Fine Dining @ Fonda Fina
When I named my book: ‘Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining’ I hoped to turn “fonda” into a household word. It means roughly what ‘bistrot’ or ‘trattoria’ imply, i.e., a humble, homey, downscale place to eat. Chef Roberto Santibaniz has since opened his Fonda in Brooklyn to great acclaim, so New Yorkers are alerted. And here in Mexico City, the term now encompasses something new with the arrival of Fonda Fina just down the block from the recently gussied up Plaza Cibeles. Fonda Fina’s publicity tells us that “…we are an homage and a throwback to the origins of our home cooking.” This smartly appointed wood and tile spot, done in the obligatory retro style, nods knowingly at its down home neighbors, but the emphasis lies more on the fina than the fonda. That’s because the menu was designed by esteemed chef Jorge Vallejo of Polanco’s tony Quintonil. Vallejo is a disciple of Enrique Olvera, having worked in Pujol before he struck out to become a star chef in his own right. His menu is cutting edge and utilizes local ingredients both exotic and familiar. He strives to take home-style flavors to a higher level. Vallejo’s cooking reminds us that simplicity and hospitality don’t have to be at odds in haute cuisine.
While Quintonil’s dishes tend towards the quixotic, the chef’s choices at Fonda Fina are fairly down to earth and well executed by talented and personable chef Juan Cabrera. They may not be what you’ll find in your local comida corrida joint, but there’s heart in this food, and creative indulgence stays safely at a distance, opening the door to a smart, accessible repast.
From the ‘nixtamal’ section of the menu, which offers dishes that normally would be referred to as antojitos, chefs Vallejo and Cabrera do some very nice things with earthy heirloom corn brought in from Querétaro and the State of Mexico. Peneques, a seldom seen specialty of D.F., are small quesadillas, filled with tangy fresh requesón cheese, dipped in light batter and fried. They’re served with a Pueblan pipian sauce. The combination of earthy flavors, corn, pumpkin seed, and chili works well, but the texture sags a bit--a little crunch would be nice.
But the stage is set for better acts to follow. A blue corn memela (an open masa base, cousin of the sope) topped with cecina (salt-cured beef), pomegranate seeds and jicama chunks which provide a cooling respite from the meaty proceedings—is simple and fine. The pork belly sope I adored on one occasion was, the second time around, all fat--I couldn’t eat it. More care should be taken in the kitchen.
Corundas, those fresh corn tamales from Michoacán, are here done bijou-style: little pyramids of steamed blue corn are lovingly plated with a dab of crema and pretty pickled vegetables that offset the light sweetness. Yes, and yes.
The menu offers optional accompaniments for each plato fuerte, and “your choice” of several sauces. But I’m no fan of democracy when it comes to food. I’d rather have the chef make the decisions for me - he knows better than I which sauce should go with his creations. I’ve walked out of Thai restaurants that do “green curry with your choice of chicken, beef or fish.” These carefully chosen and executed salsas don’t belong with all four dishes and I'm not sure why potential mismatching is left open.
That said, thin slices of meltingly tender lengua (tongue) served with a complex wild mushroom sauté and a fruity, dark adobo (chef’s choice, not mine) was divine—I’ll go back again and again for that dish. The milanesa de pollo is as good as it gets, crispy fried pounded chicken with a light, fragrant crust--but the complex salsa that accompanied it took center stage, leaving the star flailing helplessly in the wings. For once I’d like to see less rather than more; those annoying little dots of sauce that drive me nuts in some restaurants would actually work here. Even more complex grilled dishes follow, such as buttery pulpo al pastor, whose tart pimiento and pineapple marinade smartly offset the delicate octopus. Or there's perfumy chicken marinated in guava leaves and agua miel (the sap of the maguey). Very nice. Good wines and artisan beers are well chosen, prices purse-friendly: a prix fixe of $160 MN will soon be offered.
This is not really a fonda--it harbors a chef in cook’s clothing. The trappings may recall mom and pop, but the reality is Modern Mexican. The kitchen is new, edges are rough, the cooking needs fine-tuning. But Fonda Fina, already a hot spot amongst the Roma/Condechi cognoscenti, promises to deliver the goods. Give it some time and the dust will settle.
Medellín 79, Roma Norte; view map
Open Monday - Saturday 1-11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.