Blue Heron Restaurant – fresh, local and innovative

One of the most exciting food trends of the last decade or so is the farm to table movement. What started as a small effort by a handful of chefs has spread like kudzu. You’ll find it in cities and towns around the country and throughout the planet. Santa Fe, with its award-winning farmers market and embrace of alternative lifestyles, was an early adapter. At Sunrise Springs Spa Resort’s Blue Heron Restaurant they take it a step farther; they grow their own. And a lot more comes from the two-acre farm at their sister property, Ojo Caliente Mineral Resort & Spa.

Pondside patio dining at Blue Heron Restaurant, photo Steve Collins

Pondside patio dining at Blue Heron Restaurant, photo/Steve Collins

Chef Rocky Durham took over Blue Heron’s kitchen last fall. The innovative chef loves the bounty of vegetables grown either in Sunrise’s greenhouse year-round or coming from Ojo Caliente. He loves working with the resort’s resident horticulturist, Danielle Simmons, planning what to grow for the restaurant in her raised-bed gardens this summer. Because of the ever-changing bounty available to Chef Rocky, the menu may change from day to day. While not certified organic they’re using good seed stock, and organic growing methods.

Chef Rocky Durham

Rocky Durham has been a fixture of the Santa Fe food scene for years. Born and raised in Santa Fe, he calls himself a “lifetime culinarian.” As we talked, Durham conveyed his boundless enthusiasm for great ingredients and for creating dishes from them for his New American West menu. We loved his explanation about his tangy salad dressing; not vinaigrette he told us; “It’s citronette.” He uses blood oranges rather than vinegar, creating a pleasing sweet/tart balance. He called his menu “anti-static,” meaning you won’t get the same dish or meal twice. “Everything is in constant evolution,” he shared. “Each time you do something; try to do it a little bit better.” Is he enjoying being at Blue Heron? “I love it out here,” he told us with great enthusiasm. “They take great care of me. I get total autonomy and all the support I need.”

Our conversation turned to sourcing food. “It’s all about the water and the land here. Taking care of that, being a steward of that is part of our mission,” he told us. He’s excited about having Ojo Caliente’s farmer, Mark DeRespinis, custom-growing what Durham called “bespoke crops,” (those grown to his specifications). DeRespinis also forages for wild-crafted plants for Blue Heron. “He’s really a magician!” Durham is also excited about the herbs and produce coming out of the Sunrise Springs’ greenhouse. He’s had bell peppers, chiles, strawberries and a variety of herbs throughout the winter. For summer Danielle Simmons, the resident horticulturist (her official title is Horticulture and Animal Interactions), is growing a variety of plants for the kitchen in outdoor raised beds, including “the three sisters,” corn, beans and squash, the three plants the pueblo peoples were cultivating when the Spanish arrived in New Mexico. When asked where Blue Heron’s meat comes from Durham told us the high quality meat he uses is sourced through a special program that works with small ranches in Arizona. All meat is antibiotic/hormone and GMO-free feed. When he adds lamb to the menu he assured us it will be local.

The Ambiance at Blue Heron Restaurant

Blue Heron dining room, photo/Steve Collins

The dining room is bright and airy with contemporary décor. In daylight, there’s a great view over the pond through the east-facing wall of windows. In warm weather guests can opt to dine on the pond-side patio. While the resort serves three meals a day, breakfast is only open to in-house guests. Lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch are open to the public. We ate dinner at Blue Heron on a chilly March evening. Our lunch was on an unseasonably warm mid-April afternoon.

The food

Dinner

Tempura Shrimp Nachos at Blue Heron, photo Steve Collins

The delicious Tempura Shrimp Nachos, photo/Steve Collins

We began our dinner with two shared appetizers, the Ojo Farms Mixed Green Salad and the Tempura Shrimp Nachos. The farm-fresh salad, dressed with blood orange citronette, which. Durham explained is named for the blood orange that stands in for the vinegar in the dressing. The result is tart, sweet and light. The three layered nacho plate features corn chips topped with a mildly spicy guacamole with a hint of citrus topped with three good-sized, plump tempura shrimp. The dish is both stunning to look at and pleasing to the palate. A winner!

Diver scallops with mushroom tamale and lemongrass nage , photo Steve Collins

For entrees, Steve selected the pan-seared diver scallops from the regular menu and I ordered the Duroc pork chop special. The large pork chop was breaded and fried to perfection and then split on the plate, served atop corn spoon bread with asparagus on the side. The portion was huge; half the chop went home with us. The scallops were accompanied by a mushroom tamale, asparagus and lemon/caper sauce. The flavors worked well together.

Blue Heron Restaurant - A witty take on coffee and donuts, photo Steve Collins

A witty take on coffee and donuts, photo/Steve Collins

For me, the dessert choice was a no-brainer. I always go for the chocolate. Chef Rocky sent out two delicious desserts. One was exactly what I would have chosen: Mexican Chocolate Decadence, a flourless chocolate cake sauces with vanilla crème Anglaise and accompanied by a bizcochito (New Mexico’s official State Cookie). It was a chocoholic’s dream. The second was Coffee and Donuts, which the menu calls “cappuccino flan” but it was more like a dulce de leche, the donuts were miniature churros. He smiled as he ate it. Dinner at Blue Heron was a total success.

If you enjoy wine with your meal, the list is small but carefully chosen so most people will find a varietal they like. Most selections are also available by the glass.

