Friday, July 10, 2009
Being gored by a bull was preferable to spending another minute in the car with Lady Brett. Or in Pamplona.
WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT FOOD.
I used to love Hemingway until he made me to go to the Festival of San Fermin (aka The Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona. “Papa,” I would shout out, in the middle of the night, awake in a cheap Parisian pension, starving student that I was, the dirty sheets drenched in my sweat and me, still drunk from the evening’s bar crawl, my copy of “The Sun Also Rises" open to a meaningful passage on the cheap wooden nightstand. “I cannot rest until I too visit the Festival.” “You are my soulmate.” “I cannot write again, until I write like you.” “I’m going to name my granddaughter Margaux too.” Unfortunately, I could not convince my benefactor (aka, my own “papa”) to finance the trip and let me stay in Europe beyond the end of June (the festival was in July) and I was forced to return to Baltimore, where I spent the summer as working an usher in the train station, calling out trains to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, and beyond, all the while knowing I belonged way beyond. I belonged in Pamplona. When I returned to college in the fall, I put my festival dreams on hold. For twenty years.
And so it came to pass that I finally visited…no, that I finally PARTICIPATED IN, The Festival of San Fermin. I arrived at the airport in Madrid to meet my cast of characters, with whom I would spend the next 10 days. I, of course, was Jake Barnes, the impotent soldier who was hopelessly in love with Lady Brett Ashley. The lady herself was actually my best friend’s wife, a southern belle from Kentucky. And Robert Cohn, the Jewish outsider, was a gentile dentist from Tennessee. My best friend was Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter involved in a love affair with Brett.
Dysfunction reigned from the very beginning. As the only Spanish speaker with a few previous trips to Spain under my belt., I was elected to navigate and communicate and fornicate (no, just kidding… I’m impotent, remember). Pedro was driving the rental car and we stop to ask a truck driver parked on the side of the road for directions. When I return to the car, I report that the truck driver had told me to "fuck the road" to Segovia, which I assume to mean don't take it (later, I figure out that the term we use in Mexico for the "f" word is used in Spain to mean "get on" or "grab"). For some reason, probably to make my life miserable, Lady Brett had gone off her meds before the trip, and was completely OCD, telling me what an idiot I was for not being able to figure out where we were or understand the language. We did manage to make it as far as Segovia on the first day, although not via the highway, where Cohn and I passed out on the lawn of the parador, after finishing several bottles of pacharan. Brett and Pedro went into town for sucking pig and woke us up when they returned. Because the hotel restaurant was long closed, Cohn and I dined on a tin of tuna fish and saltines along with several bottles of cheap wine before passing out again. It kind of felt like Papa was there, watching us.
We made it to Pamplona the next day, late, after a long day in the car, where Brett's OCD had kicked in to the max; me on the receiving end of it, which I guess was a welcome break for Pedro. I lost count of the number of times she referred to me as an "f''ing nimrod" after I don't know how many wrong turns...and all I was trying to do was read a map and street signs. We checked into what was supposed to be the best hotel in town and which I can only describe as pretty nasty, and where I had a single room with worn green carpet and a hard bed. Unfortunately, I was still able to hear Brett in the next room through the too thin walls ragging on Pedro about it, after thinking I was finally free of her for a while. I ponder the wisdom of going to a drugstore to bribe the pharmacist for some Atavan with which to spike her wine, but think better of it. In Mexico I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but I didn't want to end up in jail and miss the festival...better to just put up with her.
We go to drink in a cafe and note that the crowd in town seems a bit, well...trashy. Pedro and Brett retire to the hotel and Cohn and I drink until we pass out. The next morning we are up at dawn, dressed in white, ready for the most magnificent event ever. And then my lifelong dream came crashing down and the Hemingway fantasy ended. Brutally.
I don't know exactly what Papa saw but what I saw was, as Brett described it, a "cluster f*&$ing nightmare." I discover in short order that I am not really a bull person. They are big, scary and nasty, especially when they are loose on the street. They SNORT. I never particularly liked them in bullrings but I thought when I saw them running free it would be different. I was right. They were totally terrifying. But nowhere near as much as the crowd was.
