Just last week, Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehen took Richard Sandoval to task for having become too distant from his numerous restaurants. He was named Bon Apetit’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2006, but now his restaurant group operates Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandia in Denver; Maya in New York, San Francisco and Dubai; Zengo in Washington, DC; Pompano in New York; Isla in Las Vegas, and another La Sandia in Tysons Corner, VA. Five more restaurants will open soon in Mexico City, Acapulco Chicago, Scottsdale and San Diego. That’s an overloaded plate, and Sheehan noticed.
Setting the backdrop for his review of La Sandia, Sheehan wrote, “Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of…he has no day-to-day control over his properties…He sets a concept, writes a menu, staffs up with trusted lieutenants (sometimes), trains a crew and then unlocks the doors. His business is not so much about creating great restaurants as it is about creating great food-service machines that can run flawlessly in his absence. And there’s nothing wrong with that — as long as customers understand that going in….As a chef, I can’t help but be impressed by his menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint…[but] I’m not a chef anymore. And what might have once made me respect a guy for his smarts now makes me disdain him for his detachment and those parts of the dining experience that are just too cold-blooded and calculating to be ignored.”
Yesterday evening, I went to La Sandia for the second time. Previously was for lunch with friends, and it was fine — a little programmed, but fine. The space is attractive, every item dishes was very nicely presented (a Sandoval signature), the guacamole was good, and the tortilla soup and house salad made for a nice, moderately priced lunch. There was a sterility to the place, partly because it’s in the Northfield–Stapleton “village” which alone equates to sterility, plus La Sandia occupies a fairly large space, and very few of us were in it. Still, because I enjoy Tamayo so much, and I was ready to return to La Sandia at dinner, to see what other dishes were like.
Last night, I did. New York-based Richard Sandoval Restaurants hosted a small media dinner, complete with tortilla-making demonstration, and Richard Sandoval himself (top photo) was there to do a little demonstrating and a little Q&A with writers. Outstanding watermelon mojitos, and regular and hibiscus margaritas were passed around before the demonstration. Then, we sat down at a very long table set with baskets of tortilla chips, three-legged lava bowls with guacamole and little bowls of roasted tomato salsa. The waiter took our orders for a choice of “Mexico City-style” tacos, which means on soft, freshly made corn tortillas. The offerings are from the regular dinner menu.
I picked the grilled chicken, which was cut into a rough dice and well cooked — perhaps a tad too well, because it was no longer moist. Grilled slivered vegetables and a small bowl with two sauces (a light and a dark presented in sort of a yin/yang fashion but not easily identifiable) were came on a hot platter. On the side were a small plate of rice and black beans and a basket of napkin-wrapped tortillas to make the “fajita-style” tacos.
Maybe it was because I’d drunk two mojitos, or eaten entirely too many tortilla chips with guac and salsa, but my taste buds wouldn’t hook onto anything. The textures were pleasing, but something was missing in the taste department. Dessert was churros with hot chocolate for dipping. The chocolate was thin (maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be), but didn’t have much taste either. What I really like about Tamayo is the interplay of strong, distinctive flavors. I didn’t find them last night. Like the Northfield/Stapleton venue, it was all watered down and bland. The Cafe de Olla (made with decaf coffee on request, orange zest, cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican dark brown sugar) was so delicious that it made me almost forget the empty flavors that marked the rest of the meal.
We were told that Sandoval visits Denver about every six weeks and hosts events in various cities. I asked whether the events were all for the media or whether some were open to the public too. I didn’t get a real yes or no answer. Sandoval is an engaging man, one who has created awesome food elsewhere. I just haven’t found it at La Sandia. Neither, FWIW, did Jason Sheehan.