Lunch

Blue Heron Restaurant - The garden-fresh spring vegetable bisque , photo Steve Collins

The garden-fresh spring vegetable bisque , photo Steve Collins

Several weeks after our dinner, we were invited to a soak in a private ojito pool at the Sunrise Spa followed by lunch. After soaking I was so relaxed I barely had an appetite as we headed to Blue Heron for lunch. I wanted something light and the menu obliged. Steve ate lightly as well. We ended up sharing three dishes from the Starter section of the menu. The vegan spring bisque was made with peas, carrots, haricot vert, snow pea pods topped with scallion ash puree.

Blue Heron Restaurant - Smoked trout rillettes with gluten-free buckwheat crackers photo Steve Collins

Smoked trout rillettes with gluten-free buckwheat crackers photo/Steve Collins

The Smoked Trout Rillettes were accompanied by gluten-free, low glycemic buckwheat crackers and pickles, all made in-house. We rounded this out with the Ojo Farms Mixed Green Salad we’d had with our dinner.  Steve ordered a glass of wine and I tried the house-made ginger soda. Chef Durham makes the syrup and at my request, as I don’t like sugary drinks, the server put in less syrup and more sparkling water. It was very refreshing. Our lunch order was the right amount of food after the heavenly soak. We were full after our light lunch and passed on dessert.

Blue Heron Restaurant - Ojo Farms Mixed Mixed Green Salad with blood orange citronette, photo/Steve Collins

Ojo Farms Mixed Mixed Green Salad with blood orange citronette, photo/Steve Collins

If you want something more substantial, the entrée options are varied and there was even a petit filet special which sounded fabulous but too heavy for our soak-relaxed bodies. The menu, which offers good options for vegans and vegetarians, is versatile. You can have a simple, light lunch or something more elaborate.

The important things to know Blue Heron: that the food at is as fresh as it can be, it’s creatively prepared and beautifully presented. The love for the ingredients and the creation process comes through loud and clear.

A visit to the green house and garden

Sunrise Springs Spa Resort - Sunrise Springs' greenhouse, photo Steve Collins

Sunrise Springs’ greenhouse, photo/Steve Collins

We wanted to see what is being grown on-site, so sated from our healthy, delicious lunch, we head for the greenhouse where we met Danielle Simmons for a short tour. The first plant she showed us was pineapple tomatillo. She was very excited about it. She loves growing unusual things like this for Durham to see what culinary magic he’ll work with them. “When we grow something odd and different down here,” she shared, “he’ll come down and see it and find a use for it.” We’re big tomatillo fans but hadn’t heard of this variety. When ripe it will be yellow and taste like pineapple. “The flavor is fantastic,” she told us. Once picked, she’ll leave it out a day or two so the flavor will be sweeter. Steve now wants to take a shot at growing pineapple tomatillos.

Sunrise Springs Spa Resort - Ladybug in the greenhouse, photo Steve Collins

Ladybug in the greenhouse, photo/Steve Collins

Other plants growing in the greenhouse include small red stuffing peppers, strawberries, chiles, poblano peppers, mint and sage growing in the greenhouse. We spotted a praying mantis among the plants. They use totally organic pest control; Simmons ordered 83 mantises this year to help protect her plants. They eat the bad bugs and occasionally, she told us, they eat a good one, but mostly consume the bad ones such as aphids. When the mantises get bigger she’ll move them outside. We also saw a ladybug, another natural method Simmons uses to protect plants from destructive bugs. Next she had us rub lemon verbena for the wonderful aroma it produces. They use this along with other herbs they grow to brew a welcoming tea for resort guests. They also grow some tobacco, which Simmons pointed out is a bit unusual to find in a greenhouse. Sunrise uses it for ceremony on the medicine wheel that is central to the resort. They also grow Artemesia sage which they use to make smudge sticks. We move on to dancing grass, a plant that’s new to us. It responds to sound. “Hello,” I crooned and it undulated slightly. Then I sang to it. It seemed to respond more to higher tones. Next we arrived at the mimosa pudica; Simmons called it the “shy plant,” and told us it responds to touch. Not only do they grow culinary and medicinal plants, they grow some plants that demonstrate “the magical ways that plants interact with us.”

Sunrise Springs Spa Resort - One of the newly planted raised bed gardens outside the greenhouse photo Steve Collins

One of the newly planted raised bed gardens outside the greenhouse photo/Steve Collins

During the summer they grow vegetables and herbs in raised beds outside the greenhouse. The beds have hoops which are used to shade the plants from the relentless New Mexico sun. We see a grounds worker spraying the grass and I asked about it. It’s horticultural vinegar, a totally natural weed killer. This summer she’ll also plant marigolds and nasturtiums in the outdoor beds to repel insects. An added benefit of the nasturtiums: they’re edible. Simmons, who has a graduate degree as a clinical art therapist, has always used horticulture and animal interactions in her work. Besides presiding over the greenhouse and garden she also teaches horticulture classes and herbalism to resort guests. Class participants learn to make body products and teas. “I do like to try things out,” she told us. Sometimes they turn out well, like the pineapple tomatillos and sometimes they don’t.

Tour over, we thank Simmons for the great tour and head to the parking. Our time at Sunrise Springs, a high desert oasis, is over. But, we’ll be back!

Have you been the the Blue Heron Restaurant yet?

2 Responses to “Blue Heron Restaurant – fresh, local and innovative”

  1. Lisa @ NatureImmerse
    May 8, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    What’s so great about this place is that its farm to table and they really utilize all of the great farms in the Pioneer Valley
    Lisa @ NatureImmerse recently posted..INFOGRAPHIC – Packing Up Your Camping EssentialsMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      May 10, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

      Not sure you have the right restaurant as the crops are grown in two sites in Northern New Mexico.

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