(Filed from Phoenix, Arizona at 9:52 a.m. on July 26, 1999)
At Doc Martin's Restaurant, located in the Historic Taos Inn, the rooms are awash in color. Walls of yellow and melon and deep purple surround you and multi-hued art hangs on the walls. The pretty blue chairs are meant to keep you straight in your seat while soft light dances down from the wrought iron chandeliers above. Chef Patrick Lambert is the man here and his menu features modern American cuisine with a nod to the Southwest. We hadn't really planned on eating here but since we're staying at the Inn, well, it seemed easy.
Fen and I begin our meal with a couple of appetizers, my choice being the chipotle shrimp on a corn cake. The shrimp-cake, once presented, is a plump baby topped with kernels of sunny yellow corn. To enhance my dining experience further, the chef has dotted my entire plate with Dali-esque splotches of red chile oil. Fen has ordered a crab crepe which is dressed in a silky-smooth vanilla beurre blanc and graced with bits of bacon and green chilies. I find myself savoring every smooth and sensuous bite on my plate, although Fen's crepe gets equally good ratings. We smile at each other, an anticipatory smile which tells the other that more good things will likely come.
Our entrees arrive soon enough. This time, Fen is presented with the grilled King salmon. His regal fish is nestled next to an organic tomato coulis, a burst of red-orange which immediately ups the wattage of this plate. Alongside are a smoked salmon-stuffed squash blossom, herbed pasta and wilted spinach. Our waiter favors me with the pinon-crusted salmon with an ancho-pesto sauce.
I notice that Fen's pink salmon is perfectly cooked, light and just-so flaky on the outside and slightly moister on the inside. My plate, however, is a revelation. Under a mound of chunky red-brown sauce is a lightly-breaded hunk of salmon. The flavors of the salmon and its smoky sauce are rich, dense and wonderful.
I can see that Fen wishes he'd ordered my dish so I give him a bite. Soon he discreetly takes another bite. We start to deconstruct my dish, mainly to see what else is on this amazing plate. Underneath my salmon, in descending order, are a red pepper (spread flat), strips of zucchini, thinly-sliced yellow squash, a round of eggplant and a potato pancake. It's a mini-tower of earthly delights. Fen and I politely fight over my dish.
"Well, that's a real he-man dish," Fen tells me. "It's meant for guys."
Fen manages to finish his own more delicate dish as well.
Desserts arrive next and they play out like this: Fen orders the chocolate selection while I get the fruity (girly?) dish. Our waiter brings me a peach and raspberry napoleon with a mascarpone mousse and a champagne sabayon. Fen, in turn, receives the Chocolate Symphony, a dense chocolate cake topped with a chocolate sorbet and a chocolate arch that spans the entire creation. It's the Gateway Arch au chocolat. In this case, however, the ends of the arch are resting on a dollop of just-sweet-enough whipped cream. Oh, and chocolate squiggles have been drawn randomly on the plate.
As we are wont to do, both Fen and I start in on his chocolate dish. It's scrumptious, the cool and light sorbet providing the perfect counterpoint to the richer cake. When I finally take a bite of my fruit fest, however, I am in heaven. The peach chunks are soft and sweet and the golden raspberries luscious. Mascarpone mousse slides sweetly over my tongue. I reluctantly offer Fen a bite.
"Wow!" he says, which pretty much says it all. We proceed to fight over my dessert -- discreetly, of course.
The chef pops on over to say hello at this point and I find him to be as much of a revelation as this meal. Hailing from far-off Maine, Patrick Lambert trained in Switzerland and worked all over Europe and the U.S. before finally settling in New Mexico.
"I'm a ski bum," he explains. "This is where I want to be."
A query as to his cooking style provides more candor: "It's all about good flavors, BIG flavor profiles. And much of the stuff I'm using here is local. We work with organic farmers to get the best products and we've been working with these folks for YEARS."
As we start to discuss our meal, the ski bum gets even more excited.
"Man, I LOVE tomatoes," he says to Fen. "Weren't those tomatoes great? And that squash blossom. Those were the first squash blossoms of the season! I HAD to stuff 'em!"
I come to realize that not only is Chef Lambert a great cook, he's also a whole lotta fun. Which is probably a big reason why his food is so good. I thank him profusely for our incredible meal and soon we're talking restaurants and chefs.
"You know," Chef Lambert says with a wink, "when people ask me 'where's the best meal in Santa Fe?' I tell 'em 'Taos.'"
© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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