Santa Fe Bistro serves the worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten. I probably should have built up to such a dramatic declaration, but so much about this 3-month-old Creve Coeur restaurant is so confounding that I didn’t want the sandwich to get lost in the culinary chaos. Also, I would like to move on from this dish as quickly as possible.
The sandwich, from Santa Fe Bistro’s lunch menu, is a grilled cheese with smoked salmon and guacamole. I tried to rationalize ordering this by thinking of lox and cream cheese on a bagel on one hand and a tuna melt on the other. What I got wasn’t even a proper grilled cheese. The slices of white American and cheddar cheese hadn’t melted so much as gone as soft and droopy at the edges as a middle-aged restaurant critic.
The cheese — the temperature of a fever, with a texture best described as gummable — was draped over the sandwich’s smoked salmon the way smoked salmon should be draped over a bagel’s schmear. The slices of smoked salmon, still carrying the chill of the refrigerator, had been layered as if they were cold cuts. This transformed the lusciousness of individual slices into a thick squish, like a pocket of fat in a mediocre steak, but salmon-flavored. On the other side of this, in case you had forgotten, was more cool, fatty creaminess: the guacamole. The sandwich comes with fries, which were fine.
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Santa Fe Bistro is a new restaurant from the owner of Oceano Bistro, Amer Abouwardah. The name and some of the menu items suggest a focus on the cuisine of New Mexico and the broader Southwest, but Santa Fe Bistro’s menu also displays a strong connection to the seafood-focused Oceano. Strong, and to the casual diner drawn here by the name and a hankering for a green-chile cheeseburger or enchiladas striped Christmas-style with red and green salsa, jarring.
I won’t claim to be an expert on New Mexico and its foods, but a few years ago I spent a whirlwind couple of days in the state — in Santa Fe and its surroundings, in fact. I admired the stark, rocky beauty of the landscape, walked through an open-air market teeming with chiles and learned that at certain altitudes even a couple of cocktails can detonate an extraordinary hangover. I confirmed what maps have taught me: New Mexico is a land-locked state. I didn’t eat any grilled cheese sandwiches with smoked salmon and guacamole.
Santa Fe Bistro took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up all over the map. Here is a small piece of pan-seared Alaskan halibut, ostensibly given a New Mexican or Southwestern or Mexican gloss with, according to the menu, an apple-jalapeño salsa and cilantro rice. The salsa on my fish looked to be pale, watery tomato and maybe a whisper of jalapeño. (If it was apple, it was whichever apple variety looks and tastes most like pale, watery tomatoes.) A ring of green oil encircled the halibut’s bed of rice; I assume this was the aforementioned cilantro. The dish tasted mainly of lightly browned halibut and rice, which is to say of nothing at all.
The Hatch Green Chile Campechana delivered only a glancing blow from its signature ingredient, to say nothing of the jalapeño the menu also promised, but the shrimp cocktail’s fresh tomato tang did offset the natural sweetness of its chopped shrimp and slivers of avocado. The Fresno chile sauce that accompanied the plump, pan-seared Santa Fe Shrimp did pack a wallop of heat. (The restaurant should substitute a version of this for both the red and green salsas in its overpriced $8 serving of chips and salsa.) But the kitchen undercut what should have been a light, sharp appetizer by dribbling an unctuous garlic aioli over the shrimp.
Santa Fe Bistro didn’t need to reach to justify a grilled strip steak on its geographically nebulous menu, but the little pool of red salsa on the bottom was so outrageously superfluous I almost admired the half-heartedness. Salsa or no, this was a deeply unpleasant plating for what should have been a no-fuss crowd-pleaser. The steak sat on a bed of fried potato wedges that had an unpleasantly gritty surface, as though they had been coated in dried quinoa. Tossed among these wedges were blobs of goat cheese because the one thing that could help sandpapery steak frites is creamy funk.
In 16 years on this beat, I have never encountered a restaurant where I was more alarmed by textures than flavors, techniques or ideas.
I would say Santa Fe Bistro needs to lean into its namesake, but the posole here is thin and wanly spiced, while the lunch menu’s green chile cheeseburger smothers its hatch-chile bite with that damned garlic aioli. Chicken enchiladas, from the dinner menu’s dubiously titled Santa Fe Specials section (another of the three specials is a plate of fish tacos), fans slices of tired grilled chicken breast meat of the sort you might choose to turn your salad-bar salad into a meal, across slender rolled tortillas.
If nothing at Santa Fe Bistro can match the awfulness of its grilled cheese with smoked salmon and guacamole, in its current form the restaurant as a whole is just as inexplicable.
Where Santa Fe Bistro, 12316 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur • More info 314-628-1001; santafebistromo.com • Menu Ostensibly Southwestern • Hours Dinner daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday