I was playing around on Open Table when I noticed a new restaurant listed: Colibri Mexican Bistro. What? A Mexican place? in SF? on Open Table? The Open Table description says that Colibri "features a traditional and diverse Mexican cuisine. The complex flavors from the kitchen are complimented with creative drinks, selected Tequilas, beer and wine..."
Hmmm....Did a quick check on Chowhounds: it seems no one had been, though I found one post asking about it before the thread veered off to the merits and design of Sears Fine Foods. Did a web search and found out that Colibri is brand new (only open two weeks), that the Chef (I think he is also an owner but not sure on that point) used to cook at Boulevard, and that his roots are in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Found out that a Colibri is a type of hummingbird...I read that one of the specialties was shrimp in mole de Tamarindo .
Ok, hadn't I just been moaning to hubby about why the heck was it that we lived on the edge of the Mission and yet couldn't find a decent Mexican restaurant that served a decent margarita? Hadnt hubby been experimenting to perfect his own margaritas based on a very simple yet good one wed had at Fonda in Albany (killing time before our dinner at China Village)? Hadnt I just been trying to answer his question the night before as to how I might use tamarind in a dish, after he tasted a tamarind candy? And anyway, wasnt it just too darn hot to cook? The stars were aligned, someone was trying to tell me something, or it was just plain good luck, but I grabbed one of many empty spots on Open Table, and we headed downtown .
Colibri is on Geary a few blocks west of Union Square. It is an attractive space in the Hotel Diva: there is a long narrow room next to the bar (which is where we were seated) an open kitchen, and a small, square room in back. Not a big place and it filled up quickly while we ate. From the voices around me, there were lots of visitors to our city, as there were on the street. The place is pretty: lots of wrought iron and mirrors; soft lighting and candles. The bar has a quite impressive display of tequilas and other bottles: our server told us they have over a 100 varieties of agave tequilas .A Mexican movie was playing on a large flat screen above the back of the bar; with English subtitles. Rather annoying Latin New Age music (is there really such a thing?) was playing much too loudly. At some point they switched to much more tolerable, but still too loud, salsa.
We were seated promptly and brought menus. I wasnt thrilled with our table in the front room: it was along the wall and fairly small, though not as close to neighboring tables as those at, say Cortez located one block up Geary. Now for the bad news (IMO): Colibri is yet another small plates place. Let me state for the record: I am not a fan of small plates, especially in places that otherwise see themselves as dinner destination restaurants, and that dont understand the concept of sharing. I mean, what is the point of small plates when one is seated at a table where sharing is difficult because it is barely big enough for the diners plates and perhaps one more?
Ok, I decided to get over it and order. But first drinks: we ordered two house margaritas, which are made with Blue Agave tequila, fresh squeezed lime juice and sugar: no more or less. They were excellent; more inspiration for hubby.
Next, we were brought a trio of three salsas and some fresh corn tortillas wrapped in a napkin. The salsas were a spicy green tomatillo sauce, a red adobe sauce, and a mild mango salsa. I could do without the mango, but the other two were excellent with a reasonable amount of heat.
And the tortillas: these were some of the best tortillas Ive had in recent memory. They were probably the best Ive had at a restaurant in San Francisco. Hubby thought they were the best hes ever had, but then when it comes to things Mexican, hubby doesnt get out very much. (I will agree that they were as good as any I had in Morelia on my last trip, which also happens to have been hubbys one and only trip to Mexico, a circumstance I am hoping to change). But I digress: the tortillas were freshly hand-made and warm! Of course they were gone in a flash, but the server brought more, commenting that she was happy to bring as many as we wanted, that we should ask when we wanted more, but that the reason they only bring a few at a time is that they make them fresh for each serving and like them to be enjoyed while still hot. No kidding .
Did I mention yet how good those tortillas were? Did I also mention that no chips were brought with the salsas, which I find to be actually a sign of authenticity (to serve tortillas, not chips) They dont charge for the tortillas and salsa by the way (I kept flashing to the $2 charge for chips and salsa at Mijita: what a travesty!).
