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September 11, 2009


Crema de Zanahoria con Chile Ancho Dominic Armato

After the day's work was done, our mariscos lunch was happily digesting away and we were back on our own, thoughts naturally turned to dinner. My instinct, as previously mentioned, was to pick a street market and start chowing. And the idea of escaping the D.F. without sampling a taco al pastor seemed positively sacrilegious. But in deference to my traveling companion (who was warned he'd be thrown under the bus when it came time to post), we opted for a more refined affair that involved less walking. And I figured if we weren't going to take it to the streets, we might as well hit the other extreme. A short cab ride later, we were cruising into the ritzy Polanco neighborhood and stepping into Izote de Patricia Quintana.

Patricia Quintana, for many, will need no introduction. She's an ambassador of Mexican cuisine, once executive chef for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, founder of a Mexican culinary institute and multiple cookbook author who specializes in creative, refined takes on Mexican classics. This is one of the big guns of Mexican cuisine. And though reviews from the usual spies were decidedly mixed, it seemed the perfect choice for this particular evening, when comfort was a precious commodity. The restaurant is, indeed, comfortable -- very bright and spartan, white tablecloths and simple patterned murals that evoke the colors of Mexican art (not that I'm an authority on Mexican art). It's casual, but refined and carefully put together with a minimal sense of style. The menu's rather extensive, pushing fifty items not including sides and desserts, and unless we struck them as locals (which I doubt), it wouldn't be a bad idea to brush up on your menu Spanish before heading in. Though I'm sure they'd be more than happy to translate, that's a lot of text to get through.

Empanadas de TingaDominic Armato

We kicked off dinner with the Empanadas de Tinga al jitornate con cebolla. I'm still unclear on what jitornate is (and would appreciate enlightenment... *ahem*... Solange), but the rest made enough sense to make an order of it. Tinga is shredded meat cooked with onions and a deep, intense sauce with chipotles, often served on tostadas with cheese and avocado. So what we received was really a repackaging of the classic, with the sweet, spicy meat inside a delightfully crisp and puffy shell, atop an avocado and onion salsa with a chunk of fresh cheese (seen in the background, topped with crushed dried chile pepper) for good measure. A very enjoyable dish, top to bottom, as much for the empanadas' exceptional texture as for the full flavor of the meat within. And a stunning-looking plate, to boot. This would become a theme.

Tamales de QuesoDominic Armato

Our next dish, a collection of four tamales, tried to pretend it was rustic, appearing in an earthenware bowl, but it wasn't fooling anybody. Unfortunately, while perusing the menu I saw "Plato de Tamales" and missed the "de queso" which immediately followed, meaning that where I was expecting corn, I got cheese. Now I've nothing against cheese, and these were, indeed, quite cheesy. All but one of the quartet contained what was essentially a lump of gooey, melted cheese with a little accompanying component -- one with epazote (a distinctive Mexican herb), one with squash blossoms, and one with some manner of mushroom -- but the balance was so heavily shifted towards the cheese that, if blindfolded, it would have been difficult to distinguish one from the other. The fourth -- an actual corn tamale with chicken -- was moist and light and I loved it. For missing the queso, I take partial responsibility for my disappointment with this dish. But even so, I do wish the accompanying flavors had been more assertive. It could have taken simple cheese lust and made it something special.

Crema de EloteDominic Armato

We followed our starters with a soup course, and though I was initially dismayed when my dining companion chose the one I had my eye on, I think my Plan B turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was nothing wrong with his Crema de Elote, a creamy corn soup with a touch of chipotle and a lot of what I believe was nutmeg. But it lacked the intensely fresh corn flavor I'd hoped it might possess, and the spice -- nutmeg, not the chipotle -- was perhaps overly aggressive. The soup was more cream and spice than corn, and while tasty, it wasn't what I thought it could be. My soup, however, was excellent. The Crema de Zanahoria -- carrot soup -- was a special for the day, and hit the table a spectacular wash of orange surrounding a goat cheese-stuffed chipotle adorned with a handmade blue tortilla chip. Here, the focus was on the carrot, and the better for it. Sweet and intense, with just the right amount of spice and sourness granted by the accompaniments, it was an unusually excellent soup.

