We took a trip to Silver City a couple of weeks ago. Silver City, NM, is on the edge of the gigantic Gila National Forest, a federally protected wilderness larger than the state of Connecticut. The Gila Wilderness is home to forested hills, rivers, and the famed Gila Cliff Dwellings, all of which we were excited to see – but none were the real reason we went.
You see, for some time I’d been hearing about a haven of modernist cuisine in this most unlikely place. Chef Rob Connoley is a James Beard Award semi-finalist. The website describes the Curious Kumquat‘s food as “modernist foraged cuisine” and ” local foods with an eye on historic Apache diets.” It’s been written up in Saveur and The New York Times, as well as any number of New Mexican publications like the Albuquerque Alibi and AAA New Mexico.
We’d been toying with the idea of visiting Silver City and checking out the Curious Kumquat for a while, but were finally goaded into action when Arne learned that the restaurant is closing later in 2016. If we were ever going to get there, we needed to hurry up. So off we went.
Silver City is about a five-hour drive from Albuquerque: a fairly straight shot south on I-25 past Truth or Consequences, followed by a winding drive through tiny Hillsboro and part of the Gila Wilderness. It was a beautiful drive, though we got started a little late and the last couple of hours along twisty NM 152 were a race against the sunset. We lost – in fact, it was dark enough at the end of the drive that we couldn’t even see the vast Chino/Santa Rita Mine as we passed it, except for some very bright lights in the distance. (We went back later.)
We explored the City of Rocks and the Gila Cliff Dwellings (where I rediscovered a major fear of heights and had to be coaxed back down the cliff step by step), but the centerpiece of our trip, as expected, was The Curious Kumquat.
The restaurant is housed in a charming little adobe home at the end of Bullard Street, the main drag of Silver City’s historic downtown. The downtown has an interesting story: Though the town was intended to be “built to last” and buildings were required to be masonry, flooding down Main Street repeatedly washed out the buildings, eventually turning what used to be a street into a 55-foot-deep ditch. Bridges cross over what is now Big Ditch Park, a pretty oasis of water and trees.
We were greeted warmly when we entered the restaurant and invited to choose a table. We picked the main room, in front of the fireplace. The room was painted in cheerful pale green and rust; above us was a green-painted trellis sparkling with small lightbulbs and hung with bunches of dried herbs.
Our first course began with a tisane brewed in a vacuum pot at our table. Our friendly hostess/server had quite a job; the only server in the place, she greeted patrons, served and described every course on the tasting menu (except dessert, delivered to each table by the chef), cleared plates and put out fresh silverware for each course, and also set up and lit the vacuum pot to brew the tisane. She was wonderful, and I wish I could remember her name!
We watched the liquid get sucked up into the top chamber of the vacuum pot and wondered what was in the tisane. I could see onion, cilantro, and – I think – jalapeno, as well as what looked like white peppercorns or coriander. I’m not sure what elements of the tisane were foraged. Anyway, when our server poured the drink, it was savory and spicy and warming.
Along with our freshly brewed tisane, we were each presented with a box filled with… I’m not sure what. Some kind of seed or chaff? On top of the box was a clear lid, and on that sat a tiny cone-shaped cake. An acorn and mesquite financier, explained the server, with house butter flavored with acorn ash. It was a beautiful presentation, and the financier was delightful, warm and sweet with delicately crusty edges. It tasted like it had come out of the oven just moments before serving.
We made our financiers last as long as we could, and then sipped the spicy tisane until the next course arrived. A hundred layers of apple, we were told… give or take. Apples were cut into incredibly thin slices, then stacked and cooked and topped with a sort of granola and a savory sauce of some kind, and powdered browned butter. The effect was surprisingly light and savory and very complex. I ate it in the tiniest bites I could manage.
Next was my favorite course, the one that will haunt my dreams. More acorn and more apple (I think there’s not a lot to forage in mid-March), but in a very different guise. This was a Thai curry acorn croquette in a pool of coconut, with a sliver of pickled apple and a sprinkle of cattail ash on top.
Never in a million years would I have guessed this was made of acorn, though I suppose its richness was reminiscent of food made with other nuts. The croquette was moist and light, greaselessly fried and richly flavored, just a tiny bit spicy from the curry, sparked by the tart crunchy apple and a little smoky from the ash. It was divine, and I was so very sad when I ate the last bite.
The final small savory was presented to us as “beet, potato, and chickpea.” I’m not a big fan of beets, but this was really lovely. The outside was a coil of potato, dyed with beet so that it resembled a rose. We debated with the diners next to us whether the nugget inside was baby beet – it might have been, but it’s possible it was beet-dyed fingerling potato. It was salty and delicious, regardless, and the tiny chickpea cakelet on the side was creamy and incredibly luscious.
I forgot to take a picture of the entrees, the only part of the meal individually chosen by each diner. The big plates felt out of place to me in the middle of these tiny, exquisite bites. Each comprised a little mixed green salad, nice creamy mashed potatoes, and the chosen protein. Arne’s oxtail, flavored unmistakably with Korean gochujang, was aggressively rich and totally delicious. My rabbit… was fine. It was supposed to be ancho rabbit, in an apricot-ancho sauce, but I tasted no apricot and no ancho. It wasn’t until much later that night that it occurred to me that maybe they’d forgotten the sauce. Anyway, my rabbit was the only disappointment of the evening – and happily, Arne shared a lot of his oxtail with me, so I wasn’t too sad.
Dessert was accompanied by organic Aeropress coffee and delivered by the chef. We’d been chatting with our neighbors, and together we were the last two tables of the night. Clearly Chef Connoley had described the cake too many times that night, but we teasingly made him do it all over for each of our tables. We were most intrigued by the largest, fluffiest layer, which was a mousse of chocolate and nocino, a liqueur Connoley makes himself from foraged green walnuts. The top layer, too, was unusual: a black cocoa gelee. Jellied is an unusual texture for chocolate. It was a very tasty dessert.
We talked a little with the chef and our server about the closure of the restaurant. Connoley is moving back to St. Louis to be with his ailing mother. I wish he didn’t have to go, because I would make regular pilgrimages to the Curious Kumquat. There’s not a lot of food in New Mexico that’s this innovative and exciting. But we left that night with a consolation prize: a card announcing the upcoming publication of Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field by Rob Connoley. I’ve pre-ordered my copy, and I sure hope that acorn croquette recipe is in there!