Food

The Public House

Joseph’s Culinary Pub remains an intriguing if imperfect eatery

You won’t often hear tell of a restaurant that moves successfully from one town to another, but that’s precisely what chef Joseph Wrede did when he closed Joseph’s Table in Taos in 2010 after 16 years and reopened in Santa Fe circa 2013 as Joseph’s Culinary Pub (428 Agua Fría St., (505) 982-1272).

On paper, in fact, Wrede’s eatery has proven a bit of a critical darling in Santa Fe and well before, with no shortage of glowing reviews from the likes of The New York Times and even SFR, plus nods from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and AAA’s Four Diamond honor. Wrede was even named one of the best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine in 2000, back when he was in Taos. Put bluntly, people love this guy’s food. And for the most part, I get it, though I must admit I came away a little more enchanted by the ambiance of the restaurant than its food.

When it comes to scuttelbut, you’ll find no shortage of online and in-person anecdotal chatter celebrating the charming and romantic environs of Joseph’s. Truer words and all that. This is the type of business for which the term “nestled” exists, what with its cute little adobe house location at the corner of Agua Fría Street and Montezuma Avenue, just down from the New Mexico School for the Arts campus that once housed Sanbusco. Joseph’s was grandfathered in when it comes to selling booze from its establishment given its proximity to the school, and though neither my companion nor I partook of the extensive wine list during our particular visit, we both came away impressed by its scope and curation.

Even so, the room in which we were seated was, quite frankly, adorable if a mite cramped. For people watching and people listening, Joseph’s might be unparalleled, which makes sitting so close to someone you can smell their perfume feel a bit more palatable.

Straight away, the service was impeccable, starting with our kind server—a tattooed young woman whose appearance actually defused any concerns of hoity-toity that arise when gearing up for a fine—or finer—dining experience. According to my receipt, her name was Vanessa V., and this woman knows how to make a schlubby dude and his date feel welcome. Lovely Vanessa didn’t even give us the stink eye that often accompanies an order of, “Water, no wine, thank you,” and she never hovered or left us hanging. At Joseph’s, of course, there’s an army of servers, bussers and runners. As I say, the server wins top marks; the busser and runner were no slouches, either, however, and calmly and gracefully refilled waters, explained what dishes they were dropping and kept the night feeling breezy.

For starters, we ordered the chicken and green chile tamal ($16), a gloriously crispy take on the classic dish that found the masa kissed by what I can only assume was a deep fryer. What a satisfying texture! And the shredded chicken within practically sang with the flavorful green. Of course, we simply had to sample the duck fat fries ($10), the excellence of which anyone who has ever entered Wrede’s hallowed halls often sings wherever they go. I get it now, and my previous insistence that “fries is fries” no longer applies. The duck fat not only gave the ever-popular fries a subtle yet noticeable flavor boost, the crispier and smaller ones packed so much nuance into each bite that I later found myself working out how to get duck fat into my own home (spoiler: it’s not hard to find, though Wrede and his crew would more likely make a better version than I).

Our main courses proved slightly harder to choose. Joseph’s sure has a lot of lamb on the menu, which would be great for someone whose Greek grandmother hadn’t ruined lamb forever and ever. Still, there are plenty of other options like salads ($14-$34); and ratatouille ($18, and leave your mouse jokes at the door); duck confit done pad Thai style ($28, and gluten-free, thank you very much) and an organic chicken posole with green chile number credited to one Abuela Nora and which I still very much regret not ordering ($18, gluten-free).

Being as I hadn’t visited this particular restaurant before, however, I figured a steak would be a proper test of mettle. Steaks are…complicated. Everyone has their own little feelings and everyone somehow thinks only they know how to cook them. Regardless, they’re a good litmus test for just about any fine dining establishment. At Joseph’s, the $54 6 oz. petite steak au poivre is perhaps a bit steep (inflation pricing, likely), and spurred no shortage of conflicting feelings. The crust and sear were damn-near perfect, or, at least, just the way I like ‘em with the slightest crackling sensation from corner bites. The interior was slightly less flavorful, sadly, though a triumph of medium-cooked texture. This was a melt-in-your mouth steak with expertly grilled mushrooms and a silky potato puree to boot. Each item on its own—the meat, the wild mushroom demi, the potato—was not quite it. Together, though? A symphony, which I say knowing perfectly well that’s an obnoxious way to describe something.

The same could not be said for my companion’s cassoulet ($38). Think of it like a melange made with the noble chicken: a little sous vide breast here, confit thigh and leg there, a house-made chicken sausage, too, and a white bean stew with parmigiano to boot. The chicken itself? Delightfully tender and fall-off-the-bone tasty. The white bean and kale stew, however, came under-seasoned and unremarkable. If anything, it kind of got in the way, and with no salt or pepper on the table and a fear of insulting the kitchen in asking for it, we could not adjust to our liking. The chicken sausage came on a bit too strong, too, and, as a counterbalance to the rest of the dish, clashed in terms of tang and texture. Cassoulet is a dish that, at least to my thinking, is about slowly-achieved richness and flavor, and this did not check those boxes.

Not to worry, however, as the desserts at Joseph’s helped close the night on the highest of notes. When queried about whether to get the cloud cake with Italian meringue, tarragon and grapefruit or the orange blossom and burnt strawberry meringue tres leches cake, our ever-excellent server Vanessa didn’t have to think for even a moment—tres leches for life ($14). We also ordered the butterscotch pudding, which came with a thick layer of caramel and sea salt ($11). Joseph’s is kind enough to suggest drink pairings for each of their desserts on the menu, too, though we skipped those to keep our sweetness receptors in tip-top shape. Good thing, too, as the tres leches was such a triumph of contextual flavors that it’s worth having all your faculties. The meringue gave an almost spongy resistance to the ever-moist cake below, and though the fruity flavor of the meringue and the citrus yield of the orange blossom were a whisper rather than a scream, they remained brilliant throughout the 45 seconds flat it took us to eat the thing. The butterscotch pudding, meanwhile, was a prime example of the nostalgic power of food. Suddenly I could see myself at the Formica kitchen table of my childhood. My mother stands at the stove, stirring, and I smell the butterscotch. She’ll let my brother and me each have a taste with a spoon while it’s still warm, but we’ll eat it cold later, after it settles in the fridge a bit.

If for this memory and nothing else, Joseph’s Culinary Pub is worth it. In fact, I could see a lot of people finding glimpses of their childhoods throughout the menu. What a ride.

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