Although ducks don’t have a church sanctioned patron saint, if the Catholic church ever deemed one worthy it would be Saint Cuthbert, a 12th Century Anglo-Saxon monk. According to legend, Saint Cuthbert tamed a large population of nesting eider ducks so well that they would nest even next to the chapal altar without fear. Cuthbert placed the ducks under his protective grace so that no one would eat or disturb them. Monks who mocked (mocking monks) Cutbert’s curse and ate or harassed the eiders were said to have been struck down.
It’s a good thing Chef Joseph Wrede didn’t ply his trade in proximity to Saint Cuthbert or he would probably have been struck down by Cuthbert’s curse. Diners like me who have enjoyed Chef Wrede’s menu would have incurred a similar fate. Even if you’re not familiar with Chef Wrede or his menu, you’ve probably figured out that duck figures prominently on that menu. We first learned that about the 2008 James Beard “Best Chef Southwest” nominee at Joseph’s Table, his eponymous restaurant on the Taos Plaza. When we visited Joseph’s Table, the special of the day was a “seven way lucky duck” dinner entree that included duck breast, broth, confit, chicharrones, mousse, aspic and foie gras with corn crème brulee.
Though Chef Wrede is an innovator with a menu that fuses several culinary cultures in creative and revolutionary ways, duck is for what he’s probably best known. Don’t get the idea that he’s a one trick pony. Chef Wrede can do it all. In 2000, Food & Wine magazine named Chef Wrede one of the “top ten chefs in America,” extolling his use of locally grown organic produce in “surprising, sensual ways.” Food & Wine also named him the millennium year’s “Best New Chef,” a coveted national award. The London Times called him “the voice of modern American cuisine.” Even Food Network luminary Bobby Flay came calling when Joseph’s Table was the toughest reservation in town. He’s earned multiple AAA Four Diamond Award and DiRoNA Awards as well as distinctions from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
In the wake of a bad economy, Chef Wrede left Taos in 2010, landing in Santa Fe where he launched Joseph’s of Santa Fe (which would eventually become Joseph’s Culinary Pub) in 2013. Operating out of an intimate one-room venue with a small bar, he has continued to pile on the accolades. You might get the feeling he hasn’t let those honors and awards go to his head when you visit the unisex bathroom and espy the aforementioned AAA Four Diamond and DiRoNA awards hanging on the wall. That impression will likely be reenforced when you watch him sing a duet with Food Network gliteratti Guy Fieri during a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode which aired in 2019.
Our inaugural visit to Joseph’s Culinary Pub came on a cool, crisp evening when we were the only trio (of course we have to count The Dude, our debonair dachshund) sitting on the heated patio. We were prepared for the cool evening. What we weren’t prepared for was meeting Gary Johnson, my favorite Governor of the Great State of New Mexico. Governor Johnson and his beautiful fiancé Kate Prusack were celebrating Kate’s 39th birthday. We had a great conversation with the Governor, even reminiscing about his delivery of the very best zinger ever delivered during a Presidential debate: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel ready jobs than this (Obama) administration.”
Joseph’s Culinary Pub is housed in a stand-alone building on Montezuma immediately south of Agua Fria. Despite the barely legible name on the marquee, you’ll never mistake it for a purveyor of stereotypical pub grub. Even the overstated appellation “gastropub” doesn’t go far enough in describing the extraordinary feats of culinary excellence Chef Wrede performs with his eclectic menu. Diners interviewed on the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode showcasing Joseph’s described the restaurant as: a “laidback restaurant with high-end food, eclectically farm-to-table and American food with a real twist.” One diner even admitted to kissing the chef on the mouth because her meal was so good. Chef Wrede himself told Fieri he would be “taking relatively calm ingredients and finding how they would work together to raise people’s expections and create flavors.”
Our expectations of Chef Wrede have always been high. Quite simply, he’s one of the best chefs in the southwest. Knowing his prowess with duck, we knew when perusing the relatively small menu that duck would play an integral part of our meal. There were only five items on the menu in which duck was a named ingredient. Not that it means anything. One of the dishes he prepared for Guy Fieri was crispy lamb neck confit in duck fat. Admittedly Fieri has “confid a lot of things, but I’ve never confid lamb neck.” Before eating it, Fieri advised taking a picture. “It is gorgeous,” he declared. “The only thing I don’t like is I don’t want it to end,” he added.