Mole Negro de OaxacaDominic Armato

Having watched Rick Bayless take down the Top Chef Masters crown just two nights prior with a Oaxacan black mole that brought James Oseland, Gael Greene and Jay Rayner to their knees, there was no way I was passing on Quintana's version. Sadly, this was the one dish of the night that was flat-out disappointing. The mole was intense, yes, but rather than subtly blending all of the many ingredients, it was completely dominated by an odd sourness that not only rubbed me the wrong way, but completely subjugated all of the other flavors. What's more, the meat it adorned wasn't even the least bit enjoyable. The matchstick cuts of duck were tough, dry and almost flavorless, as though the overcooked scraps of other dishes had been chopped up and buried beneath the most pungent sauce in the house. While I don't suspect Quintana's kitchen of such excessive frugality, the fact remains that this was not an enjoyable dish. I can't speak to its authenticity, and my frame of reference for black mole is admittedly small, but I've always enjoyed it until this particular instance. A huge disappointment...

Chile en NogadaDominic Armato

...that set me up for an absolute thrill. Chiles en Nogada is a dish that's long been on my must-try list, so I was positively tickled when I discovered that my visit happened to coincide with its rather narrow season. Chiles en Nogada is a holiday dish, made to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, and it's typically served only during the month of August and the first half of September. Doubling my excitement was the fellow at the concierge desk, who not only informed me of this fact (I thought we had arrived too early), but told me that it's a specialty of Patricia Quintana. And while I've never tasted a version other than hers, if he's correct, this is indeed a signature dish to hang your hat on. The chile in question is a poblano, which is stuffed with a picadillo made of pork, a mixture of spices including a healthy dose of cinnamon, and a number of Pueblan fruits that usually includes apple, pear and peach. This filling is potent stuff, simultaneously fruity and meaty with a dizzying mix of spices, and the chile that houses it is in a perfect state of limbo, cooked enough to coax out a little sweetness and make it a little tender, while still maintaining much of the raw green flavor and a hint of its original body and crispness. The walnut cream sauce, more of a paste in Quintana's version, is sweet and nutty, almost like a savory frosting, and the entire package -- served cold, by the way -- is buried under a handful of pomegranate seeds and a bit of fresh parsley. I was, quite simply, blown away. It's such a stunning dish, so striking and unusual, so full of vibrant flavors and so flatly contrary to what most people in the States believe constitutes Mexican cuisine. It flirts the sweet and savory divide, it plays with your expectations of texture and temperature, it's all wrapped up in a package that symbolically represents the flag of the nation whose independence it's celebrating, and all intellectual appeal aside, it's freaking delicious. If a typical version is half as good as this one, it's not hard to see why this dish is considered a national treasure. This dish was magical.

Really, Patricia Quintana could have served me five courses of chips and salsa leading up to that dish, and I would have left happy. But if I try to set my joy over the Chile en Nogada aside for a moment, I understand why reviews of Izote are so mixed. We really ran the gamut of good and bad, and I can see how dish selection could cause you to leave walking on a cloud or wondering what the heck this woman did to earn so much acclaim. If I were to go back (though that could only be after some serious exploration of the rest of the city), I wouldn't want to do so without first doing some serious research into which dishes thrill people and which don't. Some people call Izote grossly overrated. Some people call it a don't miss. I'm not sure that I'm in either camp. That is, unless it's between August 1st and September 16th and the Chile en Nogada is on the menu. For those six weeks, "don't miss" doesn't begin to cover it.

Izote de Patricia Quintana
Av. Presidente Masaryk 513
Col. Polanco
11560 Mexico City
55 / 5282-3262
Mon - Sat1:00 PM - 12:30 AM
Sun1:00 PM - 6:00 PM


Gotta keep this in mind for next year. Thanks!

Hey Dom - are you familiar with the economist, Tyler Cowen? Your posts on Mexico remind me of some of his work:

I’m going to talk about this for a moment. For me food paradise actually is regional Mexican cuisine. If you go to Mexico, here’s a picture of Mexican food, but I mean something really more particular. In Mexico, they are called comedores, and comedores are very small, if you would call them restaurants, are more like food stalls, typically the cook is a grandmother, and most Mexican cities have these comedores, and they serve food very cheaply. Essentially, it is the recipes of the grandmother, served to people during the day who are in the middle of working, and they don’t have the time or the ability to get home for a home cooked meal. So, they go eat at a comedore.

