Here's a place that's been open not even a year, and it's already got a James Beard Best Restaurant Semi-finalist award. It's also a place I've heard very minimal buzz about, though it's situated in the heart of what should be a very buzz-worthy, hip location. A place with cutting edge architecture and interior design. Beautiful website too. But La Condesa showed some flaws in the meal, and at their prices, it makes me hesitate on any rush to return.
Wednesday night at 7 pm. We were seated in a booth under the gigantic hyper-kinetic back wall; it's some huge star burst design (see the pics on their website) made from....old wallpaper? Posters? Can't quite tell. Our waiter came by and asked if we had dined there before, and neither of us had. He said he'd give us some time to look over the menu, and took our drink order. I asked if there were any specials not on the menu which we should be aware of, and he said yes, but since we hadn't been in before, he wanted us to look over the menu as it could be overwhelming at first glance & he gave us an orientation to the menu. A few minutes later, and back with ice teas, he asked if we wanted chips & salsa, and he proceeded to upsell us with one of their fresh guacamoles, complete with pomegranate seeds & queso fresco; we also ordered the cangrejo (crab) huarache. I did really like our waiter; he was chatty and informative, and not obtrusive. He named his favorite dishes, apologized when looking at his notes for the evening specials, and was well acquainted with the items on the menu.
The appetizers arrived, and I sort of consider the actual dish ware they were served on to be old-school Americana. White oval plate, with a red flower border, and the chips were in a metal bowl with that flecked paint (like dishes you take camping) with a similar spoon (see the picture). There were four (!) different freshly made salsas; all had great flavor. I had the waiter run through the types twice, but without writing it down, I can't remember all of them, but there was habanero & apple; a creamy poblano, a salsa verde, and .... but all very tasty. The guac was nice too; the pomegranate seeds were fresh, which I had been hesitant about because it's not really pom season.Huaraches are a fried piece of masa dough, in a oval shape, that are topped with different things; the name derives from the Mexican sandals -- the masa is shaped like a sandal. Ours arrived, with lovely crab and pickled red onion; the masa was quite dense, though appropriately crisp. Looking back now at the menu, they have huaraches described as "crispy corn tortillas with different toppings." That sounds like a tostado; to me, there's nothing "tortilla" about what was presented....I wonder how many confused customers they get. Anyway, it was tasty.
For main dishes, I ordered the barbacoa de cordero (lamb) and my companion, the pato con mole negro (duck with mole sauce) both to our waiter's approval; he says the lamb is one of his favorites. My lamb dish was outstanding. It was a lamb chop, cooked perfectly to medium-rare, as requested, atop some roasted lamb shoulder meat, which has been cooked in maguey (agave) leaves. I'd love to see how this is done, since the agave plants I am familiar with have very thick, tough leaves! The shoulder meat was on the salty side, but had great flavor & somewhat crisp, kind of chewy texture. Also accompanying the meat was a well-emulsified jalapeno-mint sauce, which was the perfect balance of both flavors. The plate was rounded out by a cup of fresh corn with crema and seasonings (a little rich, but delicious) While reviewing the menu for this write up, I noticed the term "esquite", but had no idea what it meant. I have also now learned it's the proper term for my bowl of corn; elote denotes corn on the cob, that's roasted, often with seasonings, butter, mayo, etc. Finally a salad with red onion, radish, and some green leaves (spinach? arugula?) rounded out the plate. Now the menu description calls it a cactus salad, but I don't think I found anything remotely cactus-like (I have eaten nopales before)....unless I am way off base in thinking the cactus were onions, but I don't think so. Tasty, yes. Cactusy, no.
Now for the mole dish. I love a good mole negro sauce -- it's that marriage of multiple types of chiles, spices such as cinnamon and allspice, nuts (often almonds), seeds (pumpkin, sesame), and chocolate, usually in the form of cocoa powder or bittersweet chocolate. They are not to everyone's liking, kind of like curry dishes, but I love them! Over the years, I have found the ones at Miguel's and Sazon to be some of the better in town; hear Borrego de Oro's is great. I have also made my own on a few occasions, and so I can greatly appreciate the couple of hours it can take to make it, not to mention the lengthy list of ingredients. Well, it apparently takes three days to make this mole. Our waiter said the chef does it when no one else is in the kitchen, as it's exact ingredients & process seem to be a secret. I would have ordered the mole if my companion had not; it's often the dish I order when I go to a new interior Mexican restaurant for the first time. The sauce tasted great; it had the high and low notes to it, a good balance of spiciness with sweet. From what I could tell though, there just wasn't a whole lot of sauce on the plate. There was a duck breast and a confit leg, on top of rice, with a bit of the sauce over them. I am used to the poultry being almost smothered in mole, and that's how I like it. Furthermore, the skin on the duck breast was very soggy, not crisp at all. So I'd give high points to the mole sauce, but not so much to the execution of the rest of the dish.
For dessert, I ordered the tarta de chocolate salada, and my companion the cafe con leche. Mine was a chocolate & caramel tart with sea salt on top, with roasted coconut ice cream. The crust on my tart was not crisp....maybe a couple days old? Not a great crust, but the filling was good, and there was a ton of salt on it. The ice cream was another disappointment. It didn't taste remotely like coconut, and the texture was granular, as if it had melted and been refrozen, not smooth and creamy like good ice cream should be. The cafe con leche was a huge coffee cup of a thick pot de creme of richness! A small espresso cup might have been more appropriate given how rich it was. So, a little hit and miss, which I think could be said for the whole meal.
La Condesa has a lot of terms on the menu the average diner, and even the slightly above average diner (me!) aren't immediately familiar with. Huarache, chipotle meco, salsa morenita, esquites.... maybe they need to include a glossary on the menu.
Pictures you ask, where are the pics of the main courses? Unfortunately, they did not turn out on my camera phone. They kept dimming the lights, so by the time the main dishes arrived, it was much darker, and my phone couldn't handle it; the pics are very grainy. If you're dying to see them, email me, and I'll send them to you! Interestingly enough, the booth adjacent to us was photographing their food as well. However, they had a complete professional set up -- lights on the table, the mini umbrellas to direct the lighting, and a HUGE camera! Definitely puts mine to shame! But, what it really made me realize is I need to carry a flashlight, so I don't encounter this problem again. My Android phone takes really good pictures, when there's enough light, and in general, it's easier than carrying my digital camera around. So I will find a small flash light to carry in my purse....The pictures, like the meal, was hit and miss.