Funny Valentina

The food's OK, but the service leaves a bad taste in your mouth at La Valentina

In keeping with this culinary dress code, chips and salsa surrender to a basket of bread with a tiny ramekin of whipped butter. On our second visit, two boats of salsa--one bright green and made of tomatillos, the other the color of an oil change and made from chipotle--were deposited on the table.

But while the appetizers didn't grip us with haute sophistication, the entrées did. Here, the food seemed smoother, sexier, and more exciting--except for those flaws, which wavered like a frayed seam, deflating the elegance of the meal. On one visit it was a place setting with a fork tine crusted in green--maybe a dribble of guacamole petrified in the dishwasher. On another, it was a badly chipped plate.

Certain of the entrées wore a little thin as well, like the mole de tamarindo Don Librix ($13.50). A 19th-century family recipe of Mexican celebrity Librado Jimenez, this dish is a chicken breast robed in a smooth, silky mole made from tamarind fruit and peppers. Its gentle piquancy and textural grip filled this refined black liquid drapery with dazzle. But the plump breast was dry, like a puffed slice of fiberboard.

Service without a smile: At La Valentina, it isn't the food that's off-putting--it's the waitstaff.
Stephen P. Karlisch
Service without a smile: At La Valentina, it isn't the food that's off-putting--it's the waitstaff.

One of the more exotic particulars in Mexican cuisine is huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche, or corn smut. It's sort of like a fungal corn ear infection. This smut is used in sauces, sautés, and soups and laces foods with a sweet, sweaty flavor. Shrimp huitlacoche ($20) turned this exotic parasite into a silky black sauce matched with five leathery shrimp. A fork was not sufficient to sever the flesh into chewable segments, and lots of chewing is what these need.

But then there were menu entries that were simply and undeniably stellar. Just how good didn't penetrate my skull until days later. On our first visit, I couldn't hack more than a few tiny bites of the pescado de la fogata ($18.50), a thin piece of sea bass marinated in adobo sauce and then broiled. Bad pacing was the reason. I was far too rambunctious in my attempts to decode the appetizer platter to extort the full range of pleasures from this dish. So I had it boxed in a Styrofoam clamshell.

And there it was, four days later, nuked and glistening, sauced the color of a freshly erected cedar fence. The fish was so freshly firm and rich in buttery succulence, it was hard to believe that it had spent days aging in the refrigerator.

Just as in Cancun (and maybe everywhere else that has a La Valentina), the interior of this restaurant is brashly festive with pots painted as loud as reef fish, a vestibule flanked with steps that look like they were jack-hammered out of a swimming pool, and walls of river stone. Paintings and sculptures are everywhere, and they have price tags, perhaps to help defray the costs of the desolate dining room.

Which shouldn't be that way, especially when things like salmon in squash-blossom sauce can be experienced ($19.75). This delicious piece of flesh, gently laminated in its murky yellow sauce, wavered elegantly between sweet and tangy.

Desserts wavered too. Bola blanco y negro ($5), an intriguing ball of vanilla ice cream waxed in a brittle chocolate mousse powdered with cocoa, was tasty--rich yet refreshing. But the flan custard ($4) was coarse instead of smooth, elegant, and gentle.

Which made it not unlike the service, which was riddled with sharpness and inconsistencies. The passage of 20 minutes seemed standard before menus are dispersed. And each service gesture is executed with tones that are obligatory, strained, and perfunctory, instead of gracious or exuberantly festive, as the decor might imply.

There's a reason this place is empty, and it most likely isn't the food. And it certainly isn't the crocodiles.

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