If the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century had had its way, the tomato might not be a ubiquitous ingredient in the cooking of many cultures today. So, just what is it about the seemingly innocuous tomato that once earned it a scurrilous reputation in the Church, the type of reputation which made it the Paris Hilton of the nightshade family? Brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, it was initially viewed with apprehension, thought not to be edible but purely decorative–and poisonous. Leave it to the French to change that perception by ascribing aphrodisiac properties to what they called pomme d’amour or love apple. This prompted the Roman Catholic Church of the time to declare the tomato the “fruit of the devil,” a sinful indulgence.
The scandalous tomato, its sensuous red color and sweet-tangy flesh spurting with red juiciness, was even believed to be the fruit Eve offered to Adam. Because of its role in original sin, the Church believed the tomato to have been cast off to the furthest reaches of man (the new world), where it could no longer be the tempting source of transgression (sins of the flesh). Leave it to the Spanish explorers to bring it back. More disconcerting to the Church fathers was that the tomato was somehow deemed a symbol of tempting, bewitching femininity, a threat to the patriarchal boy’s club of the age. Worse, the hermaphroditic tomato plant self-pollinated, needing not the seed of man.
For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world, the forbidden fruit was avoided throughout Italy. Its prohibition was eventually neglected by the poor in Naples who cared more about filling empty bellies than subscribing to the wrongful notions of the Church. It was in Naples that in 1889, the tomato became forever entrenched in culinary history when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza whose colors reflected the red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil) colors of the Italian Sabauda flag. He named the pizza the Margherita, for his queen.
Today the once scandalized love apple is as revered as it once was reviled. The notion of Italian food without tomatoes is nearly impossible to conceive–like a day without sunshine. Can you imagine salsa–America’s favorite condiment–made without tomatoes? Without tomatoes, there would be no Bloody Mary, no Caprese salad, no BLT sandwich, no ketchup and no gazpacho. Soups, barbecue sauces, stews, ceviches, meat loaf–they would all be forever different without the ubiquitous, nutritious, delicious tomato. To say tomatoes are the fabulous foundation of many a meal is a vast understatement.
Ironically the Taos restaurant named The Love Apple (or pomme d’amour in French) is housed in the decommissioned Placitas Chapel built in the 1800s. According to historians, the chapel was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) and was a private family chapel for the son of Taos’s infamous Padre Martinez. Later the chapel served as a morada (dwelling) for Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre the Jesús Nazareno (the Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene) also known as Los Hermanos (The Brothers) or Los Penitentes (Penitents). Some claim there are graves under the floor and bones in the wall. Others say the former chapel is haunted.
After more than a century of service to the Catholic Church, the ancient edifice spent time as a framer’s shop, artist’s studio, pre-school and even as a drum and moccasin shop. In 2008, the structure underwent its most significant transformation, albeit one that didn’t obfuscate the building’s history. Vestiges of its former life are readily apparent (if you’ve ever attended Mass at one of the small chapels dotting Taos county, you know of what I speak.) The integrity with which the restaurant honors its previous occupant bespeaks of a respect for the past. The raised area which once served as an altar accommodates a number of tables. A mirror framed in burnished tin hangs where reredos (an ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar) once hung.
Against the walls of the dining room, a long and narrow space, are a number of benches which may once have served as the chapel’s pews. The venerable space is reminiscent of capillas (chapels) throughout the county with its white walls, distressed wood flooring, recessed windows and nichos (niches) and even a few stained glass windows. On the exterior, a high wall resembles a rampart designed to limit access to the complex. In a way it does. It shields diners from the high-decibel traffic of the busy road just outside that wall. A large patio pairs with lush foliage to provide sun-shielding shade. It’s a very comfortable space when weather is favorable. Just beyond a cozy foyer is the restaurant’s open kitchen where you’re likely to be greeted by someone on the kitchen staff. By the way, you’re invited to look in the restaurant’s pantries to confirm what you’ve read on the restaurant’s website.
Study that website and you’ll read about regionally sourced ingredients–where the restaurant procures all the items that fill the pantries and freezer. The Love Apple philosophy will inspire you: “The short synopsis of what we do here at The Love Apple is all about the simple, old tenet: You really are what you eat (philosophically speaking, how you choose to eat). We want you to be great, to feel energized and engaged and happy and assured that you are eating the highest quality food available, made with a very honest intention, and be comfortable and surrounded with beauty while being who you are in the act of eating. So there.” Just as important: “We don’t have pre-made anything; no corporate brand name logos, no ingredients with 15 letters that we’ve never heard of, no high fructose corn syrup, really, no food that we don’t know where it comes from, and generally who grows it.”
The Love Apple is the (love) apple of owner Jen Hart’s eyes. Jen, who grew up in Taos and managed the highly regarded Joseph’s Table before striking out on her own, is passionate about her restaurant’s philosophy. Her perspicacious vision and indefatigable efforts have gifted “the Soul of the Southwest” with an exquisite restaurant, one of the very best and most unique in the Land of Enchantment. Her operational philosophy is executed brilliantly by Chef Andrea Meyer, a proponent of partnering with local growers and using only organic and grass-fed meats and poultry in her dishes. Every delicious morsel of every meal meal is shaped by relationships with local farmers.
Teamwork is very much in evidence at Love Apple. From the industrious kitchen staff to the peripatetic bussers and servers, it’s apparent your dining experience (not just your meal) is their foremost priority. Our server Alexandra was upbeat, friendly and attentive…not to mention quite striking. She’s been with Love Apple for four years and her affection for her place of employment is obvious in the way she describes each dish. It’s an ambassadorial quality only the very best servers possess. The only thing we requested that she couldn’t deliver was some Catholic hymns or alabados (Spanish hymns) over the restaurant’s sound system. Thank goodness she realized I was joking when making that request.
