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Review: Santa Fe 

Ian McNulty on the cross-cultural Mexican restaurant that moved from the Marigny to Esplanade Ridge

click to enlarge Diners enjoy a drink on the patio at Santa Fe. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

How much can one restaurant change before it becomes an entirely different restaurant? Santa Fe is an ongoing case study in the matter. The restaurant looks, tastes and functions quite differently from the place some associate with its name, though many of its old hallmarks endure.

  Meals still begin with chips and salsa and potent house margaritas. But today what follows could be croquettes of bacalao, the Spanish salt-dried cod, or beet salad with goat cheese. The same kitchen makes average chicken quesadillas and fat diver scallops topped with grilled pineapple salsa. Enchiladas drenched in cheese provide comfort food coddling, and rack of lamb with chorizo and mushroom risotto and garlic-wine reduction for $25 would be at home at a fine-dining destination.

  The restaurant's path to this culinary crossroads has been a bumpy one. Santa Fe was a Faubourg Marigny fixture through two decades, though its name never really did fit. German-born chef Mark Hollger built its durable reputation on his own interpretation of Southwestern cuisine and the occasional, quizzical Bavarian special. New owners reopened Santa Fe after Hurricane Katrina with Hollger's recipes but none of the chemistry that made the idiosyncratic old place work. It quickly folded. In April 2009, the restaurant re-emerged at the former home of Gabrielle in Faubourg St. John. The sputtering resumed immediately. Service was weak, preparations were sloppy and many longtime fans justifiably decried the place as Santa Fe in name only.

  A few months later, however, Lale Ergun and Carlos Lourenco took over with a plan to redo Santa Fe. They brought in chef Mario Abdu, who began testing more ambitious dishes on the specials board, and they also initiated an attractive renovation, creating a covered patio of timbers and terra cotta to take full advantage of the restaurant's verdant surroundings.

  This incarnation is somewhere between an everyday Tex-Mex joint with a well-known name and a more ambitious pan-Latin bistro striving for notice. It must be challenging for one kitchen to produce such a range from ticket to ticket, and sometimes that strain shows. The salmon I was recently served was poorly trimmed, cooked tough and draped with an unappetizing patch of wobbly skin. The ultra-smooth guacamole seems to be piped onto plates only after all life has been squeezed from it.

  But generally, the basic tortilla-based fare is solid enough and some Santa Fe standards have been respectfully rekindled, especially the chicken Maximilian, an indulgent ooze of chorizo and asadero cheese in a chicken roulade. Delve into the newer specialties, and you'll find a precisely arranged salpicon of octopus, shrimp and squid lashed with sherry vinaigrette, a chipotle-spiced version of barbecue shrimp and a pepper-bitten rib-eye layered with mushrooms and served with fried yuca logs like cross-cultural steak frites.

  The gaps in intent, quality and style between dishes at Santa Fe can still be disconcerting, but a shaded table with a view of Esplanade oaks and a boozy margarita in hand certainly makes a pleasant way to parse it out.

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