Its a Tuesday night, and Eric Stapleman is behind the long, white ash bar at his restaurant Shibumi, and hes telling me that the stock for his ramen noodle bowls takes 40 to 60 hours to make. Theres a kind of magic in the multiboil/let it rest overnight process that results in a superclear stock, he says, and one with 20 ingredients in the end. (Twenty ingredients?! I make mine with five.)Stapleman talks fast and with a pronounced accent, like the native New Yorker that he is. Quickly and with confidence, in excited bursts.Youre lucky to be here tonight, he says, abruptly. We werent even going to be open. We were catering a party for TL, but he canceled at the last minute. Thats why you have these things anakyu [eel with cucumber], ohitashi [spinach with ponzu and bonito fish flakes] on the menu.TL?Tommy Lee Jones.Oh. Right. Of course.Were in a tiny, Zen-like space tucked into half of an adobe also occupied by the new French restaurant Vivre, also owned by Stapleman. Shibumi is a Japanese-style tavern, Stapleman explains, much like the sort of place where locals (in Japan, that is) go for a sake and a small bite to eat. Sort of like a tapas bar. But Japanese, not Spanish (although a new one of those just opened down the street). With oversize ramen noodle bowls in addition to the izakaya (small plates), and served up in pottery flown in from Japan.Whew. Got that?And you thought eating in Santa Fe was just about chiles.Over the past decade or so, the city different has become the city international when it comes to dining, and it offers a wide variety of cuisines, which the citys well-traveled locals appreciate.Its not that New Mexican cuisine is eclipsed by all the new foreign tastes and flavors; its just that theres now so much more to choose from and much of it is quite good.Whats happening in Santa Fe right now mirrors a national trend of local food enthusiasts looking to expand their palates without spending money on travel, says Rob DeWalt, food section editor for Pasatiempo, whom I met when I was a guest on Mary-Charlotte Domandis Santa Fe Cafe on radio station KSFR-FM last summer. The upside of a curious, if relatively small, capital city community of food consumers is that wherever a niche needs filling, there will always be someone with the skills and passion to do the job. Ahmed Obo at Jambo Cafe recently expanded his business and serves authentic dishes from his homeland, Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya. His goat stew is not to be missed.Goat stew! Who knew?The locals do. Both Jumbo and Shibumi are on Santa Fe foodies short list of where to dine, and they both made the Santa Fe Reporters Top 10 list last year, along with Raaga, an Indian restaurant, and Azur, a Mediterranean-style bistro with a French chef in the kitchen. Last fall, the always-crowded Spanish tapas restaurant La Boca opened a more casual sibling, Taberna La Boca, for small plates of jamon Iberico, tortilla and patatas bravas.Spin the globe. It goes on.Theres Clafoutis, where the French owners make croissants, madeleines and macarons from scratch; the über laid-back Tune-Up Cafe, best described as New Mexican meets El Salvadoran; the newish Swiss Bakery Pastries & Bistro; and Vinaigrette, where you will find dinner-size salads made with locally grown greens, along with add-ons such as duck, salmon and chicken.An impressively diverse menu for a city with a population of just 68,642 or any city, for that matter.From Intergalactic Bread Companys fiery green chile focaccia at the twice-weekly Santa Fe Farmers Market to the blue corn with strawberry-jalapeño jam or eggnog creme-filled doughnuts at Whoos Donuts, the chefs in Santa Fes kitchens are mixing and matching flavors as they see fit.Theres a spirit of playfulness here, a sense that food is to be enjoyed, whether it comes with red or green. Its not unusual to be told to have a groovy day by a barista at a coffee shop, nor is it odd to be offered a spoonful of habanero hot fudge to be swirled into ones latte on a cold winters day, something that I gladly accepted on a recent visit and now crave.Boutique bakeries are trending, and there are two new, superpopular gluten-free shops, Revolution Bakery and Momo & Co. The slightly ethnic, reasonably priced Sweetwater restaurant offers a bit of it all from craft beers and organic fair trade coffee to breakfasts featuring lemon ricotta spelt pancakes to payasam, an East Indian hot cereal, served with pistachios and raisins.In the fine-dining scene, chefs are coming into the city and staying. Charles Dale, the ex-chef at Terra at Encantado, is opening a new French bistro at the old Aqua Santa space this spring.Joseph Wrede, best known for his innovative menus at the now-defunct Josephs Table in Taos, has found himself a home at the newish restaurant Tomme, by way of a short stint at The Palace Restaurant and Saloon (perhaps the resident ghosts drove him away). In any case, Wredes recent relocation to Santa Fe and Tomme is considered to be a very good thing.To find Wrede at Tomme is doubly exciting, and he is doing great things there, says DeWalt. While Wrede flexes many culinary muscles, his small, whimsical twists on familiar cuisine are his trademark. The grilled marin with sea salt and lime, black bean and pumpkin-corn molé may have its roots in seafaring towns, but Wrede makes it taste like a slice of home.Using local ingredientsLocal may be todays organic, but any way you look at it, whether youre a chef or not, eating from your own back yard just makes good sense. In Santa Fe, finding homegrown spices and chiles is a given, but northern New Mexico grows much more than that. The Santa Fe farmers market sells fresh goat cheeses from South Mountain Dairy and Old Windmill Dairy; fresh chickens and green chile-flecked sausages at Pollo Real (with a freestanding butcher shop to open soon); and greens, chiles and whatevers in season and growing at Matt Romeros 11-acre farm near Dixon.Santa Fe chefs like Juan Bochenski at the Anasazi Restaurant at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi are big supporters of whats locally grown and raised.We not only support local produce, but also work through a local Santa Fe purveyor to procure elk from the Rocky Mountains and lamb from northern New Mexico, Bochenski says. He serves Rocky Mountain grilled elk short loin with baby root vegetables, goat cheese dumplings and caramelized onion jus; and a free-range New Mexico lamb roast with jalapeño-cheddar croquettes, mixed vegetable ragout and cherry molé.Brett Sparman at Inn at Lorettos Luminaria also buys local lamb and other produce, but takes local a step further by keeping an award-winning tortilla soup, created by a pair of brothers from Chimayo who have been in the Luminaria kitchen for 36 years, on the menu for lunch and dinner.I think the idea of local food just became the standard, and in the case of the Montoya brothers, these guys are cooking like their grandmothers did, says Sparman. There are so many styles of this soup in Santa Fe, but I think ours is by far one of the best. I always lean on my cooks, when Im creating new dishes, who for the most part have been eating these flavors their whole lives.When my torigara soup (ramen soup with roasted chicken and veggies) arrives in a beautiful glazed brown bowl big enough, Im thinking, to feed at least four hungry people Im grateful for Staplemans obsessiveness with the first rich, noodle-y bite. It is delicious and it is exactly the sort of thing that I crave when its cold outside, as it is on this particular night, just two days after a big snow (and two days away from another one, it turned out).Dont get me wrong. I order green chile on eggs for breakfast, on burgers for lunch and heaped on top of blue corn enchiladas for dinner when Im in Santa Fe, and I buy ground red chile from roadside vendors so I can make my own pork adovada when Im back home. From Chef Bochenskis octopus and chorizo medley with garbanzo puree, sun blushed tomatoes, artichokes and squid ink vinaigrette at the Anasazi to the Frito chili pie at the Five & Dime General Store on the Plaza, its all Santa Fe dining to me. I love it all.
Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer and author of Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent.