Sunday, February 15, 2004

Valententine's Day at Ixcapuzalco
Upscale Mexican in Chicago Lives On!

Valentine's Day is not supposed to produce such exquisite eating is it? Like New Year's Eve, it is a night for diners who do not necessarily go out, and a night for restaurants to most take advantage of its customers. When we arrived at Ixcapuzalco and saw the prix fixed menu, we braced for the worst.

We were already bracing. One chowhound warned us before going, to expect good food but poor service. A very sloppy and artless greeting seemed to confirm this view of the service. And our suspicions only deepened when our server explained the drink program this night: or two glasses of wine. What wine I asked (Ms. VI was fine with the night's special drink, passion fruit margarita). Our server fumbled, "Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Grigio..." Painful, as she raked her memory, and I held off asking for any details that were obviously not coming. But she then, almost offhand, mentioned a Rioja, even a producer (who gosh darn right now I cannot remember), and not only did it seem better, it seemed right for the night. A few minutes later when that very large pour of Rioja came, and my mouth filled with its pleasant fruit and earth flavors, I was quite ready to enjoy the night. As it turned out, the service hardly improved, but since they consistently delivered such outstanding food to us, we hardly minded.

The "Valentines [sic] Celebration Dinner, 2004" contained appetizer, soup, entree, dessert and a mug of hot chocolate. As mentioned above, the meal included 2 drinks, either wine or some form of margarita, including the cliche passion fruit. For $55, my wife and I found it a fine value. One problem with special occasion, set meals, is that you usually feel restricted by the choices. Hardly the case at Ixcapuzalco, the menu gave us enough to fight over. Neither of us though, had the guts to get the dish more appropriate to the night, "Laura Esquivel's infamous quail in exotic rose petal sauce." Besides, we quickly and easily zeroed in on key dishes.

Of the group of appetizers, we both wanted the seviche, but foodies in good standing that we are, we need to try something else too, so the other got the enchilada de champandongo. How fortuitous! This turned out to be the best dish of the night, AND the filling came way too cold. Ixcapuzalco takes two of their fresh made tortillas and stuffs them with a mixture of shredded pork and beef. It then bathes the folded tortillas in a savory red mole. My first bite contained jarringly cold meat, so cold, I had to hunt down the server to see if they erred. But here's a bit of a secret, as I waited, I continued to nibble. I tried to do it in such a way to disguise my efforts, you know who can return a mostly eaten dish, but my intention was partially to just get more tortilla and mole. Granted, it was not all chicanery, the inside did seem wrong. The waitress, however, explained that the filling was supposed to be room temperature and I did not want at all another dish. I just kept the taken out of the refrigerator too late dish. Anyway, this was a dish all about the sauce. It should not have even had a filling, just tortilla and sauce. Maybe the best thing I can say about the mole is, even now, thinking about the dish many hours later, I cannot really name the ingredients. I mean I know the ingredients of a red mole, but a list of ingredients would be meaningless to this mole. A sauce blended into one homogenous, balanced, vivid (and quite spicy) whole that no ingredient stood out. The seviche, by the way, was pretty darn good too and featured a fresh tasting, fruity green salsa.

After so many flavors in the first course, you would think the soup would notch things down, give the palate a breather. Hah! Unlike the appetizers, we more easily divided on the two soup choices. The Condiment Queen moved towards the sopa azteca, long a favorite of hers, I the oxtail. I much preferred my choice. The sopa azteca tasted good, but I found it too thick, almost a liquid mole. I find such soups excessively filling (and this soup with all its garnishes of chicken breast, avocado, and tortilla strips was nearly a meal). My soup, the oxtail was an amazing bowl of flavors and textures. On the surface it was a bright consommé, typically Mexican, very reminiscent of the goat soup at Maxwell Street. Underneath, an array of items that spoke well to its chefly origins. For instance, swimming at the bottom of the bowl were perfectly cooked multidimensional onions and other ingredients, a masterful sofrito. The small piece of oxtail was likewise masterful, soft, beefy and tight on the tooth without being stringy.

Within ten seconds of menu glancing, my wife knew her entree, chiles en nogada. A classic Mexican celebration dish, one requiring true kitchen skills and either a lot of time or several sous chefs. Mixing so many elements, fresh poblano chile, rich pork stuffing, intense spiced-cream sauce, bursting pomegranate seed, it was the kind of dish expected at a restaurant like this. The outcome met and exceed all expectations. My grilled duck breast could not come close in terms of history or complexity, but it sure tasted delicious. They left the duck just red enough to truly mimic red meat and the sauce described on the menu as a "swarthy guajillo" had fine bitter tones that complemented the richness.

While I chickened out of the rose-petal quail--partially because I am not much of a quail guy either--I wanted the sides for that dish, wild greens and baby potatoes. I asked for a substitution. They would not comply. I was no worse the wear though as the mashed potatoes with my duck could accurately be described as butter, bound together with a bit of potatoes. I should add that the chiles en nogada came with a small (well can I keep on using the word perfect in this overly long report?) perfect dressed salad of exotic greens.

It is hard to wrap things up quickly. Tres leches cake, one of the few common denominators of Hispanic cooking, is a favorite of mine. While I am gonna like nearly any such cake, Ixcapuzalco's was nothing particularly special. On the other hand, after so much artistry above, the simple cake made lots of sense. Besides we ended the night with more flavors. We had to remind our waitress to serve us our hot chocolate, but again, it was worth the nudge. Made, I am almost positive, traditionally, with water instead of milk, the mug of spiced accented liquid chocolate was the PERFECT close to a gorgeous meal.

One final, final note, getting back to the wine. A certain amount of conventional wisdom says that only a few white wines stand up to spicy foods, but this was patently not the case last night. The Rioja, not very sweet, but very fruity and with tons of body, stood up to and well accentuated the food. I have, historically, been very skeptical of the "wine+food=sum greater than the parts" notion, but of the few times where I know the wine made the food even better, two of them have been with a Rioja. And speaking of conventional wisdom, it would suggest that a Valentine's dinner should be less good than typical. I do not have enough experience with Ixcapuzalco to say how this meal compared with others, but if this their version of banquet food, I am quite eager to return for the normal menu.

2919 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL

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