(Most photos in this blog appear courtesy of Stephanie Casey at Frugal Foodie Dallas, who live-blogged our menu for us! Thanks, Stephanie!)
We’ve been wanting to do Mexican FRANK for a very, very long time. Since the beginning, in fact. BUT…when you live in a place like Texas, which is oversaturated with both TexMex AND traditional Mexican food, it’s not a menu to venture into lightly. So we were waiting until the moment felt right. And when Adrien Nieto called us up and told us he had just finished opening up a new restaurant in San Francisco and was free for a month, we knew the moment was right.
For those of you who didn’t watch MasterChef, Adrien was in the final 2 of our season, and many (if not most) viewers who watched it believed his menu was far superior to the final winner. But if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that MasterChef isn’t real anyway. Suffice it to say that Adrien blew us all out of the water from the first instant we met him. He was born and raised in Ventura County, but his parents are first generation Mexican-Americans and he grew up absolutely steeped in both traditional Mexican cuisine, as well as the fresh, produce-centered cuisine of California. This guy is brilliant. And Jennie and I both felt like we’d be doing our diners a disservice if we did a Mexico FRANK without him.
As we began to conceptualize the menu, it was funny to discover that all 3 of us had very similar ideas. We wanted to keep the focus squarely on the cuisines of central Mexico, rather than on the TexMex that so many Dallas folks are familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a LOT of authentic Mexican restaurants here, but they tend to be small, neighborhood dives tucked away in strip malls and patronized mostly by Mexicans and adventurous folk who don’t mind a menu that’s all in Spanish and servers who barely speak English. (My kind of places, and I’ve eaten at dozens of them.) But there’s very little upscale, refined, authentic Mexican food in Dallas, and we wanted to fill that gap, even if only for 2 weeks.
After many hours of back-and-forth, along with research to find out if we could even get some of the ingredients, the menu was finalized:
We named it “Con Gusto” at Adrien’s suggestion, because this means “with pleasure.” That carries many, many connotations in Mexico depending on the context, and I’ll talk about that at the end of this blog.
We ALL wanted ceviche (“say-VEE-chay”) on the menu, and it’s one of Adrien’s favorites. Ceviche is raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in a highly acidic citrus dressing. The acid “cooks” the fish by performing the same chemical process that happens to meat when heat is applied to it…the protein strands in the meat denature, or unravel, in the presence of either or heat or acid, and the normally translucent meat becomes solid white. Our ceviche contained whitefish and shrimp, along with cucumber, serrano pepper, and shallot, marinated in lime and orange juices and tequila. However, we put a bit of a spin on it by adding “sangrita.” Spanish for “little blood,” sangrita is a condiment that is usually served alongside a high quality sipping tequila to cleanse your palate between sips. In the US at most fancy tequila bars, sangrita is made with a tomato base, but this is a bastardization. In the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the vast majority of the world’s tequila is produced, sangrita was originally made with reduced pomegranate juice, giving the liquid a dark red color. So our sangrita was made traditionally by adding orange juice and chile to the very reduced pomegranate “molasses” and we topped the ceviche with it. Its pungent, dark, sweet, spicy flavor was a perfect compliment to the bright, fresh flavors of the ceviche. And we served it with a welcome cocktail made of champagne, cactus water, pineapple juice, jalapeno simple syrup, and a candied jalapeno. A perfect start!
Next up was another dish we each wanted on the menu, but only discovered this when we began pow-wowing. Stuffed squash blossoms, or “flor de calabeza.” Squash blossoms appear in many unique ways across the vast culinary landscapes of Mexico, from salads to casseroles to tacos, even to dessert. But when was the last time you saw them on a Mexican menu? We decided to stuff ours with an ingredient we were all VERY eager to introduce to our diners: huitlacoche. (“WHEET-la-COACH-eh”)
This unique ingredient results when a corn field becomes “infected” with a fungus called ustilago maydis, or, in the US, “corn smut.” It causes the individual kernels of corn to swell massively in size and turn gray, looking like…well…like a mushroom. In the process, it transforms the flavor of the corn into something that’s still unmistakeably corny, but also earthy and rich, like a mushroom. In Mexico, when a corn farmer sees these “mushrooms” growing out of his ears of corn, he falls to his knees and thanks God, because it means he’ll fetch 10 times more for his corn that year. Huitlacoche is a delicacy.
In the US, however, it’s a very different story. Corn smut is considered a deplorable disease, and the USDA has spent many millions of dollars trying to eradicate it. When a US corn farmer notices these gray mushrooms growing from his corn, he sets his fields on fire, files for crop insurance, and prays it never happens again…not realizing what a valuable treasure he had been gifted.
Needless to say, finding huitlacoche can be daunting. Yes, every Mexican market sells canned huitlacoche…but have you ever had canned mushrooms? Same principle. Gross.
