Saturday, November 16, 2013


I like to let a place settle in before risking a meal there, and since I've never even been to either or any of Danny Bowien's other places ( here in the city, or the original in San Francisco), I wasn't planning on being the guinea pig here at all.  It really wasn't even on my radar yet but for mentions in the press... heck, as of writing this, it's still not even technically OPEN yet.  But that's all basically moot, 'cause Bowien and company have hit the ground running, and if my meal at Cantina is even marginally indicative of what this man is capable of, a mission to Mission Chinese Food just jumped to the top of my list.

There was concern as to whether he could pull off Mexican given his Asian credentials.  But he IS from San Francisco (Mexi-central), and seems to have embraced their dexterity with the cuisine effortlessly.  The crowd that night was almost as awe-inspiring as the food to come: fellow Californian Alice Waters was in the house, bi-coastal superstar Andy Ricker, global phenom Rene Redzepi, New York celebri-chefs Frankies Castronuovo and Falcinelli, and Jean-Georges vet and t.v. sugar-boy Johnny Iuzzini.  He had some top shelf tastebuds to impress.  I can only imagine they all were.  There might not be such a celebrity line-up when you finally score your table among the only thirty seats offered at any given moment, but then again there might be.  Bowien has accumulated quite a following after the success of MCF, and  has become something of a celebrity in his own right.

First thing to hit the table were thick-cut crunchy tortilla chips made in house, their hearty, corny aroma wafting from the paper-lined cup.  Tortillas are made on site; you can see them rolling off the conveyer belt through the window to the spacious kitchen.  The kitchen actually takes up about 50% of the real estate - but then, there's important work being done here.   The rest of the room glows with neon, colorful lacy flags adorn the ceiling, and a dazzling floor of imported Mexican tiles conclude the sensory assault below your feet.  An energetic soundtrack bolsters the mood even further.  The energy is palpable, and it translates throughout the space and the cuisine.  Like those chips: hot, thick and salty- perfect vessels for a bright, zesty salsa flaunting bits of char on juicy chunks of red and green tomato.  Just enough are provided to titillate your appetite, and although you'll want more, save room for everything yet to come.  You'll want to try as many things as possible.

Grilled Romaine
Menu's still not up online, but from memory it's broken up into small, appetizer plates, tacos, mains and sides.  I'm not one to judge a scallop and beef heart ceviche, but my dining companion deemed it a little underseasoned: mostly it went uneaten.  Grilled romaine had a haunting, spicy punch that took its time to hit.  It was a little watery, and although served with a lemon wedge certainly already had all the acid it needed without any additional spritz.  Things immediately looked up with a novel egg dish: a soft scramble studded with pert rings of strikingly red chile and a blanket of unctuous caviar, straddled by a generous swath of uni all
Eggs, eggs and gonads.  And skin.  On a tortilla. With chiles.
piled on top a tortilla.  Diaphanous shards of weightless chicharrones imparted their
salty crunch when crumbled into the steaming egg.  Or eggs, that is.  Or egg and eggs and gonads.  Whatever.  Visually stunning, and none the less so on the palate, I'm guessing the foodie press is going to love this one.

Lamb Taco

On a more traditional note, tacos are ordered individually, so we chose one lamb and one mushroom, which were two of the best things all night.  Lamb shoulder was meaty and rich, with hardly a trace of gamey lanolin, and roasted into crunchy chunks and tender morsels mixed together underneath a scattering of cilantro, chunked tomatoes and smooth Mexican crema.  Another featured earthy hongos, flavorful enough on their own that with the toothsome, fragrant tortilla it needed little adornment.  Pickled charred cauliflower is a perfect accompaniment to a whole roasted chicken (for two, or more), itself also brined, rendering its flesh brilliantly tender,
Whole roasted chicken
snowy white under the bluish toned lighting.  The magnificent bird is served on a bed of porridge-y rice, its chewy, creamy grains studded with meaty chunks of pork, sweet golden raisins and a smattering of fragrant mint leaves.  Paired
Pickled charred cauliflower
with the
 lettuce and/or cauliflower, its a shareable dish that could feasibly serve up to four.

So far, no sweets.  We took it upon ourselves to offer up a bevy of suggestions in keeping with a Mexican theme, but even if fried ice cream does end up on the menu, I'm not sure I can take credit (however much I'd love to).  I'd certainly be happy if it did.   (Churros were being tossed around as an option.)  Thing is with Bowien is that with his incredible talent and cross-continental success, he's as humble and accomodating as anyone I've ever met.  His only problem here might be getting people to leave.  With the tight quarters, turnover could be an issue: it's not the kinda place you want to dine-and-dash.  I could've stayed there all night,
 nursing one of their speciality cocktails (a mellow vodka based tipple with yuzu and mint was as good a stans-in for dessert as it was an apertif), grooving the tunes, watching Jenny McCarthy projectile-squirt mustard onto a hotdog in front of the bustling open kitchen, and basically enjoying the show.  Because dinner at Mission Cantina isn't just a great meal- it's a bit of a party.  So while Jenny won't last, Danny Bowien most certainly will.

172 Orchard Street
No Phone or Website Yet.
Opens November 20.

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