If you are planning on skiing Taos this winter, don’t miss ACEQ in the village of Arroyo Seco.
Owner and Sommelier Michael (“Red”) Wagener, who spends as much time on the slopes as he does in his very popular restaurant, which is tucked away beside Jack Leustig’s Print Shop, spins a brilliant take on traditional comfort food, that will warm the most jaded foodie’s heart.
A Wisconsin native, Wagener graduated from the University of Minnesota in Duluth and moved to Taos a decade ago, drawn here by Taos Ski Valley and a job at the newly opened El Monte Sagrado Resort as the Food and Beverage Manager.
He left the El Monte when it changed hands to run the Wine Shop, and become the in-house Sommilier at the now defunct Old Blinking Light Restaurant, before going to El Meze and working with Chef Fred Muller.
“I also worked for the young couple who started ACEQ,” Wagener told me. “I was a waiter and also ordered the beer and wine, but after more than a year of working here, I was ready to take over the restaurant and it worked out perfectly because family responsibilities didn’t allow them to continue running it.”
Michael wound up buying the restaurant and has made significant changes to both the (ever-changing) menu and the space itself.
He began remodeling the space in the spring of 2015. At this time the construction is complete; the new addition adds lots of square footage and yet has still kept room for an outdoor seating area, weather permitting.
Michael and his father did a lot of the work. The table tops are made from recycled wood from his grandfather’s Wisconsin Granary, and a Mid-Century Modern booth which curves around one corner of the new addition, was also found in his home State.
A natural for the Service Industry changing hats when needed; he is a stellar Maitre D as well as a great waiter who has no problem switching roles. When he talks about wine however, it’s clearly his area of expertise. Wagener is a Sommelier with the American Court of Master Sommeliers.
“When you take a perfectly flavored and seasoned dish and complement it with a great wine – it’s like alchemy or magic,” he said. There were only six wines when he started working at ACEQ. Now, there are more than 50 including local vintner Vivac’s wines on tap. “It’s a brilliant concept putting wine on tap because it lasts a long time,” he explained. “It never sees the light of day.”
“We have wines from all over the world, as well as locally, ” he clarified. “We also have craft beers, and several of them are local too.”
“I have a strong vision about keeping the food very simple but having fun with traditional fare – I want the food to speak for itself,” he emphasized. “Where the sauces don’t drown out the flavour of the ingredients themselves – less is more.”
That said, changing the menu as often as possible is another Michael Wagener signature, Though some items – for example, the Cheese Curds, stay. “I’m from Wisconsin.” He laughed. “Gotta have Cheese Curds!”
Wagener sources his produce mostly locally, and the night I ate there last week, Chef (and fellow wine buff), Isaac Gonzales had grown the squash for the divinely decadent Winter Squash Bisque we started our meal off with. The mushrooms in the Ragout topped with shaved Manchego cheese served over a slice of (baked by local baker, Chris White), heavenly, toasted Cranberry bread, the flavours insanely marrying in the most ridiculous, yet perfect way, were also locally grown.
My friend and I shared two entrees. The Duck stewed with root vegetables and white beans was reminiscent of a cassoulet sans the sausage – perfect for a cold winter night. The fish we ate was Hawaiian Ono, firm textured and with a mild flavour which lent itself well to the pairing of buttery, nutty Black Quinoa, all served on rustic, ceramic dishes.
“The farm to table approach is at the core of what we do at ACEQ.” Wagener says.
That may be, but this place is also seriously hip. The first time I ate there last winter (taken there by my daughter Angelica who worked with Red in the past, and her partner Lee Backer , when my brother Greg and nephew David were visiting), there was Spam on the menu.
David who has the very popular NYC Food blog (ForknPlate) fell in love with ACEQ then and there.
“This is the closest thing Taos has to a cool NYC spot,” he declared.
For more information on ACEQ please visit their site ACEQ