About ten years ago, it was Japan. A food writer, chef and TV personality flies to Tokyo for a week and returns with a nervous breakdown. There are talks of raw, creepy stuff, unimaginably fresh or refined ingredients, and perverse Orientalism and ultimately unattainable conclusions that their ability to describe is insufficient. You have to experience it to understand.
I think my generation is going the same way, probably about Korea and its incredible eclectic cuisine – but definitely about Mexico. I am not enough, but I am enough to know that we need many interesting years to learn about the diversity, creativity and history of food. Will Zapote, the latest in a string of “modern” Mexican restaurants, help us out? it’s complicated.
The yellowfin tuna and spicy crab tostada was an easy early win. The seasoning is spicy and the tostadas are a testament to the good work they do in the kitchen, making them fresh every day. However, I wish I could report on the beef tartare tacos with grilled bone marrow. It promised a lot on the menu but was bland when it arrived. The raw beef was under seasoned so there wasn’t much to reduce the impact on the marrow. The combination of fat and stylish aged funk means an overwhelming taste of tallow.
The whole thing about beef tongue is its rich flavor and firm texture without grains or fibers. That’s why it heals, presses and slices so beautifully. It’s an important ingredient in Mexican cuisine, but I think it’s been put through some serious work here–either extremely careful low-speed cooking or sous-vide. The resulting texture is disturbing; close to firm tofu. Cashews and chile de árbol give it a warm, fragrant, and crunchy texture, but you can spread it on tortillas just like cream cheese. I like to cook for a long time. It extracts a lot from the meat. Here, though, it feels like someone is so focused on technology that they’ve lost focus on the final destination.
A chicken thigh roasted with consummate skill: crispy skin, golden and bubbling, meat so slowly roasted that it almost burnt. The ideal balance is not easy to achieve. Toss it was “sprinkled” with too much salt, couldn’t finish it, and a peanut mole that was almost tasteless. It’s likely my failure to understand the use of nuts in Mexican cooking, but a British diner sees “peanuts” on a menu and thinks roasted peanuts and peanut butter. Raw peanuts, one of sometimes dozens of ingredients that are ground up and added to a traditional mole’s complex sauce, aren’t like that. In fact, it tastes more like a seed or a bean. The result, even with an otherwise subtle spice addition, can be disappointing.
Recado rojo is an achiote based paste This adds a unique dimension to the monkfish’s hunk of muscle. It works really well with grilled corn, but with a generous side of smoked cod roe. I don’t know if there is an ancient tradition of smoked cod roe in some parts of the vast and diverse country of Mexico – it’s entirely possible – but I do know that it’s such a popular ingredient in London that it’s already bordering on a cliché. If it works, I applaud the mashup. it doesn’t.
One of the many confusing classic beliefs held by chefs is that people don’t like brown crabmeat. Honestly, we need to get over this. Fresh white crab meat, steamed within sight of the sea, has a flavor so subtle it almost disappears that it rarely survives commercial picking, packing and shipping. Brown crabmeat is a treasure trove of crab flavor. You either prefer clean white, flavorless meringue, or crabmeat; any color choice imaginable is a distraction. Combining mild, well-chosen white crabmeat with sticky polenta, for me, was a misjudgment.
Pozole is one of the greatest porridges in world cuisine; fresh-baked beef tongue tortillas are so ingrained in a country’s culture and eating habits that it defies notions of written history. Serving only the white meat of the crab or the tongue in low temperature cooked gelatinous cubes are modern ideas. More importantly, they are put on the table through electoral decisions. This is a completely subjective judgment, but I believe these decisions are wrong.
Probably like everyone in the restaurant, I very much want people to experience all the wonder of Mexican food, the novelty of flavors and combinations, the variety and depth of historical influences – but it also needs context. God, please break the conventions of terse monosyllabic menu descriptions and give poor punters a chance. Go to the keyboard and tell people why you love pozole and why they love it too. That way, they won’t find themselves diving mindlessly into a bowl of runny porridge.
The Zapote is a great room with the best and most attentive service I have experienced in years. I respect — no, love — what it’s trying to achieve. But, at the moment, it’s failing due to some misjudged cheffy flourishes and communication issues.
At one point, I overheard someone at the next table say, “Gosh, I don’t think you can screw up Mexican food.” I don’t think Zapote has done that, but most of the people who dine there are experiencing it for the first time to completely different cuisines. In order to love it, they need an explanation.
70 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4QX; zapote.co.uk
Savory dishes: £6-£29
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