It was off for a day trip to Toluca, without traffic an hour west of here, however, that wasn’t the case, and it took a bit over two hours to get there. As the bus trudged along the skies darkened, it began to rain, it was clearly windy, and on arrival, I found that the temperature had dropped from around 60 to around 45, and me in a light sweater. I had about two hours until my lunch reservation, and had planned to spend it walking around, but at that point, grabbed a cab and had them take me to Cosmovitral, the city’s famed indoor botanical garden. The rain, thankfully, slowed to a mist, and I got a couple of photos. And then… inside, for a mere 10 pesos (about 60 cents)….
Now that’s one heck of a greenhouse!
After spending about 45 minute in the botanical garden, I ventured outside to find that the skies had cleared, the temperature had at least come up to one that was comfortable walking, maybe the mid to high 50s, and so I wandered a bit and gradually made my way towards my destination. Toluca’s a pretty little city.
My destination, Amaranta, Francisco Murguia 402, is a bit unexpected. It’s in what amounts to a low to mid range rent commercial district, surrounded by rundown two story homes and businesses. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Looking at it from the outside, you don’t expect it to have made it on to the top 50 list for Latin American restaurants (#22).
Inside, another story. Beautiful room. A couple of waiters in black jacket and trousers, white shirt, very formal. Older gentleman in a sweatshirt and a down vest comes over and asks me what I want. Not exactly the welcome one expects in a restaurant of Amaranta’s stature – and in fact he, and another guy dressed similarly who is behind the bar, are fixtures throughout the meal. Gradually, however, more staff come in – when I arrived there were just the two waiters, and besides myself, two people already there dining – it’s 1:30 in the afternoon. By the time I leave, close to 4:00, the place is completely packed, and there are around 10 waitstaff working. They also don’t have my reservation on the books, despite the fact that I both made it six weeks ago by phone (they only accept phone reservations, no emails, no online system), and reconfirmed it by phone last week. Actually, I note, since I’m near the door, they seem to not have most people’s reservations, but they manage to seat everyone anyway.
Of course, I’m going to go for the tasting menu, and once again, I spot a dish on the menu that I want that isn’t on it, so I add that to the mix. But first up a pambacito, a mini, reinterpreted version of the pambazo, a classic sandwich made of a white bread roll dipped in guajillo chili sauce and filled with potatoes and chorizo. Here, it’s with potatoes and shredded chicken, and accompanied by a guacamole. It’s a little sloppy to eat, and there’s no silverware, in fact while most of the patrons do as I did and pick it up and go for it, a bit later a trio of very haughty business folk (snapping the fingers, talking in loud voices, showing videos at high volume on their phones, and ordering the waiters around) announced in loud voices that “we’re not peasants like the rest of these people, bring us plates and silverware or get it the fuck off our table”. Class. Shear class.
Carpaccio de manitas de cerdo en vinagre – The extra plate, a “carpaccio” of cooked and pressed pigs’ feet in vinaigrette with red cabbage, carrots, chayote squash, and jalapeños. Seriously people, this is becoming a pet peeve (okay, it’s happened twice now), as the quote from Princess Bride goes, “You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”. Actually, I know it doesn’t. A carpaccio is thin slices of raw meat, dressed with some sort of sauce. I can accept, and have used it myself, extending that to vegetables. But, if it’s cooked, it’s not carpaccio, regardless of whether you serve it hot or cold.
The tasting menu itself starts with Ensalada de vegetales impregnados con vinagre de piña y jamaica – a salad of rather crunchy vegetables infused with pineapple vinegar and hibiscus flower. Good flavors, nice balance, pretty plate.
Taco de plaza, jitomate, chile manzano, nopales, queso de rancho, cilantro y chicharrón – a taco de plaza is a traditional taco of the region, filled with a stew of barbacoa (that’s the meat steamed in the banana and maguey leaves like I learned to do in my cooking classes last week), tomatoes, and numerous other ingredients, here with manzano chilies, cactus pad, crunchy chicharrón (deep fried pig skin/fat), and a locally made cheese that was grated over the plate tableside. Delicious!
