With Some Abandon, Cocina Condesa Could Soar

With Some Abandon, Cocina Condesa Could Soar

Cocina Condesa | 11616 Ventura Blvd. | Studio City, CA 91604
PHOTOS by Dawn Garcia

 

This is the first time in my history of reviewing that I have to say: this restaurant’s cuisine was neither bad nor completely good. For the first time, I am left feeling that the menu was somewhere in the middle. Everything is there – the ingredients, the quality, the plating. What’s missing? Abandon and passion. Cocina Condesa is one of the most inventive and beautiful restaurants on Ventura Blvd. It is stylistic and truly authentic with elements of creativity from every corner of the room. The problem is, their menu that is plentiful in gorgeous ingredients and potentially sublime dishes is lacking in “oomph”. I was told before going that a lot of people weren’t crazy about the food but that the drinks were really good (and they were brilliant in all honesty. The mixologist, David Rubin is truly a gem in Los Angeles but I’ll get to that in a minute). No one could quite pinpoint just why the food wasn’t great.

Now that I’ve been there, that’s the problem. It’s not memorable. The presentation is beautiful, the composition is lovely in theory but what it genuinely lacks is heart. I feel that perhaps the culinary staff is being restricted from truly embracing the authentic Mexican culture in terms of their use of spices and bold flavors. All of the flavors feel like they are being tied down, held back, and neglected. And it’s frustrating because I can see how truly unforgettable they should be. So my first bit of advice or critiquing would be to beg whoever is giving the orders in the kitchen to let these chefs be inventive. Allow them to play to their strengths and STOP trying to appeal to the masses. It’s not working. In fact I fear you will do exactly the opposite.

Let’s start with the Mixology …

 

Cocktails Created by David Rubin

David’s cocktails are some of the best I’ve had, not just in Los Angeles, but just about anywhere. They are surprising without being overly saturated with too many ingredients or distracting garnishes. They are simple in theory and mind-blowing in taste. When I went to dine and David Rubin brought out each cocktail to taste, when he talks about the stories and shares the history behind different spirits, his passion is ever apparent and honestly, it’s contagious. So, I asked him to tell me a bit about each cocktail.

Maestro | Mezcal, Lemon juice, ginger, fresno chile infused honey (and ground crickets, salt and chile rim)
DAVID: Being that we are a Mezcalaria, I needed something approachable for the beginning mezcal drinker. I wanted to play with flavors that would help highlight the smoky mezcal flavors but still leave you feeling refreshed. The result is the Maestro: a spicy, smoky, sweet drink that you’ll find yourself drinking quickly due to its fun flavors dancing on your palate! This is something I would imagine every Mexican Abuelo would enjoy on the porch at the end of a hot day working the Palenques (mezcal houses).

MY TAKE: This is like sex in a glass and according to David, these ingredients were once thought to be too much of an aphrodisiac in Mexico and the story is, they decided to stop making cocktails with these combination of ingredients. I’m beyond happy that David found a way to revive something so seductive. While this drink is refreshing, it certainly intoxicates the senses and awakens inner desire.

El Tigre | Bourbon, Ancho Reyes, Cio Ciaro, house bitters, Mandarin Jarrito
DAVID: This drink I came up with because with the end of summer and beginning of fall I wanted to have something that was a fun crossover drink. I love whiskey, so I wanted to find a way to make it mexican and also loaded with flavor for our theme here. El Tigre really makes a jungle out of your palate. It’s something I would imagine a Chulo gangster would drink. It is slightly sweet, yet has a hint of spice and warmth that really balances the whole drink out.
MY TAKE: The taste of fall and Mexican warmth that wraps itself around you like a lover’s arm or the comfort of a warm blanket on a crisp cold evening.
Mango Fuegorita | Tequila Blanco, fresh lime juice, agave, habanero infused mango, chili-lime-salt rim
DAVID: It’s no secret that the streets on Mexico are laden with carts selling freshly sliced mango with chili powder and lime, so I wanted a drink to bring this to life. My result is making a chili-lime-salt rim by zesting limes and mixing it with chili arbol powder and salt. I infuse the mango purree with habanero’s to give it spice, and then build a classic margarita on top to bring it all together! The result is a fun play on the classic street snack. But it’s got some spice!

