Friday, May 6, 2011

High Five

I know Cinco De Mayo was yesterday, but I just can't help myself.  I love Cinco De Mayo.  Any reason to drink a margarita in the middle of the week is okay in my book. In fact, if you are looking for the perfect libation to celebrate again, perhaps this weekend, this day of liberation go no further.  Go here.

In a nutshell:  Cinco De Mayo is the day when the Mexican people took back their country from the French, the best army in the world during that time period.  It was 1862 and the United States was in the throws of the Civil War unable to help their neighboring country.  Outnumbered two to one the Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Pueblo.  They held their own for a year, and then the French took the nation.  But not for long.  In 1867 with our help Mexico was finally independent.

The story of the underdog always intrigues me.  When we were recently in Mexico we had an extraordinary meal at a restaurant named Cetli in Tulum.  The meal was extraordinary in two ways: 1. It was comprised of incredible indigenous ingredients used to create artful, delicious, contemporary plates of food, and 2. Everything was cooked by one person in a kitchen alone, a young woman named Chef Claudia Pèrez.  Cetli had been recommended by the owner of the property we rented and its menu looked fabulous online so I thought it would be a great place to bring Chef.

We eat when we travel.  We eat a lot, and I always do my due diligence in choosing the restaurant, or food stand, or food truck, or whatever it may be that is going to give us the most authentic experiences.  One of the things that really drew me to this restaurant was this dish: Tililtic

Shrimp with huitlachoche, a.k.a. black corn fungus.  I read a review on TripAdvisor that talked about this dish in particular and it really intrigued me.  You may be thinking why black corn fungus?  It is not a phrase that jumps to mind when you think of delicious, but what can I say.  As I mentioned last week in my fascination with microfungi yeast, I have a thing for mushrooms.  I have yet to meet one that I didn't enjoy, one way or another.  This huitlachoche did not disappoint.

When Chef put this in his mouth his immediate thought was the genius behind this 'surf and turf.' The shrimp nestled in this stew of black corn fungus was a perfect composition.   The flavor balance was exceptional, the rich earthiness of the huitlachoche grounded the briney, sweet taste of the shrimp without overwhelming it in the least.  This was our first course of the evening and it set the pace for the rest of the night.

I sat with my back to the kitchen.  The kitchen no bigger than the little closet we work out of at 29 South. Chef had the view of the chef through a screened window in the dining room.  Exceptional female chefs are a rare breed, and this woman Chef Claudia Pèrez is in a class all of her own.  Not only did the woman prepare every dish for every customer by herself that night, but I also spotted her at the sink scrubbing away.  It was a two woman show,  just the chef and a lovely server.  It takes some cajones to run a restaurant of that caliber in such a manner.  Big cajones.

This woman's food is more than memorable.  This dish here,  the house specialty, Chile en Nogada
I will hold it in my heart forever.  Poblano chili stuffed with minced beef with pineapple and raisins, covered with white nut and chesse sauce sprinkled with granada and coriander.  Served with a side of white rice sweetly steamed in a corn husk. A.k.a. perfection.

Like the Mexicans on that fateful day in May, or a chef far outnumbered by her customers, there is something to be said for those working against the odds and coming out on top.  The victory of the underdog is one to be celebrated by all.  This weekend, make this margarita and toast to it!

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