Forget garnishes; this Mexican restaurant puts flowers in everything
By Nils Bernstein
About 70 percent of the blooms in Mexico’s cut-flower market are grown in Villa Guerrero, which smells faintly of wet earth and is studded with greenhouses the size of factories. Japanese immigrants introduced floriculture here in the 1930s, finding the area’s rich volcanic soil especially fertile. It’s no wonder then that Villa Dulce, a booming restaurant here, just 90 minutes southwest of Mexico City, would focus on flowers. “Being surrounded by flowers, it made sense to experiment,” says Villa Dulce’s owner, Rafael Martínez Acevedo, who both procures his organic, unsprayed ingredients from nearby farms and grows his own, resulting in such inspired dishes as carnation crêpes, marigold mole, rose-petal quail and bougainvillea ribs. “Our kitchen is a laboratory. Not all flowers can be eaten and not all can be prepared the same way, but we know the native people here used them for food and medicine. It’s part of a tradition.”
Another popular dish at the restaurant is chicken in a mole sauce of cempasúchil, or Aztec marigold, also known as flor de muertos for its importance in Day of the Dead celebrations. The flower’s citrusy petals are blended with green chiles and pecans to make the golden sauce. There are also puffy, peppery chrysanthemums stuffed with fresh tuna, tempura-fried and served in a tomato broth, like a healthier version of the steakhouse classic blooming onion. Carnations, which have flavors of clove and nutmeg, are used in creamy savory crêpes; pungent wild daisies are infused in (and showered atop) a subtly herbal cake. “Flowers have all the qualities of vegetables, greens, even chiles,” says Martínez Acevedo. “They can be sweet, spicy, meaty, with all different textures.”
Martínez Avecedo says the most popular dish on Villa Dulce’s menu is quail in rose sauce, a grilled whole bird served in a pink gravy that is sweet, savory and powerfully floral, with a minty spice. The dish is especially popular on Valentine’s Day. “People come from all over for it—they’ll start with a rose salad and have rose gelatin for dessert. There are so many different roses, and each color tastes different,” he says. “The darker they are, the more intense the flavor.”
Longtime Villa Dulce regular Leticia González comes frequently from Mexico City, en route to her family’s vacation home in nearby Malinalco. “Our first visit, we were shocked to see flowers used like this, but at the same time they don’t seem out of place,” she says. “In Mexico, beautiful colors are everywhere. It makes sense to see them on the plate, too.”
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when tiki bars began to pop up all over the U.S., driven by WWII soldiers’ memories of day-pass adventures in the South Pacific and the fad of “exotica” music, fruity rum drinks were in vogue. These days, those little grass-topped bars are experiencing a resurgence in big cities, but there are still a few old standbys that have weathered the decades. The 56-year-old Tonga Hut is the oldest tiki bar in Los Angeles, and in December of last year it finally unveiled its first “spinoff,” a bar in Palm Springs also called the Tonga Hut. There, executive bar manager Marie King showed us how to make the Mojave Punch. —James Bartlett
› 1 oz. silver Puerto Rican–style rum
› 1 oz. dark Jamaican rum
› 1 oz. orange juice
› 1 oz. pineapple juice
› ½ oz. lime juice
› ½ oz. passion fruit syrup
› 1 oz. hibiscus syrup
› Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake, strain and serve with a paper umbrella or whatever plastic animals you can get your hands on.
In a building that once housed a modest hotel, the Miami steakhouse Prime 112 would be easy to miss if not for the nightly pile-up of Benzes, Bentleys and stretch limos out front. “Jay Z met Maya Angelou through me,” says owner Myles Chefetz. “When Bill Clinton was in the private dining room upstairs and Tom Brady was down in the wine room with Gisele, I brought him up to meet the former president. Now they’re golf buddies.” That the Miami Heat treat the place as their clubhouse is not nearly as surprising as the fact that Prime 112 is 10 years old and rocking as hard as ever in a city that almost always prefers the hot new thing.
The steakhouse is the showpiece in a group that includes Prime Italian and Big Pink, but Chefetz refuses to rest on his laurels; he’s currently gambling on a new project. Last month, he opened Prime Fish, which features an à la carte steakhouse-style menu: You order a piece of fish, cooked as you want it, and then add accompaniments as you see fit. Chefetz hopes the new concept will have both the celebrity clientele and the staying power of his famed steakhouse, but he realizes that his past successes were as much kismet as planning.
“Clive Davis once asked me if I was amazed by my success with Prime 112,” Chefetz says. “I told him that I never think of myself as being successful … I always fear that I will wake up one morning and the dream will be over.” —Michael Kaplan
“I was born in Laos and grew up in Kansas,” says Soulayphet Schwader, executive chef at Khe-Yo restaurant in New York City’s trendy Tribeca neighborhood. “But the fact is, there happens to be a pretty big Laotian community in Kansas.” There’s a sizable Laotian community in New York City, too, but until Schwader opened Khe-Yo late last year, there was nowhere in that motley, many-cultured city for them to eat Laotian food. To the uninitiated, this means dishes like crunchy coconut rice with kaffir-lime sausage and sesame beef jerky with smoked chili sauce—both of which are served at Khe-Yo, and both of which have become a hit with the city’s underserved Laotian population. “All the Laotians that come to the restaurant are pretty skeptical, and then they come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, sticky rice, just how we eat it at home, and the sauces, the jerky…’” says Schwader. “That’s when I know I’m on the right path. If I can keep the Laotians happy, I’m doing the right thing.” —Jacqueline Detwiler
In winemaking, as in dining in general, back-to-basics practices have become extraordinarily popular, with biodynamic and organic wines appearing on haute bar menus around the world. Now these practices have extended to fortified wines. After fermentation, sherry is usually subjected to a heavy filtration process to remove yeasts and bacteria, but that process can also remove color, aroma and flavor. En rama (or raw) sherry undergoes minimal filtration, and in some cases none at all, resulting in richer, creamier and stronger wine.
Derek Brown, the mixologist behind the new Washington, D.C., sherry bar Mockingbird Hill, equates drinking en rama sherry with tasting directly from the cask. Among his favorites are Gutiérrez Colosia’s Fino Amerigo and Gonzalez Byass’ Tio Pepe En Rama, as well as Barbadillo’s Solear Manzanilla, which is not en rama but which Brown describes as en rama–esque. The style can be difficult to find on account of limited releases (they typically hit shelves twice a year) and their brief shelf life, so if you can get your hands on a bottle, it’s best to drink it quick. —Geraldine campbell