Caldo de costilla de res, con cilantro, cebolla, papa y zanahoría – I do like my soups, and while this one was perfectly fine, with its flavorful beef shortrib broth and a little of the shredded meat, some onion, potato and carrot, it was kind of a blah dish in comparison to the rest of the meal. I’d have much rather had their squash and corn soup with cactus honey and fresh cheese, as advertised on their website – bringing up another pet peeve – if you’re going to publish your menu on your website, keep it up-to-date. I don’t know if there’s a single dish on the website version that’s on the actual one.
Nuestro salmón. Servido con salsa cremoso de chile manzano, acelgas de huerto, y gratin de papa – relatively local salmon-trout, seared perfectly, and served with a creamy manzano chili sauce, chard leaves, and potato gratin. My waiter said it was a sweet potato gratin, but both the menu and my tongue say potato. At this point, I was offered bread to go with my meal – quite good breads actually – but apparently, the waitress whose job it is to walk around serving bread, was one of those who came in later, around 3pm, and no one but her serves bread. She rushed around serving all the tables, regardless of what point they were in their meal, from people still looking at their menus, to people already having dessert.
Papada de cerdo con pipián verde, y puré de camote ahumada, chayote encurtido en jamaica y vino tinto – the second of the two fancy places using papada, the loose hanging jowl skin flaps of a pig, as their main course. Is this just a trendy chefs’ ingredient right now, showing they can use an obscure cut of meat and make something tasty from it, or is there some sort of local tradition of playing up this ingredient? Inquiring minds and all that. Here’s the sweet potato, and pickled chayote squash, and all of it in a green pumpkin seed sauce. Tortillas on the side if you wanted to wrap or roll, I decided not to and just ate it like a stew.
Palate cleanser of what the waiter described as a mantecado ice cream, and red fruit granité. The ice cream wasn’t mantecado, which, by the way, is a local delicacy of what amounts to sweetened lard – it was, I think, coconut and vanilla.
But hey, here’s the pork fat ice cream, in the Peras nixtamalizadas, con helado de mantecado y mermelada de manzana – pears that have been treated with lime (not the fruit, the calcium oxide) the same way corn is treated before it’s ground to make tortilla masa, or the Peruvian mote. Accompanied by that sweet pork fat ice cream and apple marmalade. And decent coffee on the side.
Okay, the round-up of that? Beautiful room. Friendly, attentive service, but with missteps, like the guys in their sweatshirts and down jackets being in the room, the reservations not being written down, the menu being different from what’s published on their site, the bread service, the flowers (there are little flower pots on every table, and as soon as you sit down, someone runs over and removes the flower pot and sets it on a shelf by the window, just bizarre), and the waiter mixing up ingredients on dishes. Just from those things, it surprises me that this place is on the top 50 list. On the other hand, the food is, if I may use the word, divine. Loved it all, beautifully presented, great flavors, and a smart progression to the menu. All told, with non-alcohol cocktail to start, a glass of wine, and tip, $84.
I was, more or less, going to just call it a day after getting back, and maybe cook something up with the ingredients I bought in the market the day before, but I got a message from Nicholas Gilman, who I mentioned earlier in this trip, a local food writer, asking me if I wanted to join him at a cocktail party introducing Zacapa Rum’s Centenario, a 23 year old rum. Why not? It was held at the relatively new Mercado Roma, not so much a market as a big hipster food stand hall. I’ve never seen so many beards and tattoos in one place before. It was fun, though overly crowded, I got to know Nicholas a little better, but still, I’m not big on cocktail parties like this, so after about an hour and a half, maybe a half dozen hors d’oeuvres that were just okay (with one exception that was brilliant), I excused myself and headed back to read and rest.