A home-run at first swing: our entrée of Enchiladas de Pato (duck-filled enchiladas). The fresh-tasting house-made tortillas were small, light, and faintly sweet. The filling mingled pulled duck and a hint of chopped apricots, and the coral-colored chili and Cotija-cheese sauce was sweet, suave, a bit spicy. The enchiladas were miniature, but the portion was generous — six of them, made to share.
Our other two entrées were good ideas, imperfectly executed. Mole Poblano had a rich, complex, dark sauce, sweet and moderately spicy, but wasted on desiccated chicken breast. “What’s the deal with chicken breast in mole this side of the border?” asked Jennifer. “What’s the Mexican cultural norm for chicken, for that matter?” asked Sam, comparing this dry version to the moist Italian-style paillards he’d just eaten at Piatti. “Mole was designed for turkey,” I said, “back in the day when that was a wild bird and mostly dark meat, before the guajalote chicks started looking at cosmetic-surgery ads in the papers and getting their chimichangas enlarged…I can’t imagine why restaurants use chicken breasts, when thighs are more like turkey plus cheaper, easier to cook.” “And moister,” added Jennifer.
On my second visit, I tried the sauce again in Fettucini con Pato en Mole, pulled duck with apricots and crunchy cashews, served with tender house-made fresh pasta. Dark, enticing duck meat worked much better, and since the whole concept of the dish is a little nutsy, those cashews fit right in. The sauce seemed spicier, too. The combination made for a giddy, sensual mix of flavors and textures.
Back at Restaurant Week: Ravioles en nogada is a cute idea. The original chiles en nogada is a dish celebrating Mexican independence day with the colors of the flag: dark-green poblano stuffed with a fruited, minced- (or ground-) beef stuffing, topped with white walnut cream sauce scattered with scarlet pomegranate seeds. Here, instead of chilis, are house-made pale-green pasta pockets (incorporating chile poblano purée) stuffed with beef and fruit, topped with the classic white walnut sauce drizzled with pomegranate reduction. It’s near-great, except that the pasta wrappers were too thick, undercooked, chewy — a long fly to the outfield resulting in a double, not a homer.
An out-of-the-ballpark hit came with a simple dessert of cinnamon-fragrant mini-churros — crisp outside, fluffy-soft inside — with a ramekin of coconut sauce for dipping, gooey and sybaritic but not cloying. The other two Restaurant Week desserts were bad and worse: a coarse empanada de ate con queso (a small, thick dough-shell filled with Mexican cream cheese and jelly) and a horrendous brownie, glutinous enough to pull out your tooth fillings and sweet enough to leave new cavities. The espresso was above average, served hot and fresh with dessert, as requested.
“Would you eat here again?” I asked my friends. “No,” said Jennifer. “For this type of upscale Mexican food, you can do much better at Candelas. Maybe even at El Agave — although I have to admit I haven’t been there in years.” “Not yet,” said Sam. “Their chef has great ideas, but the kitchen has problems with execution. The food is interesting but not consistent.”
Obviously, our Restaurant Week meals wouldn’t make a fair assessment — the place still felt too new. So I came back nearly a month later with Samurai Jim and Fred. We ate different dishes (no more chicken breast…in anything!), and they were all better than the first try. Either the Restaurant Week menu wasn’t well chosen or the kitchen has matured rapidly.
Along with the shrimp ceviche (described earlier) we started with callos de hacha, a trio of big, beautiful local (Baja) scallops cooked tender-done. Each was set on a pedestal of a small quesadilla (again made with fresh masa) filled with barbacoa (pulled braised beef with citrus juice) and topped with a juicy square of fresh, seared nopalito cactus, the whole mixture dressed lightly in cilantro vinaigrette. It’s a bold, unconventional combination, not entirely harmonious but arresting — and delicious. All three of us agreed we’d love to eat these again.
This dinner’s great glory was crema de elote con poblanos — creamy corn chowder topped with streaks of poblano chili aioli. Its sensuous, primal comfort had all three of us batting our eyelids and smiling like happy infants after each spoonful. By the way, budget-watchers, it’s very filling: for $8, you’ve got most of a dinner.
For another ten bucks, and for the hell of it, I ordered a fish taco as an extra appetizer: a small, thin, house-made corn tortilla wrapped around a generous portion of tender beer-battered mahi mahi chunks, fully dressed with salsa verde, crema fresca, Mexican cole slaw, and chipotle aioli. Hurray for that: I hate DIY fish tacos, ’cause it’s not my native cuisine, so how the hell is an exiled nuevayorquera-frisqueña gabacha supposed to know how to dress these exotic Baja things? We were all surprised by its excellence, the fish treated respectfully and garnished well and proportionately.
Half the reason I came back was to taste the Cochinita Pibíl, a Yucatecan dish that inspires me with profound ambivalence and forlorn hope. It’s a great culinary idea that usually turns out dry and horrible, even (or especially) in the dreary restaurants on the central plaza of Mérida, Yucatan’s “county seat.” The original: a suckling pig marinated in spices and sour orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-baked in a fire-pit. Well, not lately. There’s an even more common restaurant version in Mérida, pollo pibíl, featuring dried-out chicken. When my then-husband, his cousin, and I went to Chichen Itza and discovered at lunchtime that there were no food vendors in the park, we decided we should open a pollo pibíl stand among the ruins and call it “Itza Chicken!” (Cousin Peggy later topped this with an even better pun: In the woods behind the ruins, we discovered an abandoned single-gauge railroad track. “Pardon me, boy, is this the Chichen Itza Choo-Choo?” she sang.)
At El Vitral, the moist, tasty, orange-flavored pulled pork-shoulder shreds (seeming more a mixiote than a pibíl) were served atop a banana leaf for form’s sake and garnished properly, traditionally, with pickled red onions. So, it’s not wholly authentic — it’s better.