Globetrotting Southwest

Abiquiu melds international ingredients and Mexican standards with sensational results

“It sure doesn't look like a Mexican restaurant.”
“It's not Mexican — it's Southwest.”
“You mean New Mexico.”

“Sort of, but I think it's kind of inter-national, you know, Thai and Italian influences, too. The owner's from L.A.”

When Abiquiu opened in the site of the old Corona Bar and Grill nearly a year ago, all the foodies went downtown to worship at the shrine of John Sedlar, the L.A. restaurateur who won the hearts of southlanders with his contemporary Southwestern menu at Abiquiu, L.A.

I waited a while for several reasons. Generally speaking, I'm skeptical of L.A. imports, feeling we're doing pretty well up here in the provinces with our home-grown variety. Furthermore, as I see it, there really isn't an L.A. food scene for the simple reason that people down there don't eat. Sure, they show up at all the swell places looking just so, but when it comes to actually ingesting food: no way. Women with perfect lip gloss, no re-application, emerge after an alleged meal. Men hold the Caesar dressing and squeeze lemon on romaine leaves.

And finally, I held back from visiting Abiquiu because the idea of chiles rellenos stuffed with Thai shrimp and a peanut curry sauce made me feel just a little bit testy. I like my chiles rellenos battered, oozing cheese and slathered with salsa that makes me sweat.

Not only that, but to my mind any menu that lists “sopa del d’a” and tacos with accompaniments “du jour” has an identity crisis.

So I had to wait for my attitude to chill out. By the time I ventured into Abiquiu, I was almost there.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the place is that it's very, very white. The fabric on the banquettes and chairs is black and white. The kitchen looks clinical, and there are long, spindly branches lining the windows.

My friend the interior designer thought this was just great, pointing out how the pattern on the fabric repeated the willowy effect, perhaps suggesting the sparseness of the Southwestern landscape. Well excuuuse me: I've been to Santa Fe and that's not what it looked like to me. What's wrong with a splash of color once in a while, something to suggest life and chiles and sun and margaritas? Attitude chill not successful.

And then there's the menu. The aforementioned chile relleno ($6.25) has plenty of gussied-up company among the starters: Banzai tamale of air-dried duck, shiitakes, bok choy, ginger and soy ($7.95); salmon mousse tamale with caviar-butter sauce ($7.50); huevos rancheros scrambled with lobster, green chiles and red corn tortillas ($6.75).

Entrees include ravioli of squash and black bean with red chile sauce, zucchini and pasilla ($10.95); Bangkok enchilada of lamb saddle with curried potatoes, spinach and cucumber raita ($16.95); and “classic [sez who?] salmon Painted Desert with three sauces”: sorrel, chile caribe and white-wine shallot ($16.50). One's head spins.

We took a deep breath, plunged in and … guess what? The food is sensational. (Take that, you cynical pessimist.)

Let's start with the chile relleno. Not only does it work, but the fact that the chile is not battered to within an inch of its life allows you to taste its bite and crispness, making it an ideal receptacle for the sweet shrimp and cabbage it holds. And the curry peanut sauce (I can't believe I'm saying this) works beautifully, adding a wonderful complexity of flavor.

The crab and corn quesadilla with arugula salad and lime-chile salsa ($8.25) is another wonder. A three-tiered affair, the tortillas are feather-light, the corn sweet, the crab fresh and Monterey jack cheese holding it all together. The unusual salsa brings out the individual flavors, the arugula adds texture and snap. And so on.

The Banzai tamales are light years removed from the dense lumps one often finds — the duck succulent, the young bok choy tender, the marinated shiitakes delicious. The only slight disappointment is the black bean filling in the ravioli, a bit cakey and dry. The squash ravioli, however, are fine and not at all overwhelmed by the red chile sauce.

Remembering that we're talking contemporary Southwest here, not Mexican, you'd do well to pay attention to Abiquiu's extensive wine list. Much as I like beer with fiery food, this more sophisticated stuff pairs nicely with wine. The 35 listed whites range from a '92 Handley sauvignon blanc at $18 to several $60 bottles (chardonnays from Calera and Kistler, as well as McCrea Vineyard, all '92), with lots of choices in the $20 to $30 range. And the 50 reds on the list run the gamut from a $20 '91 Cháteau Souverain cabernet to a '79 Mondavi cabernet reserve at $110.

If suds you must, there is a small list of beer on tap, the most interesting of which is a Hefeweizen wheat beer. Negra Modelo is the only Mexican bottled beer.

Time out to mewl over Abiquiu's chile-flecked cornbread, which oughtta be illegal. It comes with artsy-looking pats of butter edged with basil, citrus and pepper. “You can do that at home,” our waitress told us. Yeah, right. Not knowing in advance how we'd devour the bread and ever-mindful of potential carbohydrate deficiency, we ordered sopapillas, too, which, with sage honey, made a sort of pre-dessert.

Speaking of dessert, when it came time to order, with all those tingly taste sensations singing in our mouths, we were over the top. So we made a mistake, ordering the gold tamale of Valrhona chocolate with roasted almonds, gold leaf and sour cherry sauce. Our waitress tried to warn us but we were undeterred, flying high on visions of who the hell knows what. It was basically a $6 candy bar, sort of like a long, fudgy Fig Newton, flecked with gold (which doesn't belong anywhere near dessert and made me remember I need to see my dentist). The sour cherry sauce, though, was a big hit spooned straight into the mouth. The more sophisticated diner might prefer it over, say, a polenta pound cake.

Now don't get me wrong. The place is somewhat precious and you don't get the big plates of food the words enchilada and tamale conjure up. And it's pricey: Dinner hors d'oeuvres run $5.50 to $8.25 (with American sturgeon caviar available at $22.50 per ounce), entrŽes $10.50 to $22.50 for Maine lobster “Gallegos ranch style” with pinto beans, corn brioche stuffing and lime butter.

There also is the disturbing presence of people, probably flown up from L.A. for the day, who look suspiciously like noneaters. But hey, it's a different niche and they're competing with Stars, not La Rondalla.

Will I go back? You betcha. I have my eye on the crisp enchilada of filet mignon with cowboy chile sauce and wild mushrooms followed by the pecan pie tamale with chocolate chile ice cream. Hi-ho silver and turquoise!

Abiquiu, 129 Ellis, S.F., 392-5500. Open Mon-Sat 11:30 am-3 pm, Sun-Wed 5-10 pm, Thurs-Sat 5-11 pm.

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