I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues: Azul Condesa
The long anticipated opening of the Condesa branch of one of the city’s finest Mexican restaurants, Azul y Oro has happened at last. The original, on every Mexi-foodie’s ‘must try’ list, serves up well-researched and expertly prepared regional Mexican fare. The baby of chef/culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and named after the eponymous college colors, it’s located in the cultural heart of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México). Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource (hard to find, but soon to be re-published in a new edition), as well as other attractive cookbooks.
So it was with edacious anticipation that I trotted over to the Condesa hot spot to try it out. Unfortunately, after two visits, I left singing the blues. Azul retains the same mouth-watering menu as the campus original. Added is a touch of uptown pretention. Perhaps the new hoity-toity context leads to harsher judgment, but too much of what I ate missed the marks. Beautifully presented, but under-seasoned and lackluster food was the order of the day.
The menu, the same or similar to that of the UNAM restaurant, offers Mexican standards redux as well as lesser-known regional specialties. Seasonal menus are offered: right now Veracruz is being feted with ‘Alma Jarocha’.
The new venue gets an A plus for ambience. Set in Ligaya’s old multi-level space it’s clean and slick, white with touches of blue and warm wood, and a jungle-covered wall in back. Sunny by day, warmly lit by night, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Ambient music is adult and mercifully set at low volume. Before ordering, comfortingly warmed but forgettable bread is served – and nothing else. No salsa, no butter, nada. Missing are those lovely crisp tostadas and interesting salsas I remember from the venue down under. So we ordered in a hurry.
The tamalito de acelgas (a tamal stuffed with swiss chard and fresh cheese) is comforting, but the savory crema de cilantro soup, one of my favorites at the other establishment, was served tepid and overly thickened. From the special menu came the mellifluous mogo mogo, or stuffed plantain. A pasty mashed plátano macho housing a one-dimentional picadillo and cloaked in a light tomato sauce disappoints –more thought went into arty presentation than flavor. Likewise, tostadas de bacalao betrayed a reticence in seasoning.
Much better was a simple, traditional ceviche de pescado; it was well balanced and fresh as a daisy.
Standard ‘international’ salads are good, for those who want something light – the pear and blue cheese is generous and perfectly dressed.
Another ‘greatest hit’ from downtown, theravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, (here morphed into buñuelos) is a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark smoky black Oaxacan mole. It’s still good, if a bit decadent.
Moving on, the only standout I sampled from the main menu was the pipian blanco: a tender chunk of pork is expertly seared and grilled, bathed in a light, ground toasted almond ‘pipian’ sauce and sparked by jazzy capers and green olives. It’s pretty, and it works - the subtle flavors and textures smoothly blend like Sinatra with strings. But the gustatory peaks stopped here. An ‘arroz a la tumbada’, from the Veracruz menu, was misconceived. “Where’s the rice?” my dining companion queried, recalling that old burger ad. A deep brick-red broth (to which more fire could be added), drowns a mini dose of seafood, while the elusive rice hides at the bottom. And it’s the wrong kind of rice--a more absorbent variety like Arborio would have given the dish the body it lacked. Jim’s enpipianadas were better, the creamy, nutty, jade-colored sauce a nice complement to the little chunks of sweet shrimp wrapped in house-made tortillas. But the shrimp were barely perceptible, the sauce trumps everything else. And the fish tikin-xic, borrowed from the Yucatecan school of heady red sauce shmeering and grilling, lacked bite and (again) was barely warm.
Desserts are good and worth the calories. A tiramisu was rich and sweet but not cloyingly so . On my ‘don’t miss’ list is still the hot chocolate –made either with milk or water, the chocolate itself comes from Oaxaca and is a special blend containing 30% almonds.
There is a decent but pricy wine list – most options are well over $400, and some ordinary vintages are priced at a whopping $95 per glass, seemingly out of proportion with food prices, which remain reasonable.
The Condesa is sorely in need of a good Mexican restaurant and Azul tries to fill the gap. It seems however, that the populist and accessible aspect of the original venue have been dropped in favor of the usual ‘uptown’ swank and trendy aspirations of this part of the metropolis. Cushy ambience and lovely presentation are no substitute for subtle and smart preparation. I sincerely hope that laurels are not being rested upon and that the staff will put more focus on its fare. I felicitate chef Muñoz et al, and recommend Azul Condesa, but with reservations – and you will need them.
Nuevo León 68
Tels. 5286-6268, 5286-6380
Open Monday-Saturday 1-12PM, sunday until 6
Azul Histórico, the new venue, is set in a lovely colonial patio at Isabel la Católica 30
*A note to my readers: See my recent post, a love letter to Egypt: www.planetgoodfood.blogspot.com
Don Cuevas February 4, 2011
We almost dined there on Sunday, but our better judgment prevailed, and instead, we made a picnic in the Parque México. I'm happy to wait patiently until Azul Condesa gets its act together Saludos, Don Cuevas
Hugo February 5, 2011
I did not much care for the food at the unam place, but what I really want to know is what happened to Ligaya!
MP February 5, 2011
I like that you call 'em as you see 'em.
Steve February 14, 2011
Love that you had the balls to be critical of Ricardo's new place. He's such a sacred cow! Good for you.
Anonymous July 27, 2011
There are many who say that it's unfair to judge a restaurant within its first three months of opening (or similar timeframe). Have you been back?
Nicholas Gilman replies: I am somewhat skeptical of the '3 month' leeway for restaurants. While I am forgiving in terms of service and smoothness of operation - I know that takes time, I am less so when judging food. If they can't get it right when they open their doors, then they're not ready to open. I did go 3 times. I have not seen a published review either online or in print, English or Spanish that hasn't been glowing - makes me suspicious. There is little or no critical restaurant reviewing in Mexico. While you'll notice that most of my 'reviews' are good, that is because I am not paid by anyone and choose places I like, only seldom writing about places I don't care for, when, as in this situation, their fame or importance calls for it. But I have heard mixed reviews from the (very) few people I trust about food who have been to Azul more recently, so, for the time being, my opinions, above, stand. I hope I can change my mind.