I first came to the stunning Sangre de Cristo mountains, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, over 25 years ago – and I’ve been dreaming of the Georgia O’Keefe desert landscape, adobe architecture and healthy cuisine ever since. I recently had the chance to return and was delighted by the laid-back yet lovely Izanami – a new izakaya-style restaurant from the creative force behind the legendary haute-hippie spa, Ten Thousand Waves. After a soothing One Wave bath ($47), complete with views of the pinons, our group retired next door to the tavern-style concept that specialises in izakaya – simple Japanese tapas – which includes assorted pickles and dumplings, and skewers of organic meat and vegetables.
The space itself is impressive – 64 tonnes of Japanese roof tile were imported for the structure, and the interior features rice-paper lanterns and handhewn posts and beams that soar to the ceilings. Much like a traditional Japanese farmhouse, the restaurant is divided into separate spaces: a convivial bar area with a view to the bustling kitchen; a main dining room; and a tatami room, where our group settled.
I’d highly recommend starting any meal with one of sake sommelier Deborah Fleig’s 50-plus selection of rice wines. She is one of just 30 women in the world to hold a level-two sake certification, a qualification that was three years in the making. She delighted in telling us about the various categories – fragrant and bright, tart and sweet, rich and mellow, and clean and refined – as well as how they are best served (for example, cold versus the traditional “pour over”, where the liquid spills over the rim of the glass in a symbol of abundance).
No matter how stellar the sake, however, it couldn’t outshine chef Kim Müller’s creative dishes. We started with fresh wakame salad with scallions and ginger dressing ($9), chilled soba noodles with house-made silken tofu ($12), and a seemingly endless stream of Müller’s signature pork gyoza ($6). This was followed by a selection of more substantial, yet still delicate, grilled dishes. Lone Mountain Ranch wagyu tri-tip beef with freshly grated wasabi ($22), butakushi (aka heritage pork belly) with a sensational barbecue glaze ($9), and bacon-wrapped yellow string beans ($6) were all delicious, as were small bites of kakiage – lightly fried tempura that included fresh yam, French beans, onion and carrot ($7).
To my delight, there were numerous vegan and gluten-free offerings as well. What we didn’t find, however, was sushi or fish of any kind. “We’re 1,000 miles from the ocean,” explained owner Duke Klauck, “so we stick with locally sourced food.” Seafood is only offered occasionally.
In general, I don’t find desserts in Japanese restaurants terribly enticing, but I have to say, both the flourless yuzu ricotta cheesecake ($6) and homemade miso caramel ice cream ($4) were outstanding, as was the extensive selection of loose-leaf teas ($3.50-$4.50), including gyokuro – a new blend (to me) of “shade grown, first flush” leaves – that made for a pleasant end to the meal.
For a different take on Japanese cuisine and a real education in the finer points of sake, set amid the stunning surrounds of the American southwest, this Zen restaurant is definitely worth a detour.