Past Tense: Before He Came to Jalisco Norte, José Meza Built a Compelling Resume on Two Continents
by Andrew Chalk
When I heard in 2017 that a new restaurant, Jalisco Norte, opening in Turtle Creek Village, had hired a young Mexican chef named José Meza I did a doubletake. I had heard of him. A quick check and I had eaten his food earlier that same year but not in Dallas, not even in The USA, but in Mexico on a media tour as he had been executive chef of Ramona, at a resort in Cancun. The review I had written was now moot as Ramona might now be a theme restaurant run by Guy Fieri, or whoever.
The review remained in the round file until the recent reopening in Dallas and people aching to go out again. With Dallas's favorite Michelin-starred chef, Bruno Davaillon, in the witness protection program, where could Dallas diners go where a chef with a similarly illustrious resume could serve them food? Believe it or not, no need to travel further than Oak Lawn, and no need to pay Michelin prices. Here is my review and, after reading it, I bet you go straight to the chef's specials, and never order the enchiladas at Jalisco Norte again.
Parents, be warned, the photos contain (food) porn.
Ramona at Nizuc - The Finest Food of Mexico City, Reborn in Cancun
by Andrew Chalk
Every year we visit just a few restaurants that leave a long-term effect on us. For me, Ramona is one of those. It is the signature restaurant at Nizuc, a luxury resort within 15 minutes of Cancun’s international airport. The powers-that-be within Nizuc’s corporate ownership could easily have decided to use a French or Italian theme for their flagship. Indeed, resort executive chef, Sylvain Desbois, is French and brings impeccable Michelin credentials (Epicure ***, Hotel Bristol, Paris, with Eric Frechon. La Côte d’Or **, Burgundy, with Bernard Loiseau). Thank God they didn’t. They sought the very best culinary themes that were already present in their country. Mexico City is currently a center of global culinary innovation. Dallas-based, Mexico City born, chef Abraham Salum of Salum says “What I've been seeing with a lot of my friends from Mexico City, is a resurgence of indigenous ingredients that had been forgotten with the rise in popularity of fusion cuisine. Chefs are learning from the indigenous groups how to grow them and how to use them in their modern restaurants. It's a fascinating trend!” Nizuc decided to pursue the authenticity path and create a paradigm of the best in Mexico. The chef in charge of Ramona, José Meza, worked at Pujol, ranked as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and described by The Wall Street Journal as “the best restaurant in Mexico City”. Like a lot of the young chefs pursuing a New Mexican Gastronomy he followed a path of learning from the masters in established culinary centers on the way. His personal odyssey took him to Martin Berasategul in the Basque country region of Spain. Bart de Pooter in Belgium, and Noma in Denmark.
Pescado en Mole Verde, Tomatillo, Quelites y Puré de Tallos de Verduras
Armed with global ideas and techniques, Jose Meza’s passion is Mexican food. But how to express it? Meza’s answer is threefold. First, to combine the native ingredients with techniques from established culinary regimes. Second, to combine native ingredients with adopted ingredients and, third, to combine adopted ingredients with indigenous technique. Thus, barbecued aubergine is paired with Mexican pepperleaf oil (with transformative results, by the way). Foie gras is paired with manchamanteles in what I found to be a most imaginative interpretation of the traditional fruit accompaniment to foie gras. And Nixtamalized beans are paired with pickled radish.
Ramona King Crab Salad
But does this skunkworks of modernist cuisine pass muster as satisfying and memorable food? And does the ambiance and service reach the levels expected in restaurants with these pretensions?
Crema de sopa de judías verdes (Cream of Green Bean Soup) bathed a white bowl with was a seductive lime green emulsion topped with blanched green beans and edible flowers. The creamy flavors held a secret, vanilla bean blended into the mix. Watching the thick soup pour languidly from a jug seemed to will one to adopt a slower pace of life.
Among the small plates, Ensalada de cangrejo rey (king crab salad) perches the crab on top of corn kernels and a roasted skin of a chili and gussies it up with wild flowers. Pulpo Tik’in Xic (Octopus Tik’in Xic Style) combines the cephalopod with a list of unusual native flavors -, annatto, native chaya Xcatik oil, and pineapple purée.
A Pescado en Mole Verde, Tomatillo, Quelites y Puré de Tallos de Verduras (Fish in Mole Verde, Tomatillo, Quelites and Puréed Wild Vegetables) enrobed the fish fillet in a sprinkling of the chopped up vegetables delivering earthiness, piquancy, and gastronomic adventure into something unlike widespread european or New American treatments of fish.
Local ingredients get exotic when Cordero y Chinicuil (Lamb and Chinicuil) pairs lamb with maguey worm, a type of edible caterpillar. You may have come across this worm before, sleeping is a mezcal bottle. To complete the shock and awe there is broccoli purée and fresh mint.
Desserts break fewer boundaries, being in the sweet tradition that visitors to Mexico find familiar. We tried Chocolate Cremeux (banana, mezcal and nuts). Mamey Textures (cremeux, foam and ice cream). And Tres Leches (almond cake, vanilla and red fruits). It appears that cremeux, the dense soft chocolate pudding that is the darling in America, is taking over in Mexico as well.
The beverage lists is predictably strong in tequilas and mezcals (not to mention Yucatan native Xtabentún). What is a pleasant surprise is a remarkably informed take on the wines of the Val de Guadalupe in Baja California that are only just now receiving worldwide recognition. French winemaking eminence Henri Lurton has invested there, and the Ramona sommelier shared an impressive chenin blanc that Henri Lurton made.
Service is at the gracious and efficient level international visitors expect and the sumptuous dining room, while maybe a little too serious in its contrasting greys and blacks, is luxurious and lightened up by the strategic and plentiful placement of effusive flower arrangements.
To answer my two earlier rhetorical questions, Ramona is an international-class restaurant in Cancun and should be on every gourmet’s must-do list.