. "It's one of his favorite vegetables."

This eggplant was mixed with soy sauce and a saki vinaigrette. It was light, tangy and nothing like the fried version we know here in East Texas.

We were then treated to a lovely cannoli stuffed with goat cheese and spinach seasoned with a rosemary and smoked bell pepper vinaigrette. The cannoli was topped with a light tomato sauce made fresh daily in the caf's kitchen.

"Our tomatoes come from Estancia," Sharpless explained. "They're very sweet."

The pasta was like velvet. It's also made fresh daily on the premises.

For our main course, Chef Rea brought out soft-shelled crabs sauteed to perfection in Grand Marnier and topped with a champagne lemon sauce.

With each course, Sharpless suggested a complimentary wine. Sharpless is something of a wine fanatic.

"So much wine," Sharpless said with a sigh. "So little time. There's just too much wine in the world."

Sharpless is on a mission to bring new varieties to his restaurant.

"I?like to go out and look for strange little varieties," he said. "And I'm always asking the staff what our guests like and don't like."

We had a great Pinot Tage with our appetizers.

I'm not a wine connoisseur, but the Gruener Veltliner sparkling white wine we were served with our soft shell crab was wonderful. It was so good, in fact, that we continued to drink it all the way through our dessert course, a decadent flourless chocolate cake and warm apple crepia. The wine was light and refreshing. It tasted like summer.

Dinner at the O'Keeffe offers a wide array of choices, beginning with foie gras and blazing right through elegant salads, salmon, lamb and scallops.

Lunch runs between $14 to $25, not including wine or dessert. Dinner will set you back between $50 and $75, not including wine, but you really should treat yourself and your traveling companions to the O'Keeffe Caf experience. While the food is fabulous, the added bonus to dinig at the O'Keeffe is that these guys are very warm and welcoming, unlike other places in the city where chefs were $20K Rolex watches and are treated like rock stars.

You can also enjoy the caf's Oily Bird Special, which consists of an appetizer, entre and dessert, is served nightly from 5 p.m. until 6 p.m. for only $37.

They also offer half-price on any bottle of wine on Sunday nights.

La Casa Sena Blue Corn Muffins

  • 8 T unsalted butter
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 2 extra-large eggs
  • 1-2 Poblano peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped (about 1/2-1 cup)
  • 1/2-1 C fresh corn kernels, steamed until just tender (canned or frozen will work in a pinch)
  • 1/2 C grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 C grated Monterey Jack cheese (mellow white melty cheese)
  • 1/2 C all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 C blue corn meal (a Native American staple ingredient that can be substituted with yellow corn meal if you are unable to get the blue)
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 3/4 C buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350. Grease muffin tins very well. In an electric mixer bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and chopped poblanos. Add the corn, cheeses, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and milk. Mix just until blended. Divide the muffin dough into the 12-muffin pan. Bake in oven for 35-40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out dry. Yield: 10-12 muffins; 6 large Turn the muffins out to cool. The recipe can be doubled and it freezes well.

Editor's note: Until next summer, we bid adieu to "The City Different." Visit our website at www.ssnewstelegram.com to read other Santa Fe adventures.

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