For the festival, the town had turned into what I can only describe as an Eastern European refuge camp, with the bulk of participants in the festival young and dirty kids, who slept in tents or on the streets, drank until they threw up on their white clothes, and wore the stains with pride. The casual sex and bohemian vibe of papa's time had turned into a Euro-trailer trash saddam and gomorrah recently risen from the depths of hell. There was screwing in the streets. There was vomiting in the streets. There was pissing in the streets. It was so appalling, so deeply depressing and disturbing, there was only one thing for me, Cohn, Brett and Pedro to do. Drink. It was the only way were gonna get through it.
And so it came to pass that the next few days dissolved into a drunken haze of early mornings spent watching the bulls running through the streets while even drunker idiots tried to run with them, eating and drinking until we passed out, waking up for the bullfights at night where the bulls who ran through the streets in the morning were brutally slaughtered in the bullring, then eating and drinking until we passed out again. It was insane.
It was also exhausting and we were only on Day 3, with 3 more to go, when Brett, as she was want to do in Papa's book, made the casual comment that perhaps we should adjourn to San Sebastian for some R&R. Cohn, Pedro and I refused to admit defeat. We were there for the festival and we were staying for the festival. All of it. Weren't we?
We weren't. There was no hiding it. The Hemingway dream was turning into full on disaster and to make it even worse, we weren't enjoying ourselves at all. Not the food, not the festival, not the people and not even the wine, which we drank to get through the misery. On Day 4, I woke up early as usual for the running of the bulls and noticed something nasty on the tacky green carpet. What was it? Was it....baccalao? I try to think back to the night before. Didn't I have baccalao for dinner? The phone rang. It was Pedro. "We're out of here," is all he said. I breathed a sigh of relief, put my pounding head back on the pillow, and slept until noon.
We were quiet on the drive to San Sebastian and even Brett didn't speak. Shell-shocked, I guess. We had no idea what to expect, but whatever was in store, it couldn't have been as bad as Pamplona. We arrived into San Sebastian and I instantly felt at east. It was lovely, there were no drunken crowds, and the hotel was great. My room overlooked the river, the tide coming was coming in from the Bay of Biscay, and I filled my lungs with fresh air and breathed a long sigh of relief. I felt like I was home.
I used to love Hemingway until he made me go to the Festival of San Fermin.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Friday, May 15, 2009
I am constantly asked by friends, or friends of friends, or by people who got my name from someone who knows me, where to eat when they visit Mexico City, and I am only too happy to provide some recommendations. But before I go on, I need to say again that the best Mexican food I have ever had is prepared by my housekeeper, who has kept me well fed and versed in Mexican cuisine for many years now, and once you have tasted her huachinango a la veracruzana, mole verde, sopes, chiliquiles, and my favorite, grilled pork ribs marinated in tequila and diced poblano chiles, a recipe we developed together, food in most local restaurants pales in comparison. That is why I go to them infrequently, or when I have guests in town who want to eat “authentic” Mexican. But when I do go out locally, I tend to go to the places that are listed in guidebooks and discussed on boards like Chowhound; Izote, Fonda del Recuerdo, Villa Maria, La Valentina and Contramar continue to wow me on occasion and almost always leave me feeling satisfied. For tacos, I like El Tizoncito in Condesa and Lago de los Cisnes in Lomas (especially on Sunday afternoon, the official maid’s day off,, where upscale housewives who have no idea how to boil water can be seen devouring tacos along with their families). My corner taqueria, Las Costillas on Juan Escutia and Pachuca, makes great quesadillas and their pork chop tacos are always a hit with me as well, as is the friendly staff.
Eating in traditional “international” restaurants that include some Mexican dishes on the menu (Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa and Danubio in the Centro) is like slipping into a pair of sweats and beat up sneakers…comfortable, easy and familiar. For more modern Mexican, I also like Los Canarios in Sta. Fe, especially the duck tacos, as well as La Guadiana.
For non-Mexican dining, Jaso in Polanco is about is good as it gets, and the understated Basque restaurant Bakea in Lomas de Barrilaco always leaves me wishing I was back in San Sebastian and wondering whether it is in fact, the best restaurant in the D.F.
