Update: Chef Laura Licona left 401 in December 2016. This review is no longer valid.
For a food lover, at least this one, it’s always exciting to find a chef who’s obviously passionate about food and cooking. When I called Santa Fe’s new 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining (named for ts address on Guadalupe Street), to get information for our monthly Tidbits post, Chef Laura (pronounced Lao-ra), answered the phone. It was the first day the new restaurant was officially open and though busy, she took a moment to talk. Her enthusiasm for food and the new restaurant was contagious. When she heard we had a blog and wrote about food, she invited us to dinner as her guests. We gave 401 restaurant a few weeks to get up to speed and went to dinner on a hot early summer Friday night.
About Chef Laura
Chef Laura Licona is almost a native. Her family moved to Nambe, northeast of Santa Fe when she was two. She’s passionate about food and cooking. You’ll discover this seconds into a conversation with her.
Licona, who studied for a doctorate in food anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle, spent a bunch of time there before returning to Santa Fe. She considers herself a nose to tail chef, sites British chef, Fergus Henderson, as one of her inspirations. She subscribes to his theory about making friends with your ingredients. She puts it this way, “if you’re ingredients know you’re afraid of them they will misbehave and run away from you.” They are putty in Licona’s talented hands. Licona calls 401’s food “global American and feels she’s offering “high end food at affordable prices.” There’s a strong Italian influence on the menu and a bit of France as well. Not surprising as she studied at the Cordon Bleu honed her cooking skills working in kitchens in Emilia-Romagna. Her last gig as a chef before 401 restaurant was at Corretto Trattorria, a Seattle pasta eatery.
When asked how she got interested in cooking, Licona replied “It was part of my core when I was little.” At age sic she butchered a quail. By age eight she’d moved on to cows and goats. “That was part of my being,” the enthusiastic chef said. “I thought everyone was like that.” Most of the family’s cooking was done outside; on a grill or smoker, on a disk (this is where you cooked anything that could fall through the grill grate) or in a fire pit. No wonder she’s a nose to tail chef.
Licona, who is committed to locally grown and produced foods, plans to offer a “Market Lunches” on Saturdays later this summer401 Fine Neighborhood Dining’s email list.
Chatting with Jack Shaab
We chatted a bit with 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining’s co-owner Jack Shaab, who’s opened and owned successful Santa Fe dining establishments. Shaab, who runs the front of the house and has been visiting Santa Fe since the late 1970s, moved here permanently in 1991. He opened Bistro 315 (now 315 Restaurant and Wine Bar) a few decades ago with Chef Matt Yohalem, then the pair went on to open Il Piatto which Yohalem still runs. Before moving to The City Different, he worked at several renowned NYC eateries. When asked how he and Licona get together, he responded, “Craig’s List.” He interviewed three chefs. The first, an Italian chef from Philly was great but didn’t want to relocate to Santa Fe. The second was technically perfect but lacked what Shaab called”soul.” The third was just right. He invited Licona to his home to cook for him. “That’s it!” he thought and the rest will hopefully be Santa Fe culinary history.
When we arrived at 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining at 6:15 the dining room with its red walls painted with leaping zebras was empty. This didn’t bode well, but by 7, the room was filled with diners. Our delightful server, Leticia, who hails from Belgium, was very welcoming. Chef Laura came out to meet us and asked if we wanted to order off the menu or have her surprise us, we chose to be surprised. She nailed it.
Pâté and Pickles
Our first course the Pâté and Pickles plate was definitely the appetizer we would have chosen to order. It was a tempting array o chicken liver mousse paté with mustard “caviar, duck rillette, fois gras torchon (for a surcharge), strawberry/pepper chutney, pickled onions. Our plate came with Parmesan crisps, but according to Chef Laura, it’s now served crispy crostini. It arrived with a side order of house-made potato chips ($6), which are now served with a smoked tomato aioli which I imagine is heavenly. We’ll have to go back and try it. I love chicken liver and sat there savoring the velvety pate with my eyes closed. The buttery torchon (which spent the night in Cognac, was soaked in milk in the morning and then poached in duck broth), was rich and silky smooth and went well with the strawberry/pepper chutney, a pleasing balance of sweet and hot.
Burata, gazpacho and gnocchi
Our next course, buratta, was topped with poached pear and asparagus spears with a balsamic reduction and pepita gremolata. This was followed with a sweet, savory strawberry gazpacho with a hint of cucumber and a dollop of crème fraiche, was perfect on a hot summer evening.
Next up, a bowl of pillowy gnocchi made with ricotta, Parmesan, and a soupcon of flour was sauced with a parsley pesto. The light as a feather circles bursting in my mouth were a pleasant surprise. Confession: I wouldn’t have ordered gnocchi. I’d tried a leaden version decades ago and wasn’t impressed. When I told her how much I liked hers and shared my gnocchi experience, she immediately told me I’d had potato gnocchi; she was right. I’m so glad Chef Laura didn’t ask but just sent it out. My food horizons were broadened.
The main event
It was time for the main course. Chef Laura asked our preference from the proteins offered on the menu; we opted for lamb. Two double locally-raised rib chops arrived topped with savory salsa verde, a mix of fresh herbs, anchovies and olive oil served over lemony risotto atop pureed peas fresh from the farm. The peppery Frenched chops were perfectly rare.
We were full and would have passed on dessert, but a creamy, delicious tiramisu arrived at the table. What were we to do? Eat it of course! At least some of it.
Sated and smiling we emerged from 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining into the cooling Santa Fe evening at evening knowing that we had discovered another worthy Santa Fe restaurant.