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.