Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Local Restaurant Reviews

About Chef David Sterling

Néctar *****

Chef Roberto Solis
Revisted 4 March, 2008 – International/Yucatecan fusion. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 7pm – 2am. Avenida 1 No. 412 Interior between Calle 6a and Calle 8, Colonia Díaz Ordaz. Reservations: 938.0838.
I HAVE HAD SO MANY disappointing meals in Mérida, witnessed so much inconsistency and bad service and endured so many near wrecks on the gravy train that I have learned always to give a sturdy proviso before I subject any of my friends or students to restaurants I have previously enjoyed. And while a tiny voice inside now tells me to keep an even keel and not rave, I can’t help myself and am reduced to the giddy paroxysms of an adolescent. Oh my God! Our meal last night at Néctar was like totally awesome!

Remembering the delicious rack of lamb Gael Greene’s companion ordered on our visit a couple of weeks ago (of which fortune and a little nagging yielded a taste) I ordered the same last night for my main course and refused to let anyone else near it. I didn’t mention the lamb in the previous review because neither waiter nor manager could explain to me how it was prepared. So there I had my excuse– and another visit to Néctar and a trip into its efficient kitchen finally clarified how this absolutely succulent and perfect lamb came to be.

The lamb is cooked in a method known as sous vide, which in French means “under pressure”. The method, which dates to the 1960s, has until relatively recently been used primarily for industrial production of food in large quantities. Simply put, it is “boil-in bag” cooking, although that simplistic description and its unfortunate associations to Green Giant really do a great injustice to the ingenuity and complexity of the process.

Briefly, the meat (or fish or melon) is seasoned or marinated, then sealed in plastic under high pressure. It is then heated very slowly in a Roner – a countertop device resembling a small metal Jacuzzi with a digital thermostat – with moving waters that rarely exceed a temperature of 130˚ F. Meats like lamb are cooked for hours depending on the size of the cut. To finish, my lamb was then lightly seared on a grill for a bit of color and lovely caramelization.

The advantage of the sous vide method is that during the vacuum process, foods absorb any flavorings put into the plastic pouch, literally “sucking” them into the flesh. Further, since foods are slow-cooked, tissue doesn’t break down in the same way as at higher temperatures, meaning that the juices stay put in the critter being cooked.

All I can say is: try the rack of lamb at Néctar!! Chef/owner Roberto Solis learned about the sous vide process during his last sabattical in August of 2007, so it is new to the restaurant, and I suspect new to Mérida. The lamb is served with some of its own scrumptuous juices, thin strips of blanched bacon and a delicate cube of gratinéed potatoes – paper-thin slices rich with decadent cream flavor.

After I cleaned my plate of lamb, I proceeded to work on the leftovers of one of our dinner companions. She ordered the Lobster Risotto – a special that evening. On your next visit to Néctar, call ahead and beg them, bribe them, do whatever necessary to ensure that you enjoy this dish! Possibly the best risotto I ever had, this one’s hallmark was twofold: first, the lobster was sweet and tender, unlike so much of the rubbery stuff, with a bracing hint of the ocean. And all that sea sweetness spilled out of the lobster and into the creamy starch from the rice. Dear lord I can still taste it. I made an absolute ass of myself reaching across the table to savor every last grain, but I was too enraptured to care much, or to be able to stop myself.
Reviewed 17 February, 2008 – THIS WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT REVIEW I EVER HAD TO WRITE. Neither shortcomings nor tours de force of the food at Néctar made it so, but rather because our dinner companion was Gael Greene, the incomprehensibly famous New York restaurant critic and beacon of light for foodies everywhere. Let’s just say it was more than a little intimidating to see her reach for her note pad at the same time I reached for mine! Her writing is brilliant and epic, novelistic; mine is functional and descriptive, pedestrian. Therefore, I was hugely relieved when we had similar reactions to the food we were presented that evening. If my pen falls short, at least my palate has been endorsed by one of the greats.
IT WAS A PLEASURE to walk into Néctar after not having visited it for several months. In the intervening period, the stark white minimalist environment has been humanized with stone, lush color and artwork. At the same time, the menu has been revised to be more approachable, too, with Chef Roberto Solis’ enticing fusion concepts reserved exclusively as a special tres tiempos offering described by the waiter, while the more populist plates can still be found on the standard printed menu.

I stifled a gasp as I ordered the tres tiempos fusion dishes and heard our companion mutter “I hate fusion food.” The happy ending is that we were all delighted by the chef’s imagination and playfulness, and at the same time relieved that we ordered a few, shall we say, more “comforting” dishes as well.

The tres tiempos started with a bang. Falso Pescado en Tikin’Xik was a surrealist’s dream of the classic Yucatecan butterflied fish cooked in achiote: a tart sauce of the condiment was artfully smeared on the plate like a red tide; fragile bits of reef turned out to be paper-thin slices of sour orange and phyllo; and a pebbled beach was really – wait! – fish scales fried to daring crispness. A smattering of bright green trébol – three-leaf clover – from Néctar’s backyard dramatically contrasted the blood-red achiote. The real surprise during this Lenten meal was that the small bites of fish scattered about on the pebbly beach were notably succulent, fatty, absolutely delicious – and indeed were not fish at all but rather veal molleja (sweetbreads) seared to perfection. The characteristic glimmer in Solis’ eyes vacillates between friendly/intelligent and devlish which led us all to wonder if this ironic dish was his own little anti-Catholic in-joke. Well,we were warned: they told us it was Falso Pescado.

