SANTA FE, N.M. — Walk through the front doors at the Chocolate Maven and you will be welcomed with tantalizing aromas, the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread, the sweet perfume of cakes and cookies and the tempting buttery fragrance of flaky croissants. If you grew up in a house where mama or granny baked, the heart-warming smell of this place will trigger some good memories.
With special friends visiting from Italy – friends who appreciate dessert – I thought it was time for a visit to the Maven. I wanted to introduce them to a place most out-of-town visitors probably don’t see, unless they use the Internet to direct them to Santa Fe locals’ favorite spots. That’s because Chocolate Maven sits far from the popular downtown or Guadalupe/Railyard spots, located in a commercial district. It’s nothing special outside except for the banners announcing its Best of Santa Fe awards. If you haven’t been here, don’t be deterred.
Inside, you’re greeted first by the bakery displays, cakes of all flavors, cupcakes ready for a wedding or a birthday party, and colorful misnamed “tartlets,” big enough to feed a hungry teenager. A tall bakery case displays what I call “morning pastries”: croissants, Danishes, scones, bear claws, pain au chocolat and more.
Santa Fe only has a few good bakeries that are also full-service restaurants – Clafoutis, Santa Fe Baking Company, Chez Mamou and the Swiss Bakery come to mind. I especially like Chocolate Maven because it makes the most of this ambiance. My friends and I were lucky. The Maven doesn’t take reservations for small groups, but one of my favorite tables, a spot next to the window that offers a view of the bakers, was open. We watched a worker give dozens of empanadas the final finger press to close the dough around the filling and then move them to baking sheets. We saw a bakery assistant unwrap giant rectangles of butter in preparation for the mixer.
It was time for lunch, but the Maven serves breakfast all day. In addition to the tempting pastries, the breakfast menu is diverse here. Choices including everything from breakfast burritos to French toast with peach compote. You can find chile as well as gluten-free items. One of my friends had the country breakfast, two eggs, bacon, potatoes, sourdough toast and a garnish of fresh watermelon and cantaloupe. It looked good and he ate it with gusto. He added two double espressos. (Did I mention he lives in Florence, Italy?) He praised the coffee, too!
The rest of us made our selections from the lunch menu and daily specials. I tried one of the specials, a grilled cheese sandwich with green chile and sautéed onions. It was good, in part because the light rye bread that formed the base was so fresh. My Santa Fe friend gave the other special, green chile chicken enchiladas, high marks and I agreed. The chile was mild but flavorful, the chicken abundant, and the dish nicely plated with black beans and sour cream. From the menu, we tried the corn chowder and the day’s quiche, Quiche Lorraine. Both were excellent. The chowder was filled with corn kernels and well-seasoned without being too rich. The quiche was fluffy with a good pastry crust and the right balance between the egg, bacon and Swiss cheese. The salad that came with it was squeaky fresh, Romaine lettuce enhanced with carrot shreds and red onion rings and tossed in a light dressing with a hint of garlic. Lunch and breakfast prices for full meals range from around $9 to $16.
Vegetarian selections are clearly marked and you can get gluten-free options on most of the grilled and deli sandwiches. The Maven also offers gluten-free pizza.
I think it must be the law that you have to have dessert when you eat at the Maven. If it isn’t, it ought to be. We tried the coconut cream pie, an amazing combination of creamy filling with lots of coconut shreds, a lovely crust and whipped cream. Decadent. The same was true for the carrot cake, a piece of heaven that could only have been improved by the addition of some plump raisins. Both are easily sharable. The banana split seemed like a modest choice in this rich company, but it was more than enough. I especially liked the rich chocolate ice cream and the fact that it arrived soft enough to enjoy without having to wait for a thaw.