A single dish would cost maybe a dollar, or dollar fifty. And I’m a crazy man, I’ll go into the comedores and order five dishes. They look at me like I’m crazy, or they think, when is your family coming. But family is not coming, sometimes it’s just me. I order my five dishes, I don’t finish them all, but I have had a really remarkable meal for five to ten dollars, and that, to me, is food paradise, this idea of Mexican regional cuisine. If we looked at what went into regional Mexican cuisine, we find that it is competition. So these comedores, there might be dozens, or a hundred or two hundred under the same roof, we’ll find that there is experimentation, and also in Mexico we will find that there is very much pride. The consumers in these comedores are ordinary Mexican families, who are typically not wealthy, and the cook, of course, tends to be Grandma or the mother.

It’s interesting how different comedores are from Mexican food in this country. If you look at the Mexican food in this country, a lot of it, of course, is not eaten by Mexicans at all. It is eaten by Americans. But consider the Mexican food eaten by Mexicans. Well, who are the Mexicans, for the most part, who are currently coming to America? They tend to be fairly young, and they tend to be male. So take a group of young men, say ages eighteen to twenty five, put them together in large numbers and let them eat. What do you get? Well, some of it is quite excellent, some of it is not so great, but you get something very different than the native cuisine. Let’s say you performed this thought experiment with France. Take a million Frenchmen, male, ages eighteen to twenty five, bring them to the United States, let them loose, have them eat. You are not going to get classic French cuisine. So actually this kind of migration is a way that diversity spreads. Mexican food in this country, is very different from Mexican food in Mexico. In Mexico, every region is different. There are dishes that will be in one village that won’t be in the next village. And even in different parts of the United States Mexican food is taking very different paths. But anyway, that is my idea of a food paradise.

Heheh, you knew I'd be reading this one, eh?

"Jitomate" is nothing other than a plain old tomato. It is thought the Aztecs were the first to domesticate it, and their word for it was "xitomatl", which later became "jitomate" and then "tomate". As far as I know, it is only in Mexico that it is still called jitomate. Other hispanophones use tomate, and tend to find the word funny.

As for your meal, I've never eaten at Izote, and though it sounds like it wasn't as consistent as it should for its reputation, you certainly made the right choice ordering a chile en nogada.

When people ask me to name one favorite mexican dish I invariable say chiles en nogada. It is unique and its seasonality (is that a word?) makes it always a special-occasion deal. I dream of my mother's version and always plead to her to make me some when I visit.
It is also a dish that is very easily made wrong, if restaurants skimp with the walnuts, the picadillo ingredients, or worse, make it with a breaded chile (common sin to bulk it up, makes it horribly greasy).

You no doubt had a high end chile en nogada and that alone should make it worth it missing the tacos al pastor. Next time, the street food tour. :)
(btw, I am always happy to give recommendations for that, if you do have plans to return).

I had a chile en nogada at Xochitl in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, this is where Jen of seitan fame now works. It was really a neat dish--doesn't sound quite as good as the one you had, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Solange, my main question would be ... how to make a great authentic chiles en nogada? I know it's a bit late, but I'm curious.

Allison, I have tried to get a recipe from my mom, but she doesn't have one. Her answer is always: help me make them and you'll learn. :)

By now I have a good idea of all the ingredients, but haven't prepared them by myself ever to know that the proportions are right.

I would say, an abridged version:
The filling is made with both ground beef and ground pork, cooked with almonds, raisins, dried apricots, acitrón (a candied cactus, not essential ingredients, and basic seasonings like onion, garlic and herbs. The key of the dish lies int he layered flavors of the filling, and recipes vary a bit.

The poblano chilies are roasted to a slight char, then left to sweat in a plastic bag to sweat. After that the thin though outer skin can be peeled off.

Chilies and stuffed and covered in the nogada, which is the sauce. Nogada is made with thick cream (not sour cream, more like whipping cream), a bit of sugar (you don't want it to taste too sweet, just a touch), salt, pepper and FRESH walnuts. The fresh walnuts is key, but I have known my mom to make them with dried ones when she can"t get the fresh ones.

Top with pomegranate seeds.

Voila! Chiles en nogada!

I guess if I can name the ingredients I should give it a go and make them, eh?

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