Santo

Food: Two and a half stars

Service: Two and a half stars

Ambience: Two and a half stars

Price: $$-$$$

Address: 1265 Alpine Ave., Boulder

Contact: 303-442-6100, santoboulder.com

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: What? I couldn't catch what you were saying.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited Boulder restaurant opening of 2017 was that of Chef Hosea Rosenberg's Santo. The "Top Chef" champion's new eatery draws upon the cuisine of New Mexico, where he grew up, and features takes on such traditional dishes as green chile stew and enchiladas. Other courses have a more modern appeal, such as the wagyu skirt steak and duck breast entrees.

I'll note I've been a big fan of Rosenberg's solo endeavors, starting with his food truck and, later, Blackbelly Market. As a matter of fact, Blackbelly is one of my favorite local restaurants and was the subject of one of the most glowing reviews I've ever written. Consequently, it pains me to report that my experience at Santo was a disappointment with respect to service, ambience and food.

Prior to arriving at Santo, service was inconsistent, a pattern that continued into the meal. When my dining companion called to make a reservation, she never received the return call promised by the voicemail message, and had to resort to making reservations online.


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When we arrived for Friday night dinner, we were seated 15 minutes after our reservation time. Not necessarily a big deal, but the vibe from those at the host station was less one of pleasant reassurance than it was of indifference. In contrast, when I first visited Blackbelly, seating was prompt and interactions with staff were marked by enthusiasm and engagement.

The combination of contrasting crisp and forgiving textures in Santo’s kale and quinoa salad was deeply appealing.
The combination of contrasting crisp and forgiving textures in Santo's kale and quinoa salad was deeply appealing. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

The ambience has a clean and modern aesthetic with a few rustic New Mexican accents thrown in for good measure. But even by Boulder standards, this eatery is deafeningly loud, to the point that my friend and I were forced to repeat ourselves in conversation throughout the evening.

Our main server was friendly and engaging enough but seemingly unfamiliar with the restaurant's offerings. When she took our drink orders, I asked if Mexican Coke was available. She apologetically explained it wasn't, but a few minutes later she appeared bearing a bottle of this soda. To his credit, a manager did later insist on giving my dining companion a complimentary glass of red wine with her entree.

An $8 made-to-order guacamole starter came with crunchy blue and yellow corn tortilla chips. Visually attractive with a pleasant texture alternating between chunky and creamy, this dip had decent straightforward flavor, but it also didn't stand out in any particular way. Even something as simple as a touch of smoky chipotle would have elevated this dish.

I had high hopes for a bowl of $6 green chile stew, anchored by slow cooked pork and petite Colorado potatoes. Unfortunately, the only easily discernible element in this dish was a mild heat which made for one-note flavor. The best versions of this classic are defined by a richly complex melange of fire, fruit and meat, but this preparation fell short in its melding of flavors.

Much more successful was my friend's $8 salad of kale and quinoa, a refreshing and intriguing blend of the above ingredients as well as grilled cactus, jicama, pine nuts and almonds. The combination of contrasting crisp and forgiving textures was deeply appealing, as was the juxtaposition of sweet apple and pomegranate against the tang of queso fresco.

From the standpoint of tenderness and achieving a perfect medium rare state, the $28 wagyu skirt steak entree lived up to expectations. But the meat's exterior, as well as a braised onion garnish, was over-salted, diluting the premium beef's flavor. What was called a Chimayo chimichurri failed to match the vibrant flavors of its South American inspiration and did little to help the steak.

A $29 seared duck breast main course was markedly superior to the beef, with spot-on cooking leading to a luxuriously silky texture. Wood oven roast vegetables and farro made for an interesting and flavorful side that matched the rustic spirit of the waterfowl. Pomegranate was a smart and ultimately rewarding stand-in for the cherry or orange commonly used in classic French preparations.

For dessert, the concept of a $7 single origin Fortuna warm drinking chocolate was sound. But the fact that it arrived at an off-putting lukewarm temperature turned what should have been a no-brainer winner into a disappointment. However, the $7 green chile apple pie with cheddar crust and vanilla ice cream was a success, with a sharp heat the played well off of tart fruit and sharp cheese. Had the other dishes reached this level of originality and execution, I would have been inclined to view the entire meal much more favorably.

My hope is that whatever kitchen demons dogged my experience will soon be exorcised. Certainly Chef Rosenberg has ably demonstrated he has the chops to craft world class food and experiences, but that was seemingly absent during my visit to Santo. The problems are fixable, but they will also likely require diligence and focus to solve. One keeps the faith that this venue will soon match the top notch Blackbelly.