Should you take advantage of Love Apple’s invitation to pore over the contents of the pantries and “non-walk-in” freezers, you’ll find lamb, beef and bison sourced by Rick, Antonio and John, the ranchers with whom a first-name relationship bespeaks of trust and quality. In the fridge, you’ll find an assortment of New Mexico and Colorado cheeses, the best butter they can find, chickens raised in Albuquerque (city chickens) and a “plethora of produce and fresh herbs from our local farmers.” Containers stacked with organic raw ingredients–dried beans, rice, quinoa and nuts–are neatly organized. Whole spices are toasted and ground fresh daily. Flour and organic cornmeal is locally milled. Sweeteners are primarily agave nectar and local honey.
Is it any wonder the staff is so confident in every item on the menu. From quality ingredients come delicious meals. You’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which of the four “small and share plates” will serve as an introduction to one of the very best meals you’ll have. Or, perhaps one of three ensaladas (salads) or two soups (including a vegetarian soup of the day) will be your starter. Then there are six “mains” from which to choose, each of which will make your mouth water. Maybe, however, you’ll be tempted by the specials of the day. In any case, you’ll want to save room for dessert.
You need not be a vegetarian to enjoy the vegetarian soup of the day if the fennel-chèvre soup is any indication. This soup is resplendent in its balance–from the fresh and cleansing qualities of fennel to the creamy and slightly sour properties of the chevre (goat cheese). Visually, the soup is stunning, an eye-catching chartreuse with a sprig of fennel swimming on top. The vibrant fennel is as artistic as those you might find in latte art. The soft, fresh chevre’s gentle grassy depth provides a discernible counterbalance without overpowering the licorice-like flavor of the fennel. This is a superb soup….or is that souperb soup?
A 2015 review published on the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo singled out one appetizer for its “unusual combination that didn’t mesh well together.” Would you just know that particular appetizer was the one we both wanted to try? Not surprisingly, our opinion was wholly contrary to that of the Pasatiempo reviewer. That appetizer was the grilled oyster mushrooms, a grilled, locally grown oyster mushroom, topped with strips of Beeler’s bacon, a fried farm egg, Parmesan and truffle oil. What’s not to love. Oyster mushrooms are my favorite of all fungi. Named because of their resemblance to shellfish, not because they taste like oysters, oyster mushrooms are sweet and earthy. Pair them with bacon and they acquire a meaty umami quality. Close your eyes and you might think “steak.” Apparently this appetizer isn’t for everyone, but it is for us. We loved it!
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans consume about .34 (1/3 pound) of duck per person yearly, down from .44 pound in 1986. Reasons given by the USDA are based primarily on the difficulty and lack of agricultural practices to produce and process ducks. My reason is mostly guilt. Ducks are monogamous (they mate for life)–like me. Still, every once in a while I crave canard and succumb to temptation. It’s hard to feel guilty when the duck is as delicious as The Love Apple’s pan-seared organic duck (drizzled with red chile honey glaze and served with sautéed turnip, duck fat potatoes and crème fraiche). Afterwards, however, I had enjoyed the duck so lustily that absolution felt necessary (where’s the confessional when you need it?). The entire plate was “close your eyes and swoon” worthy. What an absolutely delicious combination of items–flavors and textures playing with one another to delight (or seduce) your taste buds.
Over the years my Kim and I have enjoyed good but hardly memorable gnocchi at dozens of Italian restaurants. For the most part, that gnocchi has been deluged with a red sauce. Gnocchi is a solid albeit unspectacular entrée, a dish for which the tired axiom “it is what it is” certainly applies. So, when the two of us to proclaim The Love Apple’s gnocchi “the best we’ve ever had,” it doesn’t seem like high praise. Let me qualify our appreciation with the magnitude the gnocchi deserves: The Love Apple’s housemade, pan-fried potato gnocchi (served with sugar snap peas, grilled asparagus, lemon juice and feta) is one of the very best dishes we’ve ever had. Rather than the tired old, seemingly de rigueur red sauce, this gnocchi was sauced simply with butter, garlic and feta. While I’m in a declaring mood, gnocchi should always be made with potatoes. It is NOT a pasta. The Love Apple pan fries each delicate potato dumpling to absolute perfection. Each gnocchi is a mouth-watering delight.
Desserts at The Love Apple will leave you weak-kneed. They may not receive the acclaim of the menu’s “mains” or starters, but worthy desserts are the culmination of a great meal. There’s no hyperbole in my praise for the chocolate Challah bread pudding. It’s simply one of the best bread pudding dishes I’ve ever had–and I’m a lifelong addict. As with all great bread pudding, it’s not entirely about sweet upon sweet flavors. This bread pudding is punctuated by just a hint of savory. Then there’s the deeply chocolatey chips. My Kim was nearly as effusive about the apple crisp with homemade ice cream as I was about the bread pudding.
Ask virtually anyone in Taos what the best restaurant in the city is and Love Apple is nearly the consensus answer. I’ll go one further and proclaim from the rooftops–it’s one of the best restaurants in New Mexico. I first discovered The Love Apple several years ago while writing an article for New Mexico Magazine. Because I was writing for another publication, I didn’t publish a review, but did rave and rant about it to several friends (especially to my dear friend Elaine Rising who’s enjoyed it several times).