Chefs Of Mexico Dinner Series

Through his Chefs of Mexico Series, Chef Erwin Ramos of the Ole Restaurant Group is taking diners on a journey through the various regional cuisines of Mexico with some of Mexico’s best chefs. This past Sunday night, he brought chef/author Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina to Zocalo.

Gerson, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, has worked in restaurants including Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano and has written two cookbooks: the James Beard nominated My Sweet Mexico and Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Aguas Frescas, & Shaved Ice. She dreams of owning a little shop and selling paletas (Mexican ice pops) at it, and she's well on her way with a number of street carts (in New York).

I was invited to this dinner as media and brought Jeff along with me. I was excited to see what these two chefs could do together. Gerson and Ramos presented a four-course dinner highlighting the cuisine of Mexico city, which Gerson described as "a melting pot." She explained that it's where people take the dishes they grew up with and add a little twist.

We started the evening with lime chia agua fresca. I had actually never had chia seeds and was interested to see what the drink would be like. It was very refreshing and surprisingly smooth. It reminded me of a lime version of lemonade. Jeff, who had also never tried chia seeds before, even had a second glass.

To kick off the meal, we were served an amuse-bouche of house-made masa filled with roasted tomato salsa and topped with cactus leaves and cotija cheese. Cactus leaves were another first for me. Their texture reminded me of a peeled, cooked pepper. I thoroughly enjoyed this little bite, with its balanced combination of flavors.

Our first course was fresh tuna tostadas with fried leeks, avocado, and guajillo aioli. The tostadas were perfectly salty; the tuna fresh and silky; and the fried leeks, aioli, and avocado worthy accompaniments, each adding their own notes and textures to the dish. This ended up being both my and Jeff's favorite course (and he thought he didn't like raw tuna!).

Our second course was crema panna cotta and roasted beet salad with tangerines, spiced candied pepitas, and honey vinaigrette. Like the first course, this salad had a lot of flavors and textures going on, but they mingled nicely. The crema panna cotta was tangy and a little salty and had a texture more like sour cream or yogurt than panna cotta. Its tangy, savory flavor complemented the sweet beets and tangerines. The whole dish had just the right sweet/acidic balance. And it was plated beautifully.

For the main course, we had a choice of duck or pork belly in a green sauce with potatoes and spinach or achiote-marinated shrimp (and the menu noted that a vegetarian option was also available). Jeff chose the duck and I went with the shrimp. Rice was set on the table to accompany the entrees.

The duck was perfectly cooked, though we both wished the skin was a bit crispier. The green sauce was incredibly hot, and I was relieved I hadn't ordered it because I really couldn't handle that much heat. Jeff tackled it well though.

I was a little disappointed in the achiote-marinated shrimp. It came with plantains, a black bean sauce, and pickled red onion. The components were nicely cooked, but I found the flavor a little monodimensional. It could be that I just expected more after the tuna tostadas and beet salad, which were both full of various flavors. The dish was still good though... I just think it needed a little punch.

When it came time for dessert, we could not escape the heat. Plates of chipotle boca negra with sweet tomatillo sauce and whipped cream were presented to us. I've had Mexican chocolate cakes and cookies before but never any this hot. There was fire in each bite of the decadent chocolate cake. The sweet tomatillo salsa and whipped cream only helped slightly to cut the compounding heat. This is definitely a fabulous dessert for you heat-seekers out there. I wimped out about halfway through.

Fortunately, that was not our only sweet treat. Gerson brought some of her paletas on the trip with her, packed with dry ice, and bowls filled with the hibiscus, coconut, and mango pops made the rounds. Jeff tried a mango pop, and I opted for hibiscus (how can you say no to that gorgeous pink color?). The mango pop was cooling at first but ended up having some spiciness to it toward the center. The hibiscus pop was sweet and refreshing... and I wish I had a whole fridge of them. I also wish I had bought Gerson's book so I could make them at home. (I'm adding it to my wish list and will likely get it when we have our own house and I have somewhere to put it!)

The night was full of interesting dishes and new-to-me ingredients. It was fun to see the collaboration between the two chefs. Just from hearing her talk, I can tell that Gerson is very passionate about her culture and her cooking. She seems energetic, happy, and full of optimism. Maybe by the time I get a chance to head to New York, she'll have her shop all set up.

If you're interesting in attending one of the dinners in the the Chefs of Mexico series, there will be two more. These will be held on June 24 and July 29 at Ole and will feature Poblano and Oaxacan cuisine, respectively. Guest chefs Maria Elena Martinez and Pilar Cabrero will join Ramos in the kitchen. The dinners are $40 per person and start at 6 pm. Head over to Zocalo's event page for more information.

This dinner was complimentary, but as always my opinions are my own.

What's your favorite Mexican food?

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