October 2010

SANTA FE CAFE - Tapping The Source

Author: Mark Kreuzwieser

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but authenticity is always judged with the highest level of objectivity. Thus, would the co-owners and chefs at Santa Fe Café saddle up, hitch their wagons and point their noses west for the City of Santa Fe in New Mexico.

Co-owners Marshall Sampson and Sean Crosby will travel across country to sample the recipes of authentic Southwestern restaurants and mine the cultural and social fabric that makes up the unique style of Mexican/American Indian cuisine. You could say they’ll be getting sand in their cowboy boots so that they may rustle up new and fresh ideas for their own little slice of Southwestern cooking here on Hilton Head Island.

“You don’t find many genuine Southwestern restaurants on the East Coast,” said Sampson, a near-native of Hilton Head and a music business graduate of Appalachian State University. “I can think of only two in all of Atlanta, and they’re more Mexican-based and commercial.”

“In Santa Fe, there’s authentic Southwestern on every street, on every corner,” added Crosby, the restaurant’s head of kitchen; Sampson oversees the front of the restaurant and the business end.

The Santa Fe expedition, consisting of Sampson, Crosby, three other chefs and the bar manager, is set for late November through early December, a total of about six days, during which the restaurant will be closed. On the spicy sabbatical’s itinerary are dinners and lunches at a dozen restaurants and visits to wineries, galleries, museums and historic sites. The posse also will stop in at the acclaimed Santa Fe School of Cooking and take a school-guided tour of four of Santa Fe’s most prized Southwestern restaurants.

When they’re not eating, shopping, tasting wines or riding horses (yep, that’s on the agenda too), Sampson and crew will be “looking for anything we can incorporate into our menus, to help us create new specialties,” he said. “We think this will be important experience that will help us retain the essence of what makes our restaurant unique. “You can get some of [the knack for Southwestern cooking] in books or on TV, but nothing beats [being] in the heart of it.”

For the uninitiated, Southwestern cuisine is a combination of Mexican and American Indian cooking, relying heavily on the chili peppers that are native to New Mexico (red and green), blue corn, stacked enchiladas and sopapillas, a fried flour-based bread.

Though many foodies may think ‘hot and spicy’ when contemplating Southwestern, Sampson and his chefs believe that technique, preparation and a dizzying combination of food and spices conjure up the best in this cuisine.

“It’s unique in that we combine the hottest peppers with spice or food that is sweet to come up with a special meal,” he said. “We don’t burn people’s palates; we open them to a lot of flavor that is possible in endless combinations.”

Perhaps that explains Santa Fe Café’s signature dinner, grouper—by many accounts the finest on the island.

In Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, not the café in Hilton Head’s Plantation Center, our bravos will visit at least two meccas of fine Southwestern dining. “But we’re also looking for the ‘mom and pop’ restaurants,” Sampson said. “We want to get down to the roots, the basics, and anyway, some of the best Southwestern you’ll find is at the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants.”

Sampson emphasizes that they’re not aiming to ride into Santa Fe and gallop out with satchels full of purloined recipes like a bunch of low-down rustlers, but to learn authentic and age-old techniques and ingredient combinations and apply them to their own creative ideas and abilities.

“We sure aren’t out to rip anyone off,” he laughed.

“Whatever we are able to bring back,” added Crosby, “we’ll give it our own style, our own flair.”

So, come December 10 when Santa Fe Café reopens after the New Mexico trek, customers can look forward to a rejuvenated restaurant and a staff inspired by the cuisine unique to the “Land of Enchantment.” One thing’s for sure, patrons will see new menu offerings, as Sampson, Crosby and crew try specials based on what they learn and find in Santa Fe, Sampson said. “Then we’ll see what our customers like.”

Santa Fe Café is located at 807 William Hilton Parkway in Plantation Center, near the entrance of Palmetto Dunes. Hours are lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. Special features include live music with Reymundo Elias Wednesdays through Saturdays, a roof-top dining area, and a chef’s cooking counter. For information or reservations, call (843) 785-3838 or visit santafecafeofhiltonhead.com.

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