French-Mex. It is Catchy, but Is it for Real?

French-Mex. It is Catchy, but Is it for Real?
restaurant

Kathy Tran

Madrina’s elegant interior.

New Dallas restaurant Madrina comes in an elegant, heavily curated space with a concept it calls “French inspired Mexican.” Since the core classical techniques of virtually all western cooking are rooted in France, one might wonder if this isn’t just a recitation of the basis of every upscale Mexican restaurant, rather than something having a claim to newness. The line between breakthrough and chintzy is a narrow one in gastronomy and ultimately decided by the palate.

At a media tasting this week, Madrina, open a scant three weeks, got a chance to show its stuff. The executive chef would appear to have the perfect résumé for such a gig. Julio Peraza had stints in Las Vegas with Michelin-starred Michael Mina; in Dallas with André Natera, who raised the Pyramid Restaurant from JAHR (“Just Another Hotel Restaurant”) to perhaps the greatest culinary experience it has been; and most recently, with Abraham Salum at his two restaurants sharing an adjoining wall: Salum, the chef's eponymous French-influenced place, and Komali, Salum’s restaurant inspired by the Mexico City of his youth. The irony is that Madrina knocks down the wall.

We started with baby corn esquite. Which were chunky roasted baby corn coated in cotija cheese, crème fraîche, pequin chile, and lime. We could not know this at the time, but this would be the most transparently Mexican of the dishes we would try. The sweetness of the corn and cool and fatty crème fraîche was boosted by the fire of the pequin (over ten times hotter than a jalapeño chili) and the spritz of lime. Straightforward, and modest in size, this starter enlivened the palate for what was to come.

A potato tamal seriously raised the bar. This is not just a mashed potato in its smart clothes.

This ancient Mayan creation, sometimes spelled tamale, became the foundation for a fastidious formulation, the like of which it rarely sees. A search for the ideal potato led to that stalwart of mashers, the russett. They are boiled, but only al dente (the reason why in a moment). After 10 minutes of cooling they are put through a ricer, which produces a mealy mix. That mixture is, in turn, fed through a tamis with ricotta cheese, resulting in a very fine-grained and moist consistency. It is then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed for 20 minutes. The second 20 minutes of heat is the reason that the potato boiling was stopped when the consistency just reached al dente. To have gone further would have produced an overcooked steamed tamal.

At service time a quenelle of crème fraîche is placed on top of the tamal and American caviar (paddlefish roe?) atop that as an ostentatious garnish that also gives a contrasting brackish taste note to the body. Peraza tried various herbs and seasonings during dish development but eventually decided on just pepper and salt in the final product. It is a case of less is more. I would not be surprised if this item did not become a Madrina classic.

Wild setas combined pan-seared battered royal trumpet, beech and maitake mushrooms breaded and sauteed in a light rice flour batter with a flutter of micro cilantro on top. The studied earthiness of the mushrooms along with the textual variation of the batter and the acid in a surrounding poblano cream sauce made for an exciting and satisfying blend in the mouth. The dish showed an expert grasp of flavor and texture combination that made the mushrooms rare stars when they tend to usually just be the backing group.

The technique behind this dish begins with the election of mushrooms. The types are chosen based on what show best in the market. The batter mixes the rice flour with Mexican beer, vodka and Topo Chico mineral water in a blender for five minutes. It is then put through an iSi charger to aerate it. The importance of the lightness is that the batter then does not smother the flavors of the mushrooms.

The lightness of that batter is very evident the mouth where the chewy, almost meaty, texture of the royal trumpets combined so well with the poblano crema.

Taco de Chivo brought red-wine braised goat meat together with rich pasilla chilies and earthy parsnips all served in a hot skillet topped with baby greens and gossamer thin slices of radish. Late-added avocados were a clever touch (they maintained their structure) in the surrounding bubbling stew.

As you eat this dish, ponder that the goat arrived whole at the restaurant (alright, the organs are in a separate bag) from Windy Hill Farms. Peraza butchers it himself and wet-ages it one-and-a-half to two weeks. A rondeau is lined with agave leaves to make a basket and then filled with successive layers of mirepoix, herbs and spices (thyme, epasote, cinnamon), dry guajillo chilies and the goat, and everything is drowned in red wine. Eight or nine hours of low temperature cooking produces a sweet braise with smoky, nutty chile flavors. It is another case of fastidiousness enriching the final result and a dish clearly showing its twin French-Mexican foundations.

Salt-crusted Tomahawk steak was Madrina’s demonstration that they can do you a steak as good as anybody. Built around one of those massive rib eyes more suited to self-defense class this most straightforward of the dishes served was riotously popular. Note the almost black corn tortillas served with it. Their color comes from huitlacoche infesting the corn and the tortillas are, like Château d’Yquem with its botrytis, an example of skilled hands turning adversity to advantage.

Desserts, made in house, include some tasty violet churros with spiced chocolate. Throughout our meal, servers were professional and knowledgeable. On a Wednesday night it was about half full which, for such a new place, portends a busy future. Noise is high. I registered 89dB on Decibel Meter. This may be a level popular with 20-somethings, who never learned the fine art of conversation, and couples married more than 10 years, who don’t talk to each other anyway, you can’t hear the person on the other side of the table. I would not recommend a business meeting here. Management might like to investigate noise suppression technologies.

One of the restaurant partners is Michael Martenson, whose background is in mixology and who helmed the bar at The Mansion in Dallas for several years. Hence, the cocktails are especially creative; tequila and mezcal occupy a full page on the drinks list, as do brandy (including those glorious fruit brandies almost forgotten in recent years). The wine list is also well-chosen but with one one whopping caveat. It is predominantly French with markups of 2.5 over retail (below the average for expensive Dallas). The caveat is that there are no Texas wines at all, despite the state’s success with viognier and roussanne and emerging successful examples of tannat and mourvèdre.

Do spend a few minutes laughing at the hilarious typos on the wine list (for example, Château Cabannieux (sic), in Bordeaux, never tasted like this).      

Overall, Madrina (it means ‘godmother’ in Spanish, a language confusion in a French-Mexican restaurant’s name as large as ‘lingua franca’ describing English in the spoken word) is a significant addition to the Dallas restaurant scene. Sophisticated Mexican cooking may reach heights here unscaled by any other restaurant in the city. I will grant Peraza his claim to be inspired by France and Mexico although I think you could lock him in a room with a fetid shark and a few carrots and he would come out with a feast. He is talented and I look forward to returning.  

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