Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Creative Mexican Food

146 East Houston Street
(at the River Walk, in the Valencia Hotel)

Even with the propane heaters going full blast, it was just a little too cold to think about sitting outside for dinner tonight. It's a shame, really, because Acenar has one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in town, one level above the River; and the traffic on Houston Street, right beside the balcony, is generally light enough not to interfere with patrons' enjoyment of the atmosphere of the place. But inside, it's pretty nice, too. Someone has devoted a great deal of thought and attention to the décor and ambience in this restaurant. The interior is done in medium orange, mulberry and beige, with the design of the walls echoed in the light fixtures, while the furniture is done mostly in black, with fake zebra-wood tops. The overall effect is one of sophistication and understated elegance, as though they were saying they could make it fancier but don't want to show off. As a place to eat, it is welcoming, comfortable and attractive.

We showed up on a Saturday night without a reservation (what is this town coming to?), and were relegated to the worst table in the house. It was worse than the worst table in the house should have been, bad enough that the manager should seriously consider making do with one less table. (Or he or she could just invest in a sound-deadening screen, to put between the crap-table and the kitchen alley.)

Direct access to the restaurant from the street is through Acenar's bar area, which, when we arrived, was thronged with prosperous-looking thirty-somethings playing with their smart-phones; until one couple started dancing, at which point all the other prosperous-looking thirty-somethings stopped fondling their screens and watched surreptitiously, perhaps even enviously. I don't know the outcome of this event, whether the dancers went back to their stools or the others joined in, for at that point the tag-team duo of hostesses got their ducks in a row and we were led away to our purgatory.

We each ordered a house margarita. While waiting on that, we were served chips and salsa; the chips in a paper cone placed in a wire holder rescued from the now-defunct Water Street Oyster Bar, which used to use these things in lieu of bread-baskets. The salsa is a house concoction of roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers, and roasted something else, which was neither piquant nor smoky. It wasn't bad, but considering how much roasting had to take place for this production, it seemed a questionable investment of time and energy. The chips were equally unimpressive, with neither an interesting flavour nor an appealing texture. They were sturdy enough for the salsa, but in a place with such elevated pretensions as Acenar has, that didn't seem to be enough.

The margaritas, when they came (in tumblers), proved very strong, with a good citric taste and a smooth tequila de oro. By that time, we had arrived at our choices: crepas de pato for me, pescado veracruzana for my table-mate.

Last city inspection: December 2011
23 demerits
Crepas de pato proved to be a good choice. The crepes were corn with a little pepper in the masa (serrano, according to the menu), and the filling was juicy, tender, delectable duck meat roasted to perfection. The topping, a tamarind sauce with onions, complemented the flavour well, and there appeared to be a gloss of melted Monterey Jack cheese as well. Over the top was a sprinkle of jicama, cut shoestring fashion. Unfortunately, its texture was rather too much like actual shoelaces for it to add anything to the meal, beyond its appearance.

The pescado veracruzana was excellent. The fish was fresh and flaky, and it was topped with a deliciously piquant sauce of tomatoes, capers and olives. It was served on a bed of fluffy rice, with more than a hint of cilantro, and wilted watercress.

After this enjoyable meal (and finding ourselves with some time before the concert that had brought us downtown), we each chose a dessert. My first choice from the expensively-printed dessert menu proved to be no longer available; apparently the manager was opposed to tossing away such a hefty investment merely because it was no longer correct. My second choice, crepas de cajeta, failed to impress. The crepes in this case, small and slightly sweet, had the texture of whole-wheat tortillas that have been too long in a microwave. The filling, Mexican vanilla ice cream, was flavourful, but had the texture of mellorine. My friend's guava sorbet in "strawberry-watermelon soup" had an impressively deep guava flavour, but no soup. "A" for taste, but "C" for effort.

I did not come to Acenar expecting to dine like this for cheap, but when I add up the charges for what we ordered, I get to about fifty-five dollars; add tax to that and I'm up to sixty. So why was my bill, when it came, over sixty-eight dollars? Because, I believe, those "house margaritas" we had ordered, which were supposed to be $5 each, were something more elaborate, and we were charged for what we got, not what we'd ordered. Contrary to my usual practice, I didn't check the bill closely on this occasion, but that wouldn't have mattered: there were no prices on the drinks menu, so I wouldn't have known. It's only now, after the fact, looking at the menu on line, that I see the price and realize I was charged for something else.

I'm prepared to accept my share of the blame for not having been more vigilant about it, and I will put the difference down to plain ol' human error on the waitress's part. But next time I go to Acenar, I'll be more careful. The margaritas were good, but personally I'd rather have the extra five bucks.
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