L’atelier de Quim Jardi in Colonia Roma is the perfect bohemian pizza joint run by a quirky, unique and talented chef; I go about once a week and usually order “The Lynch”, named after the famous director, which is not yet on the menu but will be whenever they print a new one. The jazz is always hot, the pizza at times, not. Still my favorite pizza place though. 50 Friends in both Condesa and Polanco has good pizza as well, always with a large crowd that is reflective of each neighborhood.
I try not to eat much beef these days, but when I do, El Zorzal on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas is a fine place to do it. I prefer their casual, neighborhood vibe to the big ticket Argentine places like Rincon de Argentina, which always feels to me like a huge Rustler.
All that said, here are three simple places that don’t make all the discussion boards or guidebooks (although occasionally they do turn up) that I find myself returning to for Mexican food and always enjoying. I can recommend them to just about anyone and everyone.
Selene (behind the Camino Real in Anzures). Go very late and very drunk. You will fit right in….and you probably won’t notice (or at least remember) the cleanliness factor. It's all about the tacos al pastor here, although I have ordered a "milanesa" taco from time to time and loved every greasy bite.
El Turix (Emilio Castelar 210 in Polanco). Stuff yourself on cochinita pibil tacos and panuchos, down a few Montejo beers, and bliss out.
La Gurufa (Michoacan 91, Condesa). I don’t know why I like this place so much, but I do. Sit outside, watch the happening locals, order the blue corn quesadillas with goat cheese or another contemporary Mexican option and chill. Saturday and Sunday late mornings are best, because you are sure to spot someone more hungover than you are.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I had some friends and colleagues over this weekend to drink some sake that I brought back from Japan a couple of months ago and compare it to what is available locally (consensus: no comparison whatsoever. Further consensus among most the next morning: better just to stick to Sapporo and Albarino.) To go with the sake, I had a sushi chef from one of the better local sushi places come in and prepare what turned out to be a huge sushi and sashimi feast. There was so much leftover, everybody took home a large package and I still had more than there was room in the refrigerator to store, so my housekeeper, building manager and several neighbors were gifted large foil packages as well. In the end, I was left with a few pieces of hamachi and big styrofoam cups of ikura and tobiko (flying fish roe). I spent all of yesterday wondering what I could do with the salmon roe and came up with the following recipe last night. It was so good, I had it again tonight, polishing the recipe and polishing off the ikura at the same time. I am still working on what to do with the tobiko. I’m thinking pizza with wasabi creme fraiche and chives.
Green Fried Rice with Ikura (salmon roe)
Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish
-2 tblsp. canola oil or other oil with high smoke point
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-2-4 serrano chiles, minced
-1 cup steamed white rice (preferably leftover Jasmine and cold)
-1/3 cup each minced cilantro, cucumber and scallions
-1 tblsp. fish sauce or soy sauce
-2 tblsp. salmon roe
-Tomato wedges and scallions for garnish, lime wedge for squeezing
Heat a wok over high heat until smoking, then add oil, swirling to coat. Add garlic and chile, stir fry for about 30 seconds. Push garlic and chile to one side, add egg and fry until barely set. Add rice and breaking up egg, stir fry for another 30 seconds. Add cilantro, cucumber and parsley, and stir fry 30 seconds, add fish sauce or soy sauce, and stir fry for about 90 seconds more, adding a little more sauce if it seems too dry.
Serve rice topped with salmon roe and garnished with tomato and scallions. Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top.
The most powerful food moment I remember having was in a restaurant in Napa called Terra. It was in the 80’s. I don’t know what it was I was having, but I still remember the exact sensation. I was sitting with some friends and suddenly, they faded into the background . I entered a state of heightened reality where it was nothing but me and the food I was tasting. I knew there was true genius at work in the kitchen and his or her cooking was not only having an effect on my taste, but on my entire body. It generated a physical and mental buzz that lasted for maybe a minute. The sensation was so strong and my withdrawal from the moment so apparent, my friends asked me, ‘What’s wrong?” And no, I was not stoned. I have been back to Terra since, and the experience was not repeated.
Another powerful food moment was in Rio, at a restaurant called Siri Mole, when I first tasted moqueca. I was with the same friends, so they knew what was happening.
