I've lived in Mexico and eaten Mexican food for nearly twenty-five yearsthe good, the bad, and the ugly. Everything from nacho fries at my favorite Southern California greasy joint to the most hyper-ethnic comal-roasted gusanito has been tasted and tested and frequently prepared at home (no, I haven't home-roasted a worm--yet).
Exceptexcept that last Friday night in Mexico City I dined at Patricia Quintana's Izote, where the celebration of corn is raised to new heights and 'authentic' takes on a completely new meaning. *Tradición, sazón, and alta cocina mexicana* combine here to give the diner a transcendent experience.
The room is intimate and lovely. At eight o'clock in the evening there are only two other tables occupied. We ask the waiter to take his timewe are in no rush, although we're quite hungry after our day-long trip from Guadalajara. He brings a half-gourd filled with assorted breads accompanied by several salsas. The deep red is picante and tastes of the marvelous chile mora. The green, a salsa cruda, is aún más picante and is heaven. The other red, paler in both color and taste than the first, doesn't reach the same level of superb.
We order wine: Casa Madero Shiraz Reserva (Mexico) that is rich, smooth, and full in the mouth.
We study the menu. The waiter hovers a little too close, and we tell him again that we are in no hurry. Ready to order, we ask for the *plato de tamales: de queso con epazote, de flor de calabaza, de cuitlacoche, de chanchimitos, de pollo con jitomate*. We also request *sopecitos de camarón a la mantequilla de chipotle*. We ask the waiter to leave the menus so that we can order our meal a bit at a time.
The tamales are tiny, two bites each, and perfect, the masa plumped like pillows, the fillings stunningly different from one another in textures and flavors. It's hard not to be greedy; I want to taste everything again and again. The queso con epazote is salty and savory, the pollo con jitomate is slightly ripe-tomato sweet, the flor de calabaza tastes of green things growing. The cuitlacoche tastes of deliciously seductive mystery.
The plate of sopecitos arrives, enough for each of us to have two. Each tiny masa saucer is filled with puréed bean, topped with shrimp, and sauced with chipotle. The combination is at once earth and sea and smoky spice; it works better than anything I've eaten anywhere recently. It's hard not to grab the plate and slide toward me! me! me! They are that delicious.
The waiter comes to remove our first course plates and I order *sopa tarasca de frijol bayo*. This soup, which I've eaten in a dozen Michoacán restaurants and frequently make at home, is one of my favorites. I have to taste Chef Quintana's version. The presentation alone is celestial: the shallow bowl is sectioned into a pile of tiny cubes of white cheese, a pile of shredded, hair-fine, golden fried tortilla strips, and another pile of crisp-fried deep maroon ancho chile shreds. The waiter holds a jarrito of hot soup high above the bowl and pours it over the garnishes. In a moment the cheese begins to melt and I eat. After twenty-five years of sopa tarasca, I taste its full potential for the first time.
The room is filling up. A table of young people behind us is ordering margaritas in a rainbow of flavors: black raspberry and tamarind lead the list. Plates of exquisitely presented food go by our table to other diners: what was that? And what did they order? And who is that elegant woman at the table next to ours, the woman who is autographing that stack of CDs?
Now it's time for the hardest decisions: the main courses. One of my companions orders the *cordero al vapor en hoja de plátano con salsa borracha, salsa de chile mora, salsa verde cruda, y salsa de chile ancho con jugo de naranja y tomatillo de milpa con chile de arbol*. The other companion orders *pechuga en hojas de aguacate con calabacitas rellenas de hongos de la temporada y magdalenas de zanahoria*. I am torn, torn, torn, but finally order *filete de res al comino con salsa de guajillo y verduras a la plancha*.
Of course we share. The cordero is steaming hot in its banana leaf, opened at the table, and its bursts of flavor flood my mouth. I try it with each salsa and prefer the chile mora, which perfectly complements the slight gaminess of the moist, tender meat. The pechuga tastes the way only Mexican chicken can: juicy, rich, flavored with the avocado leaf and sauced with an unidentified but perfect sauce. The calabacitas are the wee round onesthe size of golf ballsthat I've only seen here in Mexico, with the tops sliced off, the insides scooped out, and stuffed with chopped mushrooms. The magdalenas are carrot-orange and the ideal foil for the rich chicken. My filete arrives perfectly (I know I've used 'perfect' over and over again, but there's nothing else to call this cooking) medio rojo, the salsa de guajillo drizzled over it. The filet is perched on a thick slice of grilled onion and topped with a mound of perfectly (!) cooked spinach. There are a few pieces of new potato at the side. Again, I want to hoard every bite of it.
The waiter clears our plates and deftly slips a new white cloth onto our table. *¿Postre?* We don't want to miss anythingwe are already joking about coming back again the next night. As one of my companions said, "I'm too full already, but dessert goes to another stomach, right?"
She orders *natilla a la vainilla de Papantla con bolsita de chocolate rellena de trufa y frutas del bosque*. My other companion orders *pastel de marzapán y chocolate blanco*, and I order *tarta zaachila de chocolate con nuez, helado, y cajeta*.
The rich, creamy natilla is served in a soup plate, dotted with fresh red raspberries, with two chocolate truffles in the center of the bowl. One is white chocolate and the other is milk chocolate. The pastel de marzapán is a tiny cake, two inches high and an inch or so wide; it's pure marzapán, covered with white chocolate and decorated with two white chocolate leaves. The little cake is sauced in some sweet heaven. My tarta is in a double crust, drizzled with cajeta. I cut into it and it oozes thick, hot, black streams of sweet chocolate that mingle with the buttery cajeta and the ice cream at its side.
There's no way we can finish this excess of dessert. There's no way we can resist licking our spoons one last time.
Dinner for three including wine: 1475 pesos, approximately $130 USD
Would I do it again? In a DF minute.
Presidente Mazarik 513