Cilantro Makes Everything Better

One thing my friend and former colleague Lindsay and I have in common is our love of pampering, so when she let me know last month that she’d be in the Southern Tier for a day and had some free time, it was an easy decision to spend part of that time at the August Moon Spa at La Tourelle, in Ithaca. Fortunately, another thing we have in common is an epicure’s disposition, so if we were going to Ithaca for the morning, you know we were on the hunt for a good place to eat lunch. I called in an expert, Big Hungry Morgan, recent Ithaca College grad and fellow foodie, for the assist, and she recommended Agava, which is over near Cornell.

Once I perused Agava’s Website, saw that they’re sourcing meats from Autumn’s Harvest, and even an in-state tortilleria, I was in. You’ll want to head to Agava if you like wood-fired treats, traditional street tacos, rice and beans, or inventive sandwiches. Do NOT head there if the starting chips and salsa are what makes or breaks a Mexican restaurant for you – Agava’s tortilla chips were on the thick, nearly stale side, and even though the salsa was fresh and light, with just enough chile and cilantro punch to spark, it wasn’t special enough to save the chips. Luckily, it was the only weak dish we were served, and since we didn’t pay for it, we weren’t all that put out.

What they DO have on the menu here is some fun cocktails, and you know I had to go for the beergarita-adjacent offering, which they call at cerveza-rita. This was made with Sol cerveza rather than Corona, and two kinds of tequila with no limeade, but I loved it all the same. They also have a gin drink called the Bamboozler that sounds right up my alley, made with jalapeno and thyme. We shall meet soon, Bamboozler.

Another puzzler, after those not-great chips, was that the appetizers we ordered didn’t come out first. I noticed this phenomenon in Atlantic City this past weekend as well – the waitress brought our food when it was ready, rather than the order in which we selected it. Fine when warned, but strange since we weren’t on this occasion. But once the mary jame flatbread did hit our table, we were thankful. This behemoth of a pizza sans toppings is a carb-lovers dream, greasy in a good way, and shatteringly crisp on the surface. Get a look at it:

The black salsa listed on the menu was a little confusing, as there was no traditional salsa flavor in this bread, but we were in love nonetheless.

The Mexican street corn, one of my favorite dishes to hit our table, isn’t on the menu anymore – I’m assuming because corn on the cob season is pretty much dunzo – but look for it next summer. The gorgeous, almost sticky sweet cob of local corn was char-grilled, slathered with savory, rich roasted tomato mayo, a tick shower of grated cotijo cheese (sort of a Mexican feta-like crumbly, salty wonder), and cilantro. It sang of sweetness, savory umami, verdant lightness and caramelized depth. It was a three-wet-nap veg, for sure, but worth every messy, gooey, drippy chomp.

Four our mains, Lindsay chose the del mar tacos, with lime crema and slaw. I snuck a morsel of the fish, and found it sweet and clean-tasting, not a bit greasy despite a deep fry. Very well done. The light sprinkle of cilantro across the top inspired her utterance of today’s post title.

I went for the padre tacos, you know, the pork carnitas. I would love to surprise you, ordering the tofu ones or maybe the chicken, but I gotta be who I am, guys! These babies were resplendent with lime, tomatillos and lip-smackingly fresh guacamole. The pork itself was particularly strong flavored next to the tart salsa verde, but the soft, lush texture was so achingly tender, I wasn’t complaining. I will add that they should think about doubling up the small corn tortillas, because for both Linds and I, the structural integrity of our meals had us again reaching for napkins.

Other than the corn, the dish I’m still thinking about from Agava is, surprisingly, the rice and beans I ordered as a side dish. Looks, I like rice, and I like beans, and I have had some pretty good examples in my day. But nothing can come close to this simple, ample bowl of delicious, steamy, Heaven. The beans were just to die for – the amount of savory flavor packing the liquid of the beans alone was maddeningly good. Our waitress remained coy, claiming they were just cooked with aromatic vegetables, but I’m reporting that her pants were on fire, because there was some magic afoot with these beans. They were so rich! You need to go get them and help me solve this tasty riddle.

Agava has a very cool interior, all industrial eclectic, a very different vibe than typical tex-mex restaurants. Our waitress wasn’t particularly wonderful – she was kind of a pill – but I wouldn’t go so far as to call the service bad, as have some of the other reviews I’ve read on Urbanspoon. We very much enjoyed our meal here, and I am dying to go back for a Sunday brunch, for a bacon bloody and some housemade corned beef hash with charred tomato hollandaise. Linds and I gave Agava an eight on the BHS scale – high above average, and with some truly standout dishes that are not to be missed, even among Ithaca’s crowded pantheon of good eats.

I’m off to London for work on Monday, but I have two good dispatches from Atlantic City, NJ on deck for you, and the promise of a couple excellent meals in Londontown to brag about when I get back. It’s my birthday week, so I can’t promise I’ll get those two New Jersey posts written this week for posting while I’m gone, but if you’re nice to me and buy me something pretty, I may be able to get around to it. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

AGAVA Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Dispatch from DC: The Sacred Salt Foam

Have you ever sat down in a Mexican restaurant, been presented with that complimentary basket of tortilla chips and fiery salsa, and began jamming them into your mouth with such abandon, you’re full before the guacamole even arrives? This behavior is usually accepted by friends and family, but may be a good reason to select another cuisine when you’re dining out with colleagues.

