Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rosa Mexicano is still my favorite...

Rosa Mexicano at Lincoln Center (61 Columbus Avenue at 62nd St.)

When the original Rosa Mexicano opened up in 1984 on Manhattan's upper east side, it shook the restaurant scene by offering elevated classic Mexican cuisine in a more upscale, fine-dining setting.  While that original location (a longtime favorite of mine) still offers much of their original menu with a traditional and old school festive Mexican ambiance, the Rosa Mexicano brand has since expanded.  Now with 9 locations (including three in NYC), patrons can enjoy Rosa Mexicano in New Jersey, Maryland, even California.  Of course as I've watched their empire expand over the past several years, I grew fearful that quality would be compromised in the chain.  So I recently paid a visit to their more elegant and grandiose location across from Lincoln Center to see if I still enjoyed the dishes as much as I recalled (for several years, this was where my friends and I celebrated birthdays and special occasions).

While reservations are highly recommended (especially in the evening with Lincoln Center just a stone's throw away) if you do have to wait, the bar is simply beautiful, with backlit glass panels of pressed rose petals along the ceiling.  They offer the full drink selection, as well as the menu, so if you score a seat, it might be worthwhile option on an evening that an unreserved table seems unlikely.

My favorite seat in the house, however, is just up the floating orange and red terrazzo staircase.  A seat by the window offers impressive elevated views of Lincoln Center and Columbus Avenue, while a table on the railing overlooks a 30-foot iridescent blue tiled gently cascading water fall that steals your breath in the evening light.

With 240 miniature sculpted cliff divers soaring downwards, it's pretty easy to see why the interior has garnered awards and much acclaim.  But here is an insider tip.  Just as several Manhattan venues implement cover charges or admission fees for stunning evening ambiance or entertainment, Rosa Mexicano seems to have built theirs into the menu.  One of it's biggest criticisms has been the price.  Though portions are not noticeably different, lunch items are sometimes $5 cheaper than on their dinner menu.  If you are willing to gaze upon the waterfall in daylight, then lunch here is where you'll find the best deal.  Lunch is served 11:30 to 4:00 weekdays (brunch on the weekends until 2:30) so I recommend arriving around 2:00 to miss the business rush and enjoy a more relaxed early afternoon meal.

Although they've been serving flawless and addictive frozen pomegranate margaritas since long before it became Manhattan mainstream, the bar also offers many classic Mexican concoctions that you won't likely find elsewhere.  Consider La Paloma (Sauza Hornitos reposado tequila with grapefruit soda over ice), El Vaquero (agave nectar, muddled lemons, and grapefruit juice spiked with Jack Daniels), or the Martini Mexicano (Ketel One shaken with jalapeno-infused olive brine), not to mention a coconut-cilantro mojito or a spiced vanilla and clementine orange rosé sangria.

Quacamole is a no-brainer, the best and freshest in the city, so just plan on placing an order right away.  The server will ask you when he inquires whether you prefer tap or bottled agua.  Though they claim a single order serves two, it really is a perfect starter for up to four just to whet your palate for the upcoming meal (remember generous communal bowls of pureed black beans with cheese and deliciously tender red rice are served with the entrees, so plan on being filled up beyond your expectation).  Prepared tableside in traditional lava rock molcajete, the guacamole attendant will wheel a cart directly to you as he cuts open fresh avocado to blend with tomato, onion, cilantro, and jalapenos.  

Even the mild has a tiny kick to it, so order accordingly.  Be sure to clarify if you want no jalapenos whatsoever, as it is definitely present in even the mildest blend.  Along with the creamy avocado dip, you'll receive a basket of soft tortillas, crunchy chips, and ramekins of pasilla de oaxaca and a tomatillo and habanero salsa... smoky and tangy condiments intended to be used as accompaniments throughout the entire meal (although they taste wonderful on the tortillas alone).

My favorite empanadas anywhere are still Rosa Mexicano's empanadas de jaiba.  Three crispy corn turnovers are packed to bursting with jumbo lump crabmeat, and served with a creamy avocado salsa, as well as a mango pico de gallo.  Tropical sweet bits of mango dancing with salty sea lumps of crab and a golden pastry crunch is one of the most divine appetizer combinations fathomable ($12 at lunch or $14 at dinner... same portions).

Not many foods in this world are quite as sinfully delicious as a skillet of melted cheese.  For $9, we enjoyed a generous cast iron cauldron of melted chihuahua cheese with crumbled chorizo, rajas (slow-roasted peppers), and fresh cilantro.  Mix it with the guacamole, wrap it in fresh warm soft tortillas, or dip a crispy chip into it.  At a table for four, we devoured this rather quickly.

