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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?

From the Vault Dept.: Although justly overshadowed by Fall Fashion model Lily Whiteman, today’s issue of Metroland contains my review of the Santa Fe Restaurant in Tivoli, NY, which I last wrote about 19 years ago. Here’s that earlier piece.


YOU HAVE TO go out of your way a little to find Tivoli. It’s in the Rhinebeck area, in case you need your bearings. Once you do, you won’t miss the Santa Fe. Ask any college kid you see on the street. They know. They’ll be hanging out by the front porch when you get there, waiting until some of the New York City crowd clears out so they can get those coveted by-the-window tables.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s an unlikely restaurant in an unlikely town, in an unlikely-looking brownstone. Even though it’s made its mark during the seven years it’s been open, it’s still pretty much the only game in town. Chef Tim Williams acknowledges that with a laugh, and he likes it. Formerly from the Cape Cod area, he’s been at the Santa Fe for a year and a half. He wasn’t anticipating this relocation when he first came to the area as a Culinary Institute student, but he started the job while finishing his studies and simply stayed on.

Owners David Weiss and Valerie Nehez liked southwestern cuisine and decided to spring on tiny Tivoli. This is none of your mock-Mexican faddish cooking; authentic touches abound. But it’s in a casual enough setting that you might not be inclined, at first, to take it seriously.

Don’t expect fancy service, for a start. Much of the floor staff seems to be drawn from the local student body, so if you get any personalized attention at all, it’ll probably be of the “Hey, howya doin’, guys,” mode. But it’s not a problem in this context. You’ll get what you need. And when the food arrives, you won’t need a whole lot more.

Not surprisingly, there’s an emphasis on libation here, of the frozen margarita variety. Susan, who likes party drinks and is inclined to launch into medleys of old show tunes after only two of them, enjoyed a peach/Midori margarita. Like the other fruit-laced forms the Santa Fe offers, it’s also available in pitcher quantity. Not wishing to risk a trip through “Man of La Mancha” and “Zorba,” however, I suggested we stay with the single serving and slaked my own thirst with a Corona, chosen from the short but comprehensive beer and wine list.

Chips are served as a matter of course, with a pair of salsas in contrasting levels of heat (the hotter is pretty good, too, playing with more fire than your typical mock Tex-Mex chain). We enhanced it with an appetizer order of guacamole, in which the avocado (they use the Hass variety) was very fresh and mixed its flavor well with the garlic and cominos that were added.

 Entrees include a trio of special salads, based on shrimp, chicken or calamari, with such elements as cilantro pesto and peppered goat cheese as complements. In fact, the calamari is tossed in what’s described as a Mexican-Thai dressing (where else but in cooking will you find such ethnic links?), and that Thai influence also shows up in a shrimp satay, an entree served with plantains.

To freeze and thereby enshrine a particular culture’s cooking is to kill it; the best restaurants aren’t afraid to experiment, which only enhances the authenticity by allowing it to move up to date.

Susan’s black bean burrito had a dark, pungent filling wrapped in a large flour tortilla with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and onions and a tangy enhancement of roasted green chili peppers.

The enchiladas San Miguel, which I ordered, start with a typical sandwich of corn tortilla wrapped around some manner of filling; but the vegetarian characteristic of the dish is preserved and enhanced with the use of spinach and mushrooms, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes in the filling, with side orders of rice and beans that weren’t at all as boring as you’d expect: a lively flavoring is worked in everyplace.

That goat cheese, by the way, comes from Coach Farm in Pine Plains, delivered fresh every week. Remember: this place may seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really in the middle of farm country. Although, as Chef Williams points out, it’s sometimes hard to find fresh blue corn flour.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip and the aforementioned drinks, was $37.

Santa Fe Restaurant, 52 Broadway, Tivoli, 914-757-4100. Serving dinner Tue-Sun 5-10 (although they’ll stay open later on weekends). MC, V. [Note that the area code has since changed to 845.]

Metroland Magazine, Sept. 30, 1993

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