DINING: EL CARLOS ELEGANTE - IT’S MEXICO CITY FINE DINING
by Andrew Chalk
How to sum up El Carlos Elegante? It is the upscale menu of Mexico City housed in an idealization of a traditional Mexican hacienda. There is low light, an energetic vibe, and the place is killing it. At 6:45pm on a Tuesday night, the last few tables were being filled, in what is a very large establishment spread over four rooms. Sure, this surge is part Hot-New-Place, part holiday season, part post-pandemic exuberance. But, given management’s track record of success (The Charles), it is odds-on a permastate, not an aberration.
It is also warranted. ECE is serving a style of food touched-on, but not equalled, elsewhere in the city. It reminded me of reports of the high-end of Mexico City, and of a personal visit to Guadalajara’s Alcalde. Since Mexico City gets two entries in the world’s top 100 restaurants before France, the USA, or the UK get any at all (between them!), that is a high bar to meet.
THROUGH THE MENU
In concrete terms, you start with a menu divided into five columns, titled One-Hitter, Cold, Masa, Vegetales, and Grill. At our media event, from the One-Hitter (mouth-sized appetizer) column we silently succumbed to Tuna Toro. A cute little hard taco stuffed with tuna tartare mixed with avocado and topped with pickled roe. One mouthful and it was all gone, but the memory endured for days. Equally ethereal was Mexican Foie, a cylinder of goose foie gras coated in a micro thin crisp jacket and topped with gloopy sweet tamarind and suggestion-sized flecks of arbol chile. Foie gras lovers, you have never had it like this! Our third strike from the One Hitter column was Crab Croquette, a crab ball knighted with a long slither of avocado and dollop of goat cheese.
Pretty impressive for one column!
From the second column, ‘Cold’ for cold appetizers, a Tiajuana Caesar was a riff on a familiar dish. Chorizo and poblano chile and a dusting of Mexican cheese set the tone, making it a stronger, more fiery version of the Dallas favorite. In a sense this was a coming home for Caesar Cardini’s invention, since Tijuana was its birthplace. Also served cold was Beef Aguachile. Marinated slices of umami-loaded beef with charred onion, soy sauce and Fresno pepper. It went down well and the peppers were not too hot for sommelier Nicole Nowlin’s suggestion of Laberinto 2019 by Cava Quintanilla with grapes from Moctezuma in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. This was a fruit-forward red blend with 40% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, and 30% tempranillo and six months aging in French and American oak. There are 200 wines to choose from on the well-chosen list. Popular right now is beet and some soft white cheese, typically a goat cheese. ECE’s Chayote Salad is their riff on this favorite. Guajillo burrata cheese replaced the goat, bringing a chile’s heat in lieu of goat cheese acid, almonds provided texture and golden beets contributed the earthy oomph (on the night we ate this, red beets understudied).
Another impressive column!
On to ‘Masa’ where Duck Confit Tlacoyo with maitake mushrooms and salsa tinga was our choice. It was one of my favorite dishes. Earthy mushrooms go with almost everybody and that includes fatty slices of duck and the complex tomato and herbal tinga sauce. Just because your mother said “eat your vegetables” this was served with irresistible Roasted Sweet Potato and Refried Lentils, a side that could pass as a dish in its own right. Tostadas were provided as a container for the beans and hoja santa for accent, along with queso fresco for sweetness and creamy flavor. Finally, Okra and Shishitos came from the Vegetales column.
A pièce de résistance at ECE is Osso Bucco Carnitas. A deeply flavorful long-cooked veal shank spiced with the costeño rojo pepper in a vibrant orange sauce as though the dish were
I know you are going to consider me an argent provocateur for the American College of Cardiology, or utterly silly to suggest it, but do have the Mexican Chocolate for dessert (Dulces!). Rich chocolate lurking under a canopy of meringue.
Before leaving, ask for Eleanor (spirit lady) to show you the long list of Mezcals where ECE is ahead of the wave in recognizing this Agave spirit’s ascent. If you want to experiment, choose a flight of them. We went frontier-agave in choosing not just a mezcal but two raicilla. Raicilla is another agave distillate, maybe the one to succeed mezcal in America’s rolling love affair with all-things agave. However, at ECE, Nicole Nowlin’s future plans include introducing Dallas to the Pisco Sour ('the margarita that failed’).
We are now finished with the food at what is an absolutely magnificent menu. We could not have navigated it nearly as adeptly without waiter Chris’ help. It is the result of the four principals of the restaurant trying the bleeding edge food in Mexico City that was getting global attention, along with J. Chastain, formerly of the Mansion Restaurant at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, who is Group Executive Chef.
The four principals originally came together to form Duro Hospitality in 2020. They are Benji Homsey, an operations and finance guy who played a pivotal role behind Hotel Zaza. Chas Martin, who trained as a chef but spent a lot of time in beverage sales. Corbin and Ross See are an interior designer and an architect respectively whose backgrounds were in residential but who have morphed over into restaurants.
Their first restaurant was The Charles, a modern Italian concept in the Design District. It was a major hit, and shows its staying power by remaining so today. Since late 2021 they have been on a tear adding concepts like Bar Charles, Sister, Cafe Duro, and even a boutique hotel, Casa Duro. However, the speed does not imply a lack of attention to detail. As well as the trip to Mexico City, here is the text of an advertisement for a line cook that they ran on Poached.
The stunning architecture of ECE reflects the inclusion of mainly Mexican-bought furniture. There is more of a homeliness than a restaurant look to ECE that is likely to find copycats in the monkey-see-monkey-do world of restaurant design.
And so with the menu. But it will be hard to pull off as El Carlos Elegante pulls off a duro thing well.