Mexcal lines up stylish eats from a pair of places.
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Mexcal’s flavor fusion had me paralyzed with indecision—Mex or Cal?
On chef-owner Alejandro Corres’ menu, split down the middle between the “California Dinner Menu” and the “Mex Dinner Menu,” the starters on both sides stand out. House-cured Salmon Tartare ($7.50)—with cream cheese, onions, capers, fresh dill crème and toast points—from the Golden State? Or Shrimp Soft Tacos ($7.50)—with housemade tortillas, marinated shrimp, tomatillo salsa and queso fresco—from south of the border? I passed on the house specialty Twice Fried Calamari ($7.50, from the Cal side) only because I tried it on a successful happy hour visit earlier in the month. (It was excellent, especially in tandem with the complimentary buffet—which rotates everything from carne asada nachos to calamari—and half-price cocktails, 4-6pm). Now I was eager to explore further.
With some help from our relentlessly sweet server, JC and I headed south: Ceviche Fresco ($8.50) and the Open Face Quesadilla ($6). In the meantime, a Presidente Margarita ($6) from their upscale drink list hit the afterwork spot.
While we awaited the ceviche, the past and present fused around us. The place still feels very much like the longtime tenant it followed, the Whaler, which closed this spring before Mexcal opened in May under the leadership of Corres (formerly of the Monterey Plaza Hotel): It’s a little dark, lacking a certain ambiance and contemporary feel—our blue pleather booth had a tear in the seat. And true to the Whaler legacy, it still has an open kitchen and lists a line-up of beef dishes like Slow-Roasted Choice Prime Rib ($25/14oz.; $20.50/10oz.) and Grilled Filet Mignon ($25.50). But a new energy is present in Corres and his staff, and opposite the traditional are stylish Mexican dishes like Pollo en Mole Verde ($15.95) and Sole al Achiote ($11.50). It’s old and new, South and West, fused.
The ceviche was inspired, with a fusion all its own: light and fresh sole represented an unconventional addition to the shrimp. It arrived in a sundae cup with a top hat of soft avocado and fresh sour cream, enjoying a slightly spicy red sauce, medium-sized shrimp and tender and mild chunks of sole. The smooth sauce charmed with traces of cilantro and cucumber, the cured shrimp’s texture was just right, but the sole was the clever coup, delicate, tender and harmonious. The four Saltines on the dish weren’t so inspiring.
JC and I also dug the open-faced quesadilla, which came on pizza-like slices of crispy housemade tortilla layered with black beans, smoky torn chicken and queso fresco baked on top. Keeping with the theme, I coaxed some fusion out of the dish by loading the spicy-sweet mango-tomato-cabbage salad that came with it onto the triangles of quesadilla to give it an extra picante kick.
We reined in our appetites to save some room for the headline event. I could’ve deliberated until my eyeballs fused to the page—Pan-Seared Pistachio-Crusted Sea Bass ($20.95) or Mexcal Fajitas marinated in Aztec epozote herbs and black ancho chile ($21)? We straddled the border with a New York steak ($23.50) and a Halibut al Estilo Veracruz ($21.95) and pledged to share.
The halibut’s sauce, with roasted poblano and guajillo peppers, gave the fish some personality. While the accompanying seasoned rice was middle of the road, the fried bananas were fantastic.
Across the table, the steak itself was unspectacular, although its sauce was beautiful, with a rich bone marrow base and pepper, salt and garlic accents. It combined with a leggy house Turner Road Merlot ($6), drawn from a list of 15 bottles ($18-$60) and six wines by the glass, to tag-team my tastebuds.
A stuffed baked potato looked simple but burst with flavor: savory cheddar and garlic blended to pleasing effect.
From there it was onto the Coconut Flan ($5) and its sweet fruit syrup, silky texture, drops of cream artfully drawn into hibiscus flowers, and strawberries sculpted around the perimeter. As our dueling spoons made the flan disappear, someone set to tinkering with the level of the lights. After a good 20 seconds of adjustments, the lighting was right. I look for a similar phenomenon to take place here.
635 Cass St., Monterey • 11am-9:30pm daily • 373-1933.