The modern Mexican menu is ambitious, but the flavors fall short.
Over a lunch of ceviche and carnitas at Matador the other day, I expressed a mild note of pleasant surprise that downtown Wayne - native habitat of the pinstripe and paisley print - had suddenly acquired enough tequila and chips to become the Distrito Federal of the Main Line.
"Are you kidding me?" replied my guest, an Ardmore resident offended by my ignorance. "Everyone knows that Wayne long had the first and only Taco Bell on the Main Line."
My point exactly. No offense to devotees of the red-shelled Volcano taco or the Bell's speedy bean-caulking cuisine. What happens in the late-night drive-through is between you and your amigos. But I'm talking about something totally different here - some actually ambitious Mexican flavors. And the fact that they've been finding their way to this well-to-do crossroads of the American mainstream is intriguing, indeed.
Los Wayne-itos had their first taste of the possibilities a few years ago at Teresa's Next Door, where the Mexican kitchen staff's homestyle flautas and crispy tomatillos proved to be at least as good a match for the craft-beer taps as the pub's Belgian menu.
Matador, a relatively new and handsomely dark wood space just down Main Street with bullfight murals and a couple of walls of high-end blue agave, is a Spanish-Mexican mashup reminiscent of two or three Garces restaurants rolled into one (minus some of the Garces polish.) From plancha-seared wild mushrooms to impressively tender carnitas and a mild-but-fresh guacamole mashed tableside, the meal's flavors were appetizingly solid, if not exactly innovative. I'd certainly like to return for another visit, especially on a weekend night when a whole suckling pig is being carved on the second floor.
It was Xilantro, however, Matador's sleek across-the-street neighbor, that first caught my attention for an in-depth review. With its mod white rattan lounge chairs on the sidewalk and contemporary decor inside to match, the venture is eye-catching to say the least. Luis Marin, owner of the local Serape restaurants who partnered with Joel Solomon, turned to Flourtown's Morissey Design for the startlingly modern space - a room that melds molded white curves with antique photos of Mexican heroes blown up and illuminated with a futuristic green glow. Sort of like Pod with guacamole-toned lights.
I probably should have run the other way when the margaritas came out rimmed in a crust of green-colored salt, too. (The 'ritas themselves were consistently out of whack, carelessly blended so different sips alternated among bitter, salty, and alcoholic punch.)
But we'd already invested more than half an hour past our reservation waiting to be seated. And the room was so noisy - 99-plus decibels! - it would have required exceptional vocal acrobatics to wrangle another plan.
Plus, Marin's Puebla-born chef, Juan Pablo Quiroz, had created such an ambitiously modern menu, inspired by some contemporary hot spots in Mexico City's trendy Polanco district, that it demanded serious consideration.
Would Los Wayne-itos go for tongue, huitlacoche and barbacoa of lamb? The Culinary Institute of America grad certainly makes most of the dishes visually appealing - with the kind of fashionable sauce-smudging, foams, and deconstructed presentations that add drama (plus at least $5) to the dishes.
But given these prices - high $20s into the low $30s - the flavors on the plate were a resounding disappointment. The tortilla soup, usually richer elsewhere with layers of dried-chile zing and earthy tortilla, was bland, bland, bland. The guacamole was mashed tableside to order, but was oddly pasty and lacking zip, requiring additional salt and lime simply to give it life. The chips, for goodness sake, weren't even very crunchy.
There were moments of mild excitement - as with the posole that came with a seafood twist, a rich tomatillo-shellfish broth poured tableside onto a bowl of tender hominy with sautéed shrimp. Or the tuna totopos, which layered pepper-crusted slices of seared raw fish atop tortilla-chip coins, dabbed with avocado aioli and dusted with morita chiles. The barbacoa leg of lamb, slow-braised with chile paste for seven hours inside a banana leaf, was as soulful and traditional as Xilantro gets, the tender shreds served with tortillas and taqueria-style grilled onions.
For the most part, though, the flavor-volumes here were so muted - perhaps out of fear that Main Liners couldn't take authentic chile heat - that the food lacked life.
Avocado bisque with lobster and cotija foam sounded intriguing, but it basically tasted like warm green milk. The nachos, an understandably lowbrow concession to the gringo crowd, were done with a grudging enthusiasm, the deep bowl of bare chips mounded only near the top with a smattering of pico de gallo, beans, and a miserly bit of cheese.
If Xilantro should be judged on its ambitious offerings, the results were similar.
Huitlacoche (a.k.a. "corn truffle") is one of my favorite ingredients for adding earthy intensity. But here, it was reduced to a little black plate-schmear beside a virtually tasteless white béchamel, then topped with a slice of Chilean sea bass that was not only a little fishy and misidentified (the menu called it simply "sea bass"), but such a small one-by-three-inch slice that the $29 price tag seemed unfair. The cost was only part of the problem with a special lengua, a heap of lukewarm braised tongue slices piled unceremoniously atop a plate with overcooked rice and dull streaks of lime cream and standard salsa verde - not the aromatic tomato, olive, and almond sauce that Quiroz occasionally makes to his grandma's recipe.
If $24 for tongue seemed like a lot, I have no idea who would order the "perejil frito" a second time after realizing it was just a $9 bush of fried parsley ringing a puck of chipotle-tinged cream cheese. The herbs were at least well-picked.
Xilantro's kitchen scored more points with dishes that brought confident rustic flavors. A Tlaxcala steak with crumbled-chorizo sauce, set over a crisp tortilla round and gratinéed with Chihuahua cheese, is a zesty take on filet that I'd reorder. The Puebla-style mole over chicken enchiladas had a nice balance of earthy spice, nuts, plantain fruit, and just enough chocolate sweet.
Too often, though, flavors were just out of register, and not just with the margaritas.
The ceviche, for example, was a stylishly colorful trio of red, yellow, and white preparations for grouper, shrimp and bass, but all of them needed more citrus to counterbalance the spice. The large shrimp "al ajillo" brought some beautiful shellfish - but they came over a cold tomato-based sauce that left the dish dry and flat. Not a good thing at $32. Even more of a letdown was the equally pricey duck breast that was drowned out by the one-note sweetness of tamarind sauce.
Something tells me Los Wayne-itos are ready for such fascinating and ambitious takes on their Mexican cuisine. But until this kitchen figures out how to land its ideas on a plate with more consistency and better value, my dining dinero would likely be spent across the street.