I never believed the myth of the ugly American until I saw it for myself: a whole parade of cacophonous, sweaty, engorged Americans—complete with sun visors, dangling cameras and bulges barely recognizable as flesh testing the seams of riotously colored clothing—all rumbling up an otherwise quiet and quaint Italian street, like invaders from planet NASCAR.
By the same token, I never placed stock in the idea of the privileged and pretentious Santa Fe liberal until I saw it for myself: a table full of thin, pompous, pasty Santa Feans adorned straight from the Sundance Catalog, all casually berating Barack Obama for failing to be the erudite, metaphorical champion-of-the-masses gladiator they’d paid for, while casually picking at giant platters of very expensive food.
On the other side of my table at the Blonde Bear Tavern in the Taos Ski Valley was an out-of-state couple voluminously projecting the disintegration of their relationship in slow motion—as fast as their cocktail-encumbered speech would allow.
What’s sad to me is that this blunt encounter with distasteful humanity was taking place at the new home of chef Joseph Wrede.
When Wrede’s comfortable, subtly elegant restaurant, Joseph’s Table, closed last year, downtown Taos lost a contemporary icon. But Wrede, at least, still presents his tweaked “American classic cuisine”—the opposite of ugly in every way—in northern New Mexico. Several beloved menu items have made the transition with him, so longtime fans are in no danger of missing Wrede’s signature steak au poivre or his avocado fries or his penchant for lovingly smothering various edibles with duck fat and truffle oil.
The menu, however, is more awash with abominably sized gluttony than the menu at Joseph’s Table ever was. There is a bacon-wrapped meatloaf, which, if not sufficiently neanderthal in content, may be overlooked in favor of the local lamb shank, a piece of meat any caveman would be proud to possess. As prehistoric as these items appear, they are not exactly blunt tools—prepared as they are with a complex veal gravy and tasteful notes of apple, and pine nut and polenta, respectively. Still, many of the dishes are not only girthy, but also unapologetically rich.
It’s a problem of perspective. If you drive up to the ski valley for a lovingly crafted meal by one of your favorite chefs, the experience may be a bit overwhelming. If you kick off your skis after a day of holding your stomach in your chest while dropping into Al’s Run and shedding calories on the moguls like dandruff, probably the cartoonishly oversized portions appear appropriate and the heavy sauces go down like water.
But one wonders what feeding such appetites—and the ugly, upscale privileges that sometimes attend them—does to a sensibility like Wrede’s, which I’ve always considered to be delicate and frequently understated? Does the presence of ugly Americans make a quaint Italian town less magical? Does feeding a particularly narrow band of eaters lessen the breadth of a chef’s genius?
Maybe there’s no point in asking such questions. But rather than Wrede being siloed high up in the ski valley, I’d prefer to see him lured to Santa Fe. Rumors suggest past attempts to bring him here, but obviously nothing has compelled him.
Perhaps the considerable hole left by the impending departure of chef Joel Coleman of Koi (and, presumably, the demise of Koi) will motivate renewed interest. Nothing in Taos has filled the hole left by Joseph’s Table—not even the Blonde Bear Tavern—and it’s hard to guess what might mend a missing Coleman in Santa Fe.
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