The main course of the tres tiempos was Relleno Negro de Avena. How such a humble thing as oats could be prepared with such imagination and elegance still stumps me. A white bowl of the grain beautifully set off its midnight-black sauce of piquant recado negro – a seasoning paste made of charred chiles. Crunchy bits of bacon added percussion to the creamy mass while charming edible red flowers dotted the pitch black landscape. The treasure of the dish was not the traditional turkey, but instead exquisite small cubes of castacan. This must have been another one of the chef’s little jokes: castacan (pronounced “castacam” in these parts) is pork belly – throughout Yucatán the food of peasants, masons, the common man. Yet here it was dressed in formal wear and sold at quite a hefty price indeed. Not one bit of succulent meat nor grain of black oats escaped our forks!

The only off-note of this gracious trio was the dessert: Caballeros Pobres con Mousse de Chaya. Caballeros pobres (“poor gentlemen” or “knights”) – a dish with roots in medieval England, now a fixture on every menu in Yucatán – is basically bread pudding composed of French toast soaked in a canela-scented sugar syrup. Solis’ creation featured the most delectable crusty ends of a baguette softened with an almond flavored rich egg custard. We all focused on the bread, because the foamy algae-green moat that surrounded it – the chaya mousse – was too strange to be interesting. It was neither sweet nor savory and so did nothing to complement the very nice bread pudding. And there was too much of it. Like a poor knight, that bread sunk deeper and deeper into the moat until it finally disappeared and we were not tempted to dive in after it.

We devotées of Néctar were thrilled to meet their new sommelier. It is a young woman, with perfect English, perfect poise, perfect presentation – and all no-nonsense. This is in stark contrast to their previous longterm sommelier who was so much about showmanship that one expected a drumroll and a moan from the guests every time he came near the table. Not pleasant during an evening meal. This young lady calmly made excellent recommendations and named her “second favorite bottle in the house” which we ordered: Baron Balche Zinfandel from Baja. At $880 pesos it is not what I would call “approachable” but the flavor was well worth it, as we all agreed. The pert sommelier-ess served it without fanfare from a dramatic gooseneck decanter which provided enough show for our taste.

• Duck Chimichangas. We dream of these in the interstices between “life” and “Néctar” and so always order them. The chimichanga is a distinct creation of the border between the United States and Mexico – a flour tortilla burrito filled with any one of a number of ingredients and then deep fat fried. Solis’ chimichanga employs a corn tortilla instead of flour making it more regional and  ultimately crisper and lighter. A mildly piquant sweet/sour sauce inside sets off the richness of the duck.

• Shrimp Martini. This is such an artful presentation that I’m always tempted to admire it for a few moments before diving in. Marvellously crispy coconut shrimp fried tempura style balance on the rim of a perfect martini glass. At the bottom of the glass is a ruby red delectable dipping sauce featuring sweet Cinzano. A skyscraper of delicate white rice noodles on top is too fussy to be eaten but makes for a fabulous photo-op.

• Eclipse of Shrimp. Both the concept and the presentation of this dish were a bit baroque, but the delicate flavors tamed any hysteria. I studied the plate for a moment and soon realized that this was one of those “deconstructed” dishes – you need to do the mixing yourself before you bite, or by bitesful in your mouth. Here we had what was something like a pasta Alfredo with shrimp which had been separated into its component parts and artfully collaged on a dramatic rectangular plate. I am still not certain what Solis means by “Eclipse”; perhaps it was the row of black dots and swirls along one side of the oblong plate, referring a bit to those “phases of the moon” symbols printed on calendars. The black dots turned out to be alternating clumps of caviar and tiny mounds of huitlacoche foam. (Huitlacoche is corn fungus popular in Mexico and considered to be something like truffles.) Perfectly sautéed shrimp paraded down the plate’s meridien. On the side opposite the moon phases stretched a long strand of individual linguini noodles, gathered and arranged by gloveless hands, which process was visible from the kitchen and annoyed our dinner companion. (I personally refuse to wear gloves when I cook.) This Long Island of noodles was washed in a sauce of coconut, red curry and vermouth with a touch of grenadine to sweeten it. Finally, at the foot of the rectangular plate was a decadent field of coarsely shaved Parmesan. Fork by fork we mixed and matched to happy result.

• Banana Tart. This oddly disturbing sweet was the final clue that Solis may need a pastry chef. Or if he already has one, then a new one. Like the bread pudding, this dish was not altogether unappetizing, just close to it. The presentation of the super-sized “tart” – turned upside down out of its baking pan and onto a serving plate – reminded me of nothing so much as my mom’s cheat-night dinners of Swanson’s Pot Pie. (Were the two pert balls of vanilla gelato on top references to the tuning knobs of old console television sets?) And just like with the Swanson’s, I scalded my tongue on the very first bite of the buttery crust. I might have called the filling Falso Plátano because it tasted much more like cinnamon/apple filling than anything else. And besides, in all that gooey pastiness it would have been difficult to identify any recognizable fruit.

AMUSING AS IT MAY SEEM, tiny little backwater Mérida is full of snobs. And many of those snobs pooh-pooh Néctar and say it’s too fussy or “it isn’t what it used to be.” Well, at their feet I hurl this gauntlet: name one other chef in town who is as much of a fine artist as Solis, who engages you in the dining experience both sensorily and cerebrally as intensely as he. Name one other. And if your argument is convincing, dinner is on me.

A Culinary Expedition