I have had two food moments in Bangkok, the first at Supatra River House. When asked, locals and ex-pat foodies will tell you the food is for tourists and there is much, much better food to be had in Bangkok. But the thing about food moments is they don’t discriminate. They can happen anywhere and anytime. I think it was the sauteed morning glory, a pedestrian dish I had eaten many times before and have eaten many times since, that caused it, but it has never had that effect on me again. And I’ve had it several times since at Supatra.
The second experience in Bangkok was when I was walking along the stretch of Chareon Krung Road between Silom and the Saphan Taksin skytrain. I saw some fried chicken at a street vendor stall that just called out to me. As much as I like Thai food, fried chicken isn’t my favorite, and there is a famous place in Bangkok called Soi Polo Fried Chicken where I had eaten before and had what was reputed to the best fried chicken in town. I found it good but not exciting. So when I saw this chicken and stopped, I was surprised that I even considered it. But I did. I bought a breast, who knows why, since they tend to dry out when fried. And it happened again. The entire street scene, which is extraordinarily hectic and hot, dropped away and it was just me and the most perfect piece of chicken I have ever eaten.
Speaking of chicken, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris is L’ami Louis, and yes, I know what other foodies and experts have to say about it, and I don’t care, and I continue to go back and pay astronomical prices for roast chicken that most people say is better elsewhere. I was there one time with a friend who is a chef and who never been a fan of roast chicken...until he tried it there and found it to be a revelation. I was glad to have helped to bring about a food moment for him and only hope it was as powerful and intense as mine are.
I think food moments may run in the family, at least my family. My 19 year old niece is the only other person in the family with a passion for food, and I am sure she was born with it just as I was. I have had the blessing (and curse, she is after all, a teenager) of being able to travel with her and try some fantastic restaurants around the world, where I have witnessed her having food moments of her own. I can tell when the same state of being that overtakes me overtakes her as well; her eyes widen, and she says to me, when I look at her knowingly, “you don’t know, you just don’t know.” But yes, I do. Raw oysters tend to provoke food moments for her, as does Porcao in Rio and my spaghetti carbonara. Unlike me, she has repeat moments at the same places and with the same foods. I was expecting her to have one at Pre Catalan in Paris, but as much as she liked it, she didn't. You just never know.
My most recent food moment was in December at Ryugin in Tokyo. It was one of the best meals of my life, the tasting menu thrilling, and the chef, Seiji Yamamoto, is a genius in the same league as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. But the dish that caused the food moment came towards the end and was perhaps the simplest on the menu: "Steamed Rice with Cherry Blossom Tea Topped with Aromatic Sakura Shrimp from Shizuoka".
The best thing about food moments is you never know where or when they are going to hit. But when they do, they are always worth the wait. And I can’t wait for the next one.
Primos in the Condesa is a bustling Mediterranean-style bistro with above average food and a pleasant buzz. The jamon serrano with their outstanding crusty bread is always a pleasant ‘tapa’. They also have a retail bakery on Alfonso Reyes in the Condesa, a block or two away from Quilmes, where you can buy the bread to take home.
You won’t find many tourists at Primos, or much of the stereotypical Condesa crowd either, although its location would suggest otherwise. Right on the corner of Mazatlan and Michoacan, not far from the Turibus stop, Primos is a small (maybe 30 table) Mediterranean-style bistro with a white and black tile floor and white cloth covered tables that attracts well dressed professionals at both lunch and dinner with a varied, Spanish-influenced menu that goes from tapas and “revueltitos” to hot dogs and hamburgers. I have been going regularly since it opened, over two years ago, and find it one of the most pleasant and consistently good places to eat in the neighborhood. Last night was a typical experience.
Calling to reserve for 4 at 9pm, I was offered 8:45 with 15 minutes of “tolerance”, a testament to Primos’ ongoing popularity. My friends arrived before I did, and were seated at a table just inside the restaurant, overlooking diners seated on the outdoor terrace, which is extremely pleasant when the weather is good, with a view towards the tree-shaded pathway that divides Mazatlan. The restaurant was busy with almost all tables occupied by an older (35+) group of well heeled chilangos. We ordered drinks and a bottle of wine, a Spanish tempranillo/cabernet blend at a reasonable $MXP250. It was nothing special, but we weren’t there to drink anything special. For $MXP390, an Altos Las Hormigas 2006 Malbec would have been the better choice, despite the almost 300% markup from U.S. prices.
