Growing the Kumquat
Silver City's Curious Kumquat is branching out with cutting-edge cuisine at dinner time.
By Peggy Platonos
When Rob and Tyler Connoley established The Curious Kumquat six years ago, it was an eclectic specialty food store that many people thought wouldn't be able to survive in Silver City. But not only has it survived, it has thrived, gradually expanding to include cooking classes, lunches and occasional gourmet dinners at private homes. Now, the Kumquat is becoming a hotspot of modern culinary innovation.
The newest phase in the evolution of The Curious Kumquat is in full swing, with dinners now available Thursdays through Saturdays. The elaborate, imaginative, exotic five-course culinary creations are beginning to catch the interest of people far beyond the boundaries of Silver City.
"We're at the point now where we've got foodies and food writers coming in from all over the country, which is bizarre," says Rob, the chef responsible for whipping up the culinary extravaganzas that are attracting so much attention. "But what we're trying to do here is cutting-edge stuff. That's why we're getting in Conde Nast Traveler magazine. That's why the James Beard Foundation's watching us. That's why people are saying we're better than Jennifer James in Albuquerque."
New Mexico Magazine recently named an early dinner creation of Rob's as one of the state's "Best Eats," honoring his Candied Pork Belly Blue Corn Taco in the "Best Use of Local and Seasonal Ingredients" category. To compound the honor, The Curious Kumquat was included in the magazine's Uptown division, rather than the Down Home division where small restaurants can shine without competing with more sophisticated restaurants in population centers like Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
"It was one of the most technically difficult dishes I've ever made," Rob says. "It took days and days to get to the point where you could actually finish the cooking and serve it."
The pork belly was cooked for several days by the sous vide process. "It means 'under water,'" Rob explains. "You vacuum pack and cook under water, and, in most instances, you'll cook at the lowest safe temperature for a very long period of time. The idea is that vacuum-packed, you lose no flavor, get no flavor infiltration from smoke or boiling water or whatever, so you keep that real pureness of flavor. And you can cook meat forever and ever and not dry it out."
Once finished, the Candied Pork Belly Blue Corn Taco looked nothing like your average taco. "It wasn't really a taco," Rob says. "It was a spiral of blue corn tuile, which is basically a cracker, cookie, super-thin crispy thingy. And so I made a spiral that came up off the plate and filled that spiral with the candied pork belly. And I topped it with guacamole and my Mexican mol and some fresh tomatoes and some locally produced sprouts. It was served on a base of avocado crema. And every single thing in that dish, except the smoked paprika, was from Silver City or within 30 miles of it."
The dinner menu each week offers similarly complex and artistic choices. "We have a vegetarian set of courses, and three others," Rob says. "Two entrees are determined by what the local ranchers have available. I do a lot of buying from 4-H kids, so right now I'm using lamb. But I also do goat, rabbit, beef."
The final entree is always Rob's special, super-duper hamburger. "I have no doubt that it's the best hamburger in town," he says.
This is no simple meat patty slapped onto the grill. "We figured out which meats at what proportions, how much fat, how aged, how finely ground, what seasonings go in at what times, how long we age it once it's been mixed, what we do after we cook it, what sauces go on it."
The same care and attention to detail goes into every course of every meal. The courses differ with each entre. To watch Rob finish each individual dish with carefully positioned garnishes — ranging from fresh sunflower sprouts to single threads of saffron — is to watch an artist painting on an edible canvas. And Rob's desserts are layered confections that delight the eye, surprise the mouth and soothe the soul.
"One of the things I hear from customers all the time is, 'You can taste the love and the passion in your food.' And when they first started saying that to me, I didn't quite get it. But now I completely get it," Rob says. "This isn't a job in an assembly line that I'm running back here. I'm having fun."
It would not be everyone's idea of fun to be working 18-hour days creating complex dishes, garnishing each with meticulous care, then washing all the dishes oneself at the end of the evening, but Rob Connoley is on a mission.
"Tyler and I are very methodical in our process," Rob explains. "So before we opened the store, we wrote out a very clear mission statement about bringing joy to the community, and really vibrant and colorful — metaphorically vibrant and colorful — foods to the area."
He is now bringing foods to the area that are literally, as well as metaphorically, vibrant and colorful. And though he uses exotic ingredients imported from far-flung parts of the world, the base of each meal is firmly grounded in local produce and local meats. "We've been able to get over 70% of our ingredients from local growers and ranchers. That's amazing," he says.
Though The Curious Kumquat is open seven days a week for sale of specialty foods, no meals are served on Sunday. Lunches are available Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinners are served Thursday through Saturday starting at 5:30 p.m.
The lunch menu is completely different from the dinner menu and features mostly soups, salads and sandwiches at prices in the $5 to $8 range. The elaborate five-course dinners range in price from $20 to $30, though there is an Express Meal option that includes simply an entree and salad for $15. Wine and beer are available with both lunch and dinner, and also with tapas throughout the day.
"The thing we're having trouble communicating with people is they can come in at any time the kitchen's open for tapas and beer or wine," Rob says. "Tapas are small appetizer or snack items. We do chips and salsa, guacamole and chips, and then some more elaborate things. So people can come in on days we serve, have tapas and a beer or glass of wine, and hang out from 11 o'clock on."
The Curious Kumquat is located at 111 E. College Ave. in Silver City. Dinner reservations are not required but are recommended, and can be made by calling (575) 534-0337.
Send Mimbres freelance writer Peggy Platonos tips for restaurant reviews at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (575) 536-2997.