Amuse-bouche La Posada’s bars

THE STAAB HOUSE & JU­LIA’S SO­CIAL CLUB

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Molly Boyle

Since the 1970s, when a jan­i­tor at La Posada looked up from mop­ping the floor and saw a translu­cent dark-eyed woman in a long black gown stand­ing next to a fire­place, Santa Fe has been swept up by the spirit of Ju­lia Schus­ter Staab. The ghost pos­sessed “an aura of sad­ness,” the cus­to­dian told the lo­cal me­dia, with her for­mal Vic­to­rian dress and se­vere bun. Over the years, the an­tics of the de­pressed Ger­man-Jewish bride of Santa Fe Ring mem­ber Abra­ham Staab have been well doc­u­mented by ho­tel em­ploy­ees and vis­i­tors in tales of slam­ming doors, sway­ing chan­de­liers, snatched cov­ers, scat­tered be­long­ings, flushed toi­lets, and pulled hair. Many have pos­tu­lated that Ju­lia is a con­trol freak, still do­ing her twisted best from be­yond to host guests in her lux­u­ri­ous home. She tele­graphs one clear de­mand: “Pay at­ten­tion to me.”

The an­nual thin­ning of the veil be­tween the spirit world and the liv­ing seemed the right time for a few pil­grim­ages to see Santa Fe’s most dys­func­tional host­ess. It’s been more than three years since La Posada re­branded their sig­na­ture restau­rant to cap­i­tal­ize on the no­to­ri­ety of its poltergeist, giv­ing it the rather on-the-nose moniker “Ju­lia: A Spir­ited Restau­rant and Bar.” A newer tapas bar, Ju­lia’s So­cial Club, has been carved out of the restau­rant space, per­haps in ref­er­ence to Mrs. Staab’s rep­u­ta­tion in life as an ac­com­plished doyenne of Gilded Age din­ner par­ties. Mean­while, the scene around the corner at Staab House, the older wa­ter­ing hole in the orig­i­nal man­sion, re­mains both cozy and eerie, with its crack­ling fire­places, pol­ished par­quet floors, and war­ren of mir­rored rooms.

It seemed pru­dent to be­gin a hunt for Ju­lia in her old house. One blus­tery evening, the Red Sox fought their way to vic­tory over the Astros on the TV at Staab House while I searched the bar’s mirror for her re­flec­tion, re­quest­ing “Ju­lia’s Man­hat­tan” from the cock­tail menu in the hope that she might con­sent to tip­ple with me. A man next to me who or­dered a Svedka cranberry told me he was born and raised in Santa Fe and came of­ten to the com­fort­able bar. I asked him if he’d seen Ju­lia. “No, but I would like to con­nect with her,” he said rea­son­ably, sound­ing as if he wanted her busi­ness card. “Did you ever watch that ‘Long Is­land Medium’? She’s so good.”

Ju­lia’s Man­hat­tan was well­built, mak­ing for good slow sip­ping, and al­most worth its $16 price tag. (At La Posada, one is con­stantly re­minded of the term “ho­tel pric­ing.”) A com­pan­ion’s Saz­erac was stiff, too, if lack­ing a bit of its ab­sinthe fla­vor and sug­ary mud­dle. Pe­rus­ing the bar menu’s va­ri­ety of food of­fer­ings, which a bar­tender ex­plained was de­signed to ap­peal to the broad­est pos­si­ble sam­pling of tourists, we opted for a pair of red chile-pork tamales, served Christ­mas-style un­der a blan­ket of red and green chile. Given the com­ment about tourists, I was pleas­antly sur­prised by the heat of both chiles, though the masa was wet, the pork rather over­pro­cessed, and in an act of clumsy sorcery, the ad­ver­tised queso fresco on the menu had been switched out for a waxy blend of pre-grated ched­dar

and Jack. The steamed mus­sels, how­ever, which came with per­fectly grilled bread and a gar­licky roasted tomato sauce, were plump and abun­dant. As the rooms filled with vis­i­tors and base­ball fans and we waited too long to close out our tab, I no­ticed a line of un­cleaned glasses lin­ger­ing on the crowded bar­top. No won­der Ju­lia sees fit to take mat­ters into her own hands ev­ery once in a while.

An­other evening, ea­ger for the more stream­lined tapas ex­pe­ri­ence promised by the on­line menu at Ju­lia’s So­cial Club, two hostesses primed us to ex­pect the un­ex­pected. One told a tale of putting din­ner­ware away in a cabi­net whose doors shut when she turned her back; the other de­scribed a stack of Post-It notes eerily flip­ping open. At 7 p.m. on a Satur­day night, we were the only cus­tomers at the So­cial Club bar, a room off the wine cel­lar striped with dark wood vi­gas and dec­o­rated in a more rus­tic Santa Fe Style than the Staab House. Again, our drinks packed a wal­lop: A jalapeño mar­garita was per­fectly bal­anced be­tween tart and spicy, while a Paloma served in a ca­pa­cious mar­garita glass was a caul­dron of salt-lined bit­ter­sweet fizz. Our bar­tender took is­sue with the word “haunted” when we men­tioned the bar’s name­sake; he said he be­lieved in ghosts, but didn’t think they were nec­es­sar­ily haunt­ing things all the time.

Mean­while, the menu of small plates set be­fore us was sig­nif­i­cantly lim­ited com­pared to what I’d scoped out on the web, and seem­ingly haunted by tor­tilla chips — they starred in four out of 11 of­fer­ings. The kitchen was out of crab for the crab en­chi­ladas, so in com­bin­ing the Staab House menu with that of the So­cial Club (both menus are avail­able in both bars, lead­ing us to won­der just why the ho­tel needs two bars), we forged ahead with the ce­viche, a few mess­ily pre­sented piles of cubed lime-cured mahimahi, av­o­cado, pico de gallo, let­tuce, and a heap of blue and white corn chips. The sep­a­rate el­e­ments were all rea­son­ably fresh and tasted fine, but again I sensed the specter of Ju­lia’s dis­ap­point­ment. A crisp Cae­sar salad of fresh Ro­maine hearts, fried Parme­san crisps, white an­chovies, and shaved Parm in a tangy an­chovy-scented dress­ing fared far bet­ter, as did a hot cast-iron pan of plump olive-oil poached shrimp with gua­jillo chiles. Still, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bread for sop­ping up the gar­licky oil was charred scar­ily black on both ends.

With the slim tapas pick­ings, it seemed lit­tle won­der that Ju­lia’s So­cial Club was prov­ing less con­vivial than its name — though I did see a sign ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive chef Tom Ker­pon’s Oct. 25 wine din­ner at the restau­rant, which promised “a pre­view of ex­quis­ite new dishes from his fall menu.”

With La Posada’s overt mar­ket­ing of Ju­lia’s ghost, the sad-eyed wife’s celebrity has thor­oughly eclipsed that of her pros­per­ous hus­band, which seems a fit­ting fem­i­nist coda to what was pur­port­edly an un­happy mar­riage rife with emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse. But while the drinks pro­gram re­mains strong in both bars — per­haps help­ing to blur the bound­aries be­tween the liv­ing and the dead — an air of ne­glect per­me­ates its food ser­vice. When it comes to pre­sent­ing plates with style and grace, the kitchen at La Posada may well need a re­fresher course from the lady of the manor.

One host­ess told a tale of putting din­ner­ware away in a cabi­net whose doors shut when she turned her back; the other de­scribed a stack of Post-It notes eerily flip­ping open.

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