Accentuate the Positive: Á de Acento

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Eating well in Colonia Condesa can be tricky. While there are many options, most of them are in the ‘meh’ to mediocre category. Which is why, when one of my trusted scouts alerts me to a quality spot, I pay attention. Tucked away on pretty, quiet Cuernavaca  (a street whose eponymous city is no longer either), is Á de Acento. I like this place very much.  It is a welcome respite from the usual mega-sized Condechi cocktail party establishments. It’s relaxing to be in and exudes unpretentious sophistication. And the food is good.

One enters the restaurant through a small shop area featuring quality gourmet products. The potentially cavernous space has been spiffed up in a sort of ‘cheap and cheerful’ manner, which adds to the casual boho effect – this is no slick Polanco palace. It is divided into two levels, ground floor soaring and airy, upstairs an open sun-drenched deck that gives the impression of being outdoors. Vintage red and white-checkered floor tiles blend nicely with painted brick, pastel stone, wood and wall-hung plants. It’s Soho meets Berkeley. Music, which stays in the background where it belongs, is eclectic and kind on the ears– discreet conversations are possible here.

But most important is the food, which reaches for the stars and almost touches them. Owner and enologist Paulina Velez has left the kitchen in the capable hands of chef Victor Zárate, a young graduate of Ambrosía, Mexico City’s finest culinary institute. The chef, a Veracruz native, brings a love for fine ingredients to his kitchen and has created a small menu based on a combination of market and season. He insists that “We have the very best providers in the city – we got them before we even opened. Sometimes I base my weekly menu on what they bring me, instead of the other way around.”

The menu morphs weekly – certain dishes are ongoing or change slightly according to what’s new in the market. It is based on French, Spanish and Italian cuisines with many references to Mexican tradition. Zárate explains, “We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves as a Mexican restaurant as we also do things like risotto and couscous, but the Mexican influence is strong. Almost all our main ingredients are from this country and part of its cuisine.”

Dishes are divided, Italian style, into primeros, segundos and terceros. Salads and antojitos (Mexican corn-based dishes) highlight the first part. Recently, a masterful tostada de pulpo stole the show.  An amorphous wafer-thin corn base was lovingly decorated with buttery pats of octopus, pickled red onions, al dente black beans and little dabs of jade-green avocado cream. The pulpo was never eclipsed by the other elements but caressed by them. It looked like a brooch inlaid with semi-precious stones, and tasted divine.

On another visit, the tostada had been replaced by an arty tamal, a round ball of light corn masa filled with bits of centollo (a large crab) and almonds, and cloaked in a lovely warm black bean sauce.The chef explained that his family sold tamales in Tepito, and that this recipe is adapted from one his grandmother handed down.

The Veracruzano touch is very much in evidence here, as seafood is utilized whenever possible in that coastal state.

Ceviche, a constant on the menu, is done with whichever fish is best that week, lightly marinated in the Peruvian manner, and perfumed with green herbs such as mint, hoja santa and cilantro.

From the second section, ravioles de rabo de toro (oxtail) bring Spain and Italy together. The flavors are rich, the pasta bathed in a reduction of beefy roasting liquid. But texture is a problem here–the meat is on the tough side, the pasta itself lacks correct al dente bite.

The third section gives the chef a chance to really shine. Very fine ruby red tuna, seared in a black pepper crust, is left beautifully rare as a great slice of that fish should be. It rests in a shallow pool of velvety anis-tinged green sauce that begs to have a finger dipped into it.

Lechón (suckling pig), its skin crisp to the point of crackling, is succulent and still juicy within. Its sauce, a simple reduction of the juices, is subtly perfumed with orange and lemon. It rests on a small bed of the very best Spanish rice, Calasparra, whose chewy tenderness, much like risotto, is the perfect compliment to the buttery meat. I only wished there was more of it.
And the ever present pork belly, a house special, also done correctly, i.e. textbook crisp/buttery, sits in a very light pépian, the green pumpkin seed sauce from Puebla or Oaxaca.

Dessert options, while well done, seem perfunctory. They’re less creative than the rest of the menu: pay de limón or crème brulee scented with lemongrass and ginger have already made the rounds.

The wine list is astutely chosen from around the world. There are extensive offerings by the glass and some very interesting national choices that even include two from Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, not generally considered a wine region in Mexico.
Price to quality average for this level of dining: comida with a glass of wine will range from $500-800.
Á de Acento is a good option to relax, catch up with friends, take out of towners. It’s adult, honest, laid back and classy–all at the same time.

Á de Acento
Cuernavaca 85, Condesa
Tel. 55 5260 4721
Open Tuesday – Saturday 1:30 – 11 p.m., Sunday, Monday 1:30 – 6 p.m.
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