Restaurant Reviews

City to city

It's not surprising that a venue like Ciudad D.F. surfaced like a bubble on Dallas asphalt. What's surprising is that it has taken this long. Ciudad is Monica Greene's (of Monica's Aca y Alla in Deep Ellum) tribute to her hometown and a Dallas interpretation of the cuisine found in the heart of the fourth most populous city in the world: Mexico City, or Ciudad de Mexico. Dallas, she says, has timidly skirted real Mexican food. Instead, this city has squandered its geographic proximity to that strip of Aztec real estate south of the border on grub welded with bean adhesives and sealed in cheese epoxies or preciously fussed and gussied -- the affected postures of much of what we've come to know as Southwestern. In fact, Greene says she hasn't found the real thing anywhere in the States, except for maybe Chicago, where Rick Bayless (brother of former Dallas sports scribe Skip Bayless) and his Frontera Grill venerate Mexican food with near evangelical fervor.

Greene says she's always been deeply stirred by her city -- originally founded as the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1325 -- and she's devoted herself to preaching its sophistication and culinary acuity. "It's the most incredible city for about five days," she says. "I don't know what you'd do after that."

Five days is maybe all that any self-respecting Dallasite hurtling through life in a Lexus could handle. Mexico City is congested. It's poor. And it has air pollution that could choke Zeus -- if he were the type of deity given to frequenting former Aztec municipalities. The smog (maybe with a bow to Aztec architecture) even inspired one of Ciudad's desserts: Edificio Ciudad chocolate mousse ($7). The thing is an architectural marvel, with a trio of long, narrow triangular plates made of fried chocolate cookies pocked with bits of almond. It rises 8 inches like some quasi-pyramid. Near the apex, a loop of spun sugar hovers like a halo. This shimmering amber ring is supposed to simulate Mexico City's dirty fog; the cookie construction, the ascent of a skyscraper into its puffy depths. Diced mango, strawberry, and whole blueberries crowd near the base of the structure, like so many harried pedestrians. Pull back these crisp, airy plates, and you'll find a swirl of rich, smooth mousse.

Greene says her dream of crafting a true Mexico City restaurant has been simmering for years. She even chose her chef years ago: former Fairmont Hotel banquet chef Joanne Bondy. But Bondy would have none of it. Instead she left Dallas to fiddle at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix before moving on to casino mogul Steve Wynn's Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.

But Greene finally got her to swallow her vision to create a Mexico City dining replica in Dallas. To seal the deal, she made Bondy a partner in the venture. For several weeks the pair traveled through Mexico City, touring restaurants and bars, sampling the cuisine, supping the city's pace and pulse. "I really got to capture what Mexican cuisine really was," Bondy says. "I was so familiar with Southwestern, Tex-Mex, border-style cuisine. And I thought, 'Wow, this is something that nobody has seen.'" Bondy says she was struck by everything in the restaurants in Mexico City, from the freshness and detail on the plate to the service and the architecture. There she found brilliantly simple blends of flavors, layers that were ample but never overwhelming. One of those layers is vanilla bean, which Bondy and Greene insist works wonders on seafood.

It's a subtle thing, and I don't know how it works, but work it does. Take Ciudad's ceviche ($9) -- hands down the best collection of diced and marinated sea life you'll find anywhere in Dallas. Served in a margarita glass, the scraps of octopus, conch, and shrimp -- their natural sweet leanings tugged and nudged by vanilla -- were firm and supple. But it's the understated collision of flavors that makes this urn of chopped flesh so provocative. Key limes and their subtle acids make hay with cilantro, diced tomato, papaya, pineapple, and mango. But what really kicks some ass in this concoction is the clump of pink onion, pickled in brine and orange juice, scattered over the top. It adds a jagged edge of raciness to a melding that's almost too smooth for its own good.

Yet the bean treatment utterly fails to add anything to the poblano ravioli ($19.50) with sautéed vanilla shrimp, perhaps the weakest dish on what is almost uniformly a formidable menu. The shrimp, though flavorful, were a little mushy. The ravioli, stuffed with poblano peppers and cheese, were dry, gummy and void of suppleness. Bondy defends that, in Mexico City, pasta is not cooked "al dente," or until it offers a slight resistance when bitten. Pasta there is overcooked. This might be fine in Mexico City, but this is Dallas, and while it may not overflow with great Italian, it still knows when its noodle has been cooked to excess.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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