Preparation: To season two cups of cooked and finely shredded fish, take one small chile ancho, remove its seeds and veins, put it in a pot with some water, and simmer it gently for five minutes. In a molcajete, grind together 12 peppercorns, some cumin seeds, and a piece of cinnamon bark, then add salt, garlic, and the chile ancho...
Chef Oscar Rodriguez was undoubtedly grinding and frying, while out in the restaurant the mariachi band was ambling through the rooms, strumming and harmonizing lilting tunes about mister moonlight, la senorita, la cucaracha, guantanamera. The silver buckles jingled gently on the seams of their black Lycra jeans, and the incredibly enormous velvet sombreros wobbled slightly on their heads as the threesome thrummed and warbled, as the diners sipped insipid, over-iced margaritas and wondered where the hell the tostados were. For a while, it seemed that all the pre-opening publicity, all the days of hype, had led to a wasted night; that all the culinarily curious crowd who had reserved tables to experience La Valentina's first American restaurant were going to be disappointed, were not going to have any fun or any good food; that the magic they'd been anticipating was never going to materialize.
Then our waiter, Mr. Diamond, brought the appetizers, and--as our table tasted the fish tacos, meticulously minced with the ground, roasted dark chilies and spices, dry-fried, folded in fragile gray-blue tortillas and then juiced up with the pale perfume of pineapple and sweet onion; and the yellow layered cake of custard-like corn kernels, meal and cheese; and the flecked soup flavored with cilantro, somehow maintaining its grassy freshness against a deep, hot broth--we noticed the change. All of a sudden, it seemed as though those margaritas had had tequila in them, after all. The vividness of the food flowed into the conversation, and then we heard the unmistakable half-stepped chords and the distinctive bass kick made by a hand thumping the guittaron. Heads turned to find where those big hats had stopped. The guitar player struck a chord, snaked down with his knees bent, pointed his finger at a diner, and in a new blue velvet voice, sang, "The warden gave a party in the county jail..." As if by magic, La Valentina became a very happening place.
Laura Esquivel's magic realist novel, Like Water for Chocolate, has been mentioned so often in articles about the mother of the new Addison restaurant, La Valentina de Mexico, that it seems only natural that a little magic would invade the reality of the restaurant. So many restaurants these days are all too real, utility being the prevailing fashion, that economy of style that ploddingly follows function. I believe in form following fun, if it has to follow anything. That's what Mexican restaurants are particularly good at, and La Valentina did not disappoint on that score; even though the food was not without flaws, every meal here has seemed like a celebration for no reason.
It's a beautiful and ambitious restaurant--with saltillo tile floors and soft adobe walls, antique wood beams and carved columns, tile fountains and tiers of bright blooming cyclamen. And the menu is extraordinary, aiming for what its owners call "haute Mexican cuisine," or "nouvelle Azteca," an amalgam of flavors that's been hailed as a "rediscovery" of Mexican high cuisine. The owners invited Mexico's leading families and chefs to contribute favorite regional or traditional recipes, so supposedly, the menu is a textbook of "authentic" Mexican food, a revival of long-forgotten dishes and some newly created signature dishes. The prices--about triple the average combination plate--certainly reinforce the idea that this is beyond refried beans and rice. But I can't help wondering whether these high-profile, authored recipes are actually the strength of Mexican food. In this country, for instance, the best eating is closer to the ground--the best American cooking is not haute cuisine, but low-down food. If you really want to eat the best food in the United States, if you just got here from Finland, say, and want to enjoy "real" American food, you'd turn to Jane and Michael Stern for tips about truck stops, not swallow John Mariani's advice about the latest in five-stars. You'd want to know where to get the best fried chicken, the best walk-up pizza, the best cheese steak, the best chili. Mexican food, no matter how ancient its lineage, is still earthy fare, food of the hand and land. It doesn't need precious refinements, any more than big, boosterish American food does. We were brought a basket of undistinguished but significant white rolls, bolillos, with our dinner at La Valentina. I know rolls like this are served often in expense-account restaurants in Mexico, but they're just not as good as corn tortillas, which, after all, were invented centuries ago by the ancients of Mexico. Not to quibble, but these rolls immediately beg the authenticity question, as well as the authority of the palate in the kitchen.
The room was packed the first night we had dinner at La Valentina--the place is enormous (it seats 300) and it was full. Several restaurateurs, chefs, and local semi-celebs were drifting around from table to table. It was a heavy crowd for the kitchen to please, and they were hammered. Nevertheless, those appetizers were delivered in quick time and, almost without exception, they were magic. Besides the fish tacos ("los tacos de Don Elias"), the soup, and the corn cake, there were other wonderful morsels. The Veracruz-style shrimp tacos; the salbutes, little chalupa cups filled with achiote-seasoned chicken and red onion; and the taquitos, wrapped in banana leaves and filled with the soft, white, house-made cheese, had exciting, heady flavors that blended on the tongue and resonated in the nose.
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.
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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