Monday 14 March 2011

Mestizo, Euston

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?


Mestizo on Urbanspoon


Joshua said...

I went here once years ago and ordered the mole, didn't find it very pleasant at all, far too sweet and sickly. As it's the only time I've eaten mole though I can't tell if this is how it is meant to be.

Anonymous said...

Do the Mexicans eat Mexican in a fine dining restaurant? No.
So why should anyone else want to?
Most o this stuff was designed to be eaten on a street or slopped on a plate for the family.
It just doesn't work. A bottled beer - a plastic plate to match plastic chairs - some pulled pork tacos. That's better.

Laissez Fare said...

Have you ever tried Taqueria? It was nearby where I used to live and was pretty consistently good, and they have a good weekday lunch (and brunch) deal if memory serves me right.

Anonymous said...

Actually arbaggs, the Mexicans eat there a LOT. I live practically next door and the place is often packed with Mexicans spilling out onto the pavement! (well, they all seem to smoke, that's why they're on the pavement)

Despite living next door, I'd never actually eaten there until I went on the spur of the moment last night. The menu prices, which seemed a little high, had always put me off. And the fact that none of the other bloggers had reviewed it!

I had a really nice meal there actually - I wasn't very hungry so I just had some fish tacos and tortilla soup, but both were really nice. My friend had enchiladas and I think she enjoyed them. She also had the crepes for dessert and I had a few bites - they had caramel sauce and walnuts and were quite nice - though they were swimming in far too much sauce.

The service was really friendly too.

Krista said...

Topolobampo, Chicago = Gourmet Mexican. Gringo chef but Mexican staff that he takes to Mexico every year so they can enhance the menu regularly.

March menu =

One Michelin star

Kavey said...

I went to Mestizo not long after they opened, quite a few years ago now. Following a tip off, we stuck to their smaller dishes and we were fairly pleased with those... I think the prices have gone up since then.

I don't really do Tequila but I understand they have one of the best and widest selections in London...

I didn't bother returning, I must admit. Although our meal was OK, it didn't stand out particularly and I didn't love the seedy location, even though I worked close by at the time.

Patrick Wilkinson said...

Mexican food can be very gourmet with iconic dishes like 'chiles en nogada' and 'mole poblano' supposedly first cooked by nuns in order to impress guests of honour to their convents.

I think part of the issue is that these dishes can be so time consuming (and require so many ingredients that can be hard to get hold of over here)that Mexican street food is a far more viable option.

It's a shame because as delicious as tacos and tostadas are traditional Mexican cooking can offer dishes to rival French Haute cuisine. Some moles are ridiculously complex with 30 to 40 ingredients including several different varieties of chile.

Anonymous said...

I walk by here regularly too and can confirm that it's often full of Mexican customers (couples & families), which I don't think can be said of any other Mexican restaurant I've visited around London. They have a Sunday brunch that seems popular and run events for the various national holidays. Not sure why I've never tried it, actually!

Mexican food is absolutely one of the most wonderfully complex, diverse cuisines in the world and the fact that it's reduced to burritos and tacos this side of the Atlantic is utterly depressing. For me, it's easily on the same level as the most interesting French, Italian and Chinese cuisine.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't suggesting that Mexican's don't eat here, more that trying to dress up a taco as fine dining seems pretty pointless to me.
Anyway - I'd love to go to topolopobongo. Looks amazing.

Huey said...

I found the exact same thing while dossing around Mexico for a few months a couple of years back. Almost every time we ate in a sit- down restaurant it was a pale imitation of what we got on street stalls. Wealthy Mexicans do eat in posh restaurants - alot - but seemed it was status and not the food that brought them in.
We were driving and some of the best tacos were from roadside truckstops - the best mole however - Oaxaca food market - the number 1 destination on my culinary teleporter.

Unknown said...
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Matt said...

"Perhaps, at the risk of being controversial, there is no such thing as "gourmet" Mexican food?"
I'm pretty sure the word 'Mexican' doesn't need to be in that question.

Hollow Legs said...

What is that grey-green slop served with the tortilla chips?

Chris Pople said...

Laissez Fare: No I haven't but I'll try and get around to it eventually!

Krista: Very good find, that illustrates what I think of when somebody says "gourmet Mexican" perfectly.

Lizzie: God knows. Didn't taste of much.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm Mexican and there is gourmet mexican food. Check that was awarded the number 32 restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino.