If restaurants were named after what they do best, New Haven’s newest restaurant would be called “The Chili Pepper.” Unfortunately, this plan is just too rational, and “Geronimo” will have to serve as the moniker of the new eatery on Crown Street.
Across from Salvation Army, between High and College streets, Geronimo calls itself a “Tequila Bar and Southwest Grill.” This description couldn’t be more fitting (unless it included the word “chili” somewhere), because Geronimo is fundamentally a bar and grill spot. The food is upgraded grill fare with a Southwest flavor (chili peppers) and the bar is an imposing U-shaped structure armed to the teeth with the liquors of Mexico.
The menu boasts inventive drinks such as the passion fruit-jalapeno margarita, 85 kinds of Tequila, a good wine list from California and South America, some microbrews from the Southwest (the Flying Dog Ale is very good) and Mezcal. The bar is really the heart of the restaurant, and a fine place to discover Tequila (a full page in the menu explains the ins and outs of this under-appreciated beverage, which ranges from $6 to $43 per small glass).
At the entrance to Geronimo, braids of dried chilis hang on the walls like spicy signposts of what is to come. Further inside, the dining room has been decorated with care and taste, including a skeleton that guards the rear dining room, a deer antler chandelier and a (decorative) clay oven burning midnight oil.
Appetizers — which cost between $4 and $10 a plate — include salads, tamales, buffalo patties and a spicy Hatch stew of pork, vegetables and strips of crispy tortillas. The stew’s texture is pleasant and the broth is well-spiced, if a little anemic. The pork relleno is a Poblano chili stuffed with shredded pork on a bed of black beans, reminiscent of pulled pork with barbeque sauce. The ensemble tastes fairly one-dimensional, but again the cunning New Mexican Hatch chilis carry the day in what would otherwise have been an unremarkable dish (notice a trend?).
The list of entrees includes halibut, chicken, pork, vegetarian, beef, beef and beef (in New Mexico, you’re never far from ranch country). The chicken is lightly breaded, pan-fried and topped with mole sauce. The sauce, made of a blend of spices, chili peppers and chocolate, is a bit flimsy, and the chicken would have profited from being cooked in the sauce as a stew. On the side is a tasty bed of Poblano chili and cilantro rice, with a chicken verde tamale that is a bit dry, but otherwise passable. The pork is more of a success, a French-cut chop rubbed with cumin and topped with a coffee and molasses glaze (imagine a small porky king in a velvet robe). The sides, though, seem to have been added as an afterthought — steamed asparagus and a very basic butternut squash mash.
The dessert choices are limited, but the pastry chef says that she will soon be making cakes and sorbet, as soon as the sorbet machine arrives. Those pleasures await future eaters, but the people at Geronimo are still having a good time. The service is friendly and attentive, the music has a strong pulse, and Tequila is continually falling from bottles and rising in glasses (drink moderately).
One final detail: The restaurant’s bathrooms are towards the back of the restaurant, down a spiral staircase and behind two doors with American Indian portraits to indicate gender (the man is Geronimo, but the woman is unidentified as of this writing). Inside is a room that is all slate, rough stone and bricks. The sink basin has been hewn out of concrete, with exposed copper pipes for a faucet. And the knob that turns it on is a stone replica of an item that will not be disclosed, except to say that it rhymes with “silly” and is not a pineapple.