Until the 1990s, Poeh (also known as the Pueblo of Pojoaque) lived up to its name. In Tewa, the traditional language of six of New Mexico’s eight northern Pueblos, “Poeh” means pathway. That’s all Poeh seemed to be–a pathway to somewhere else. Located fifteen miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285, Poeh didn’t seem to draw a second glance from speeding motorists on their way to Taos. That was the case until the 1990s when the late Poeh governor Jake Viarrial and other tribal visionaries led an economic renaissance that established thriving Pueblo businesses, including flourishing gaming operations.
Today Poeh’s numerous tribal enterprises make it a model of prosperity and self-sufficiency. Its empire now includes the Cities of Gold casino, the Buffalo Thunder resort (New Mexico’s largest and most expensive resort), two hotels, two golf courses, a shopping center, a wellness center and a Santa Fe caliber fine-dining restaurant called Ó (pronounced “oh”) Eating House.
The restaurant is named for the traditional corn grinding stone, perhaps the most essential of prehistoric cooking implements, at the center of traditional Pueblo kitchens. Located just east of the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, the Ó Eating House launched its new dining concept on December 18, 2006. Like the museum, it is visually striking, almost breath-taking. It was designed by Poeh’s governor George Rivera, an accomplished artist and enterprising leader who was instrumental in designing the restaurant’s most awe-inspiring feature (maybe aside from the food).
Easily the most prominent and wow-eliciting feature in the dining room is a Pueblo-themed metal and mica lighting arrangement suspended from the ceiling. At 17X24, the multi-hued light mural is replete with Pueblo motifs such as the whirling eternal spiral of life at the center of this functional masterpiece. Walls are festooned with framed paintings depicting autumnal scenery by the talented Harry Greene. The commodious dining room is far from the only eye-catching feature at this spectacular setting. A cozy bar accommodates kitchen-side dining while a walled courtyard with rough-hewn latillas and open-air ventilation provides yet another terrific milieu.
The artistic theme continues with the menu, a compendium of culinary creativity. Although the adjective “fusion” is probably bandied about too often, the menu truly incorporates some of the best elements of Italian and Mediterranean influences. It might be debatable as to who the better artist is, governor Rivera or Chef Steven Lemon. On each plate, be it appetizer, entree or dessert, everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks. If they think everything looks good, just wait ’til they taste their bounty.
Chef Lemon, whose pedigree includes a six-year stint as head chef at Pranzo’s Italian Grill in Santa Fe followed by three years as chef and part-owner of Albuquerque’s Scalo, has been at the helm since March, 2010. He has resurrected the O Eating House which started off with so much promise under the masterful hands of its first chef, the highly credentialed Enrique Guererro and the upscale Southwestern menu and theme he conceptualized. When Guererro left, a succession of chefs came in and made thematic changes but none met with the critical success of the restaurant’s first chef. None, that is, until Chef Lemon.
Completely self-taught, Chef Lemon has created a Santa Fe quality restaurant at a Pojoaque price point, making fine-dining affordable without compromising on quality. Unlike some restaurants in Santa Fe and Taos, it’s entirely possible to have a wonderful three-course meal at a price that won’t give you sticker shock. Lunch entrees range in price from ten to fifteen dollars while the most expensive dinner entree is several dollars south of thirty. Housemade pastas–spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine–are all hallmarks of the menu as are a variety of cheeses (including a buttery Burrata), also made on the premises.
Also characteristic of the O Eating House is service with a personal touch. During our inaugural visit, we were attended to by restaurant manager David Marquez who followed Chef Lemon from Scalo. From escorting us to our table to taking and delivering our order, David made our visit an absolute pleasure. He is intimately familiar with the menu, allowing him to provide astute recommendations to tailor your meal for your specific taste. It helps that he has a sophisticated palate and understands well that nuanced touches can improve on dishes that are excellent to start off with. I’ll elaborate further on this point in discussing some of the items we had.
As we perused the menu, a conical wrought iron basket of sliced bread served warm was brought to our table along with a rectangular plate of olive oil mixed with Balsamic vinegar. The bread had a familiar taste and texture. David confirmed the bread is made by Fano Bakery, a Duke City treasure specializing in artisan-style rustic and specialty breads. Not surprisingly, Fano Bakery bread was served at Scalo as it is at numerous high-quality restaurants. Characteristic of baguettes from Fano, a hard-crust complements a soft, airy texture. It’s an excellent bread on which to nosh while contemplating your meal.
Don’t make a decision until you’ve heard the specials of the day, all of which might be the starring attraction at any restaurant. David’s flawless recital of those specials reminded me of days long gone in which I wasn’t held bound by the “rule of seven” and could retain a dozen or more pieces of new information in memory. As wonderful as he made those specials sound (and as pitiful as my memory is), I had to ask him a couple times to recite those items in which we were most interested. They sounded better every time we heard them anew.
The expansive menu is a pleasure to study. Nine brick oven gourmet pizzas make a pretty persuasive thin-crusted argument that’s hard to resist. The ingredients on the nine pizzas make it evident these pies aren’t a haphazardly thrown together melange of frou-frou ingredients, but if the combinations aren’t to your liking, you can always craft your own from your choice of two dozen ingredients. The same salads and starters menu is available for both lunch and dinner. Items on this page of the menu range in price from seven to ten dollars.
