Who among us does not know the shame of the bussed plate? There you are, sated in the completion of a fine meal, when staff comes by and clears your empty plate, revealing a bizarre flurry of crumbs and morsels that were hidden beneath the rim. It's like waking up to a murder scene in your apartment. Is this a dream? Is this a set-up? Did I enact this violence with my own hands and mouth in some kind of blackout rage?
Fortunately, the last time this happened to me, I was eating out of town. It's not like the restaurant staff is going to see me around and whisper to their friends, "Psst…that dude can't control his mouth." Unfortunately, I wasn't eating that far out of town—and I'd like to go back. Maybe, if I wear a disguise, no one at Ó Eating House will recognize me. But when chef Steve Lemon's fresh burrata arrives—with that day's olive oil, caper, and fruit or vegetable combination—I would probably assault it with such violence that the waitstaff would be left uncomfortably jabbing, with their crumb scrapers, at my discarded hairpiece and whatever other detritus fell to the table in my mad scramble to sample as much of Lemon's food as possible.
Through some kind of Western tale of triumph, tragedy, vengeance, redemption and more triumph, Lemon—who is known to Santa Feans as the former prince of Pranzo Italian Grill and to Duke City denizens as the one-time sultan of Scalo—has taken the helm of this very, very strange Pojoaque Valley restaurant and made it very, very good.
Previously La Mesita Restaurant, Ó's interior cues, sadly, were lifted from nearby casinos, including gaudy furniture and bar accessories. The food was upscale comfort food: Mexican and New Mexican with Native American flourishes whenever possible. The name referred, presumably in Tewa, to the traditional meal- and grain-grinding stone. Ó bombed.
Then Lemon rode into town. He changed neither the name nor the furniture; he just started cranking out the Mediterranean and Italian fare that he's been honing for much of his career. The location was reborn as Ó alongside the creation of the Poeh Cultural Center. It was given an exterior treatment to match that includes a beautiful, Native-style wattle and daub courtyard.
Very little outside of raw ingredients is imported to the restaurant (Lemon prefers to craft as much as possible in the kitchen, including all his pastas). It's in this ethos that one finds both the restaurant's sublime genius and its Achilles heel. When the food is on, it's very, very on and when it's off, well, it's still pretty damn good, but not always perfect. I had a linguine that came as a round, extruded noodle rather than a ribbon-cut noodle. Not a big deal, but it's hard for round noodles to be "little tongues," and it's nice to know up-front what you'll be getting. Maybe a disclaimer: "For some freaky reason, our linguine is round. Caveat emptor."
In another dish, a meatball had too many bread crumbs and they were too fine, making for a more mealier texture than one might prefer. But these are the risks of real cooking, and they are not without rewards. The aforementioned fresh burrata (no, I don't know if Lemon has a water buffalo tied up in the back) is consistently miraculous. "Oh," you will say, startled by its texture. "Oh," you will say again, enthralled by its flavor. "Oh, oh, oh, oh!"
This is how it goes. The menu is classic, but inventive and full of pleasures, both expected and unexpected. The wine list is spry and largely affordable (although the deeply boring Bodegas Francisco Casa Tochuelo is to be avoided). Just when you think you’re about to have another ordinary meal, chef Lemon is likely to stick it to you with something completely different.
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