Monday, 4 March 2013
Mision 19, Tijuana, Mexico
The trajectory of a high-end restaurant is very often the same. Open in a blaze of publicity with unrealistically low prices, parachute in all the best front of house staff you can get hold of just as long as it takes for all the eager early-doors critics and bloggers to write positive reviews, then once the hype dies down, jack up the prices and lose all your most expensive employees (and head chef). Then bring out a book.
As a blogger I'm often criticised for only visiting restaurants once in the first few weeks than never again, but if the alternative is having a slightly mediocre overpriced meal somewhere that used to be better, can you blame me? A representative experience is all well and good, but this is my money I'm spending (usually) and as I've repeated plenty of times before on these pages, going anywhere hoping for a bad meal (note: "hoping" is not the same as "expecting") is a recipe for disaster.
The good news, though, is that at least one fancy-pants haute cuisine joint, instead of sitting back on its healthy collection of glowing reviews and bringing a book out, has actually considerably improved over the last twelve months to become one of the most exciting and memorable meals I've enjoyed in a very long time. The bad news - for Londoners at least - is that the restaurant in question is in Mexico. But I thought it was worth a proper report here because Mision 19 really is good enough to bother crossing continents for, and because as many people as possible need to know that Mexican is one of the truly great world cuisines of the 21st century.
We started with a mini burger. Which was weird. Fortunately, this was the only thing that was less than spectacular, so it's easily ignored, but you still have to wonder what it's doing opening a tasting menu that was so accomplished in every other regard. A slightly stale bun, a bit of beef, some guacamole and I think some cheese. Pointless but hardly offensive. Just weird.
Normality was restored with this dainty bit of pickled tomatillo and radish. Attractive presentation on a little marble rock, and some powerful and recognisably Mexican flavours.
Beetroot and oyster doesn't seem like the most obvious match but this was actually a very clever frothy sweet beetroot salsa of some kind, on top of a raw oyster. The natural soiliness of beetroot was toned down by whatever they'd done with the dressing, and the oyster still managed to be the main flavour. Sorry about the photo - attempted a couple with flash on (we were in a sort of private bit near the kitchens so weren't annoying too many people) with even more disastrous results than normal.
A dish that had impressed us so much last year was even better in 2013 - a sort of scallop guacamole concoction served in a tall clear glass, with all kinds of different textures, colours and complimentary flavours. We particularly enjoyed an incredibly powerful blob of concentrated mushroom jelly lurking somewhere in the mix.
In fact, mushrooms of many kinds featured heavily in the menu that evening. It must be the time of year - Chef Javier Plascencia, credited with being a key player in the current resurgence of Tijuana cuisine and a fierce proponent of that international foodie buzzword "localism", and will use as many ingredients from nearby producers as possible. This next dish contained a good variety of fungi alongside some abalone, something I'd never tried before due to its prohibitive cost in most European restaurants. It was very good - firm but not too chewy, with a pronounced sweet flavour.
This risotto, too, came dusted with a layer of dried mushrooms which gave it a rather odd appearance. The flavour, though was incredible - one of the best risottos I've had the pleasure of eating anywhere in the world, ethereally light and perfectly seasoned and 3000 miles away from the stodgy savoury rice puddings that your local high street Italian would serve, both literally and figuratively.
Served in a very attractive glass bowl was a kind of deconstructed pork tamale, with pickles, herbs and ground corn. Pulled pork (sorry, "carnitas" as we're in Mexico) was moist and packed with flavour and it all made absolute sense as a portion of high end comfort food.
If you think this beef course looks good, if you think that looks like the most perfectly charcoal-grilled chunk of medium-rare sirloin, accompanied by some crispy confit shoulder and two gently blackened pieces of romesco broccoli, then you'd be right. It was good. But it was also way better than good - the kind of quality of beef I've had perhaps only once of twice in my life and always from Goodman steak restaurants in London or certain high-end joints in New York. Where other dishes at Mision 19 had been a balancing act of sourcing and technique, this pared-down presentation (just, after all, meat and two veg if we're being completely reductive) displayed a huge confidence in the product, and it's a confidence that was completely justified. A stunning dish, a highlight amongst highlights.
There were eight on our table that night, and so for dessert, rather than anything so prosaic as a soufflé and a couple of macaroon each we were treated to a full-size version of every dessert on the a la carte menu that day. I won't bother going into detail on them all - I can't, for one thing - but a strawberry and dark chocolate tart went down particularly well, as did a selection of Baja California cheeses.
I'd like to end it there, with eight very happy people rolling back across the border to Southern California stuffed and under $100 a head lighter after plenty of wine and some very good house cocktails. For that is indeed what happened. But I'd be doing you all a disservice if I didn't mention the one only real drawback of dinner at Mision 19, enough to lose them a couple of C&B points - the often shoddy service. For a place aiming at the heights of international gastronomy - and for the most part hitting a bullseye as far as the food on the plate is concerned - I would have liked wine glasses topped up (or at least letting us do it ourselves instead of keeping the bottles annoyingly out of reach), more effort made explaining the dishes (in English or in Spanish; we had a couple of fluent Spanish speakers but even they struggled with the rushed and mumbled descriptions) and more attention paid by the staff generally, who seemed to much prefer being huddled around the reception area chatting than clearing used cutlery, bringing water and so on.
But this is something for them to work on, and is by no means a situation that is cursed to continue. I distinctly remember a first visit to Can Roca back in 2007 which suffered from very much the same service issues even while the food was earning international attention, and even today it still has the odd Catalan moment. It's annoying, but somehow inevitable in the grand order of things, that the brilliance and individual talent of a chef like Javier Plascencia can be let down in formative years by the apathy of front of house staff, but give it a little longer and I'm sure they'll catch up. And when they do, there'll be no stopping them.