To begin, we decided on some appetizers for the “centro”. Patatas bravas, jamon Serrano and some Manchego cheese were quickly served, as was another bottle of the same wine, which we found improved with a bit of air. The four large, thick spears of crusty, fried potatoes were topped with a chipotle mayonnaise that one of my companions thought a bit too much in the heat department, although I found relatively tame. About fifteen wafer thin slices of aged Manchego went well (and quickly) with the wine, and the ham arrived glistening and moist. I didn’t try the ham, but the general agreement was that the appetizers were quite good.
My “tacos de dorado”, three flour tortillas, each with a piece of battered and deep fried mahi-mahi topped with chipotle mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and cilantro, were not what I was expecting or hoping for, although I must not have paid attention to the menu description. To my way of thinking, there is absolutely nothing like simply grilled fish in a corn tortilla, topped with salsa Mexicana, lime and perhaps a bit of guacamole, so I wasn’t prepared for anything other than that, but that’s just me. Fried fish is the norm in many places serving fish tacos, and once I got over the idea of eating “fish fingers”, I found them to be fine, if a bit heavy, and two were more than enough; the third went uneaten. I noticed my friend, who had also ordered the tacos, scraping off the chipotle mayonnaise, but she was the same one who had found the potatoes to be too spicy.
Another friend’s steak frites made her very happy, the meat also topped by chipotle mayonnaise, and we all had a taste of the frites, which were thin, crisp and delicious. The gnocchi with meat ragu was pronounced as “good”, although not with an excess of enthusiasm. We finished the meal with a third bottle of wine and no dessert.
On another occasion, I ordered the “frankfurter”, which was a large hot dog, grilled and served in a toasted bun with frites. Not only was it excellent, it was the envy of the table; everyone else having ordered something more “high end”, but lusting after my simple sausage. During my last visit, it was everyone at my table, including me, staring at someone else’s frankfurter, wishing we had ordered it for ourselves. It is quite seductive.
Mention also has to be made of the “revueltitos” and “montaditos”, two typical Basque appetizers, the first being scrambled eggs with a chosen ingredient (mushrooms, chorizo, cheese, to name a few available) served atop roasted potato. “Montaditos” are the same toppings, served on baguette slices. When last ordered, two slices of thick, doughy bread, topped with crushed fresh tomato sauce and lots of anchovy filets made an enjoyable “tapa” to begin the meal.
Nightly specials and monthly wine specials are listed on blackboards around the room. One of my favorites, the Dorado With 3 Chiles, almost always arrives perfectly fresh and just barely cooked through. It is prepared in a very spicy olive oil based sauce laced with both dry and fresh chiles and served with grilled asparagus and tomato on the side. For the most part, desserts are forgettable, so on those nights when I am not yet satisfied, I order a plate of cheese to finish the wine.
Primos has a lot going for it in addition to the above average (and frequently, way above average) food. Most people are there to have a good time and enjoy the pleasant buzz the restaurant always seems to generate, especially when the weather is good, the terrace is active and the guests are well into their second or third drink of the evening.
I find the service at Primos to be professional and very pleasant, although the waiters may get slightly harried at peak times and you will need to flag them down. When you do, their response is courteous and prompt. Prices are very reasonable…last night’s dinner for four, with a couple of drinks and 3 bottles of wine was in the $MXP2000 range, including tip. You can of course spend more…or less. A hot dog and a beer would set you back about $MXP100, and that is exactly what I will be ordering on my next visit.
