A State of Bliss
New Mexico’s magic is strong at La Merienda
The first time we showed up, it was after 8, and the din of the dining room was loud enough to qualify as raucous. The décor is elegant yet rustic, with hammered metal chandeliers, dark ceiling beams and farmy photographs of cows being milked. The service is attentive and enthusiastic, but not obsequious. Couched in the hacienda-style Inn house that was designed by John Gaw Meem, the father of Santa Fe-style architecture, the place is littered with historical artifacts from ceramic urns to antique hardware to blue hubbard squashes to an old-fashioned boot-scraper mounted on the front porch. On the other side of the porch, visitors traverse a courtyard to the small, nondescript door that leads to a cozy, warmly lit dining room.
Chef Perno has a daring spirit, the skills to express it and the ingredients on hand to make great food happen. A round of amuse-bouche arrived at the table soon after we ordered. It was a colorful pile of smoked beets, lemon goat cheese and sunflower sprouts with a dose of red chile oil. Served on wide, white spoons, it delivered an unlikely combination of sour, sweet, herbal, salty and piquant notes. We sipped our drinks—she a glass of bubbly New Mexico Brut and I a cocktail with peach nectar, Los Poblanos rosemary and some kind of liquor—and took in the scene.
Chef Perno has a daring spirit, the skills to express it and the ingredients on hand to make great food happen.
The cheese plate, which appears on both the appetizer and dessert menus, arrives on an imposing wood block cutting board and pairs various cheeses with counterbalancing flavors like green chile jelly, and an assortment of freshly made crackers, such as a pecan currant rosemary cracker, on which to spread and combine them. The green salad was a bit of a disappointment during our first visit, not in its flavor or composition but in the quantity of the greens. On our second visit we noticed, gazing ‘round the room, that the salads were bigger.
The star of the appetizer menu was a cranberry, bean and persimmon salad with a jujube dressing. The beans and berries were layered between slices of persimmon that were at once firm and delicious, a rare combination for persimmon in my experience—usually you have to wait until it’s soupy soft before it tastes so good.
The main courses were, without exception, exceptional, and it was refreshing to enjoy high-end food that isn’t overly reliant on butter as a crutch. A plate of gnocchi in a rich lemon sauce with cherry tomatoes and smoked salmon was dense with fat and flavor, and pierced with acid. OK, that one had some butter. But the other entrées used it sparingly. A special of perfectly cooked salmon, for example, came together seamlessly on a sunchoke purée, while contrasting brilliantly with salty salmon caviar and tart pickled radishes with which it was topped.
The chef’s select vegetarian entrée would satisfy even the most bloodthirsty carnivore. It consisted of an artful pile of root vegetables and greens drenched in a garlic parsnip sauce, speckled with green chile and topped with crispy-fried julienned carrot and leek. I never thought I’d hear myself saying “celery root” and “decadent” in the same sentence, but those big, soft chunks were so satisfying it left me with no choice.
Fortunately, the Minervois also went well with the star of the menu, a succulent slab of pork belly, with chard, chunky apple sauce and a green chile blue corn pancake. This masterful dish wove together many proven combinations—pork and apple, pork and green chile, green chile and corn—but was completely new, absolutely delicious and a perfect excuse to drink more Minervois.
We let the server choose our dessert wines, pairing them with our orders, because frankly we have no idea about dessert wines. The sauternes was a good choice with the lemon tart, which was a good choice itself. A soft lemon custard, held together by a piñon crust, was capped with a toasted marshmallow-like meringue. A port wine was suggested with my poached pear, and while the wine was good, I wasn’t crazy about the pear. It was cloyingly sweet and topped with alcohol-soaked fruit that would have been great, but by this point I’d had my fill of booze, and the combination fell flat.
Perhaps the greatest dessert pairing of all is the one I chose myself: pot de crème with coffee. At La Merienda, when you order a cup of coffee, you get a French press full of locally roasted Villa Myriam Colombian coffee. In the same way that the meat entrées commanded me to drink that Minervois, the rich, silky pot de crème gave me no choice but to finish my coffee.
A few steps from the dining room, we slumped off our food comas on leather couches by a log fire. We flipped through a picture book that paired historic New Mexico photos with recent ones taken in the same spots, and marveled at this wonderful state. It’s a state that is perfectly captured in the architecture, food and personality of Los Poblanos, where the pulse of New Mexico is strong. Then we made our way through the cold, clear night to the gravel parking lot and left the magic behind.
4803 Rio Grande NW
Hours: 5pm to 9pm, Wednesday to Sunday (reservations required!)
Vibe: Charming, romantic, classic New Mexico
Vegetarian options: Yes
Next special event: Sparkling Wine Dinner on Dec. 11
The Alibi recommends: Any of the vegetable sides, cranberry beans salad, pork belly, chef’s selection vegetarian entrée, Château de Paraza Minervois