Chef Fernando Olea Showcases His Mexican Roots At Sazón

Every season is the season to dine at Sazón, where Chef Fernando Olea, 2022 Best Chef of the Southwest James Beard Award Winner, creates magic on a plate. But Sazón takes on a special feeling in winter, as you brush the snow off your coat and are welcomed into the art-filled dining room for an evening of celebratory food and drink. The menu–deliberately small–pays homage to Chef Olea’s roots in Mexico but with a decidedly Southwestern vibe.

Mole

You can’t talk about Sazón without talking about mole. At Sazón, you’re in the hands of a master with such inspired creations as Chef Olea’s deep red-and orange-hued Coloradito, based on a traditional recipe made by his family in Mexico. It showcases both guajillo and árbol chilies with tomato, garlic, and other ingredients. Or his vibrant Mole Verde with tomatillos, spinach, jalapeño, and spices. For a cold winter’s night, perhaps his deep, earthy Mole Poblano–a complex blend of chile pasilla, mulatto, and ancho with plantains, raisins, Mexican dark chocolate, herbs, and spices. Just the thing to warm the darkest day.

Pulpo

Octopus, sautéed in olive oil with smoky richness from pork belly and a hit of Thai chili. It’s a winning combination that makes Sazón’s Pulpo a perennial favorite. The octopus is happy to make room for the powerful double act of pork and chili. And it’s these back-up singers that make this dish a hit. “The octopus itself is great, but most of the guests, they really like to dunk the bread–the crostini that we serve with it–in the oil. It’s a very, very good flavor with the pork belly,” says Chef Olea. And, while pork belly may not be the star of the show, it more than holds its own. “What cannot be good with pork belly?” he asks, laughing. “What else do you need?”

Sopa De Amor

This is Chef Olea’s signature soup–and with good reason. It’s a masterful combination of contrasting flavors, textures, temperatures and seasonings. He starts with a cream of poblano soup and adds a generous dollop of lump blue crabmeat that speaks of the sea. There is an amaretto foam and a dusting of cinnamon and chocolate. “I play with sweet, hot, cold, savory and some heat,” he says about this dish. Whatever you do, don’t stir, just dip your spoon in so you can taste every component–distinct, yet in perfect harmony. “All of the flavors they really blend beautifully. At the same time that they blend, they have their own place in the palate,” he says. Does he ever take this dish off the menu? A resounding “no.” “People come for my Sopa de Amor,” he says simply. And with good reason.

Costillas De Cordero 

Costillas de Cordero, or rack of lamb, is one of Chef Olea’s signature dishes, cooked to perfection and served over his own creation: a New Mexico mole. “You taste the lamb, even though it’s over a mole sauce. The mole sauce isn’t there to fight or take the place of the lamb, it’s to complement the lamb,” he says. With medium heat and a balance of both sweet and savory notes, it’s the ideal companion for the lamb. He’s proud of his New Mexico mole and justifiably so. He created it to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe as a riff on a classic mole, but with decidedly Southwestern heritage. True to the name, the ingredients are rooted in the soil of the state, redolent of apricots, roasted pecans, piñon nuts, white chocolate, and of course, red chile.

Flor Del Desierto, Infierno, and Horchata Martini

If you’re feeling remotely Grinch-like this holiday season, might we suggest a cocktail at Sazón? It’s guaranteed to put the ho-ho-ho into your ho-hum. Perhaps start with a Flor del Desierto (pictured on the left). It’s this year’s favorite color, Barbie Pink, thanks to prickly pear. While it might look sweet, Damon Lobato, manager/sommelier at Sazón, says it’s actually not. “You know the fruit is there but it’s still a little dry on the back palate.” If you’re feeling fiery, there is the Infierno–think margarita goes spicy with jalapeño essence and a rim garnished with black lava salt. Or raise your glass with a Horchata Martini (pictured far right): a very adult dreamy cocktail with horchata, a beverage made from rice, then spiced with cinnamon and vanilla, Casa Del Sol silver tequila and Crema De Sotol. All the cocktails at Sazón are eminently quaffable on their own but also pair perfectly with the dishes on the menu. “I think the key to all our cocktails and food is balance,” Damon says. Cheers to that!

A martini glass and two cocktail glasses are filled with drinks from Chef Fernando Olea at Sazon.

Filet

Think of some dishes as an ensemble cast, where each ingredient shares the billing. And then there are others–like Sazón’s Filet – where one ingredient is the star. Here it’s undoubtedly the beef tenderloin. Chef Olea starts with the finest Black Angus beef which is coated with a pepper crust. It’s served with a spinach, bacon, and piñon sauce that brings out the best in the beef. “You come and eat beef tenderloin and you have other flavors to complement it, not take over or to fight,” says Chef Olea. While the filet takes center stage, the other parts of the dish are critical. The sauce is luscious and complex and works beautifully, not only with the beef, but also with the microvegetables and subtle jasmine rice. Together they make for a show-stopping dish that is eye-catching and definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Camaron-tini

While some of his flavors may speak of Mexico, Chef Olea’s cuisine doesn’t, he says. He likes to call it New World. “What I’ve been doing in my adventure is incorporating flavors of the world.”

Take his Camaron-tini, for example. He starts with colossal–and we mean colossal–shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, coats them in a light batter and serves them with a generous swirl of sweet Thai chili aioli. “What we have in the Camaron-tini,” says Chef Olea, “is my version of tempura.” Picture classic tempura crunch, but with Chef’s riff, thanks to an inspired combination of spices and herbs that he adds to his tempura batter. It’s served simply and elegantly so the shrimp is the star.

Story by Julia Platt Leonard / Photography by Tira Howard

A footer photo with a black background and subscribe info and button

Subscribe to TABLE Magazine’s print edition.

SUBSCRIBE TO TABLE TALK

We respect your privacy.

spot_img

Related Articles

Shopping at Kitchenality in Santa Fe

Find all your kitchen essentials and much more!

Shop Local, New Mexico: Valentine’s Day Gifts

Support local businesses while shopping this Valentine's Day.

SWAIA Native Fashion Week Announces Featured Designers

These 16 designers are ready to enchant the runway.