Raíz Returns to its Roots
Raíz, formerly known as Kaah Siis, was the vanguard Polanco venue for chefs Israel Montero and Alfredo Chávez to offer their modernist take on classic Mexican dishes with a soupçon of French thrown in for good measure. While very good, the critics—including this one—and public alike seemed to find the result lacking in direction.
So the space, the kitchen and the concept were revamped and renamed: Raíz was born. The moniker is appropriate, as the restaurant has returned to the roots of all things Mexican. In fact, Raíz IS a Mexican restaurant in which tradition has been flipped on its head, turned sideways, shot out of a cannon like the pretty girl at the circus. What’s left is a post-modern food spectacle that is fun to watch and great to eat. Pretension waits in the wings and does indeed slip onto stage from time to time, but doesn’t spoil the show. The once sparsely populated and rather characterless dining room is now warmed up by a subtle facelift of stone and wood, an airy terrace and a glassed in kitchen from which good vibes and aromas emanate.
Raiz’s kitchen is still co-directed by Venezuelan-born French-trained Montero, a true artist, and Mexican Alfredo Chávez whose poetic vision of a utopian Aztec cocina doesn’t get in the way of a more practical approach to cooking and restaurateur-ing. Chávez explains that Raíz is located in the exclusive area of Polanco, “…a city within a city in which people are looking for a particular manifestation of their Mexican-ness. So we have created a cuisine that we feel meets this need, that is, a certain kind of refined and sophisticated Mexican culture. Our customers are both locals and a large percentage of foreigners so we are proud to be able to show them the level of complexity of which we are capable, while trying to please both types of profiles. It’s been a challenge that we think we are finally coming to terms with.” The a la carte menu lists Mexican classics both familiar and less so: tostadas, ceviches of both seafood and beef, earthy soups, moles. But I recommend the generous tasting menu, a parade of superb antojitos and dainty portions of heartier fare.
On my most recent visit, the degustación began with a simple tostada, as pretty as a 5th Avenue Easter bonnet, that was base to a hill of verdant guacamole augmented by crunchy red chapulines – nothing challenging here but the snow of powdered popcorn that dusted the top was a delightful touch. This was followed by another paper-thin tostada topped with bacalao ahumado brought to the table in a fogged-in glass dome, which when raised, filled the air with a dreamy fugue of smoke. The slippery slab of salt cod was perfumed with feathery green borage, refreshed by a drop of sherry vinegar and brought back down to earth by a sweetish salsa of jumiles – a seasonal creepy crawly that really tastes good, a bit like cinnamon.
I had to stifle a laugh as a waiter decorously French-served two mini-tamales, lifting them out of the Chinese bamboo steamer in which they had been heated, carefully opening the banana leaves and placing the contents on a plate over a puddle of brick red mole. This performance, applying the highest form of Euro-fanciness to that most popular dish might have been relegated to a Cantinflas movie in days of yore. But the haute affectation was forgotten when I savored a bite of these perfect corn-umami filled morsels.
Then a two-bean soup was poured over a heap of morcilla and pickled vegetables by not one but two solemn waitpersons. The irony was, again, not lost on me or my dining companion as we averted eyes so as not to let a snicker escape, but once again deliciousness reigned and any ostentation was forgiven. The dish of seafood that followed was overcooked by seconds but its pool of ruby-red, fruity Tlaxcalan mole made me forget that slight imperfection. Tlaxcala’s masa-thickened, delicately spiced sauces are, as chef Francisco Molina of that state’s spectacular Evoka (see previous post) will tell you, a perfect vehicle for fish.
A better-than-it-looked dessert concoction turned mole poblano upside down, as here chocolate is the dominatrix, mole the slave. I wanted to lick the bowl clean. And did.
The wine list is carefully chosen, strong on Mexican vintners, and includes some affordable options, i.e. under $400 pesos. I was impressed by a very minerally multi-varietal from San Luís Potosí a state little known as a source of gastronomic pleasure. After three years, Raíz has finally earned its place as one the city’s best Modern Mexican venues.
Chef Chavez sums up that “in the end, we want to have a place that is alive—that never stops exploring.” Raíz’s roots indeed continue to grow deeper.
Food (1-10): 9 - But for a a few minor imperfections, it could be, well, 9 1/2 Ambience: 8 - Warm, airy, cocktail jazz soundtrack stays in the background and creates a retro-lounge atmosphere. Service: 9 - Very experienced and discreet Price: A la Carte Per person $600, 8 course menu $850 (drinks not included)