Friday, March 10, 2006

Frontera or Not Frontara

I last wrote about Frontera Grill over two years ago, which I believe was the last time I ate there (I think). In my last post, I asked how does Frontera stack up against Not Frontera. Or which is the superior Mexican restaurant. I concluded then, that while I liked things about Frontera, I liked Not Frontera, the neighborhood restaurants better. Some people misintinterpreted this conclusion. I am accused of simply preferring the cheap over the refined (perhaps verging on reverse snobbery). I have also been told that the kind of Mexican food I wanted could not be achieved at more expensive places, that my favored foods would loose something in their translation to Frontera. I reject both ascertations, the former on experience (just look at me digging a pricier Mexican meal here), but the latter more on faith. For I believed then, as I do now, that Frontera fails on the plate, not in the concept. I still have faith even as I walked away from Frontera again, let down.

It was the trout, trout done in the manner of chicharron de pescado, or fish heavily breaded and fried up so crispy it tastes like a chunk of pork fat. It is a common way of frying fish, not just in Mexico but in South America as well. It instictually appeals to me, and I enjoyed a lot, the version I had at Islas Marias. How would Frontera compare? Frontera uses trout from the Rushing Waters farm in Wisconsin. This should appeal to my eating local-ness (and my advocacy of fresh water fish). Regardless of the source, I think trout (rainbow), a poor choice for this dish, as the nuance of the fish gets lost in the hard fry. Yet what hard fry. This dish really failed, failed to deliver that whack of Wiv-crispness. There was no chicharron in my pescado. Everything else on my plate tasted great. I do not dismiss (at all), the pureed red beans that surely tasted like Rick’s being hanging out with the French guys, smooth and with a nice touch of butter (!). I bet there are versions of Mexican beans that contain butter, that Frontera is not being inauthentic here, but I really do not care. It worked. Well. I also liked the salad of juliened napa, with equally thin slices of pickled jalepeno hiding under the pale greens. The avocado salsa met my expecations in smoothness, complexity and heat. Of course, Frontera’s tortillas are not as good as La Quebrada, but I would have ignored that if they could have turned out a superior piece of fish (which they should).

The other dishes I sampled hit the same specrum. A trio of ceviches contained one outstanding version, Frontera’s longtime lime doused classic, with a good dose of chiles. Another of the trio, had the exact catsup mixed with orange juice flavor found in any neighborhood taqueria. With only tiny pieces of seafood, this cocktail again failed to exceed Not Frontera. The last of the trio, with nice rings or squid suceeded on an ingredient level but did not wow me on a flavor level, although one of my dining companions loved this one. On the other hand, our other appetizer lent the biggest support to my faith and hope in Frontera, bits of “Enchiladas” Potosinas.

I’m a bit lost why Bayless put in the quotation marks. This would suggest a Thomas Kelleran dish, something like but not like. Now, I am no expert on enchiladas Potosinas, having read about them here, and sampled them here. But what I had last night did not seem like enchiladas Potosinas, they were enchiladas Potosinas, complete with the red chili infused masa casing. If the filling was a bit lighter and more velvety than a street version, it did not, in my book make the dish either wrong or inauthentic. This plate succeeds on a higher level in all ways. From a garnish of spicy AND visually gorgeous shavings of Beauty Heart radishes to a fry with just a whisper of grease, oily enough to transfer taste, not so much to bog you down, here it was, a classic recipe, executed right, of the best ingredients, plated to its full advantage. This is what Frontera should be able to achieve with all of their dishes.

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