Tell a Santa Fe foodie that you’ve had dinner at Restaurant Martín and the chances are they’ll respond, “I love that place.” The restaurant, owned and run by Chef Martín Rios and his wife Jennifer, has been a popular dining destination since it opened in the fall of 2009. Chef Martin had a following. His success story is the America dream. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up the kitchen ladder to executive chef at three Santa Fe eateries. He trained at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York as well as working in kitchens around the world. Martín Rios put the Old House at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa on the local dining map, then did a stint at the Anasazi Restaurant followed by one at Geronimo before taking the plunge and opening his own place. It worked out well.
Meet Chef Martín Rios and Restaurant Martín
Rios, born in Guadalajara, Mexico and raised in Santa Fe had his first job as a dishwasher at age 17. “I’ve always been fascinated by what’s happening in the kitchen,” he said in a conversation we had shortly after the restaurant opened. One day a pastry chef didn’t show up for work and Martín jumped in. The next day he was promoted to line-cook. His love of cooking took him to the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, New York and then to some pretty prestigious kitchens around the world before he returned to Santa Fe.
The Rios knew they wanted their own restaurant. They looked for the perfect place to call their own for about 10 years. Nothing was quite right. He had his eye on the building on Galisteo Street they now call home for years, but the owners didn’t want to sell. It got to the point where the couple decided that if they couldn’t find the right property in Santa Fe they would move out of state. It was time for Martín n to fly on his own. Their big break came in April 2009 when the owners of the Galisteo Street building finally decided to sell.
The renovation was a long, exacting and arduous project. The chef, who says if he didn’t cook, he’d be an architect or a landscaper, took on much of the project himself. He worked thirteen-hour days, seven days a week for over four months to get the place where he wanted it. Only one original interior wall is still standing, all others were reconfigured. The result: a sleek, contemporary space, more California than Santa Fe. For warm weather dining there’s a patio out back. In 2014 they added The Annex, a separate event space on the south side of the property where they can hold special events such as weddings. In busy weekend nights in summer, with the garage-style doors open, it doubles as a semi-outdoor dining room.
While Martín runs the kitchen, Jennifer is the restaurant’s General Manager. She often can be found greeting and seating diners. They are a good team. Their shared vision was to create a “neighborhood” restaurant where diners return again and again to enjoy the food and ambiance. They succeeded. To bring in a broader clientele, Martín works to keep the prices moderate. He credits the restaurant’s success to support from Jennifer and his staff. “I would not be able to do this without them,” he shared.
The dining rooms are a mix of traditional Santa Fe style and contemporary chic. Abstract paintings adorn the walls. The verdant patio serves as a kitchen garden, a decorative garden and a dining area. Most of the tables are covered by a wooden portal (roof) at the back of the patio. The few that aren’t under this are shaded by umbrellas so you are protected at lunch and brunch and dinner before the sun goes down. In summer, this is the place to be if they can accommodate you (unless you want air conditioning and then opt for inside). We dined on the patio; while the day was a hot one, a pleasant evening breeze kept us comfortable.
Martín Rios calls his food “Progressive American Cuisine.” His approach: starts with fresh and seasonal items and then enhance the food’s natural flavors, not overpower them. He does a great job. The seasonally-changing diverse menu offers meat, poultry, fish and seafood dishes as well as vegetarian ones. While our appetizer choice was a slam dunk- we went for the Yellow Fin Tuna Tatare, we thought long and hard about our entrée choices. Steve went with the fish special (pan seared opa) and I opted for the Maple Leaf Farm Duck Breast.
As we waited for our appetizer we munched on sour-dough and nine-grain breads. The tuna arrived. It was a work of art as are all plates that come out of Chef Martín’s kitchen. The tuna was accompanied by Yuzu-Carrot Cotta, Fresno red chile, cucumbers, French radish and crème fraiche. Yucca chips were a great accompaniment for the tatare. The final touch: fermented pear/ginger broth which came in a tiny black tea pot and was poured over the top of the dish by our server. The sweet, creamy panna cotta (called simply “cotta” on the menu) was delicious and the ginger broth was a subtle and unexpected touch.
The opa, plated over celery root puree, was accompanied by a Gulf shrimp pancake, baby patty pan squash with a citrus/mushroom emulsion was served in a wide soup bowl. The puree was smooth and pleasantly sweet, the pancake was very flavorful. and there was a WHAT broth. The perfectly cooked (medium rare) lemon-glazed duck breast was plated over sunflower seed/lager puree and accompanied by forbidden rice, heirloom carrots and savory-tasting poached plum. It was finished with smoky lapsang souchong (a black tea) poured over the dish at the table. Presentation, once again, was visually pleasing. But, bottom line for any dish is the taste and these two were winners.
The desert menu offered four choices as well as ice cream and sorbets. We saw the top entry and didn’t really read further. Molten Bittersweet Chocolate Truffle Cake, a chocoholics dream. Before the dessert arrived, two white-handled kitchen spatulas with red rubber tips were delivered to the table. This piqued our curiosity. They were to make sure that every bit of the the sweet and salty caramel sauce can be efficiently scooped up. Cocoa Shortbread Soil and Toasted Cinnamon Ice Cream completed this decadent dish.
If you want to have a relaxed lunch in sophisticated surroundings, think Restaurant Martín. The menu offers soups, salads, sandwiches and “Local Favorites.” On Sunday, they serve brunch which is a mix of breakfast dishes and selected items from the lunch menu.
The Restaurant Martín cookbook
You can replicate Chef Martín’s cooking at home; he and Santa Fe cookbook authors par excellence, Bill and Cheryl Alters Jamison collaborated on the Restaurant Martín cookbook released in July 2015. Santa Fe photog Kate Russell’s beautiful food photos make it a visually stunning addition to your cookbook collection. On a sad note, Bill passed away during this journey so it’s his last book and it’s a beauty.
I asked Cheryl about their collaboration process and discovered a fascinating detail: the recipes come from Chef Martín, but Cheryl tested each one and then put them into layman’s language. The cookbook started with a lengthy series of Monday morning meetings with the Rios. After this she shadowed Martín in the kitchen for months. “He would make a home-size batch of each recipe with me asking questions about techniques and ingredients,” she recalled. The next step: she would return home with ingredients in hand and recreate the recipe using home kitchen equipment. She’d then write the recipe in language home cooks can easily understand. Then she’d consult with Martín and revise the recipe as needed. “We all started the project as friends,” she shared, “but all became amazingly close friends through the process. It meant a lot to Bill too, knowing that was his last book.”
Bill’s role? “a massive amount of organizing and keeping us on track for what had to be accomplished week by week,” Cheryl said. Bill also wrote the section with Martín’s history/back story and did the in-house edit. The result: a beautiful cookbook with recipes a home cook can easily prepare.
You can take home an autographed copy of the cookbook to remind you of your Restaurant Martín dining experience; though if it’s anything like ours. it will memorable.
Or you can buy the Restaurant Martín cookbook at our Amazon affiliate site.