Mexican haute dance

Beautiful and ambitious, La Valentina excels when it opts for magic over realism

La Valentina is staffed with some of Dallas' best Mexican-food waiters in town. Our man, Mr. Diamond, is a pro who gained fame and his name in the high-rolling eighties at Moctezuma. The diamond rings are at the pawnshop now, he says jokingly, but Mr. D is still an old hand at hoisting trays. The entrees lagged a good while behind those marvelous appetizers, so he had to use other skills, too, delivering drinks in a blink, visiting frequently with reassuring words, letting us know the delay was definitely not our server's fault.

When the main plates did come, they were a disappointing reality after the fantastic starters. (On our second visit, La Valentina wasn't as crowded, and the food was considerably more consistent.) Sinfonia en Rosa Mexicano, a signature dish, looked like something you might have been served in a continental restaurant 15 years ago: a thick, boneless chicken breast smothered with a thick white sauce, sided with broccoli florets. But this was far from the typical cream sauce, instead made with pounded walnuts mixed with creme fraiche and just a whiff of chipotle. It was a legendary sauce, rich and fragrant and soothing and sexy all at once, but the chicken it adorned was unworthy, tasteless, tough, and bland, and the accompanying vegetable was actually chilly, a dead plant on a plate. The unexciting-sounding pollo de la fogata (translate: grilled chicken breast) was better, the meat still running juice, its crusty grilled edges slightly tangy from its lemon bath. But the pollo en mole poblano was the best bird of all, robed in its dark, slightly grainy sauce, deep with spice, slightly sweeter than I consider perfect, but still approaching that bliss that only the mole can.

Camarones del patron, the classic shrimp dish in a glaze of orange juice and white wine (sometimes a little coffee is stirred in for bitter balance), was an excellent version, but the beef was mediocre, as it so often proves to be in Mexican restaurants. The medallones Chiapas, a straightforward, European-style dish (reflecting "the influences of both the Mayan and the Spanish cultures," says the menu), presented medallions seasoned with crushed peppercorns, served in a red onion and red wine sauce. A kitchen specialty, the recommended Filete Meztli Veteado was a piece of very rare beef topped with sauce of black huitlacoche--that's "corn fungus" in English. And you'd wash your mouth out if you saw a picture of the stuff growing like an alien parasite on an ear of corn. But corn mushrooms are a truffle-like delicacy in Mexico, and their earthy, silky taste should complement a sturdy, crusted piece of beef just as a sauteed mushroom might. The smooth, ricotta cheese sauce should have the same gilding effect as a bearnaise, too, but the luxuriousness of the toppings was wasted on this piece of meat, textureless and left grape-jelly cool on the inside, so what you craved was crispness, not more softness in your mouth.

Desserts, including a custard made with essence of rose petals (recalling Like Water for Chocolate again) that was bearable only to the familiar palate or those with unmedicated allergies, and a ball of vanilla ice cream dipped in powdery frozen chocolate mousse, were so slow in arriving that we were presented a second as a gift by Julio, the diminutive maitre d' who moved to Dallas from Mexico City a month ago and is still working hard on his English. But there's no language barrier in his work. He's the one who really made the magic happen when we were at La Valentina, playing the omnipresent host, moving from table to table, making sure the party was still going on. He encouraged a group at one table to do the macarena with the mariachis, and livened up other stuporous diners with a complimentary round of the special regional liqueur presented in the traditional naked lady bottle (are your eyes open now?). "First, you rub the stomach while you make your wish, then you give her bum a spank," he instructed, and then as the diner swigged, the table chanted, "uno, dos, tres and Julio exclaimed, "Bottoms up!!"

The owners have said that each dish at La Valentina "should be savored like a love affair." This is iffy advice in a city where the divorce rate (and restaurant failures) run close to 60 percent. The history celebrated in La Valentina's cuisine and on its menu emphasizes how a culture is reflected in its food. Certainly true, but then you have to realize that the food at La Valentina reflects its own current culture, too. The first La Valentina opened in Mexico City in 1993, and they say it received rave reviews "around the world" and immediately became a celebratory spot for celebrities (as if that were a recommendation). Here, it's likely to become a favorite place for Dallas' self-designated celebrities--it's got that show-biz glitz all over the surface. Still, I suspect Dallas will have more than an overnight romance with La Valentina.

La Valentina de Mexico, 14866 Montfort, (972) 726-0202. Open daily from 11 a.m.- 11 p.m.

Los Tacos de Don Elias (Fish Tacos) $8.50
Pastel de Elote Eloxoxitl (Corn Cake) $5.50
Sopa de Cilantro (Cilantro Soup) $3.80
Pollo en Mole Poblano $13.50
Sinfonia en Rosa Mexicano (Chicken in Walnut Sauce) $13.50
Medallones Chiapas (Peppered Beef in Red Wine Sauce) $19.00
Filete Meztli Veteado (Beef with Huitlacoche and Ricotta) $19.50

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