Poleo: Oaxaca Goes Modern
Cosmopolitan as our great metropolis may be, the gastronomic presence of the 32 states has always been lacking. Oaxacan cooking was, until recently, sorely underrepresented. So it's a great thing that this past year has seen the inauguration of two new venues for this, the most elaborate of Mexican cuisines. While the previously reviewed Pasillo de Humo venerates the down-to-earth, homey, abuela-made qualities of Oaxacan cooking, Poleo takes it to the fine dining level of subtle sophistication. They are not to be compared, rather they’re two sides of a gastronomic coin.
Poleo quietly opened its doors on leafy Avenida Amsterdam a few months ago. Its kitchen is in the adept hands of Rodolfo Castellanos of the state capital’s Origen. He happened to be elected Top Chef Mexico last year and the judges chose well. This chef possesses the rare ability to combine, utilize and be inspired by ingredients that call to him from the market while remaining firmly rooted in the essence of a recipe, never losing sight of tradition. The restaurant, named for a type of mint used extensively in the region, features dishes whose titles will not surprise but whose presentations will. Essential ingredients are trucked in from the south - the rare dry chilhuacle chiles, chiles de agua, chocolate for example. The rest is chosen from the cornucopia that the capital has to offer. And vegetables are bought from the chinampas of Xochimilco whenever possible.
Chef Castellanos, who tends to his kitchen a good part of each month, explains that, “Although we have moles and other familiar dishes, this is not a traditional restaurant. The difference is not so much in the recipes, but more in the presentations and combinations. For example, we do not combine the black mole with things that normally are used in Oaxaca - right now we serve it with duck breast and roasted fruits instead of the classic turkey and rice. But the flavor-base is important for us, the herbs. We wanted to bring the tastes of Origen to Mexico City, so even many of my staff are from Oaxaca; I’d call this contemporary Oaxacan.” While the chef may fool around a bit, toying with pairings and artsy presentation, he maintains a solid respect for the Oaxacan kitchen.
On a recent visit, a starter of pancita seca al carbon marinado en chintextle sounded less than appealing to me and the other 3 diners in attendance. But, the ordinarily chewy, strong tasting tripe was rendered supple and smoky and the unusual chintextle pepper it had been marinated in added a somehow verdant, piquant note. Delectable. One of us claimed she “never likes pancita but I LOVE this one.” We were off to a good start. I was also skeptical of the tuna tostada that followed. It was dotted with watermelon, a fruit that rarely combines well with the savory. But these strange bedfellows married surprisingly, the sweet perfume nicely complimenting the blue fin and its avocado mayo accented with smoky chilhuacle.
Smoke, a leitmotif at both Pasillo and Poleo, pervades a delicious Romaine lettuce salad that is grilled lightly on the comal and sparingly seasoned. It reminded me of a southern wilted lettuce I once had in West Virginia only without the excess grease.
The chef’s version of the classic Hispano-mex fideo seco was beautiful to look at as it arrives deconstructed like a little Richard Chamberlain sculpture. The dish here is “oaxacanized”, that is, quesillo, beans and chilies all are associated with the state. Serving it is best left to the waiter, however, as the separate elements need to be combined properly, like good huevos rotos, and no one felt up to the task.
I liked a perfectly broiled chunk of bass that luxuriates on its bed of pureed white beans and plátano macho in a puddle of deep ruby/brick red mole coloradito—one of the 7 famous moles of the state. The fruity sweetness of the sauce compliments the umami-filled fish and is taken a step further up the sophistication ladder by the inclusion of a ring of cilantro-infused oil. Nothing is superfluous; the balance is right on.
But the star of the show was the aforementioned duck in mole negro, seen in the top photo. I love the rich, dark, rustic quality of this, the queen of moles. Here, its wild intensity is tamed so as not to overwhelm the flavor of expertly seared strips of still juicy magret that lie on a pillow of pureed peas. Roasted peaches, obvious with duck but not so with mole, provide a sweet, heady touch. This is a re-interpreted classic that succeeds, a laudable feat.
It is relevant to point out that a superb, water-based hot chocolate makes a perfect light dessert. And also worth mentioning is the Oaxacan breakfast offered weekends.
The decor has opened up and lightened the space, which, like its neighbor Mero Toro is inherently boxy. Tones of black, brown and black & white tile are elegant, while photos, also b&w, evoke Oaxaca itself.
Poleo is a great addition to our increasingly sophisticated regional Mexican choices, and it is amongst the best options in the Condesa. Bravo to this top chef.
Amsterdam 225, Condesa
Tel. 5087 2132
Open Monday - Friday 1:30 to 11 pm, Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Food (1 -10): 8
Price pp: $ 600