I’m Gonna Go Fishing… Marisquería Playa Escondida

I'm gonna go fishing
That's what I'll do
Think about nothing
Not even you
Catch a real big one, a big speckled trout
Snap in the water I'll pull him on out
-lyric by Peggy Lee

Let’s face it: when a French person tells you where to eat you don’t question it, you just go. That’s why when Chilanga-Parisian publiciste par excellence Emilie Fresneau was generous enough to spill les haricots about this jewel of a seafood stand, I ran down to Escandon as soon as I could. Despite its politically spirited sounding location, a couple of blocks from Patriotismo on calle José Martí, this market’s a rather sleepy place, not as well patronized as it should be (support your local Mercado, please!). You enter the dreary ‘50’s Mexi-socialist hangar-like space, passing the usual cheap China clothing, plastic goods and two-bit barbers; barely a shopping Sra. in sight. But dead center you come face to face with the popular and bustling Marisquería Playa Escondida. Similar in appearance to other seafood stands around town, this one turns out to be just that much better. C’est vrai! A long counter snakes around the corner seating happy eaters fulfilling their aquatic fantasies. The large and surprisingly diverse menu offers the usual marisquería favorites: cocteles, tostadas, ceviches, filetes. But there’s more. On my first visit, unprepared, I started with a simple ceviche de pescado. Not the usual mass of shredded mystery fish swimming in an unsubtle acidic pool of brine, it was a deftly fashioned heap of strips of fresh white fish, artfully seasoned. Reminded me of something I had eaten in the Mercado Central in Lima, more Peruvian than Mexican. I was ready to move on to a nice filete al mojo de ajo and I did. I was served a gleaming plate of filets perfectly sautéed and smothered in slivers of sweated garlic – I can still smell that Provençal-like aroma if I close my eyes. But as I ate, I saw the master chef ritualistically constructing a plate of what turned out to be called ‘pata de mula preparada’. These clam-like molusks are ‘prepared’ with chopped tomato, onion, chili, cilantro, lime and a host of seasonings too numerous to recall. I had to order a plate for myself. You slurp up the ‘sauce’, one shell at a time, which reveal a payload of chewy oceanic meat reminiscent of conch. Perfectly balanced it was. I thought that surely I was done, when two dainty plates of something, pretty as Seurat seascapes, floated by. They were ensaladas de mariscos – seafood salads – and were done Spanish style, i.e. in olive oil and a few drops of lime. They were simple and fresh as could be, as was everything I tasted here.
Traditional with a touch of ingenuity - I found the balance I always hope for.
So, Emilie, merci, merci, and as Mrs. Child would have said, “Bon Appetit!”

Marisquería Playa Escondida
Mercado Escandon no. 99
corner of José Martí & Agricultura, Colonia Escandon
'pedidos a domicilio'
Tel. 5525-0215
open daily until about 5PM

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Surf & Turf in La Condesa: Mero Toro

The Condesa has grown up. Sophisticated eating coupled with mature ambiance, once confined to the Polanco/Lomas upper crust has finally crossed the park and landed on Avenida Amsterdam in the form of an interesting new venue: Mero Toro. In their new locale Gabriela Cámara and Pablo Bueno, whose wildly successful seafood palace Contramar is on everybody’s ‘best’ list, decided to concentrate on interesting food in a comfortable environment with accessible prices.
The setting, a formerly non-descript modern storefront, makes good use of the low-ceilinged rectangular space. The floors are warm retro terrazzo and the walls have been paneled in rough-hewn wood, a common design solution elsewhere but not here in Mexico City. A large abstract panel adds a touch of vibrancy to the otherwise muted tones. Music is soft and appropriate - a rarity in this fiesta-loving town. Slow Food queen Gabriela, who was “extremely involved in every detail of the place” explains that the name comes from “Mero (the fish) and Toro (bull). It’s sort
of our version of “surf and turf” since everyone was asking whether the restaurant would also be seafood, and we wanted to make it clear that it would be different.” She goes on to theorize, “Our main interest in Mero Toro is that the food be really good; seriously good." It is. The kitchen is in the capable hands of master chef Jair Téllez, formerly of La Laja en Ensenada, who makes sure even the simplest dishes – a grilled fish or steak – are perfectly done. The small, constantly changing, unpretentious, and quirkily creative menu offers eight entradas, seven main dishes and four desserts, most for under $150 pesos. Ingredients are chosen selectively and strategically, with an eye to seasonal freshness, smart combinations and the occasional salute to cultural tradition. Gabriela and Téllez, in developing their concept try to remain true to where we are. “In many cases that brings us to Slow Food, and, of course, in most cases, to local food”, Gabriela says. “With local, however, we don’t just mean local to here -we’re not there yet-, but local to the ingredient or the place of production. For example, we have many products from Rancho Cortez, which is in the Valle de Guadalupe, close to Ensenada. That, of course, is not local to here, but it is better than most ranches in terms of how they produce and grow their stuff. The sheep and cows eat only local grasses and therefore the meat and cheese from them is way better than anything else you can find.”
Start with a mixed salad of organic greens. Simple and perfectly dressed, it is crowned with roasted beets, which draw it out of the one-dimensional. I was fascinated by the idea of a sopa rústica de alubias, erizo y aceite de chorizo (rustic soup of white beans, sea urchin and oil of chorizo). This peculiar combination turned out to be rich and appealing, warm in color, creamy in texture, the flavor vaguely smoky with a touch of sea air - brilliant. Sardina fresca rostizada, toronja, berros y salicornia (fresh roast sardine, grapefruit, watercress and salicornia, a green succulent) is an exercise in harmony, the four potentially starring ingredients sing happily together like the Ink Spots.
From the plato fuerte section comes capellini con chile y jaiba a simple dish I would try to make at home, but could not do so well. Risotto a la Mexicana con camarones is undoubtedly a nod to Gabriela’s Italian/Mexican roots and it is appropriately picante. The filete de dorado al sárten con chícharros cremosos, bok choy y límon makes lovely use of these locally grown, seasonal greens. The fish is beautifully browned, but tender and juicy, the accompaniments herbaceous and bright. The star of the show for carnivores is the costilla corta de res lentamente horneada – short ribs slowly baked. Accompanied by small roast potatoes and onions, it’s falling apart tender, the sauce full-bodied, fruity and smoky--as good as it gets.
Of the four desserts, my favorite is the pastelito de chocolate y almendra con helado de almendra tostada in which the chef brings out the best of these two classic mouthwatering delights. Worth sampling is the pannacotta de lima con mandarina y chico zapote: here, the old world happily embraces the tropical new.
A caveat: the wine list is quite expensive, with few choices for under $600; this is not a good thing.
Dinner will cost around $500 pesos, below the average of most upscale venues. Mero Toro is a welcome and much needed addition to the contemporary D.F. dining scene, and I hope its early success goes to show that we’re ready for something different.

Mero Toro

Avenida Amsterdam 204
Between Iztacihuatl & Chilpancingo, Condesa
Tel. 5564-7799
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 1:30-11:00 p.m., Sunday  1:30 - 6 p.m. (closed Monday)

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