Naked Chefs and a Little Italy
It’s disturbing to this critic that some of our talented chefs and cooks try so hard, often in vain, to bring contemporary food trends to our tables. We the public willingly shell out mega pesos to consume unctuous dibs and dabs of nothing more than hypotheses. I'm afraid some of our adorable ‘50 Best’ winners are making the rounds of their polished Polanco palaces, applauded by patrons duped into thinking they are privy to a cutting edge dining experience, as stark naked as the emperor. Others, blatantly ignored by the trophy bearers from London, toil in less well-heeled venues churning out brilliant, honest fare.
I’ve never had much respect for the slavish following of trends. Culinary-wise, taking this approach begets poorly rendered versions of dishes ill conceived from the get go. Echos of malinchismo resound insidiously in Mexico as skilled chefs feel a need to "create" along international lines. I've been ceremoniously presented drink/food pairings as ill conceived as opera diva Monserrat Caballé's cringemaking duet with Freddy Mercury. Some of our youngest and most talented chefs have turned out dishes such as rutabaga en mole de quelites that sound awful and are. One much ballyhooed Iberian locale serves beans no self-respecting market lady would give to her pig. Endless attempts to dazzle, wow and awe result in pretty little gems that run the gamut of flavors from torpid to ugly. I would much prefer to see classics interpreted or modernized, decent plates of food that would make Julia Child proud. Let’s get out of the lab and back to the hearth.
A disturbing phenomenon is the way the gastro world has, in recent seasons, swallowed hook line and sinker the trendy notion that mezcal is the ultimate and only sleeper drink of the 21st century. To question this global fad is to claw at our fragilely held Mexican dignity. Mezcal can be good even fine, granted. But it has its place, and syrupy cocktails or imposed food combinations is not it. As if old customs and traditions aren't enough, new ones have to be forged to attract our increasingly limited attention.
Our city is undeniably international, and that's OK. A recent Mezcal/ food pairing at a fairly new and respectable Polanco venue, Livorno, was a failed attempt to meld two divergent themes and a case in point as to what doesn’t work. Four slightly different white mezcals were set up against finely executed Italo-Mex plates resulting in a sadly contrived failure. While a couple dozen food writers, bloggers and kitchen paparazzi were told to sniff out aromas of wood and cinnamon, this critic was thinking "stale cigarette butts" and a previously quiet guest blurted that she was having a "nail polish remover" moment.
Perhaps a nostril opening, smoky mezcal did indeed "go" with the first scallop aguachile, whose normally acrid sauce was cooled by pureed cucumber, an idea so brilliantly simple I wish I’d thought of it. But then a beautiful timbale of lobster risotto arrived, and was viciously pummeled by a sip of a libation with the nose of lighter fluid. The wine connoisseur to my left agreed as I muttered under my breath how much more appropriate a glass of fruity Chardonnay would have been. The whole thing was a gimmick, nothing more.
Livorno is a large, highly designed space where glitz, glamour and woodsy warmth vie for first place. Warmth would win if it weren't for the nervously hopped up rhythmic soundtrack. But the chef, Andres Espinoza, is adept at Italian classics and when reined in, tradition wins over trend, and his food is impressive and refined. Just, please, don’t do mezcal to it.
La Locanda dei Cavalieri Neri meanwhile, is a friendly venue for homey Italian food to which I will return. The honest, unpretentious kitchen is run by ex-Romano Eduardo Colitto who brings to the Colonia Roma the kind of cooking one would find in the original City of the Seven Hills.
Real food is served here, good old fashioned but far from clichéd mid-country and southern Italian fare. Breads are house made, served warm and delicious with or without a dunk in the fruity olive oil provided. A generous plate of antipasti might include a creamy locally made mozzarella, a few bites of good parmigiano, a bundle of asparagus wrapped in pancetta and grilled, a roast mushroom or two, whatever is on hand. Pastas are of the brazen type commonly found in the Lazio area, from simple cacio e pepe to my favorite, allo scoglio, linguini imbued to its very heart with seafood. Pairing is from a well-culled Italian wine cellar hand-picked by the owner.
Main courses are heady and hearty. A salmon steak, encrusted with almond is thrown in for the carnivorously impaired, but meats are the strongpoint here. Saltinbocca alla Romana is textbook perfect, salty indeed but just ever so. Coda alla vaccinara, (oxtail) is braised in tomato sauce, meat falling of the bone.
Ingredients are as local as possible if not imported directly from the source so as not to compromise integrity. The setting is warm, casual and woody, Italian pop tunes from the past waft breezily by but do not pounce on diners, many of whom are from the old country and here to hang with their compatriots. And prices are accessible – a simple appetizer/pasta or pizza lunch is offered for $130.
Hats off to the fine young creative chefs of Mexico, to the lauded winners of trophies and accolades. Let’s just hope they don’t lose sight of land and sea, that which is truly ours.
Campos Eliseos 295,, 1st floor, Polanco
Open daily 1 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Price per person averages around $500 pesos
La Locanda dei Cavalieri Neri
Colima 378, (a block & 1/2 east of Sonora) Col. Roma Norte
Open Tuesday – Saturday 1- 11 p.m., Sunday until 6, closed Monday
Agreed. My argument on this stuff is that so many places are trying to keep up with trendy ingredients, trendy techniques, and trendy presentations and meanwhile ingredients, techniques, and traditions are being lost every day as people stop cooking and their children and grand children modernize and come into the McDonald's generation. You know, maybe some great chefs can create great things. Certainly they can. But some abuela in Chiapas -- or Yunnan, or Bahia, or Kerala, or hell, even Louisiana -- has been making a dish for 50 years that was taught to her by her mother, and her mother taught her, and her mother taught her. It's been fiddled with and perfected for maybe 4 or 5 generations. Maybe 100s of years longer than that. And it's about to be lost because no one will be making it anymore and no one will write it down. How much better off would we be if these chefs stopped trying so hard to "create" dishes and instead tried to discover dishes? There is so much great food being lost to history every day. And it would all be new to most people. It just needs to be discovered and preserved and fed to people.
Nick A. Zukin
Por Siempre Tacos Veganos (corner Chiapas & Manzanillo, Roma, open m-sat 6:30 p.m. to midnight) delivers what it promises, that is, vegan tacos. They're just like the "real thing" only made with tofu, soy cheese and other non-carny foodstuffs. The faux chorizo is outstanding.
Conde Sandwich, at the corner of Alvaro Obregón and Córdoba in the Roma, is a cute American style nuevo sandwich shop run by the owners of the adorable nearby Fournier Rousseau. The Rueben, done with house-made corned beef and sauerkraut vales la pena of which there is little.
Pozolería de Moctezuma at (c/ Moctezuma 12, Col. Guerrero, near metro Garibaldi, closed Sunday) is in a funky old apartment building and has been hidden away there for 65 years. Ring the buzzer and enter for the best bowl of white or on Tues.,Thurs, & Sat., green. The tacos of lengua are phenomenal.
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