Thursday, June 19, 2003

Hyperpretension

A black plate does not a meal make

Posted on Thu, Jun 19, 2003 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge A mariachi musician plays in one of the brightly lit dining areas of SoLuna. The restaurant, located in the trendy Collection shopping center, features live music Wednesday through Sunday evenings.
  • A mariachi musician plays in one of the brightly lit dining areas of SoLuna. The restaurant, located in the trendy Collection shopping center, features live music Wednesday through Sunday evenings.
Release Date: 2003-06-19

Mesteña, Pour la France, Chuy's ... SoLuna is the latest in a line of restaurants with attitude to occupy this prominent corner in the Collection at Broadway and Sunset. It's tempting to say that with each new tenant the attitude may not have diminished, but the quality has - but we'll leave that judgment to later. No fair skipping to the end.

Whatever the verdict, you have to hand it to Jesse Calvillo. After leaving La Fogata, he landed on his feet at El MiraSol with its "alta cocina Mexicana," and if the promise of haute-Mex was never fully realized, the place has clearly been successful. SoLuna, with its decor of pale avocado greens, golds and saturated reds, and a slew of paintings by the ever-present Gilbert Duran (who has managed to place work in restaurants as varied as Torres' Taco Haven and Bohanan's), is slicker than any of the previous efforts. Some food is even served on black plates, perhaps in an effort to justify the price - but I'm getting ahead of myself again.

The antojito section at SoLuna features the expected nachos and a queso flameado, but the diner with a sense of adventure will likely be tempted by the nopalitos a la norteña - until he sees the price: $9.95 for cactus paddles mixed with cilantro, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. We passed. Ceviche ($8.50), curiously labelled as seasonal (whereas the nopales aren't), returned the favor; it wasn't available. (It's made from mahi-mahi, explained the waitress, and maybe they didn't get any that day ...) That left rajas de chile poblano ($4.95) and hongos flameados ($5.95) as next-best. Both come in small bowls with a cap of flour tortillas. (We had asked for corn; they came separately.) The rajas were almost sent back based on their appearance alone. The Oaxaca and cream cheese matrix was curdled-looking and outright unpleasant visually. Fortunately, looks were deceiving - they actually tasted quite good. The hongos were buried beneath a melted mantle of Oaxaca cheese and sat in what could almost be called a broth, heavily spiked with chili powder and more than liberally salted. After a few attempts to put fungus and fondue together, we gave up, trying mightily not to overcompensate with the tasty, almost-puffy chips and the even better toasty hot sauce.

Save some of that hot sauce if you're going to order the chile poblano al carbon ($10.50) as an entrée. Our chile arrived not merely "cooked with the flame of charcoal," but nearly carbonizado. The filling, exactly as indicated, was of chicken (shredded) and cheese (melted) - and nothing more that we could discern. Hence the coals-to-Newcastle addition of salsa to a stuffed chile. The carne adobada plate ($9.95), a much more modest-sounding creation of cubed pork in a sauce with cinnamon (lots), bay and chiles (few), was a good deal more successful in a straightforward way. The Mexican rice on both plates was uniformly dry and chewy this night, the refrieds adequate and the borracho beans well-flavored. The "guacamole" salad, on the other hand, was an affront to the culture. The color was unpleasantly dark, the texture and taste much like the pre-peeled, vacuum-packed product served as a shortcut by many restaurants. (If the avocados were actually freshly prepared, the result - pure avocado and nothing else to all appearances is even more perplexing.)

The enchiladas a la Mexicana, a combination plate featuring enchiladas a la antigua, chipotle, and poblana, were generally appealing on another night - although at $12.95, one might hope for less-faint praise. The antigua, filled with white cheese and topped with a chile ancho sauce, was the most distinctive, despite - or perhaps because of - the faintly bitter and strongly fruity taste of the sauce. The poblana and chipotle versions, both filled with chicken, were, respectively, mild but pleasant and creamy and well-flavored. Queso cotija and cream had been crumbled and drizzled over all, making for a handsome plate. Black plate. $12.95 plate.

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