The Antipasti is a starter sure to please the most discerning of diners, especially if you love cured Italian meats and fish. The Soppressata, a Tuscan salami made from choice cuts of cured-dry pork and flavored with black peppercorns, is fabulous–the epitome of salami perfection. Coarsely ground, it is sliced just thick enough to showcase its intense flavor. The Porcini Salumi, a sausage stuffed with earthy Porcini mushrooms and aged Parmigiano Regianno is sliced painfully thin, making flavor discernment a delicious adventure. From the Catalonia region of Spain comes the Salchicon de vic, a rich and fatty salami freckled with garlic and black pepper. If your tastes favor fish, you’ll love the Grappa (an Italian brandy made from the residue of pressed grapes) cured salmon topped with capers. This quadrumvirate is only part of one of the state’s very best antipasti plates.
The antipasti also showcases fantastic fromage in the form of Il Saggio, a cellar-aged, robustly flavored goat’s milk cheese that’s both sweet and fragrant; and ricotta salata, an aged cheese made from lightly salted sheep’s milk curd. This cheese has a mild milky taste with a hint of nuttiness. It’s a good grating cheese, but great on its own. At the center of the antipasti platter is a small bowl of green and black olives flanked by a handful of almonds. The golden sheen from a light drizzle of olive oil on the plate is a decorative and delicious touch.
Jeff Beeman, the affable owner of the Casita de Chuparosa in Abiquiu, who reintroduced me to the O Eating House recommended a number of dishes he’s enjoyed during his visits to the O Eating House. Though by the time we arrived at the restaurant I had forgotten (my feeble memory again) what he had recommended, I did remember him using the word “fritti,” Italian for fried. As such we ordered a second starter, Zucchini Fritti (tempura-battered, flash-fried zucchini sticks tossed in Parmesan and parsley and served with a lemon aioli. Now, fried zucchini may sound so 1970ish, but Chef Lemon’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than the pedestrian fried zucchini served at inferior restaurants. Unlike other fried zucchini we’ve had, this one is only lightly battered, allowing the freshness of the zucchini to shine. The zucchini is perfectly fried, remaining crispy and moist. The lemon aioli lends a nice tanginess.
If you like rich pastas (and who doesn’t), the O Eating House has a winner in the Apple Wood Smoked Bacon Linguine (apple wood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, Roma tomatoes and cream). Consider it heresy if you will, but that dish, sublime as it sounds, can be improved. General Manager Daniel Marquez explained how, recommending the addition of smoked jalapenos and grilled chicken. It was an astute recommendation for which we are most grateful. The smoked jalapeno, in particular, added piquancy to a dish that might otherwise have been too rich if that’s possible. Apple wood smoked bacon improves everything it touches; nothing else needs to be said about its contribution to the dish. The housemade linguine is perfectly prepared and the cream sauce is as rich as expected, but oh so nicely tempered by the smoked jalapeno. This is a phenomenal dish.
In describing the day’s specials, Daniel explained that Chef Lemon’s pan-fried buttermilk chicken has been flying off the kitchen. There’s a reason for that. This is some of the very best fried chicken we’ve had since leaving Mississippi in 1995 and it would be considered a great fried chicken even in the deep south. It’s a quarter chicken–breast, thigh and leg–with a lot of juicy white meat impregnated just noticeably by the tanginess of preserved lemon. The seasoned flour coating is light and delicate. Normally served with polenta, we requested pasta instead and Daniel accommodated. The pasta was flavored with chicken pan jus, an excellent touch.
The Fancy Bacon Pizza (fried eggplant, roasted peppers, mozzarella and fancy bacon (Guanciale)), is a fine-dining quality gourmet pie with neighborhood pizzeria touches. A thin-crust canvas that’s light, delicate and crispy without being cracker-like, is the basis for a pizza that’s as good for breakfast as it is just after it’s delivered to your table. The pizza’s is slightly charred on the edges, but “char” is one of those flavors that seems to work well only on pizza. The fancy bacon lives up to its name. Guanciale, an unsmoked, cured Italian bacon tends to have a stronger flavor profile than pancetta and is preferred by some chefs on carbonara dishes. It’s my new preference for bacon on pizza.
The menu lists only two desserts, but several others are available and will be vividly described by your server. As usual, my choice is bread pudding and no standard offering does the O Eating House serve. It’s an almond and toasted fennel bread pudding topped with a rich caramel. The big surprise here is the toasted fennel which imparts a flavor reminiscent of licorice. The brick-shaped slab is moist and thoroughly delicious with the caramel being the proverbial icing on the cake. Larry McGoldrick, my fellow bread pudding loving gastronome, would love this one.
Despite outdoor temperatures approaching temperatures more often experienced by polar bears than by thin-blooded New Mexicans, my Kim had a trio of sorbets: vanilla, lemon and blood orange, all served on a large green goblet. The sorbets are rich and creamy with pronounced flavor profiles. Vanilla bean is in evidence throughout the vanilla sorbet while the two citrus-based sorbets have the tangy intensity lemon and orange aficionados appreciate. It’s never too cold for sorbet this good!
It’s never too soon or too often to visit the O Eating House, a fine dining quality Italian-Mediterranean restaurant at which you can afford to eat well.
While in Poeh, you have to make time to visit not only the Poeh Museum whose focus is on preserving traditional and contemporary art and culture, but the five-story Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery. Swentzell is a rare talent and an inspiring human being with exceptional personal warmth. Her sculptures are unforgettable.
‘O Eating House
86 Cities of Gold Road
Pojoaque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Artisan Bread, Zucchini Fritti, Antipasti, Pan-Fried Chicken, Fancy Bacon Pizza, Applewood Smoked Bacon Linguine, Almond & Toasted Fennel Bread Pudding, Sorbet (Vanilla, Blood Orange, Lemon) Trio