To a Tea

The Teahouse menu is changed and more concise—good!

Information can spread across Santa Fe like wildfire, particularly in the restaurant scene given that it’s an industry in which so many locals work. When it comes to The Teahouse on Canyon Road, word of recent menu cuts and updates have certainly been making the rounds amongst the foodies and restaurant aficionados, though as to why so many people are upset over what appear to be some rather creative changes at the restaurant? Well, that’s anyone’s guess, especially since it’s actually quite an exciting time up there.

To wit: Ube has become ubiquitous across the restaurant’s brunch and sweets menus under executive chef Martin Blanco, and I’m not sure that’s something I’ve seen in Santa Fe since…ever, really. In other words, ube is quite the welcome addition, and Blanco is kind of a wizard with the stuff. OK, but what is ube, right? Well, in short, it’s a purple yam dish with origins in the Philippines (hey, that’s where Blanco’s from!) that is achieved by boiling and mashing and then including it as an ingredient in other dishes rather than being served on its own. You’re sad The Teahouse (821 Canyon Road, (505) 992-0972) doesn’t do oatmeal anymore? Tough blow, no question, but one softened by the appearance of an ube waffle ($13), an ube muffin with coconut ($5.50) and an ube butter croissant ($6)—plus the possibility of other dishes to come.

What’s behind this culinary changeup? According to a very nice server named Alejandro—who nailed it during a recent visit, by the way—much of it comes down to the untimely death of previous owner Rich Freedman last July. Freedman also served as the CEO for Sky Railway, was co-owner of the historic Canyon Road bar and restaurant El Farol and had run The Teahouse since 2012, where he was beloved by all accounts. His sudden meningitis diagnosis and death mere weeks thereafter was no doubt tragic, though one has to believe his love of Santa Fe and food would have had him totally onboard with new dishes at The Teahouse. Today, the restaurant is owned by Sandra and Jake Mendel, who were previously Freedman’s partners in the endeavor and who acquired it in full after his death. And though longtime patrons likely have feelings about these events, I would strongly encourage everyone to give The Teahouse and the Mendels their fair shake. You might like what you find.

Intact is the long list of teas for dining or quaffing in or taking home, and The Teahouse’s use of tortillas from the iconic Alicia’s Tortilleria in dishes like chilaquiles ($17) is nothing to sneeze at, either. Also, just because the menu is technically shorter doesn’t mean it’s worse. If anything, the quest for lunch upon which a companion and I embarked one recent day was one fraught with indecision because literally everything seemed so enticing.

As noted before, the ube waffle sounded like a dream, as did the Cuban sandwich with pork adobo and house-pickled cucumber ($16) and the lunch burrito ($15), a shredded pork number with pickled egg and a red chile sriracha. Wanting to eat light, however, my companion chose the Teahouse salad, a simple yet fresh bed of field greens served with cucumbers, pickles, radish, egg and a calamansi—aka Philippine lime—vinaigrette ($14). Once I learned of the chicken karaage and biscuit dish ($15), however, there was no going back. A combination of Japanese-style fried chicken served atop a green cabbage slaw with a house made biscuit and shiitake mushroom gravy…well, can conceptual love for a dish be quantified?

Salad aficionados should take note of Blanco’s chops. Yes, salads can feel boring (that’s why we have the term “eat your vegetables,” right?) but the zesty citrus of the vinaigrette and the subtle bite of the radish merged into a taste with serious oomph that particularly worked alongside the tasty bitterness of the greens.

For those on the other end of the spectrum (read, diners looking for salt and fat), the chicken karaage is a fantastic choice. Perhaps the soy and ginger marinade that graced the chicken before the fry brought it so much flavor, but the downright massive portion tasted both comforting and completely new all at once. Contrasted with the dense earthiness of the mushroom gravy, a third flavor emerged—one that was somehow like tasting something you already know for the first time again. The gravy did not fare quite as well, as its thickness surpassed gravy viscosity by a fair margin. This was mildly disappointing, but compounded as the biscuit erred on the drier side. No one wants a mushy biscuit, and the flavor was there, but rather than a satisfying crumble, much of this one fell apart and into the gravy, never to be seen again, which resulted in some confusion as to whether the gravy was more full of shiitakes or bits of biscuit. Still, as a whole, the dish was absolutely delicious, and the only improvement would be to score some of those house-made pickles on the side for a bit of flair.

We closed the meal with the biko coconut sticky rice ($6) and the aforementioned ube muffin, the latter of which came with a delightfully creamy whipped ube topping. Were we saying “ube” too much by this point in the meal? For sure, but this muffin was really more like a mini cake, and only in the moments well after the initial bite did we encounter its true flavor. There is something so special about a taste that slowly unfolds over several seconds, and while most desserts don’t hold mystery for those who dine out often, Blanco’s wowed through and through while keeping us on our toes. The sticky rice was a welcome sight on a Santa Fe menu, and quite well-made, though other than a bit of shaved coconut on top, was not particularly inventive or special.

All the same, many of the changes at The Teahouse are promising—you simply have to get over the old days and embrace the spirit of evolution. I get that we’re in Santa Fe, the land where tradition goes to never die, but there’s this funny little reality out there in the broader restaurant world, and it’s basically built around how restaurants can and do and should change their menus from time to time. Visit with an open mind.

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