Aida: A Work in Progress

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For all the ballyhoo out there touting La Chic Condesa as THE place to wine and dine, there’s still a dearth of worthy, high-end eating establishments to be found within its hallowed Art Deco halls.  Other than the deservedly lauded Merotoro, Acento, and a few others, there are a lot of clamorous burger and pizza joints. And so it is with hungry anticipation that we welcome any new addition to the table-clothed fold.

The Hippodrome is a hotel of the “boutique” variety set in a lovingly restored art deco building near Parque México, directly across from the modernist legend Edificio Basurto. It opened several years ago and housed a nice restaurant whose menu  – designed by the illustrious Richard Sandoval – showed some promise. But Sandoval returned to New York, or Vegas or wherever, and business spiraled downwards. The place unceremoniously shut its doors and languished in dusty abandon for several years. Now the hotel, bar and restaurant are open again, after a much needed refurbishment.

The restaurant, renamed Aida, is in the capable hands of the team that brought us Limosneros, that fabulous Alt-Mex hot spot in the Centro Histórico. The focus is on creative cooking, dishes rooted in Mexican tradition, and ingredients as local and organic as possible.

The dining room, once a long, dark unappealing tunnel has been opened up, padded with warm toned wood, and extended to include a  green walled patio. This semi-outdoor space, where the bar is located, is reason enough to stop by for a martini or two. It is one of the loveliest bars in Condesa – invoking an intimate, warm, adult mood. The bar is stocked with a good assortment of wines, artisan beers, mezcals, and features fastidiously prepared cocktails. The gentle ambient music doesn’t trump conversation.

What Aida’s kitchen is turning out, meanwhile,  is like a good provincial production of the eponymous Verdi opera, i.e. rough around the edges–it needs tightening up, but it’s worth attending. I saw vast improvements between visits over the past few months, and judging the potential of the talented young chefs, I predict a refined kitchen just around the corner.

Few of the entradas I sampled were memorable: seared tuna was a bit dry albeit beautifully presented, artichokes a little watery. But edamames, tossed with finely diced jamón Serrano are a fine option to pick on while  imbibing and deliberating.

Pork is the pride of Aida. The restaurant’s noir-ish logo shows a pretty maiden in profile (think Sunmaid raisins box), leaning down to kiss a friendly hog, while brandishing a huge cleaver behind her back. The future may not look sunny for the pig in question, but this farmhouse femme fatale apparently knows how to deliver the goods.

Under the menu’s “cerdo” rubric five remarkable plates are offered. Cerdington is a porcine version of the classic Beef Wellington – house-made paté is loaded onto a tenderloin and wrapped in mille feuille  then browned – a lily gilded, perhaps,  but fun to eat just the same. Lighter is the Torta Gema,  a gussied up version of the Jalisco standard torta ahogada, in which the sandwich drowns in salsa. Here the sauce is creamy and perked up with a touch of chipotle.

The standout is the ever-so-popular pork belly. Aida’s version is simple: the crispy skinned, juicy chunk of meat is augmented with a sauce espagnole (reduced meat/vegetable stock). It’s served with a little heap of roasted baby vegetables, which fill the plate (a puddle of purée-of-something would be nice, but who’s complaining?). This dish alone is worth the price of admission – which in fact, is moderate.

Seared ribbons of duck breast are blanketed with a silky black pepper sauce, and paired with a baked apple. This one’s adapted from the French bistro lexicon’s ageless steak au poivre. I’d love it if the duck itself were a tad more giving – on more than one occasion it was tough. Magret would be better. Or steak. The chefs promise to work on this as it has a lot of potential and by now it is undoubtedly improved.

While meat is in focus, seafood is done with finesse. Best is a healthy chunk of sautéed dorado atop an island of salty, chewy mung beans, surrounded by a moat of sweetish grapefruit sauce. There’s a nice play of textures and balance of salty, sweet and umami.

Mussels are presented Iberian style, that is, in a light tomato broth perfumed with chorizo. They’re delicious but minuscule; surely fatter examples can be procured from the wealth of these crustaceans in Baja.

Two pastas on the current menu reach for the moon and almost touch it. Hand-cut ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach wear a sash of dusty rose pesto, perfumed with Mexican basil, colored and sweetened with beets.  Albaca mexicana, often wrongly substituted for Italian, is minty and closer in flavor to Thai basil. In this case the chef has astutely chosen the native version, bringing the dish closer to home.  It would be perfect if the burly pasta were a tad thinner. The fettucini Alfredo’s creamy sauce is infused with smoky Ibérico ham and a touch of truffle oil – it is correct and well balanced.

Desserts are still in the development stage and cannot, as of yet, be highly recommended.

All in all, Aida promises to be a standout in the Condesa. It strives for Polanco sophistication without pretense, Roma creativity in a more refined low-key setting. The chefs have their work cut out, to tighten up production. The fat lady hasn’t yet sung in this Aida. But a fine evening will be had for the price of a ticket.

Aida
188 Av. Mexico (between Sonora and Plaza Popocatéptl, half a block from Parque México), Condesa
Open Monday-Saturday 1:30 p.m.-midnight., Sunday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Average price $500 p.p. with a drink.

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About The Author

Nicholas Gilman is a food writer based in Mexico City; he's author of Good Food in Mexico CIty: Food Stalls, Fondas, Fine Dining.