I’ve wanted to visit Silver City since a serious foodie told me about Rob Connoley and the Curious Kumquat two years ago. The nearly six-hour drive—if you turn west from I-25 onto Highway 152 through Hillsboro—is a swath of New Mexico wilderness brimming with hawk sightings, spectacular rises and valleys, and an overlook of the Santa Rita copper mine east of town.
Rob and spouse Tyler Connoley launched The Curious Kumquat in 2004. Tyler is now a chaplain at a hospice. Rob focuses on the ’Quat, which began as a gourmet grocery and eventually expanded to include lunch. The grocery closed this month to make more room for the restaurant, which has become a destination for folks with adventurous tastes.
Rob’s growth as a cook winds as intricately as the mountain road. While earning his B.A. in Communications at Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d visit a roommate’s home for dinner. He says the family cook took one look at his lanky, marathon-running frame and decided to fatten him up, teaching him to cook New Orleans cuisine. (He eventually earned a Ph.D. in Health and Kinesiology at Indiana’s Purdue University in 1995.)
A conversation with Rob is peppered with such phrases as “flavor bridges,” “ethical foraging” and “real food.” When he discovered eGullet.com—whose participating members included Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz and other food enthusiasts—he created a meat-based dessert for a site challenge. His dish earned rave reviews, which spurred him to learn classic techniques and play with modernist cuisine. He was hooked.
Rob began using foraged ingredients when he met Doug Simons, who’d lived entirely off of the nearby land for five years. Rob studied with Simons, and he now teaches foraging as well. (The next workshop is on Aug. 7: Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details and registration.) Hackberries, cattails, agave, crawfish, mushrooms and yucca are some of the Southern New Mexico bounty transformed in the ’Quat kitchen.
But if you’re imagining a meal with a mouthful of weeds, reserve a seat at Rob’s next tasting dinner. The regular menu is excellent—elk osso buco, lamb chops and roasted artichoke are satisfying any night of the week. Tasting dinners are scheduled every few months.
The tasting menus I’ve had at other restaurants have most often been the result of rigorous decisions made before the chef adds a dish to a menu. But Rob will switch things up based on the availability of foraged ingredients or a sudden inspiration to try something different. His excitement at seeing what happens when he combines ingredients is palpable.
As we waited for our amuse-bouche, Rob explained that we were, to some extent, guinea pigs.
The amuse-bouche and first course were a play on breakfast: a house-cured bacon ragout with quail egg was decidedly salty; bacon marmalade on buckwheat sponge was fun. Both dishes were served with Ayinger Ur-Weisse, a wheat beer.
A crawfish croquette crusted in peanut and wasabi came with banana-y polenta and cherries. Duck on buckwheat pasta was topped with cattail sprouts and a bit of crispy duck skin. Szechuan-style cattail females (the brown, fuzzy part), foraged mushrooms and salt-cured agave blossom were garnished in citrus cattail ash—a painterly swoosh of burnt vegetation that doubled as an accent flavor on the side of the bowl. And then there was oxtail bao dressed with pickled agave buds and plum sauce. I especially liked the cattail sprouts, which were crisp and tasted like cucumber with kick. Three wines accompanied this explosion of savory delicacies.
But there wasn’t a single dessert. There were four. First up, a lime-wasabi canelé—a thimble-shaped French pastry filled with custard and glazed in beeswax. A Vietnamese-spiced ice cream sandwich was followed by passion fruit panna cotta with bits of cocoa nibs and malt. Finally, we gorged on housemade chocolate bonbons—one filled with an unctuously gooey espresso, the other with a hazelnut cream—and Madeira to wash them down. This 10-course extravaganza runs $75 per person, plus $25 for wine pairings. Amazing.
The housemade bonbons are from the ’Quat’s assorted chocolate rotation. Rob tells us that his lunch menu also includes other from-scratch delicacies such as housemade pastrami and prosciutto-style hams, which have been curing for nine months.
We managed to include breakfast at Nancy’s Silver Café (steak, eggs, home fries and toast for $10) and, on the way home, a stop in T or C’s Pacific Grill, where an Asian take on fish didn’t go amiss. There are places in Silver City that I put on my list for the next excursion. We bumped into friends who were out to dine at 1zero6—self-described Pacific Rim, Oaxacan and Italian fusion. I’ve also heard good reviews on Shevek & Co., which is only open for dinner.
As weekend destinations go, you could do worse than driving to Silver City to be a guinea pig for Rob Connoley, who falls asleep after a long day in the kitchen and dreams about food.