The Acequia taught that it doesn’t care at all about your last name or the color of your skin or how long you have lived anywhere, though it did suggest that settling down in one place and sticking with it would best serve its ends. It has mapped its progress across multiple cultures through its lexicon of terms in Arabic, Latin, Spanish and now English. In this, the acequia is like the ancient Greek institution that now finds itself the object of aspiration in every society in the world: democracy.
– Stanley Crawford The River In Winter
The Restaurant’s walls are painted a deep turquoise and remind one of tranquilly swimming in tropical water, exuding calmness among the day-to-day hustle & bustle of a restaurant.
Somehow, the Owl has become the restaurant’s fetish animal, adorning their logo, as well as standing sentinel high on a perch overlooking the dining room, calmly overseeing the endeavor.
I meander over to the compact, two-man kitchen and commence to shoot some photos of plates being assembled, when Chef/Owner Noah Pettus puts a plate in the window and proceeds to grab a comically large harmonica and blows into it. His Wife, Pastry Chef and co-owner, Brittany, knows this is the cue for Server’s to pick up food in the window and proceeds to look around to make sure there’s a response.
The Server appears in an instant and the plate is adeptly rushed off to its destination. The harmonica belongs to their two-year-old son and its presence reminds one the enterprise is managed by two hardworking parents, as Brittany artfully works the dining room while in the later stages of pregnancy with their second child with aplomb.
Among the youthful vibe, though, there is also a sense of pacing and unity that brings a fine-dining element into play. After years in kitchens from New Mexico to Hawaii, New York, to California, and back to New Mexico, the couple has combined their collective experience in an environment that is charming and unique.
The Village of Arroyo Seco sits just to the north of the Town of Taos, at the entrance to the Taos Ski Valley and is decidedly cooler and greener than down below among the chamisa-laden plain. A collection of bohemian-chic shops and restaurants line the quarter-mile, or so zigzag of road that shuttles one through town in a matter of seconds.
In a little nook off the main road, Aceq has situated itself in a cozy spot, absent of the hum of traffic and steady flow of tourists. A shaded patio with water flowing from an unseen source greets the intrepid traveler, and once inside the cool, calm interior of the restaurant, you get the feeling you’ve arrived in a distinctive place.
“All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name. When things are properly identified, they fall into natural categories and understanding (and consequentially,) action becomes orderly.”
– Confucius, Ta Hsueh (Great Learning)
German Anthropologist Johannes Fabian argues in his 1983 work, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, that 19th century evolutionist Anthropology treated travel to distant lands of study as a journey not only of distance, but back in time, as well, to a purportedly more “primitive” place and culture.
Fabian refers to this transmutation of facts as “the denial of coevalness,” an act that produces conflicting and contradictory forms of consciousness. New Mexico is rife with “conflicting and contradictory forms of consciousness,” Taos County being prime example. Perhaps it’s the proximity of all the diverse and polarizing opposites that creates the tension: rich and poor, Anglo, Hispano, and Tiwa, native and alien.
Nowhere is the dichotomy of contradictory consciousness more evident than in what’s referred to as “New Mexican Cuisine.” To some, it’s represented solely by red and green chili and a few other staples. To others, it’s the ancient foods of America: corn and squash, melons and beans. To yet another group, it’s a crafty co-mingling of all those elements, utilizing alternative culinary techniques. Then there’s Aceq and a couple of other restaurants in Taos that defy all the previous labels, preferring instead to stick to their own particular brand of eco-gastronomy, looking to the land for cues.
One theme that consistently re-emerges in the global consciousness at the outset of this 21st century is transparency. In government and the business world, in banking, and ironically, on the plate, more and more people want to know where their food is coming from and its nutritional value.
Taos is home to a bevy of people that appreciate and abide by this ethos, yet is also full of folks who’d just assume subsist on a diet of fast-food and big-box groceries. Then there’s the healthy dose of residents that fall somewhere in between those two poles.
Aceq is perfectly poised to cater to all these divergent viewpoints, being unpretentious, yet elegant. Nutritious, as well as delicious, with an all-inclusive price point that places it somewhere between brasserie and bistro. They proudly proclaim their support of local and organic on their menu, and the food confirms this in its freshness, quality, and appearance.
“Who’s been your greatest influence as a Chef,” I asked Noah point-blank after a lull in our brief interview before service. He offers a sheepish smile, hesitating momentarily before replying, “My mom.” Then slowly adding, “I basically grew up at the Farmer’s Market, and one of my earliest memories is hiking up into the nearby mountains after the first frost to pick rosehips with her.”
The experience culled from his idyllic upbringing has been the core that’s been fleshed out throughout his career; culminating in a style that is wise beyond its years. Perhaps it’s the combination of husband and wife and that synergy which propels Aceq. There’s a lot to do in a small restaurant, and they’ve both got their hands full with the added weight of kids. However, no matter how busy they get, it’s evident there’s a strict set of guidelines set in place.
