By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Mexico wants you to know: It's not all about the Corona.
At the recent Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, the country sponsored a media luncheon titled "A Sublime Feast." The purpose was to "introduce" members of the press and restaurant industry to both the elements of Mexico's cuisine and the elegance of its wines.
That's right, its wines. According to Mexico's best-known sommelier, Pedro Poncelis Jr., who co-moderated the event, the country's Parras Valley is home to the North American continent's oldest vineyard, the 405-year-old Santa Barbara. Although that claim might be an unbelievable stretch for strict Dos Equis drinkers, it makes sense if you think about it. Following Christopher Columbus, the Spanish settled/invaded the region. Naturally, they brought their grape varieties, such as tempranillo and criolla, with them. After all, the Jesuit missionaries needed to make sacramental wine. What's enforced conversion without a little vino to wash it down?
Now the Mexicans have a new mission, which is to impress the global culinary society with its hitherto-unknown products. Personally, I could have done without the computer-generated slide show that had pictures of avocados dancing around like the proverbial jumping beans. Not to mention co-moderator Cristina Arechavala's dubious insights into the cuisine, which amounted to statements like "Corn is very important to Mexicans. We eat a lot of corn." Rick Bayless, celebrated chef and authority on Mexican cuisine, sat next to me with a face as straight as a Fort Lauderdale police officer's, so I could only imagine his boredom.
Still, the Food & WineMagazine Classic was a good start for the press to taste the Monte Xanic Viña Kristel and the Casa Madero Merlot, paired with chef Guillermo Gonzalez's outstanding corn and cuitlacoche cream and the goat cheese-stuffed chipotle chile. Meanwhile, in the tasting tents, the 5000 or so conference attendees could sip the Vino de Piedra while munching on items like chicken stewed in mole and wrapped in ice cream cone-shaped corn tortillas. I was impressed by the quality for value of the white wines -- they retail for under ten bucks -- and was suitably satiated by starters such as scallops with cabuche escabeche(marinated cactus flowers). In the end, my only regret about sipping and nibbling through the "Sublime Feast" was that it pointed out all the more the failures of Las Palmas, a giant tiki hut of a so-called gourmet Mexican eatery in Hollywood that I'd visited before flying west.
Would that owners Jorge Ambar and Tony Provenzano, along with chef T.J. Tan, had boarded the jet, bumpy as a construction zone on I-95 in Palm Beach though it was, with me. (Don't even ask about the commuter flight from Denver to Aspen.) Or even a short trip to nearby Mexican haute cuisine restaurant Eduardo de San Angel. I think they would have learned that merely carrying Mexican vintages on their wine list isn't enough. The bottle of Cetto Sauvignon Blanc that we'd ordered was so corked, we regretted tasting it. In fairness, my chef-friends tell me that it's hardly ever a restaurant's fault that a wine is spoiled, that the voyage the bottle takes from winery to distributor is usually to blame. But I do sometimes hold the servers responsible, especially when a normally pale-gold or straw hue of a certain varietal looks piss-yellow through the clear glass and when they say things like, "Yeah, I thought the bottle was bad when I saw it."
Our waiter made good by bringing us a Chilean vintage, twice as expensive, and charging us the original amount. I wish he'd looked at the wine glasses before laying them out, however, as mine was obviously chipped on the lip. It also would have been nice if he'd brought the chips and salsa, which other tables received, before disappearing for 30 minutes. We requested them from a floor manager, who looked around and said, "I guess all the waiters have gone to the bar next door." (Read: Le Tub, Taverna S'agapo, Taverna Opa.)
On second thought, since the chips were soggy and the salsa tasted as if it had been doctored with sugar, perhaps we would have been better off without it, along with most of the meal. An appetizer of scallops sautéed with chilies boasted uniform shellfish that looked as if they'd been stamped out in a factory and tasted not just bland but near spoiling. Another starter, billed as bacalao, was not dried and salted codfish at all but a fresh fillet, seasoned with cracked black pepper and served over a green pea purée that resembled the mushy pea side dish of British-pub infamy. Somehow, I just can't hear Arechavala intoning, "Peas are very important to Mexicans. We eat a lot of peas."
Nor were entrées much of an improvement. Although a snapper Veracruz offered a fresher flavor than the scallops and was nicely flavored with a peppery tomato salsa, a chili-rubbed rib eye was a gastronomic insult. The steak appeared as if it had been hacked by the knife-wielding maniacs in the Screamtrilogy instead of neatly butchered, and an overly smoky aroma bespoke of dirty grills that a too-sweet mole couldn't mask. A billed side dish of avocado mashed potatoes, which frankly I had my doubts about anyway, had been unceremoniously replaced with roasted sweet-potato segments.
Along with wine and ingredient fusing, a stint in Aspen also would have taught the team at Las Palmas a little something about food prep: Only certain items, like taco shells, for instance, should be made ahead of time. Deep-fried ice cream, American invention that it is, doesn't qualify for that status. The whole idea is to serve it right out of the fryer, with the outside hot and crisp and the inside cool and melting. Cooking it ahead of time and re-freezing it only allows the crust to get chewy, especially when it tastes to begin with as if it's made of stale tortilla chips.
Indeed, even the Intracoastal view and sea breeze-infused exterior of this eatery could probably not tempt me back. Whereas the Food & WineMagazine Classic at Aspen is a can't-miss experience for this reviewer, it should also be for local restaurateurs, who would gain exposure to thousands of willing guinea pigs.