Primos, Mazatlan 168, Colonia Condesa
Another celebrity chef exits Mexico after less than a year. I wrote an initial review of Nemi, the Michael Mina restaurant in Polanco in May of last year. I was back in June and not much had changed, although the food was marginally better and the service still superb. But it did not come as a surprise when I heard that Nemi had closed. I don’t know why it is that Mexico City can’t seem to support American celebrity chefs, but it probably has something to do with the chilango palate as well as their feeling about “American” food...I don’t have one Mexican foodie friend who really enjoys eating anywhere in the U.S. (Ok, a few like Le Bernardin). And to be fair, high-end chains like The Palm and now Morton’s, as well as all the lower end usual suspects (TGI Friday’s, Tony Roma’s, Outback Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.) seem to do fine. Maybe it is just that people object to paying astronomical prices for average food and wine when the name of the chef doesn’t mean anything to them. Can’t say I blame them. There is one place that serves “Contemporary American” that seems to be doing very well and which I love, but won’t mention by name because I don’t want to curse it. Fortunately, the chef isn’t a celebrity...yet. But if he keeps on putting out food like he currently does, he’s well on his way to being one.
Nemi was supposed to be the cornerstone restaurant of the new boutique hotel, Las Alcobas, due to open in February, but to the best of my knowledge, has not yet started operating. Also designed by Nemi’s firm (Yabu Pushelberg), rooms were published to start at $US450. Perhaps the closing of Nemi and the delay in the opening are coincidental, or perhaps not. These are tough times in Mexico for $US100 dinners and $US450 hotels.
NEMI (May 2008)
I recently returned to the DF after a 6 month leave of absence. The first thing I did was go back to the places I missed the most; Danubio and Contramar for seafood and Izote for Mexican (given the temporary closure of Aguila y Sol). All were excellent, and Izote, with which I have had an on-again, off-again relationship based on their inconsistency over the years, blew me away. The next thing on my list was to try the new Michael Mina restaurant, Nemi, which recently opened in Polanco. I went on a quiet Tuesday night with a Welsh-Canadian companion. At 8pm, we were the only ones in the restaurant, which isn’t surprising, considering this is Mexico. When we left at 10:30, two other couples were there, again, not surprising, since the restaurant had only been open two weeks.
The address of the restaurant is on Masaryk, however, the dark entrance is around the corner and a bit hard to find. Once found, I was greeted warmly and shown to my table, where my companion was waiting. The Yabu Pushelberg design seems as though they put their junior team on it, however, in all fairness, the coldness and lack of intimacy it projected may have been due to the emptiness of the restaurant and not the design itself. The restaurant itself it small…perhaps 30 tables, with no bar. We were offered a glass of complimentary sparkling wine while we reviewed the menu and wine list. I have been a fan of Michael Mina since he was the chef at Aqua in San Francisco, where many years ago I had one of the most memorable fish dishes of my life. I was looking forward to a similar experience at Nemi. Unfortunately, it was not to be had.
The menu, which is heavily seafood based, was nothing spectacular in terms of innovation or uniqueness, but the genius of Mina is in the execution. I plan to go back several more times and will report in detail on the menu offerings, but for the moment, will concentrate on what we had and our experience on this one particular night. The very pricey wine list, which is also nothing special, was heavy on the usual suspects, all of them good wines, but not in line with the offerings at Mina’s U.S. restaurants. It is understandable considering the difficulty in sourcing wines in Mexico and the Mexican preference for French and Spanish wines vs. U.S. and New World wines. We chose a 2005 Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos at $US65. It retails for about $US25 in the U.S. and tasted like a good $25 bottle of wine.
There were two options on the menu…a 7 course prix fixe menu at approx. $US100 or a 3 course menu at approx. $US75. We choose the 3 course option given that I am trying to eat less meat and the otherwise very accommodating and professional staff was not too keen on substitutions for the beef and chicken on the prix fixe. For appetizers, we chose the tuna tartare with habanero chiles and the foie gras 3 ways ($US20 supplement); for the main course, lobster pot pie ($US 40 supplement) and beef 3 ways.
The first amuse we were offered was a perfectly grilled scallop on a bed of perfectly bland vegetable/herb puree. Not a hit, but quite acceptable. The second was a selection of 3 small bites…lobster poached in butter (served cold, which seems to negate the butter poaching, and not a lot of flavor), a bit of fried lobster atop grain mustard sauce (very interesting, especially the sauce) and a third preparation that escapes me.
