SANTA FE — "If a bomb were dropped on this party, it would set American food back 20 years." This sally was the most repeated comment at the opening of the long-awaited Coyote Cafe last weekend.
And it was true: Rarely have so many of America's best chefs, restaurateurs and vintners gathered under a single roof. A list of the personalities who turned out for the grand opening of Mark Miller's new restaurant reads like a Who's Who of American food and wine.
They came from all over the country. From New York and Texas, from San Francisco and Los Angeles and Denver. "I've been hearing about this restaurant since I moved to California," said Bradley Ogden (Campton Place, San Francisco). "I wouldn't have missed it."
For just about as long as anybody can remember, Mark Miller, an anthropologist who left graduate school to start his professional cooking career at Chez Panisse in 1975, has been talking about opening a restaurant in Santa Fe. When he opened the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley in 1979, he took a pioneering step into bringing back American cooking. (He was once asked if the food he served there was California Cuisine. "I don't use baby vegetables," he replied, "I don't have a wood-burning oven and you have to use your teeth when you come in here--so I guess not.")
But long before anybody had even heard the now-chic term "Southwestern cuisine," Miller was saying: "If I could do anything I wanted, I'd open a little restaurant in Santa Fe and do Southwest food and really develop a style that would not ape anybody else's food. I'd have wonderful Navajo spring lamb and wild breads." And while everybody else was going gaga about raspberry vinegar, Miller was serving cactus salad and complaining that people think "if it's good and beautiful, it has to be French."
And now, many years and many dollars later, the restaurant was finally opening. Unfortunately, the weather refused to cooperate. It snowed last Sunday in Santa Fe, a rare springtime occurrence in a town that brags about its 300 annual days of sunshine. This was one of those freak weather events that makes even intelligent people drone endlessly on about not having the right clothes for the climate. But as the bright new restaurant filled up and the trays of food began to circulate, the conversations about the cold mercifully gave way to tastier talk.
There they were, Alice Waters (Berkeley's Chez Panisse) and Jonathan Waxman (New York's Jams) examining trays of what Miller calls "Southwestern pizza." These had brilliantly colored crusts in red and blue and green (red chiles, blue corn and green chiles). They were topped with powerful combinations of peppers and chiles and chipotles and even a pesto made of cilantro and the native pinon nuts. And while most of the Southwest food Mafia was in for the opening--including author Anne Lindsay Greer, and chefs Robert Del Grande (Cafe Annie, Houston), Stephan Pyles (Routh Street, Dallas), Amy Ferguson (Baby Routh, Dallas), Dean Fearing (Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas, and John Makin (the Remington, Houston)--there was no denying that this food did not ape any of theirs. Miller's food was distinctly personal.
Sweet tangy ribs were brushed with a tamarind- chipotle glaze and then grilled to a fine crustiness. Little egg rolls filled with lobster and fresh epazote were served with a green tomatillo salsa. Empanadas , the crust bright orange with achiote , were filled with a picadillo made of venison. Brochettes of shrimp were wrapped up in Texas wild boar bacon. As they ate these dishes, chefs like Larry Forgione (New York's An American Place), Kazuto Matsutaka (Chinois on Main), Hans and Mary Rockenwagner (Rockenwagner) and what seemed like half of the staff of City Restaurant commented on the tastiness of the offerings.
"Have you tried the oysters?" people began whispering to one another. Almost hidden in the crush was Billy Marinelli, the San Francisco oysterman who has just moved his business to Los Angeles. He was opening oysters at a furious rate. There were briny Pacifics and tiny Olympias and even sweet pink scallops from Vancouver. "These may not be exactly Southwestern," said pastry chef Nancy Silverton happily to husband Mark Peel (both formerly of Spago), "but I've eaten dozens."
The Yucatan turkey was another big hit. Unlike any turkey you've ever tasted, this one was stuffed with shrimp, oysters, black beans, rice and pumpkin seeds. Bucky Harris, manager of the Fourth Street Grill, walked around with a proud look on his face. "It's good, isn't it?" he said. Michael McCarty (Michael's) seemed to agree.
Meanwhile, a crowd over at the buffet was watching as a leg of lamb that had been rubbed with a paste of wild mint, onions and garlic was removed from the clay covering in which it had been baked. By the time the clay was broken open, the flavors of the herbs and spices had permeated the flesh of the meat. It was delicious.