“I see the whole thing popping and parenthesizing in every direction, the story of that house and that kitchen.”
― Jack Kerouac, Tristessa
The currently chic Colonia Roma carries a checkered history. Originally a genteel upper class neighborhood inaugurated at the start of the 20th century, within a few decades the area lost its appeal as Downton Abbey-style living became unfashionable and the rich moved to pool-friendly Lomas. Decrepit white elephant mansions gave way to modest apartment buildings many of which tumbled in the earthquake of ’85. But in the ‘50’s, cultural legacy and cheap housing led to the area’s gaining a following as a bohemian enclave. Creative types, my own parents amongst them, fled the US to escape oppressive McCarthyism. The beat poets and artists found that Mexican laxity apparently allowed the freer use of drugs and supported their open lifestyle. Jack Kerouac found inspiration in the city and wrote his epic Mexico City Blues as well as the novel Tristessa here. William Burroughs “accidentally” shot his wife one boozy, smoke-clouded night and left an indelible stamp on future generations of free spirits. Mexico was more of a symbol to these thinkers than a real place; they didn’t stay forever. But their spirits lingered.
Kerouac is a real restaurant that recently opened its doors in an early 20th century mansion around the corner from the site of that infamous game of William Tell. Its name and ambience are meant as homage to the beats – bebop wafts appropriately through restored, wood-heavy dining rooms below and the cool cocktail bar and terrace above. But the paean stops here – the beats shunned bourgeoisie in favor of the tawdry and there isn’t a speck of grit to be found in this tasteful and tasty venue. This is a nice place and I think Jack, Bill and the gang would have been happy to stop here for a great steak and a few cocktails, before continuing on to some seedy after hours spot in the centro.
The creative force behind Kerouac is Valentino Peralta, 30, Mexican born of Argentine heritage. His family founded the Fonda Argentina chain, beloved by a generation of Chilangos, and the site of Kerouac was destined to house another one. But Valentino wanted to do something loftier. All aspects of the restaurant, from décor to menu to the astutely chosen wine list reflect his good taste.
He has studied all aspects of gastronomy, worked kitchens and bars and is a knowledgeable sommelier. Chatting recently over perfectly cooked, warm slices of 45-day dry aged beef and a bottle of Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Schug Estate, he explained that he is an “aficionado of good food, wine and music. And growing up in an argentine family I love great meat. I didn’t want to do just another steakhouse, however, I wanted something more sophisticated; I think Mexico is ready for that.” The beef is culled from the best purveyors in Mexico and is house-aged; it forms the core of the dining experience. The eclectically collated menu reaches out from there, only occasionally missing the mark. Dishes, prepared by young chefs Daniel Caudillo, who has a good base in French classic cooking and Sonia Morales who does desserts, are best when they stay within the Mexican or Italo/Argentine lexicon, less successful when they aim for high falutin’ cheffiness. Between our first and second visits, the menu, previously lacking direction, had been refined and elevated. Mexican-oriented starters such as little sopes topped by a cute fried quail egg or simple taquitos of quelites—wild greens, were good enough to make a meal in and of themselves. The ceviche-like tártara de huachinango, was well balanced.
I very much liked a tortellini-esque green pasta stuffed with aged beef that rests on a bed of smoky mozzarella and is spiked with chimichuri; the creamy gnocchi casserole was also top-notch. An amaranta encrusted tuna in red pepper “pico de gallo” with dabs of reduced cranberry juice sounded promising and was well balanced but lackluster. But a mariscada, salt-encrusted fried seafood sampled on another occasion was sublime.
Beef, of course, is the star of the show; much of it is sourced from Creekstone Farms whose Black Angus and Duroc small farm cows are amongst the best in North America. It would be well advised to request that it be done “a punto”, that is, as rare as you can take it. Because my companion’s lovely filet cloaked in cacao was perfectly rosey/juicy but mine a bit overdone and dry and that made me sad. So I took the reigns when our ribeye was finished a table: I barely let it pass over the grill. It was delectable, the kind of meat-eating experience that makes me glad I’m not a vegetarian. But it should be added that vegetarians and those less bovine-inclined are well served by pasta, fish and seafood.
Valentino is proud of his astutely chosen wine list. While strong on Baja California, there are good wines from Coahuila and Querétaro and particularly interesting vintages from small Sonoma and Napa wineries that rarely pop up in Mexico. There are many good bottles in the $500-700 range as well as extraordinary vintages for those with bottomless pocketbooks. Sommelier Alfredo Jiménez is knowledgeable and recommends proper pairing on request. The upstairs bar is tended by master mixologist Rubén Soto; naturally, beat-approved cocktails are on offer.
The space, as mentioned, is set in a former 3-story residence built around 1920; it has been refurbished by the design team at Obra Gris. The original plan of the house remains intact—there are several dining rooms—as do many architectural details. New wood flooring has been installed and modernist furniture in tones of olive and grey-green create a light, airy feeling to spaces that in other hands might have seemed dark and oppressive.
This is a restaurant I like very much and to which I will return. It’s a comfortable, homey place to hang out; the food is very good, wine and beef better than that. The kitchen, though it could use a bit of refining, is turning out impressive fare. I see a lot of potential here: Kerouac is on the road…
Food: (1-10) 7-8
Ambience: Casual, relaxed, smart adult music played at a volume appropriate for talking in the dining room, more contemporary fare in the bar
Service: attentive, helpful
Average price per person: $600
Av. Álvaro Obregón 206
Open Monday-Saturday 1 pm – 1am
Tel. 55 8435 3642
See Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/MmyrAhJEV2y