You know me, though, I’m not really one to practice restraint, no matter my company. In Washington earlier this summer, I invited my two corporate social media compadres, The A Team, to join me for dinner at Oyamel, Jose Andres’ ode to Mexican gastronomy, on the recommendation of several Facebook friends. My buddy Meg had teased me with Oyamel’s salt foam-topped margarita, and my obsession was born in earnest. I wasn’t disappointed. The exalted concoction was simple: blanco tequila, triple sec, lime juice, and the airy, briny foam on top, but the crown of brackish froth lent complexity and textural mouthfeel I’ve never before experienced, and set the tone for a very delightful repast, indeed.

Like Andres’ other DC joints, Oyamel concentrates on small plates, this time dubbed antojitos, or Mexican street plates, specifically from the alleys of Oaxaca (wa-HA-Ca). I love the style of dining encouraged by this tapas mode, and right away, we began ordering a bunch of goodies. To start: guacamole, made tableside.

It was fabulous, of course, unique with the addition of Mexican cheese, and I always enjoy the theater of a tableside preparation. The chunky, cooling, luxurious avocado danced with lime, red onion, mild chiles, queso fresco, and cilantro into a savory, light, refreshing dip for all those shatteringly crisp chips. Yum!

Next up: ceviche! You know this stuff, right? Basically, it’s the sushi of Latin America. Raw fish “cooked” in the acid of citrus juice and mixed up with veggies for a refreshing, often spicy, dish that’s perfect for warmer climes. We got the Pacifico, or tuna with crispy amaranth topping, which is a grain grown by the ancient Aztecs, and avocado, lime, and toasted pecans. This ceviche had jalapeƱos, but didn’t read spicy on the palate; rather, the nuts and grains lent it a substantial, warm flavor, earthy and almost sweet. Unlike any ceviche I’ve tasted before, and utterly delicious. The tuna, of course, was fresh, clean, and firm. Fabulous.

The other we chose was the Peje-sol ceviche; Hawaiian sunfish, marinated in lime and tomato salsa, with yet more avocado. This one was definitely more traditional as far as ceviches go, bright with sunny lime juice, and clean-tasting. I’ve said it already this summer, and I’ll repeat it now: I really only want to eat my fish raw going forward.

Papas al mole, or French fries in mole negro sauce, was honestly not my favorite. I’ve tried mole negro, an incredibly complex Oaxacan sauce of chiles, nuts, spices, herbs, and chocolate, on several occasions expecting to love it, and I just don’t. I thought maybe Jose could change my mind, but for me, these were soggy, sweet, and just lacking the salt and crunch I want in wet fries. I love gravy on my fries, and I love poutine, which is definitely what this dish is going for, but it missed my mark.

The albondigas, on the other hand, were a hit all around. Plus: fun to say! These meatballs, served in a warmly spicy chipotle sauce, were true comfort food, entwined in the hallmarks of Mexican flavor. Small, tender, saucey, and cheesy. Yeah.

Oh, I ordered a bunch of pork. Surprised? I didn’t think so. To start: the carnitas con salsa de tomatilla was my favorite dish of the evening. Confit of baby pig filled this tiny taco. Let me say that again: CONFIT of baby PIG. ~groan~ The tomatillo salsa had that bright, citrusy zing to counter the rich, lush, alluring, almost creamy fattiness of the pork. And the corn tortilla anchored both those flavors into the most prefect taco I have ever tasted. I could eat this every day.

Also up: quesadilla de chicharrones, pork belly fried up crisp and served in a flour tortilla with a mild chile sauce and cheese. The chile sauce on this somewhat obscured the taste of the pork, which bummed me out a bit, though it was still yummy.
We all loved the tamale verde, which was pulled chicken in tomatillo sauce. Again, those bright, clean, citrusy flavors balanced with the roasted chicken flavor, and left this reading light and refreshing on the palate, but still homey and satisfying.

The enchiladas placeras was a little weaker for me, the spiced beef and pickled chayote overwhelmed by the roasted tomato salsa, raw red onion, and radishes. This came off a little watery and insipid, despite the promise of the words spiced, pickled, and roasted.

After this glut of captivating food, we had no room for dessert, though I know Jose’s restaurants do some great ones. I’m still lusting after the rice pudding I had last summer at Jaleo, right up the street from Oyamel.

Overall, I was very satisfied with our meal, and besides my salt foam marg, A and A had some really wonderful cocktails as well, including the lip-smackingly fantastic blood orange chile pequin. I love a spicy beverage! I’d put Oyamel overall at an eight on the BHS scale, and I may bring my department here for our team meal next summer. It was inventive, fun, and a great group meal, even if I did make more of a pig of myself than I probably should allow myself in front of colleagues. Whoops...My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!   

 Oyamel on Urbanspoon