Monday, 14 March 2011
After Buen Provecho, you'd think that I could call off my search for good Mexican food in London and declare Mission Accomplished. And I would have happily done that - believe me, I have no burning desire for any more soggy tacos or £7 guacamole - had I not, in a fit of pique at some point during the Cantina Laredo debacle, booked a table at Mestizo, a smartish restaurant near Euston that certainly has a greater claim to be the first "gourmet" Mexican in London than anywhere else. There's that word again - "gourmet". Cantina Laredo claimed it was "gourmet" seemingly just because they had a huge amount of front of house staff and marked up ingredients by 1000%, but the food itself was decidedly homestyle. Would Mestizo do this label justice? We started by ordering a "classic" Margarita.
Quite... orange, for a Margarita, isn't it? The chunk of lime floating about in it wasn't fooling us, either - there was more to this drink than lime juice, tequila and triple sec - it was remarkably sweet and not particularly pleasant - and on flagging a member of staff down we were told "Oh yes, sometimes they put orange juice in it. Would you prefer one without?". Well, yes, I would actually. So, soon after I was presented with a "classic classic" Margarita, which still managed to be overly sweet and not particularly nice. Oh well, perhaps the food was better.
Fortunately, it was. Well, the small dishes were. This Gordita was a new one on me, a kind of fried corn pancake thing filled with pabellon - shredded beef with a tomato/chilli sauce. Crunchy on the outside, not too greasy, and containing a decent amount of moist beef, it was a very good example of what street food can be - pleasant texture contrasts, edible without cutlery, tasty and addictive. At £4.50 it wasn't hugely expensive either.
At £7.20 however, these flautas (fried taco casings filled with chicken), despite being reasonably appetizing were still just presented as street food and couldn't really justify the markup. The lovely tomatillo sauce and sour cream was the only thing making the rather straightforward chicken filling worth the effort, and although crunching through the crispy taco tubes was admittedly quite fun, this was quite a bit of money for not a great deal of food.
And I know Buen Provecho is literally a street food stall and doesn't have anywhere near the overheads a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in NW1 has, but their pork pibil tacos were one of the best things I've eaten in months and cost £2.50 for two. Here for £6.80 you get a similar amount of admittedly very nice (but not as good) slow-cooked pork in orange and achiote sauce on slightly soggy (at Buen Provecho they blister the casings on the hot plate first so they go nice and crispy at the edges - not here) tacos. Easy to enjoy, and disregarding value for money and presentation very nice indeed, but hardly bargain of the century. I will, however, put in a special word for the black beans and sour cream that came with all the dishes, which I couldn't get enough of - almost meaty in its depth of flavour, which must be the greatest compliment you can pay to a vegetable side order.
There was a bit of confusion over the mains. We had initially ordered the chicken mole and pork medallions, but although the chicken arrived matching its menu description and with a familiar black tar of thick mole, the pork looked suspiciously like another dish on the menu - beef medallions in chipotle. What raised our suspicions was the topping of melted cheese which wasn't part of the description of the pork at all. We queried this of course, they took it away, then brought it back saying it was, after all, the beef. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but not being in the mood to wade through half a pound of melted cheese after three starters between two of us, they agreed to take it away and leave it off the bill. Judging by the chicken, though, we weren't missing much. The mole was incredibly sweet, almost dessert-like in its sugary chocolate coating, and the chicken was, although not dry as such, pretty tough. Not very nice at all I'm afraid - though I don't claim to be the world's biggest mole expert I'm fairly certain it's not supposed to taste like Chicken Fudge Sundae.
Our meal at Mestizo got me thinking, though. Are we doing Mexican restaurants in London a disservice - and in the case of Cantina Laredo are they doing themselves a disservice - by expecting anything to be "gourmet"? The best dishes at Mestizo were the starters, all fresh and exciting and unpretentious, and ignoring the prices for a moment there's nobody would feel cheated by the presentation or treatment of ingredients in the gordita or flautas or pork tacos. It's good street food, and it's tasty and enjoyable and accessible; the problem is, you are not eating it on the street. And though Mestizo may have good intentions, after table service and tableware and all the bits and pieces that go along with running a central London restaurant in 2011, before you know it you are sitting down to a street food snack of a couple of tacos, only on a plate, and being charged £7. I just don't see the point.
The frustrating truth is, if you stuck to beers and the smaller dishes and turned a blind eye to the prices, you could have a genuinely lovely meal at Mestizo. The stuff they do well they do very well, and the stuff they don't do well is easily avoided. But experiences at Mexican food outlets of all kinds over the last couple of years have only gone to confirm my suspicions that certain cuisines do better in a restaurant environment than others. I wouldn't want to eat jerk chicken off fine china on a white tablecloth, I don't need silver service to enjoy my fish & chips, and nice clean toilets and a table by the window is not going to convince me it's worth paying £7 for tacos. Perhaps, at the risk of being controversial, there is no such thing as "gourmet" Mexican food?