Ok, back to the food at Colibri: first we had plates from the appetizer side (this is another aspect of small plates places I dont get: if you are going to divide it into appetizers, sides and mains as the Colibri menu does, why not just serve decent portions, not call it a tapas-style place, and be done with it? Just seems like an excuse to make the portions smaller and charge almost as much )..anyway, we ordered guacamole and ceviche. The guacamole was made tableside from one and a half avocados (so it certainly wasnt a small order), chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh onion, lime juice, jalapenos and cilantro. They asked if we wanted it mild, medium or spicy: we asked for medium and though the server spooned in a fair amount of what appeared to be jalapenos, it wasnt very spicy at all. No matter: it tasted very good inside of those tortillas, with a spoonful of the green salsa. The guacamole was good, but not something I would probably order again, since obviously I could make the same exact dish at home without any trouble .
The ceviche was served three ways: basically the same type of mild, white fish in three different marinades. The fish had the right mouth feel, but the flavors of each preparation were someone bland, and not really different from each other. It came with a small plate with about eight chips. This is one dish I dont think I would order again.
After the appetizers they cleared and brought us clean plates and more tortillas (yeah) along with a second round of drinks. This time the drinks tasted a bit too sweet, though at least it was just from a touch too much sugar and not corn syrup.
Our next two dishes were cordoniz (quail) en pipian, and camarones (shrimp) in mole de tamarindo. The quail was exactly one little bird (at least they gave us a sharp knife to cut it in half to share), in a nutty, complex green pumpkin-seed mole. The mole was rich, the bird was tender, not overcooked, and flavorful. It was served with tiny slivers of carrot, zuchinni and potato. I would have liked a few more bites to really judge the dish, but overall I'd have to say it was a success.
Ditto the camarones in mole de tamarindo. The shrimp were cooked to the correct degree of doneness, served with tails on, in a subtle, slightly vinegary tamarind sauce. The dish was served with a corn cake that was slightly dry but nice to mop up the sauces. Five shrimp to a serving. Tasty, but not as complex as the quail.
We debated whether to also order carnitas, one of the more mainstream items on the menu, but refrained in favor of dessert, a decision I regret.
At this point, watching dishes coming out to neighboring tables, I begin to think we might have ordered wrong. First of all, the menu lists several side dishes, including Mexican rice. Our neighbors dish of rice was quite generous: I recommend ordering one for every three or so persons to round out a few small plates. A neighbor also ordered the carnitas, and it was a reasonably large serving, with some type of salsa and grilled green onions, and it looked and smelled wonderful! I hope one of you other Chowhounds will try it (as we should have) and report back!
Dessert; Hubby had a fruit 'tart', which meant a thin coating of stewed fruit on a crispy base that resembeled a flour tortilla. He liked it, I thought it was too heavy on the cinnamon. I had a crepe con cajeta (caramel sauce). Both came with vanilla ice cream. By contrast with the cinnamon bite of the tart, my crepe was rather bland. The dessert menu also had some interesting after dinner drink choices, including Agavero, a tequila liquor.
If there was a wine list, I never looked at it. Definitely a place and style of food for margaritas, or perhaps a mojito.
There were a few service glitches, but they were very minor, and certainly less than I would expect from a restaurant that had only been open two weeks. The major service problem was that our server didnt know the menu very well, (it was difficult to get her to give us any real any sense of how much food we were ordering), but that weakness is presumably largely a function of time, so it should improve. She also brought the bill while we were still eating our desserts; a minor but annoying last touch.)
Total cost: with four house margaritas, four savory dishes, two desserts, all the wonderful tortillas we could eat, tax and tip, was $101.
Verdict: Im not sure.
Yes, obviously it was quite pricey, but this is Union Square, after all, and I thought the food was better, room more attractive and prices comparable, to Cortez in the next block. Perhaps that proves that I am not very hip.
However, while I was full when we left, I didnt feel quite satisfied. I didnt have the pleasantly stuffed, slightly buzzed, maybe even just a bit stoned feeling that really outstanding Mexican food gives me .This is not the great Mexican find I have been searching for endlesslessly and in vain. Sigh.
However, I will go back: partly because I am not sure we ordered well, and Id like to try again now that I have seen the menu once. I will also be back because Id like more of those tortillas. Id be happy sitting at the bar, trying the tequilas and munching on the tortillas.
But I would be happier yet if they gave up the small plates format.
I would really like to hear from other Chowhounds on this one. Personally, I think the place has much potential, and is worth a closer look.