Award-winning Taos chef Joseph Wrede’s Old Blinking Light brings a Southwestern spark to Highlands Ranch
Colorado has spawned five Food & Wine Best New Chefs, but not all of them remain in the state. Therefore, it seems like a bit of culinary neighborliness that Joseph Wrede, a Best New Chef in 2000, has imported his Southwestern flair from New Mexico to suburban Denver. When he established Joseph’s Table in 1995, he was an innovator on the Taos restaurant scene and an early adopter of sourcing seasonal, local ingredients whenever possible. He was sole owner/chef there when he was named to F&W’s top ten list and is now director of culinary operations for (and also a partner in) the Taos Restaurant Group, including one, the Old Blinking Light, in the Denver area. Lucky us.
The group currently operates three restaurants in Taos. Joseph’s Table, a fine-dining restaurant, relocated from its original, modest quarters to the classy La Fonda Hotel on the town’s historic Plaza. They also took over the former Tim’s Chile Connection at mile marker 1 on the Ski Valley Road and renamed it the Old Blinking Light (and wine shop) and recently purchased Lambert’s of Taos from Zeke and Tina Lambert. Wrede’s plan is to retain the 19-year-old restaurant’s traditional American cuisine and, as he diplomatically puts it, assure that each dish is “executed properly.” Lambert’s has always been good and is getting better, but with refinements rather than dramatic changes. And then there’s the Taos catering company that fed the guests at Julia Roberts’s wedding.
The original Old Blinking Light, a barn-like red and green chili cantina, is set amid sagebrush outside of town. The name makes sense to Taoseños, who know to turn to the restaurant “where the old blinking light was” before the highway department removed it. There, the name has meaning. Here, it elicits of shrug of incomprehension in the context of a mega-subdivision where nothing is old. The Colorado namesake, opened three years ago, serves a more sophisticated and refined brand of Southwestern cuisine. It was easy to get over the disconnected name and the charmless locale as soon as I tasted the superlative Southwestern and Southwest-accented dishes.
While committed to Taos, Wrede also has Colorado ties. A graduate of Regis University, he went to New York for culinary training and returned to Denver where he worked with Sean Kelly at Aubergine and with Pat Perry at Highland’s Garden Cafe until he answered the siren call of northern New Mexico. Wrede (below left), who spends about a week a month in Colorado, is indeed the “director of culinary operations,” not the “dictator of culinary operations.” He sets a general style and price level as guidelines for each restaurant’s chef, but he doesn’t write the menu or create the dishes. Wrede believes that it is important for chefs to “have ownership” of their food, and that is just dandy for executive chef Tony Cahill (right), who was born in Texas, raised in Denver and graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado’s restaurant program.
I’d previously heard of the Old Blinking Light, but until a press dinner there yesterday evening, I had never eaten there. Cahill and his kitchen crew prepared a tasting menu derived from their regular menu. As we gathered, we sipped Gruet Brut from New Mexico and nibbled on carbonated red grapes before proceeding to the table for a small-plate feast. In sampling a number of dishes, we found recurrent themes from the Wrede & Co. respertoire: stuffed chiles, risotto, Mexican crema, tomato butter sauce, avocado and no beans. Partway through the sampling, we shifted from bubbly to still wines. From Washington State came a Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling and from Sonoma, a Pedroncelli “Mother Clone” Zinfandel.
A plump pillow of delicately fried mashed avocado on a crisp green chip with a bit of pico de gallo on top.
Warm Beet Salad Two disks of purple beets alernating with two disks of golden ones on one end of a rectagular plate and a lovely little mixed-green salad with purple onions, toasted pecans and a honey-jalapeño vinaigrette the other.
Cheesy Grit-Stuffed Jalapeños
I’m not wild about the name of this dish. It reminds me of recipes from old community cookbooks or winners of a recipe contest sponsored by Kraft. Still, I really loved every bite. Large fire-roasted jalapeños stuffed with white cheddar grits (a phrase I find more appealing that the word “cheesy”) came with the OBL’s signature tomato butter sauce with some added seasonings.
Paprika Risotto-Stuffed Relleño
This dish is similar to the stuffed jalapeño. Both are composed of starches stuffed into chiles, baked and served with tomato butter and crema. I liked the opportunity to try them one after another to discern the similarities and the differences. On the regular menu, this is served as an entrée with the traditional cheese relleño and ratatouille.
A crisp tortilla, set on a rice foundation, displays a ceviche of King crab and tiger shrimp that were marinated in citrus and then served with sliced avocado and a squiggle of crema, with lime wedges on the side.
Masa and pork go together like peanut butter and jelly. OBL’s comes open-faced and bathed in red and green chile. The salad on the side is a combination of tomatillo, tomato and purple onion with lime dressing and crema.
Grilled Wild King Salmon
Gently grilled salmon was balanced on top of a crisp-fried risotto cake and served with a fine orange-chipotle hollandaise. The risotto cake is a cross-cultural staple at Joseph’s Table that is an exemplary base for the salmon.
A sinfully rich, superlative chocolaty dessert soup served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Sorry. No picture.
Price check: At dinner, appetizers, $7-$13; salads and stews, $5-$9; entrées, $15-$18 (plus a couple of dishes at market price); sides, $1-$6; desserts, $5-$0, plus a $12 cheese platter.
The Old Blinking Light Kitchen & Cocktails (the full name) is in the Highlands Ranch Town Center, 9344 Dorchester Street (off the Lucent Drive exit from C-470), Highlands Ranch; 303-346-9797.