You might not want the supply of bread rolls from the kitchen to end. They’re small and you’ve got to cut them yourself, but there’s a substantial reward when you break into the pillowy insides. That reward can be redeemed two ways. You can spread the soft herbaceous butter on them or you can dip the staff of life into the housemade bone broth. Either way, you’ll appreciate the simply complex wonder that is bread.
We began our culinary explorations with duck fat fries, one of the dishes for which the Chef is famous. Maple Leaf Farms outlines why duck fat fries are the way to go: “With Duck Fat Fries, you are able to get the best tasting fries without sacrificing the health benefits. Duck fat does not only keep the traditional salt flavor of the fries but adds the umami flavor that blends perfectly with the salt that season’s fries. The duck fat can withstand high temperatures so the fries come out tasting crispy on the outside and delicious on the inside. It also contains healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin E and oleic acid. Fast and easy to make, these fries will not disappoint! I can’t add much more though I’d certainly like to subtract one fry at a time from the conical shaped container in which those fries are nestled.
On a chilly autumn day, nothing soothes the soul quite as well as a hearty, delicious soup. On the “Greens, Soups and Stews” section of the menu, we had three choices, any of which would have been superb: House Made Bone Broth, Curry Carrot & Crab Soup and Christmas Style Chile Beef Tenderloin Stew. Bursting with collagen-packed protein, salubrious nutrients, and hunger-quelling flavors, the bone broth is comfort food to the nth degree. It’s the type of comfort food that will not only sate your cravings, but may have you swooning in appreciation. We did find it a bit lacking in salt, but a small bowl of sea salt was provided so we could add to our heart’s content.
Longtime readers are probably tired of my whining about Pad Thai, a dish I’ve christened “Pad Boring.” I’ve typically found Pad Boring…er, Pad Thai “dumbed down for American tastes” in that it’s lacking in the balance of flavors common in many Thai dishes, skewed heavily toward cloying. Leave it to Chef Wrede to create a Pad Thai dish I should call “Pad Exciting.” It’s called “Duck Confit Pad Thai Style” and it features hoison-glazed duck confit, rice noodles, egg, peanuts, cilantro and charred cabbage. It’s got the balance of flavors–salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and creamy–all great Thai dishes should have. All these flavors complement one another; there’s no one dominant flavor profile. The hoisin-glaze imparts the sweet-tangy notes for which tamarind is normally used. The charred cabbage is purplish, much like a German slaw, but that’s the only commonality it has with either slaw or most cabbage dishes. It’s got both smoky notes and a crisp, tangy mouth-feel. Every element of Chef Wrede’s Pad Thai is the Pad Thai for those of us who don’t like Pad Thai.
My Kim had wanted to order the sweet & spicy glazed 1/2 duck (charred cabbage, ginger mint yogurt, fresh blackberries) but feared the “spicy” element. It turned out most of the spicy elements were only skin-deep. Below the crispy exterior is a flavor-rich fatty layer and below that you’ll find tender, unctuous, meaty and absolutely wonderful duck. Lots of it! Among feathered fowl, duck’s flavor is strongest–closer to red meat than chicken. It’s also quite a bit fattier than most winged counterparts, but it’s a delicious fat. We weren’t sure what to do with the blackberries in yogurt, so we dipped in some of the fatty skin. What a wonderful contrast in textures and flavors.
The dessert both critics and diners seem to agree shouldn’t be missed is the cloud cake, an Italian meringue cake that is at least five inches high. Our server, a recent Santa Fe acquisition who’s waited on tables in Seattle and San Francisco, told me the orange blossom tres leches cake with burnt strawberry meringue was better. It’s certainly the most unique tres leches cake we’ve ever had. It was wholly lacking in the oozing milkiness that defines tres leches cakes. In fact, it reminded us more of flan.
My Kim eschewed the duck fat caramel ice cream I was encouraging her to try. Instead, she opted for maybe the best butterscotch pudding she’s ever had. A layer of caramel sauce and a pinch of sea salt added to the richness and depth of the butterscotch. If your benchmark for pudding comes in a Jello container, you’ve never truly had a great pudding. This is a great, maybe transformative pudding.
As a spiritual soul, I’m not far removed from Saint Cuthbert. Ducks are the only form of protein I ever feel guilty about ordering. Still, when visiting Joseph’s Culinary Pub, I know my resolve will fail me and I’ll be enjoying another wonderful duck dish.
Joseph’s Culinary Pub
428 Agua Fria Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Duck Fat French Fries, House Made Bone Broth, Duck Confit Pad Thai Style, Sweet & Spicy Glazed 1/2 Duck, Orange Blossom Tres Leches Cake, Butterscotch Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Sea Salt