Thursday, July 28, 2005
Restaurant 59: Itzocan Bistro
Clockwise from top left: Pumpkin and shrimp soup; Mushroom crepes; Pork Scallopine; Pear Tarte.
RESTAURANT: Itzocan Bistro
LOCATION: 1575 Lexington Ave. (Upper East Side) at 101st St.
DATE: July 23, 2005
FOOD: Appetizer: Pumpkin and Shrimp Soup with Chipotle Crema Fresca; Entrees: Split the Wild Mushroom Huitlacoche Crepes with Brie and Poblano Crema Fresca; Sauteed Pork Scallopine with Potato Hash and Black Trumpet Mushroom Sauce; Dessert: Ibarra Chocolate Pear Tarte with Goat’s Milk Caramel Sauce.
BEVERAGE: Split a pitcher of Red Sangria
You don’t need chips and salsa to be classified as Mexican food. At Itzocan Bistro, near east Harlem on the Upper East Side, meals open with bread and olive oil tableside. It’s a European twist on conventional Mexican dining. A quick glance over the menu reveals Itzocan Bistro bears as much resemblance to a taco stand as Oedipus does to an archetypical father and son. With dishes that include just as much crème fraiche as they do jalapenos, it might not even be proper to call Itzocan Bistro a Mexican restaurant – perhaps its more of a renegade, Francophile cousin.
But familial metaphors are apt. Itzocan Bistro could be called the sister or more mature second child of Itzocan Café, the outstanding East Village four table restaurant of chefs and brothers Anselmo and Fermin Bello. At Itzocan Café, the fare is more traditionally Mexican, though the French accents pervade just as they do at the Bistro. However, at the Bistro, the brothers Bellos have more nakedly revealed their ambitions. Through their Mexican-French fusion cuisine, the brothers set to do for Mexican what so many chefs have done for Asian – elevate it to the level of fine-dining.
This is not to suggest that Itzocan Bistro is fancy or even slightly pretentious. It’s the food that’s fine, while the atmosphere is more barrio than bourgeois, the service more ambiente than mannerly mechanical, and the prices are a far cry from the thirty dollar entrees and fifteen dollar cocktails of many Manhattan establishments. In sum, Itzocan Bistro is the perfect second step in what hopefully will become yet another New York food empire, though this one’s all in the family.
Having spent the last month living on the Upper East Side, it was interesting to go even further north into the nebulous region where the Upper East becomes East Harlem. In a neighborhood otherwise populated by bodegas and housing complexes, Itzocan Bistro sticks out like Geoffrey Firmin drinking in a hacienda of locals in Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The area doesn’t appear to have many other restaurants striving for greatness. But this was fine with Thomas, Danny, and I, as we weren’t concerned with the digs, we were concerned with the food.
All three of us started with an interesting re-imagining of seafood bisque. In lieu of heavy cream, there was crème fraiche. Pumpkin had displaced the standard carrots and leeks. And instead of lobster or a variety of other seafood, the soup had shrimp and shrimp alone. However, even with all the renovations, the soup still tasted mostly of cream. The pumpkin was a bit masked and a slightly annoying inconvenience presented itself when we realized the shrimp weren’t shelled. While this rustic touch would work well in other dishes, in a soup it was messy and unwarranted. Because the shrimp had to be eaten individually, their flavor wasn’t able to fully mesh in with the rest of the soup, which was a shame as otherwise, it was a very satisfying opener, especially due to the jalapeno kick which contrasted well with the smoothness of the cream.
Next, Danny and I split wild mushroom crepes with brie and another dose of crème fraiche. The crepes were hearty enough to be an entrée, but possessed a sprightly earthy taste brought about by the Huitlacoche, or Mexican mushrooms. Brie is perhaps the ideal cheese for crepes and its inherent creaminess added a gooey but measured consistency to the crepes. If the kitchen had showed a bit more restraint with the mushroom and vegetable saucing, the crepes would have been outstanding. But it was still nice to see how well a traditionally French dish could be used for definitely non-French purposes.
However, what made my meal at Itzocan as successful as it was, came down to one course, and one course alone. My entrée, the pork scallopine, is certainly one of the twenty best entrees I’ve had in New York. The pork had been pounded to a beautiful thinness. Whereas the crepes had too much saucing, the black trumpet mushroom gravy covering the pork was applied in the perfect amount. The gravy softened the potato hash hidden beneath the tearfully tender pork, leaving the root vegetables saturated with the same salty excellence of the rest of the meal. Al Di La’s pork saltimboco is the only rendition of pig that comes compares to the mastery of Itzocan Bistro’s scallopine.
If the pork had been Acapulco, dessert was Oaxaca, a diverse blend of old and new influences. The pear tarte was shockingly savory and nearly devoid altogether of sugar taste. Closer to a minced meat pie than chocolate, the Ibarra had the texture of brown sugar and the tang of bitter, unsweetened chocolate. Along with the strange goat’s milk caramel sauce (again lacking in sweetness), the entire dessert was a novel experience. I still haven’t decided if I liked it or not, though I’m certainly glad I ordered it. Like much else at Itzocan Bistro, the pear tarte wasn’t something I could have had elsewhere and my palate is better for the occurrence.
Though no Mexican ancestry courses through my veins, the meal at Itzocan Bistro tasted like home cooking. Perhaps it is best described as the Mexican Rose Water, a place where familiar food is infused with ingredients and panache distinctly Mexican, but prepared with the elegance of French dining. Regardless of the comparisons, Itzocan Bistro has more than enough polish and grace to stand on its own. As great as Itzocan Café is, Itzocan Bistro is a clear sign the Bellos brothers are on their way to becoming legends in this city.
Posted by Vincent Rossmeier at Thursday, July 28, 2005