My tuna tartare was prepared tableside and served with Pan Bimbo (Wonder Bread) toast. While I appreciated the extra bite that the habanero brought to the dish, it was nothing above average, although there was quite a bit of it. I did not eat the toast. My friend’s appetizer was the hit of the evening…three bits of sautéed foie gras paired with three very sweet and different fruit compotes.. His beef was grilled as requested, three generous slices paired with mashed potatoes, a very small baked potato with sour cream, bacon and chives…the third preparation once again escapes me. The two bites I tasted, hoping for something along the lines of what Mina serves at Stripsteak in Vegas, were just ok and quite unimaginative. The beef quality was nothing special and not as good as what you can get in the better Argentine restaurants around town.
The biggest disappointment of the evening was the lobster pot pie, which I have loved at Michael Mina in both San Francisco and Las Vegas. The pie was presented tableside, the crust broken, then the whole lobster reconstructed and plated on top of the crust, surrounded by vegetables in a truffled cream sauce. The lobster itself was a large one, justifying the supplement, but stringy and overcooked. The vegetables were nicely done, but bland, and I did not detect any scent or taste of truffle whatsoever. The crust was boring and I left mine almost untouched.
Dessert was also disappointing. My passion fruit panna cotta was a waste of effort, bland and uninspired. The same molten chocolate cake with ice cream my companion ordered can be found in many restaurants around town.
The service was excellent; the friendly, English fluent staff aims to please and answer questions, obviously quite proud of their new restaurant. The maitre’d has worked with Mina in the U.S. and is upbeat and easygoing. We did not have the heart to tell the staff how disappointed we were, only that we would be back soon, which we will. While I did not pay the bill, I know that it approached $US200 per person, with one bottle of wine, thanks in large part to the supplemental charges, making Nemi one of the most expensive restaurants in town. I am hoping that in a short time, they get their act together and begin putting out dishes that are worthy of the Michael Mina name and the prices they are charging. They are clearly having a “soft” opening and getting their feet wet, and we were told that they have done no P.R. yet, save for a few efforts with hotel concierges. It would be a smart move to have someone very senior from the Mina organization come down here and supervise the kitchen until they get it right.
I have every desire to see Nemi succeed. The Mexico City dining scene needs more innovation and it would be great if more chefs like Mina would come to town. The city seems to be inflexible in what it will and will not accept, and unfortunately, the precedent for U.S. celebrity chefs is not good. Both Wolfgang Puck and Jean George Vongerichten have tried and not made it work; Spago closed after 3 years, and Vong after about 2. In its last few months, Vong lowered prices and “Mexicanized” its menu…it still didn’t survive. And both of them put out food that was excellent and true to their chefs from the beginning. Nemi needs some immediate improvement if it plans to stay around for long.
I was tired today from a long weekend. On Friday, I had some colleagues over for Chinese food and a lot of wine. It went late into the night. On Saturday, I recovered and watched movies at home, eating leftovers. Yesterday, I was invited for a traditional Sunday meal at my Welsh friend’s house, which meant lamb with mint sauce and roasted potatoes, among other things. And a lot of wine. The weather is perfect right now for some rose and white options in the sunny afternoon, before moving on to reds with dinner and sunset. And of course, there was the after dinner bottle to go with the Amazing Race. They were in Phuket this week, and I wanted to email all the contestants and tell them not to leave without trying the incredible local oysters at Kan Eang, but they probably have other things on their minds, like the $1 million.
This morning I hauled myself out of bed and went to work. At lunchtime, I picked up a baguette, thinking a banh mi with the leftover sesame pork from Friday would be perfect. But Mari hadn’t gone shopping, and we didn’t have carrots or any cilantro, so I just told her to throw together whatever we had. Turned out to be an excellent banh mi variation....with butter lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions on the crunchy baguette spread with 1 tablespoon of mayo and a squirt of Sri Racha. And of course the pork.
In addition to the bread, I picked up a bottle of Fuzion, an Argentine tempranillo/malbec blend at La Naval on Insurgentes Sur, where I also bought a can of alubias, white beans from Spain. When I got home from work, I opened and drained the beans, sliced some onions, chopped some fresh rosemary and parsley, and threw them all together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil with lots of salt and pepper. It took all of 5 minutes. I let the flavors meld for about 30 minutes. With what was left of the lunch baguette, dinner couldn’t have been better...or cheaper.