The qualitative value of what’s offered on the plate at Aceq is paramount. The small cadres of producers – all local – that supply the restaurant are treated as extended family, their contribution recognized as equally important. I can’t help but be optimistic about New Mexican cuisine knowing that local kids have been raised learning that nutrition and flavor are synonymous, and that they have the desire and vision to bring that to the plate. The restaurant brings multiple cultures from the past together in one specific place in the present. It has a strong sense of self; organically insinuating itself into the picturesque valley and bringing the best the area has to offer in their dishes.
Back in the restaurant several nights later, I’m at the bar with a colleague and local chef that’s recently re-located to Taos from California. I’d been bragging to him about Aceq, and wanted him to see what was going on for himself. The first plate hits the table – Fried Brussels Sprouts, Cider glaze, Parmesan.
The sprouts are quartered and sautéed, imparting a charred taste, then a squash purée is reduced with apple cider, a bit of cream and used as the base of the plate, its all topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and brought to table. Its creamy, yet tangy, the creaminess further accentuated by the lightly effervescent green apple and citrus taste from a Portuguese Vinho Verde I’d chosen.
Sous Chef Drew Elwanger and Noah are getting a bit of a rush. An eight top has just arrived and there are sundry two-tops starting to pile up. The noise level in the restaurant has gone up slightly, and we’re joined at the bar by a couple of Diners from Santa Fe. Elwanger used to work across the street at Taos Cow Ice Cream and he’s put that experience to good use in the Spicy Hamachi Cones, Miso Sesame Tuile appetizer.
It arrives at the table in a handmade vessel by local potter Scott Carlson, and we eagerly bite into it. The cone is somewhat sweet and it marries well with the spiciness of the hamachi, the texture of the cone intermingling seamlessly with the creaminess of the fish. Once again, the Vinho Verde is spot on, providing a refreshing palette cleanser between bites. In a few moments the “buffalo” deviled eggs, blue cheese, and crispy chicken skin arrive. Aceq spices the egg yolk and places it back on the plate, fries strips of chicken skin till’ crispy and dresses the eggs with that and blue cheese.
Nowhere is the fresh quality that farm to table fare imparts more evident than in Paul’s tomatoes, basil, balsamic, olive oil and mozzarella. While amazingly simple in its presentation and ingredients, the resulting dish is a meaty, rich, and complex array of levels of acid from a variety of tomatoes balanced with the earthiness of the basil and the creaminess of the mozzarella, which acts as a sort of sponge for sopping up the ample juices.
Next, Pettus makes his case for bringing some of the best New Mexico has to offer regarding meat to the table: Game. Rabbit Roulade, Porcini Mushrooms and Crispy Okra arrives next, prompting me to wonder when the last time I saw Rabbit on a menu in Taos was. The Roulade is delicate and moist, the buttery texture of the Porcinis combining with the tender rabbit, providing one with a rare treat. I’d paired it with a glass of the 2011 Evodia Old Vine Garnacha, the combination supremely satisfying in its rustic goodness, the light peppery notes and crisp, firm berries of the Grenache fleshing out the suppleness of the rabbit.
Admittedly, I’m in the zone. Good food, good conversation, pleasant service, an amiable vibe in the somewhat busy restaurant…but, as it’s getting late we decide to try one more item, both our interest piqued by the Beet Boudin Noir, Fennel, Black Rice and Dill Flowers.
The dish shows the commitment Aceq has made to vegetables done in the grand fashion. Boudin Noir translates as “Black Pudding,” and is generally a link sausage made of pig’s blood, suet, bread crumbs and oatmeal. Pettus has taken the blood out and substituted it with thick beets and their crimson juice, using it as binder for the creamy-nuttiness of the Black Rice.
The ensuing flavors are bright and tangy, yet earthy and nutty, with the Dill Flowers adding an occasional herbal crunch. We look at one another as we chew the Boudin Noir, the silence speaking volumes. Although young and somewhat unproven, Aceq has made a bold entrance onto New Mexico’s dining scene; its lack of pretension and inventiveness effortlessly placing it among the region’s best.
I ask my colleague what he thinks as we’re walking out to the car. “Great start,” he succinctly replies. “I see where they’re going with it…impressive.”
We begin to discuss some of the influences that seem evident in the Menu, both coming to the conclusion that Aceq is steeped in strong culinary roots from larger Metropolitan areas, and have almost effortlessly used that blueprint to bring the best of local product to the table.
It certainly wasn’t by design. Years ago when Brittany was sent to Taos from her property in Hawaii, her first response was, “Do I need a passport?” The trip put her in the same kitchen with Pettus in one of Taos’ high-end properties, and the two hit it off. Wanderlust set in and they set off to California, working in various places along the way, culling their own inimitable style. By the time they returned to Noah’s hometown of Arroyo Seco, they had a good idea of what they wanted to do.
It’s easy to imagine a dining scene in Taos that reflects what’s happening at Aceq, where the onus is on the qualitative aspect of food and the conscious stewardship of its production. But with all the conflicting and contradictory forms of consciousness at work here, it will take a deeper understanding of the cycle of food from plot to plate to ensure that the waters of Aceq continue to flow into the future.
480 New Mexico 150
Arroyo Seco, NM 87514