One of the best deals at Rosa Mexicano is the taco platter.  Pictured above is a pescado pibil, red snapper marinated in achiote, orange, and garlic, and topped with habanero-lime pickled onions.

Each of the taco skillets (chicken pictured above) are served with a bowl of red-bean chorizo chili, corn esquites (a Mexican street favorite), salsa, and soft corn tortillas, with a small salad of mixed greens.  At lunch, the chicken tacos are $13.50. When you consider that you can easily make four or five tacos with the portion, and individual tacos at authentic vendors in the city run close to $3 a piece, I'm not sure why so many people gripe about the prices at Rosa Mexicano.  Not to mention that they used extremely fresh and superb quality ingredients.  This exact same entree at dinner, however, is $18.50... which does seem like a rather arbitrary and ridiculous mark-up.

My friend ordered a dish I had not yet tried (and believe you me, I have tried almost everything here throughout the years), enchiladas mole blanco.  I have erroneously always assumed mole to be the poblano and chocolate sauce commonly used, but there apparently exist many other variations.  In this extremely satisfying rendition, two corn tortillas are generously stuffed with tangy and spicy tomato-chipotle shredded beef, then blanketed in a thick and creamy sweet corn and pine nut mole.  The rich buttery earthiness of the sauce juxtaposed with the piquant peppered beef was entirely unique and exciting for me to try.  This is a dish I would enthusiastically recommend again ($15... $19.75 at dinner)

I nearly panicked when scanning the menu I noticed the absence of my longtime favorite, the Budin Azteca.  Though my server couldn't offer an explanation, I was relieved to discover that it had simply been renamed Budin de Pollo.  Almost like a Mexican lasagna, this little baked pillow of cheesey deliciousness consists of layers of corn tortillas, pulled chicken, chihuahua cheese, corn, and roasted peppers, surrounded by a moat of poblano cream sauce.  If my arteries could afford it, this is a dish I could eat day after day, and remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures in the entire city.

Is there anything more traditional than churros en bolsa?  Warm Mexican doughnut sticks dusted with cinnamon and sugar.  Crisp and buttery on the outside, soft and warm inside, and served with chocolate, raspberry, and caramel dipping sauces.  Though the milky caramel was decadent, I couldn't help but double-dipping in the chocolate and raspberry for a sweet and tart cordial pastry combination.

Keeping up with the Manhattan cupcake obsession, Rosa Mexicano serves up its own version, the Pingüino... a moist chocolate cupcake filled with hazelnut mousse, topped with whipped creme fraiche.  The cocoa-nutty pastry sits in a pool of espresso-piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) chocolate sauce and is crowned with a chocolate wafer completing the penguin effect.  This was a top hit at the table, moist, not ridiculously rich, balanced beautifully between the chocolate, mousse, and fresh cream.

One of the most unique and delicious of this classic dessert I have ever tried, the Flan de Rosa is incomparably creamy, almost like a vanilla bean panna cotta, served over a thin wafer of toasted almond cake for a unique contrast in texture and flavor you don't ordinarily find.  The pool of maple syrup was almost unnecessary, as the flan itself was so perfect, and paired with an absolutely exquisite and peppery chocolate mole sorbet. Just yet another prime example of how Rosa Mexicano takes classic Mexican recipes and adds just the right amount of elevation to transcend common street food.

The food, despite the somewhat muddled and confused pricing disparity between dinner and lunch, is at the top of its class.  It would be difficult to find better Mexican food in New York City.  And while you may prefer the street vendor or hole-in-the-wall vibe with your chips and salsa and Coronita, it is nice to know that you can enjoy delicious Mexican food and receive exceptional service as well; Rosa Mexicano's service would be hard to beat.  We had to chuckle, as they even drew a curtain in the dining room to separate the patrons from the incoming dinner staff gathering for pre-shift.  Though it's probably intended to delineate private gatherings, we appreciated not seeing or hearing the staff as they prepared for the evening and tasted communal samples of the day's specials.  If you're not going to share, I'd rather not see or hear about it.

Though some may argue, we found that you absolutely get more than what you pay for.  Although I will probably avoid the dinner menu inflation, anyone who considers themselves to be a true lover of Mexican cuisine should at least drop by for lunch.

Rosa Mexicano on Urbanspoon

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