World view: Anatol takes the cake
Back in the 20th century, there was a genre of restaurant that served something called “continental cuisine.” The continent referred to was Europe, although the trip across the Atlantic might, like the RMS Lusitania's, have been aborted. It was basically an Americanized over-simplification of classic French cooking, featuring invented dishes like Salisbury steak which would have been anathema to any European cook. It's now, happily, gone the way of bellbottoms and 8-track tapes.
The concept of borrowing and combining from multiple culinary traditions is relatively new, a product of 21st century globalization. A little lemongrass perfumes the bouillabaisse, wasabi spikes the aioli. But a chef needs to master a cuisine before he can successfully tinker with it. A culinary genius like David Chang (of N.Y.'s Momofuku) knows what he’s doing when he messes with tradition. Most ordinary mortals need to stay closer to home. Ella Fitzgerald knew the melody and the words and sang them; THEN she improvised.
That’s why the new spate of venues opening their multi-culti doors in our capital has been a hit and miss affair. Many Mexican chefs are going abroad to study and bringing back Big Ideas. Perhaps the aduana should be more vigilant and do some confiscating at the border.
In the case of Montagü, a pretty “bar de vinos” on Parque Lincoln in Polanco, the Concept doesn’t quite gel. The capable chef offers a sprawling assortment of dishes from French, Spanish, Mexican and American lexicons. Though a fearless fusionist, he’s at his best as a modern interpreter of Mexican cuisine. The wine list is carefully chosen and prices accessible. And the pretty view puts Montegü on the list for a quick lunch or happy hour. But stick to this continent's fare.
In La Roma, the talk of the town is Zapote, the latest see-and-be-seen spot to open its large glass doors. The mod, wood-filled space is beautiful, so is the menu, which features the local and organic. But once again, dishes that invoke Around the World in 80 Days, with a long stopover in Italy, just don’t cut the moutarde. Food is dissapointingly lackluster.
Anatol, on the other hand, is a newcomer that hits all the marks. Chef Justin Ermini, Connecticut-born and Culinary Institute trained, with an impressive résumé that includes N.Y.’s Daniel and several years in Florence, has brought considerable skill to his kitchen. The wisely collated menu is eclectic, featuring a number of Mexican, American and Italian dishes (the chef is Italian/American, working in Mexico after all). “I make what I, myself, like to eat…” he explains. “I don’t want to be pretentious.” He's not.
The smartly done dining room in the ground floor of chic Hotel Las Alcobas (which also housesDulce Patria), is sleek but at the same time warm, a fugue of muted wood colors. Lighting is kind and so, thankfully, is music – neither overcome sensitive faces/ears.
The menu, which morphs almost imperceptibly from week to week, is divided into five categories which imply tapas, i.e. small plates to share and accompany good wine or cocktails from the ample list. Many ingredients such as fresh cheeses and preserved meats, are made in-house.
The largest section is para comenzar, hearty and smartly chosen grazing plates. From Fannie Farmer’s Greatest Hits come mac & cheese--an upscale version that will nevertheless comfort the nostalgic. There’s also clam chowder, Cesar salad and, for the Canadians, a poutine featuring foie gras that vastly improves on the original. Best are satisfyingly rich Italian primi: an earthy cavatelliwith pesto and a ‘touch of Tabasco’ to remind you you’re home, lovingly fried squash blossoms, tempura style, crisp and faintly aromatic. And the star of the show--raviolo della nonna, a single filled little hill of pasta. "Whose nonna could have produced this?" I wondered as I took a bite of the chewy fresh pasta that conceals a payload of milky home-made ricotta. The whole thing is bathed in what the menu describes as “Sunday gravy”, a slow-cooked meaty ragù that makes Monday a letdown. “We didn’t want to be identified as a strictly Italian restaurant,” the chef explained; so the little race-track shaped pizzas are here labeled ‘flat breads’. Compliments should ring for the guancialeflat bread: parmesan, goat cheese, conserve of tomatoes, an organic egg and house-made "cheek" bacon astutely arranged on a textbook golden/crunchy crust.
Larger plates, in the para continuar department, include a rib-eye of quality, a friendly roast chicken for those missing home, and the best corned beef on rye (here named the Brooklyn sandwich) I’ve ever had--and I know from corned beef. The beef is ‘corned’ by the chef himself, and the rye bread baked by the co-chef, experienced L.A. native Mayra Victoria, who also takes care of pastries and desserts. Meat is generously heaped on and will not let down those used to Carnegie Deli style excess, although elements are infinitely more balanced than they would be there. Mazel Tov!
A standout from the dessert menu is a little parfait, amusingly labeled "Triffle" (sic) served in what looks to be a baby food jar, of brownie, cream and helado de piloncillo, that rich brown sugar sold in cones. It's rich and light at the same time. And "pie" de temporada(an unfortunate spelling of the anglicized word "pay") is not a foot but good old American pie a la mode.
The carefully chosen wine list--with a wide price margin—is helpfully divided by body type, i.e. light to medium. And, as is currently fashionable, a menu of gussied up cocktails is offered: the architectural gin & tonic has to be seen to be believed--and it tastes good too.
Anatol, while setting the stage with various culinary traditions, doesn’t slight any of them. The elegant but casual ambience doesn't veer from the 'East Side' Polanco norm, but the high quality of the fare certainly does. Toques off to this welcome addition to our city’s dining scene.
Harvey July 31, 2013
Can't wait to try the place, Nick. But for us older folks, it's painful to read you mention the 20th century like it was so long ago... not that you're wrong, but ouch! Warm saludos from DC...xx
Nicholas Gilman July 31, 2013
Harvey, I spent my first few decades in the long gone 20th century as well. But 'ouch' is right!
Anonymous August 18, 2013
Nice review Nick! My partner and I had dinner last night at Anatol. Our dining experience was impeccable. The service was spot-on, the atmosphere very pleasant with soft background music. Our entrada and large plates were delicious. I did comment to the wait staff that the gravy accompanying my roasted chicken was quite spicy (I think they use Serrano peppers). He brought me a nice glass of a soothing drink, on the house. Of course we had to have the Triffe. We would definitley love to return. Thanks again for the tip!!