MY TAKE: Like a stand outside of Guadelejara with mangos freshly dipped in chili salt, this I could drink every time I came in.

 

Maragrita Condesa | tequila, dulce, fresh squeezed lime juice, salt, damiana

MY TAKE: David’s twist on a classic is one worth tasting. For any margarita lover, it’s refreshing,

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Now for the food …

I began my meal with the chocolate molé. Molé is meant to be rich and bold (it’s made out of pure cocoa!) and emphasize any of the ingredients it’s accompanying but this never made it past the pouring of the sauce. It was missing chile and salt and even that beautiful cut of citrus that entangles the bitterness of the molé itself. The white refried beans? Gosh, with a little more salt and some subtle flavoring even those would have been out of this world but they were bland. And thus begins the dinner …

 

House Guacamole with a side of Toasted Crickets | hass avocados, cilantro, red onion, lime and sea salt

I couldn’t resist freshly made guacamole nor trying a delicacy like crickets. So, I jumped right in and once they arrived, in spite of that squeamish feeling one gets right before you eat a bug you’ve seen jumping in the yard, I put on a brave face and took a bite. Crunchy, smokey, and definitely different! I ate two and stopped at number three. Hey, I tried them! The guacamole was fresh, well balanced and definitely worth eating again (and again) as were the homemade chips and in-house salsa.

Cheese Enchilada with Molé Sauce | chile cocoa mole, oaxca cheese, refried white beans

Well, we’ve already discussed but here we go again for good measure: Good but what’s missing is that punch of flavor. I think a pinch of something bolder could allow the molé to have that true Mexican oomph. The molé is missing that extreme flavor that emphasizes it’s character. Sadly, the beans too lacked flavor, lack of salt and they were a bit too dry.

Carnitas Tacos | pork shoulder, cilantro, salsa, red onion, lime

This was one of the rare ones that was clearly good. It didn’t teeter on the fence of mediocrity. The pork was moist, the culmination of flavors were there, and I enjoyed it overall.

Pulpo Borracho | pacific octopus, uzu mezcal vinaigrette, avocado espuma, garlic flakes, green onion

This dish was lackluster on all levels. The octopus was really chewy, bland, and the presentation just missed the mark. There was TOO much going on visually and no lime or citrus wedge to cut through it. With such promising ingredients, this is yet another dish that needs citrus, spice, and of course a much better prep on the octopus.

Ahi Tuna Tostaditos | ahi amarillo chile, jicama tostadas, avocado

I wanted this to be so good. Ahi is one of my favorite things. However – yet again this dish was not memorable. The fish wasn’t bad but it was masked by lack of imagination. There wasn’t a single standout flavor at the forefront of this dish, including the fish. The jicama chips were a nice touch.

Asada Taco | citrus marinated sirloin steak, crispy shallots, tomatillo avocado salsa

The meat on the asada was delicious. Full of flavor, perfectly cooked, and all in all was a tasty taco.

 

The SWEET FINISH

Churros | Bag of churro bites with a caramel dipping sauce

Okay, these were sublime. A lovely way to bring it back around. Well seasoned, perfectly crisp on the outside with the beautiful doughy center and the sweet, salty, cinnamon finish that brings you back to your happy place.

Tres Leches | sponge cake — soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream.

Beautiful in presentation but this was dry and missing the seamless balance of the traditional dessert.

House Flan

I’m not sure what happened here, but while soaked in a tasteful spirit, it overwhelmed the composition of the flan. Too buttery and not aerated enough so the bites seemed dense and disproportionate to the natural sweetness.

Cocina Condesa is one of the most interesting Mexican restaurants in the area. With a mixologist that brings such sophistication and taste to the place, I would LOVE to invite the chefs to stop playing it safe (and dull). Every person I’ve spoken to about the restaurant has the same response. This is your moment to push past and elevate your cuisine to meet the expectation your decor and ambiance invokes.

Utilize the beautiful ingredients the Mexican region offers and be more daring. You are not a run-of-the-mill restaurant and I think you could soar and find some serious staying power if you could just take more risks and be far less unimaginative with the actual dishes you serve. The food is on the cusp of greatness but you really have to step it up.

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