815 J Street, East Village
It’s weird that right on the border here, we’re so slow to catch up with the rest of the country on real Mexican cuisine. We’ve got lots of “Mexican” food but hardly any Mexican cuisine, compared to the ambitious, creative regional and nueva comida mexicana restaurants of New York, Chicago, Atlanta, et al. Our local region is Baja California (a cuisine that includes vibrant wood-grilled carne asada tacos, local-raised quails and venison, dry-aged Sonora steaks, fresh and smoked seafoods, etc.), but this side of the line, just try to get anything beyond fish tacos.
The nueva comida mexicana movement started in upscale resorts and particularly the deluxe Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, where talented (and often well-schooled) chefs are turning traditional Mexican ingredients into sophisticated creations. El Vitral is a new East Village showplace, helmed by chef Norma Martínez, and it’s all about that sort of urbane creativity. For my first dinner there, during Restaurant Week, I invited Sam, a Chicagoan whose palate has been happily spoiled by Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo Frontera Grill (a favorite of the Obama family). El Vitral’s Restaurant Week menu seemed an ideal starting place — the entrées were those I’d have chosen to order anyway.
The vast dining room has an open kitchen at the far end and parquet floors along the bar. The decor is modern, clean, suburban-shiny, and very red (walls, chairs, napkins, and the occasional patron’s face, right after the first sip of one of the spicy margarita variations). A vitral is a stained-glass window, and they have a few of those, too, over the bar. The wall to the patio is soundproofed glass that can be rolled up in good weather for inside-outside eating. From inside, with the glass down, you can’t hear the noise from Petco or even the mariachis playing for private parties on the patio a few inches away.
However, there’s some sort of bad music playing on the sound system inside. From my table at a second meal, just inside the patio glass of the dining room, we couldn’t hear any melody, just the thuds of the bass beat, like a mild headache. Who needs that in a room where, all around us, people were sharing platters, laughing, joking, and clearly enjoying each other’s conversation? Suggestion: maybe some Flaco Jiménez, Los Alegres de Terán, Lydia Mendoza, some classic corridos and norteño bands instead? A loop of the album Chulas Fronteras from Arhoolie Records would be a good start. (Yeah, that’s all Tejano, not Baja, but as far as I can tell, Tijuana norteño is mainly narcocorridos lately. Yet, even those would be preferable to thunk thunk.)
Sam, Jennifer, and I avoided the thunks by choosing a patio table to enjoy the last of summer, our toes almost touching Petco’s Park on the Park. The restaurant features an enormous selection of tequilas, and much of the cocktail list is given to margarita variations. The “Classic” was just okay. Sam chose the house specialty, a spicy variation called “The Smoking Tippler” (Cabo Wabo reposado, mango, chipotle syrup) — da bomb! Jennifer tried the “Fresa,” a pleasant tequila martini sweetened with puréed fresh strawberries. (A second dinner included additional spicy experiments, but “Smoking Tippler” still scored the highest.)
Our charming waiter sweet-talked us into trying the $13 off-menu Guacamole Trio. The three versions of the spread: one base-hit, one ball, one strike. The “tomatillo” version was the best — tart and complex, topped with a scattering of Cotija cheese and pepitas (small toasted pumpkin seeds). The “El Vitral” was amended with sweet fruits (mango and jicama) and soy sauce and was interesting. But the tradicional classic was a huge yawn, in dire need of a heaping spoonful of table salsa to liven it up.
But as we looked over our table, we remembered from an earlier review we’d read that El Vitral is a bit too hoity-toity to automatically serve salsa and chips like “lesser” Mexican restaurants, much less put a bottle of hot sauce on the table. No problem with no chips, but withholding the salsas not only seems chintzy but is a tactical error: At a subsequent meal, small portions of three different hot sauces came with one of the entrées, and all three were scintillating — a fiery coral habanero purée, a sneaky-hot green salsa verde, and, best of all, a sparkling “salsita,” aka salsa fresca, the classic home-style table sauce of minced raw tomatoes, onions, and chilis. That terrific trio — or even just the “salsita” alone — would be the best possible advertisement that El Vitral could make for itself, inspiring instant trust.
Restaurant Week appetizers: one triple, one strikeout, one comedy act. The surprise hit was a quesadilla, a world apart from the desperation dinners of starving students and vampire-shift scribblers. The coating of the empanada-sized packet wasn’t a folded-over tortilla but a light batter of cornmeal masa. The filling was a mixture of luxurious melted Oaxaca cheese with zucchini blossoms and a bit of huitlacoche (corn “truffles”). On the other hand, flautas de pollo were tough cylinders of rolled corn tortillas filled with a leaden mixture of dry chicken shreds and black-bean purée. They were nicely garnished with Mexican sour cream, Cotija cheese, and a pleasant chipotle aioli — but who cares for this fancy-shmancy stuff when, really, all the best flautas are just topped with a heap of good guacamole along with the crema fresca. Sometimes the old ways are best.
We were just talking about taking home raw oysters from Blue Water on India Street and giving them the N’Awlins treatment when the mahi mahi ceviche arrived, making me break out in giggles when I realized that the sauce was a sweetened, spiced-up variation of the Creole cocktail sauce served at New Orleans oyster bars — here, with puréed tomatoes subbing for NOLA’s Heinz cocktail-sauce base. Don’t eat that, eat this: the ceviche de camarón (from my second meal), tender shrimps in a roasted tomatillo, poblano chili, and citrus salsa, a charmer that came with thin, almost translucent house-made chips, not typical fried leftover tortilla triangles but made-from-scratch masa poufs. When you think of it, the variety and quality of house-made masa products (plus pastas and baked goods) coming out of this kitchen are impressive.