It is a late summer evening on the patio at salt + wine restaurant. The food and wine come together with the setting sun reflecting pink on Taos Mountain to create an unforgettable dining …
It is a late summer evening on the patio at salt + wine restaurant. The food and wine come together with the setting sun reflecting pink on Taos Mountain to create an unforgettable dining experience.
salt + wine opened in March this year – the second restaurant owned by Michael Wagener, along with Aceq in Arroyo Seco. While Aceq is all about fun dining, salt + wine is focused on elegant dining in a relaxed setting – a metropolitan dining experience in a historic and rural location, says Wagener.
The name salt + wine reflects a vision of an eclectic worldwide menu built on basic elements found in many cultures. “Salt is used in food traditions all over the world. The Romans first used it to preserve meat. Wine is another universal element,” says Wagener.
The historic El Torreon Hacienda in El Prado built in the 1840s provides a charming backdrop with its thick adobe walls and vigas. During the summer months, the patio is a popular spot for wine, dinner and taking in the unparalleled views of Taos Mountain.
A garden of flowers and herbs surrounds the patio. Mint, chives and oregano from the garden are used to prepare meals that feature other local produce and protein from 15 different farmers and ranchers. As Wagener points out, by supporting local farmers, he is helping to contribute to a healthy economy that in turn supports his restaurants.
The menu was created by Chef Enoch Montoya. It reflects all of his training and his desire to create simple and clean meals.
“I like to let every food shine on his own and build a meal around it,” he explains. One of the starters features a creamy polenta with forest mushrooms, chickpea crisp and tomato jam stacked together in a lovely presentation. The dish brings together several contrasting tastes to make a delicious whole. Look for other creative combinations like the marinated short ribs, soft scrambled egg and in-house kimchee. Drunken chicken comes with sweet potato puree, along with blue cornbread and braised greens – both side dishes made with a southern flair.
The menu always includes a delectable seafood choice like grilled salmon or seared scallops, along with vegetarian dishes like the skillet fried root vegetables with masala. Grilled elk flank, mint marinated lamb and grilled pork loin are among the featured meats. Pasta is handmade daily in the kitchen and there are crisp salads and gluten free options, as well.
Montoya likes to flow with the seasons. He goes to the Taos Farmers Market to pick the freshest produce and then creates a seasonal dish, like a tomato plate with fresh ricotta. “I put thought into planning the flavors and textures and using differential spices,” he says. “It is really refined home cooking. I hope to stay playful and have fun playing with the ingredients.
Part of his mission is to empower people to cook for themselves in a healthy way. “I want to educate people on healthy eating and help them see how easy it is to cook creatively, once you get past being afraid of it. We can all cook the best with what we have and have fun trying,” says Montoya.
For Montoya, coming to Taos was coming home. His family has been in Northern New Mexico for generations. He was born in Embudo, raised in Albuquerque and learned to cook in Santa Fe. After studying at the California Culinary Academy, he worked for years in San Francisco. Wanting to be near family, especially his 91-year-old grandmother, he came home to Taos.
Looking back at the roots of Northern New Mexican cuisine from 100 years ago, he honors those traditions by focusing on game, grains and vegetables – merging history with the 21st century, as he says. And stay tuned for frequent new introductions to the menu. “We are still new. I’m not going to show all my tricks at once,” says Montoya with a smile.
The staff can recommend the right wine to go with any meal. The wine list is growing, with a goal of featuring more than 200 wines. “We have some unique wines found only a few places in the state,” says Wagener. He brings his experience as a sommelier working for more than 12 years in Taos restaurants such as El Monte Sagrado and OBL and at El Meze, formerly located in the spot that now houses salt + wine.
From his time working at El Meze, Wagener came to love the space with its history and character. “I jumped at the chance to purchase the restaurant when Fred Muller and Annette Kratka wanted to retire. I’m honored to carry on the tradition, while bringing a fresh approach to the dining experience,” says Wagener. “I’ve had a chance to transform the menu and the space with art.”
Bringing his own personal touch to all aspects of the restaurant, the white table clothes from the days of El Meze are gone, replaced by whitewashed tables built from salvaged wood from the barn of his grandfather’s dairy farm. The dining rooms have a certain glow in the evening, lit by the art and enlivened by the conversation of diners.
Wagener has gotten positive feedback on the menu,and while some people miss the dishes from the El Meze days, they are finding fresh favorites on the salt + wine menu.
On the patio, an elegant polished wood bar allows people to enjoy a meal solo or to have a glass of wine and a starter or salad while taking in the view. The experience doesn’t have to be expensive, with a menu that includes small plates from $4 to $13. There are affordable wine choices, too. “We have a sauvignon blanc on the menu for $7 a glass and the prices go up from there,” points out Wagener.
Look for new menu choices and changes to the patio, to allow the season for outdoor dining to be extended into the fall. “We have our loyal local guests and regular returning visitors. We try keep it fresh for them, as well as staff, to keep our creativity flowing,” says Wagener. Although running a fine restaurant requires long hours and lots of dedication, it is worth it. Says Wagener, “We are here due to our creative passion.”
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