For one of those happy annual birthday obligations I took my old friend Howard out to Itzocan Café, an East Village French-Mexican bistro. The restaurant is quite small, seating 14 with a minuscule kitchen that miraculously holds two cooks and turns out some pretty good and interesting food. The scale of the place reminds me of a Lyonnais bouchon. The chef/owners are Mexicans from Puebla (I believe New Yorks Mexican community is majority Poblano) who had previously worked in the kitchens of French restaurants. They decided to strike out on their own with a fusion menu. Now I tend to be a fusion skeptic, but somehow new world cuisines fuse with European ones more successfully than do Asian cuisines, perhaps because most western hemisphere cuisines already have a European basis at the core. Ultimately, Id describe the food at Itzocan as Mexican-accented French, rather than vice versa.
The most rewarding item we tried was the sweet corn and huitlacoche souffle cake with truffle oil. This dish was incredibly sensual (bordering on erotic) in both taste and texture. A forkful, or a spoonful, of this light, custardy, but lighter than custard, moist, foamy concoction caresses the entirety of the mouth and gullet as it makes its inevitable way to the digestive tract. Its bouquet is at once complex and subtle, its mix of flavors a stroke of culinary genius, the sweet corn base providing a cozy bed upon which the aromatic huitlacoche and truffle flavors are allowed to have their way with each other. Huitlacoche, by the way, is a kind of fungus that grows on corn, and is a Mexican delicacy. So the dish is even a fusion of new and old world fungi.
Also wonderful, if not nearly so transcendent, was the grilled asparagus salad with Oaxacan cheese (a mozzarella-like white cheese) and mango, served with mesclun greens in a passion fruit vinaigrette.
The least successful appetizer was the queso fundido, a fondue of melted cheese, mushrooms, poblano peppers, and chorizo. Howards wife Pat hit the nail on the head when she described it as pizza topping without the crust.
For my main course I ordered the braised flank steak in Burgundy, with pasilla chiles, served with semolina epazote dumplings. Basically, were talking about a spin on boeuf Bourguinon, with only the subtlest chile accent. Epazote is a Mexican herb that if used liberally can have a musty taste, but used sparingly added an interesting, aromatic accent to the hearty, doughy dumplings. The serving was enormous, and though I quite enjoyed it, the heimish solidity was a bit of culture shock after the lithe souffle and asparagus appetizers. Next time I think Ill try the shrimp sauteed with aged tequila, lime juice and guajillo chiles.
Howard and Pat split the most interesting sounding dessert, the blue corn crepes with goats milk caramel. I had a taste. It was incredibly sweet, and frankly Im not a fan of goats milk products, including cheeses.
All in all the menu is audacious and largely successful. I applaud the proprietors for pulling it off.