Sunday, August 5, 2007

Eagle and Sun


“Bueno, hi, I have reservations but we went to your old location and we are running late. Where is your restaurant located?”

“Mumble-mumble Louis Vuitton store.”

“Uh, what is the name of the street? At the corner of what?”

It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning to our dinner at the imposingly named Aguila y Sol, meaning Eagle and Sun. Neither Erin nor I are big on white tablecloth restaurants—A) we don’t have the money, and B) we’re too busy slurping saucy foods in places with plastic tablecloths. But Erin suggested we check out one of the nueva cocina mexicana restaurants in Mexico City that are all the rage, and Aguila y Sol had gotten rave reviews. It also turned out she was plotting to treat me to dinner.

Nueva cocina mexicana refers to the trend of young chefs in Mexico City taking Mexican dishes and playing with them, perhaps adding a non-Mexican ingredient or two, but ultimately celebrating the existing complexity of Mexican food traditions, or at least it seemed that way at Aguila y Sol. It reminded me a bit of trendy dim sum in Hong Kong, where the chefs keep the cuisine dynamic and alive, but without creating a gross fusion mess.

For those of you who know Seoul, Polanco reminded me exactly of Apkujongdong. Unlike Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue, Polanco isn’t filled with gawking tourists, just very wealthy Mexico City residents who have the option of shopping at Louis Vuitton one moment, and then going upstairs to eat at Aguila y Sol the next. Everything was new and glassy.

The dining room at Aguila y Sol felt a little chilly, with slate-blue velvet high-backed chairs and cube-shaped vases that looked they were going to tip over. Erin reflexively tried to right it as soon as we sat down. The vase glowed with a mysterious, lime-green light, and when it was removed, the mystery was solved—each table was lit from underneath. It wasn’t a hip young place, despite the cutting-edge reputation of nueva cocina, and I felt out of place in my sundress and espradrilles. Everyone else seemed to be hosting American business partners. I eavesdropped on the American catty-corner from me and felt sorry for the waiter, as the American clearly just wanted an Omaha steak.

But then the food started to come, and it stopped feeling quite so removed from the Mexico I knew. The busboy grinned at us, conspiring with us in staging photos of the food, and the margaritas started to relax me. Rimmed in pink sugar with a carnation just sitting on top, they were presented with thought but with more happy festivity than the cool modern design of New York.

Similarly, our cebiche came in a bright red pail with a jaunty chile stuck in it, perfectly crispy and non-greasy potato chips, and a little anthill of red salt. Tender, delicious, slightly picante.

Our other appetizer would have tasted just like high-end broccoli-cheese casserole, but for the mind-altering salsa de chile pasilla. They were little buttery turnovers made of huauzontle, a long stalky green vegetable with broccoli-like florets. It made Erin nostalgic for the food of her Midwestern youth. It made me realize how much chile pasilla could improve broccoli-cheese casserole.

And we ate too much of the bread basket, but how could we resist trying each of the six different rolls? One was filled with mole negro, another the softest, most comforting white bread with pink sugar on top, another spicy, another cheesy.

The entrees were, surprisingly, the most impressive, though sadly we were too full to give them due respect. We had a filet of huachinango or red snapper in the spicy Veracruz-style, with peppers, onions, and slivered almonds. Perfectly cooked, every grain of rice in place in its pyramid.

But the best was the “pollito en leche” rubbed and served in an achiote sauce. It was a small little bird, probably squab, that may have been marinated in milk, giving it an almost creamy tenderness. Achiote paste, according to Rick Bayless, is “spicy-complex without chile,” and “not spicy-hot,” being made only of achiote seeds, allspice, black pepper, oregano, cider vinegar, garlic and salt. I can’t compare it to anything, because it was unlike anything I’d had before. It was a crime that we could eat so little.

The tortillas, though, almost outshone the entrees. They came multi-colored and multi-flavored, with the perfect balance between toothsome chewiness and toasty crust. The tortilla basket included the only flour tortilla I have ever truly loved.

Erin was leaning against dessert, but I persisted. The special was a mousse of cajeta, the goat’s milk dulce de leche, and the waiter assured us it was “pequeno.” Ha! It came in a freakin’ glass mug nestled in a spray-painted gold cornhusk. I loved how over the top the plating was, and even more how light and fluffy, and yet rich the mousse tasted.

It really was too much. And then, good God, we had our petit-fours plate. By then, I was drunk on both the food and the tequila. I think I just mindlessly popped whatever they were, corn cookies and tamarind jellies, in my mouth. We took some gleeful photos with the busboy, who forced the very correct waiter to join in, and then we rode away into the night, feeling like beached whales that had somehow gotten into a taxi in Mexico City.

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