Solid Gold

Open Kitchen enters its mega-restaurant era with Alkeme

Over the past several weeks, celebrated local chef and perennial SFR fave Hue-Chan Karels has been hosting a series of private invite-only tasting dinners in her Open Kitchen eatery/educational space at the corner of Don Gaspar Avenue and West Alameda Street. It’s been a two-pronged process through which Karels and her up-and-coming executive chef Erica Tai can not only fine-tune a menu, but also iron out the kinks and see what works for different kinds of diners, how much those diners are willing to spend, etc.

Set against the more commonplace secrecy that so many not-yet-open restaurants insist upon, the tasting dinners are not only a refreshingly transparent glimpse into the Herculean efforts required to open a restaurant—they’ve managed to make everyone from notable local chefs to everyday food fans take notice and feel like they’ve had a hand in the process. When all is said and done, Karels and Tai will open a new restaurant dubbed Alkeme (227 Don Gaspar Ave., (202) 285-9840), one steeped in Open Kitchen’s longstanding mission to highlight a culture-to-table movement that encompasses elements of multiple Asian cuisines. We’ve never had anything quite like it in Santa Fe, and if a recent evening spent sampling the goods along with a slew of Japanese whiskeys that could potentially end up on the menu offers any indication, diners are ready for precisely what Karels and Tai have to offer. They have crafted some bonkers-good plates.

“I’ve been so anxious about how I can translate the tastes [of various cultures] to somebody else,” Karels tells SFR by phone some days after the tasting. “I’m the chef, the chief architect of the menu, but I need someone to execute...and Erica has worked with me seamlessly for three-plus years. She gets it, she’s really honed her palate.”

Having tasted the food, that feels like an understatement. Of course, Tai and Karels have worked together closely through the pandemic and know each other’s rhythms well by now. Tai came to Karels through the Santa Fe Community College’s culinary program; they’ve been inseparable since and Tai’s chops have only grown in the interim. Together, they spin stone-cold magic, according to both locals who’ve attended any of the recent tasting dinners and to our own sampling. And though there are still some small touches that need to happen before Karels and Tai open in earnest next month (they’re aiming for middle of June pending the liquor license), things are already exciting—Alkeme is fire.

We began with a spiced popcorn amuse, one that merged a subtle sweetness with a savory element that once again proves salty and sweet in the same bite just plain works. Puffed rice interspersed throughout the amuse also added a chewy counterpoint to the crisp of the popcorn. Traveling the room and explaining the thought behind it, Karels noted that the idea is simply to pique interest and to wake up the palate. It worked, and by the time our second course arrived, we were prepared. That it happened to be a banh nam (think rice dumpling) crafted like a tamale and steamed with banana leaves in place of corn husks didn’t hurt, of course, and it showcased not only Karels’ knack for creativity, but for unexpected fusiony takes on disparate dishes. The shrimp and pork filling were executed brilliantly by Tai, too, and added just the right level of texture to the otherwise soft yet flavorful dumpling/tamale.

Further along, we sampled a shrimp mousse served on sugarcane with vermicelli that circumvented the familiar shrimp feel and flavor for something far more dense and nuanced, a Taiwanese-style braised pork belly served with apple and a bite of candied kumquat—that last element felt brilliant as the small citrus explosion drew out a breadth of flavors from the pork—as well as an appetizer of puffy yet crispy shrimp chips served with a trio of peanut, dill and spicy sauces.

Each item contained something surprising that ultimately felt like the perfect choice once it hit the tongue; like when someone tells you something you should’ve known all along. The true star of the night, however, was the Korean-inspired beef short ribs served over sweet potato noodles. Emerging from the kitchen, Tai explained how sweet potato noodles don’t bear the flavor of the tasty root but are rather instrumental in creating the type of noodle that absorbs and delivers the other flavors of a dish. The meat was as tender and melty as can be, and Tai noted how beef in Korea was formerly something more for the upper class or the most special of occasions, which made it feel enjoyably sinful, splurgy in a way. Granted, one doesn’t always get an expertly cooked piece of beef conceived by not one but two chefs at the top of their games.

We capped the night with a Vietnamese coffee flan dessert that could be one of the more thoughtful treats on a local menu right now—like creme brulee, but with rich coffee flavors and milky, creamy goodness.

And so the process continues, at least until Alkeme opens to the public in June. As a bastion for myriad dishes culled from numerous cultures, it has all the promise in the world. As an almost culinary education, it feels deeper than getting a plate of food about which one never thinks another thought. Karels and company asked tasting participants to make notes on a menu, including suggesting appropriate price, but I’d frankly pay anything for another shot at that pork belly.

“Sharing, expanding the horizons of people’s understanding for what Vietnamese and Asian foods can be is what it’s all about,” Karels adds. “Hence the concept of culture to table. We really want to bring that awareness with every bite.”

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