There is 1 farmer in all the US who is smart enough to deliberately innoculate his corn fields with ustilago maydis and intentionally raise huitlacoche. His name is Roy Burns and his farm is in central Florida, and he is kept almost completely out of stock of his huitlacoche because in-the-know chefs like Rick Bayless and Jose Andres take shipments every week. Huitlacoche is highly perishable, so Roy freezes it as soon as it’s harvested, which preserves its delicious flavor. (Though the texture does suffer a bit with freezing. However, you’re not likely lucky enough to taste fresh huitlacoche unless it happened to your corn.) I called up Roy and begged him to ship me some, and thankfully, he did. It arrived overnight in a cooler…at extraordinary cost, of course! But completely worth it.
We combined the huitlacoche with some wild mushrooms and garlic, and stuffed the squash blossoms with it. Then we made a batter similar to a tamal using masa harina (ground corn flour treated with alkaline water) and cornmeal, and dipped the blossoms in this before frying. The result was similar to a tamal, but crispy on the outside. We served the blossom on a lovely chilled sauce of crema de Mexicana (Mexican sour cream) with roasted poblano peppers and tons of cotija cheese, which is similar in flavor to Parmigiano-Reggiano. (I still have dreams about that sauce, it was SO GOOD.) And on the side was a little slaw of red cabbage, jicama (“HEE-kah-mah”) which is a root vegetable with a crisp texture like an apple and is lightly sweet, and epazote (“eh-pah-SOAT-eh”) a bitter herb whose flavor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. One of our diners exclaimed, “It tastes like tarragon and basil with some rosemary and juniper berry and hops thrown in, along with kale and spinach.” We dressed the slaw with a vinaigrette of mint and jalapeno. This may, in fact, be my favorite course we’ve created at FRANK thus far, and it was the runaway favorite at most of our seatings:
The next course was created solely by Adrien. While he had his fingerprints all over the entire menu, we wanted to give one entire course to him, to let him run wild. And it turned out to be very special, indeed. The protein was octopus, or “pulpo” as it’s called in Mexico. Octopus is a tricky meat. The vast majority of Americans have only experienced it at sushi restaurants, where the Japanese treasure its ability to be INCREDIBLY chewy when steamed or boiled. THEY love it that way. Americans, of course, do not. So most Americans who’ve eaten octopus have eaten it that way, and said, “No thanks…don’t need to try that again.” Which is a shame, because, when cooked properly, octopus is one of the most delicious, tender, succulent meats out there. I didn’t know this until MasterChef, when I tasted octopus from both Adrien (who made it in the semifinals) and from Mario Batali, who is the executive chef at Joe Bastianich’s Los Angeles restaurant Osteria Mozza. Eating octopus from them was a revelation. I actually cried. (Seriously. Yes, I know I cry all the time, but very rarely does the flavor of a dish make me cry. Properly cooked octopus did.)
So Adrien did it the right way…first pounding it like crazy to tenderize the meat, then a braise in the pressure cooker to infuse it with delicious Mexican flavors and make it melt-in-the-mouth tender, then a sear on cast iron to give it a nice crust. Adrien is no stranger to pulpo. In fact, it is the very first memory he has…in his entire life. He remembers being on the ocean in Mexico with family, going to a food stall that was famous for seafood stew. He remembers his Aunt buying a bowl of the stew and passing it down to him. He remembers seeing the funny-looking tentacles sticking out of the spicy broth. He remembers tasting it, with its tender texture and rich, spicy flavor. That was the VERY FIRST THING he remembers in his life. And, as so much of FRANK is about storytelling and truly special dishes, this was as FRANK a dish as any we’ve ever served.
The octopus sat atop a puree of black beans that were cooked with 2 different stocks, the stock from the octopus and the stock from our short rib from the main course. He pureed this into a thick soup consistency, then topped it with some chayote squash sauteed with chorizo, lightly dressed arugula, a salsa verde with avocado, and then the octopus. It was garnished with pickled radishes, one of his very favorite things to eat. Any time we serve octopus at FRANK, some of our diners get VERY nervous…but just like always, after one bite, they were completely sold:
Next it was time for our traditional “boozy sorbet” course, and all 3 of us are crazy about mezcal right now. Mezcal is similar to tequila, but instead of being made from the blue agave plant, it’s made from the maguey or American agave plant, which is more commonly know as Century Plant. You see these in people’s yards from Texas to California, they are very popular ornamentals. The tough spines are sheared off the plant to expose the heart, which is roasted over an open wood fire, crushed, and fermented into a lightly alcoholic substance that is distilled twice. The open fire roasting gives mezcal an intense smokey flavor, like a very peaty Scotch. Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca. (Side note, mezcal was popular for awhile because some of the cheaper bottles came with worms or scorpions in them. NONE of these brands is worth trying, avoid them. A delicious mezcal that is widely available is called “Vida” sold by the brand Del Maguey which markets many varieties of mezcal.) Mezcal is become VERY trendy right now, and clever barkeeps are discovering all sorts of delicious cocktail combinations. (One I keep seeing everywhere is mezcal with chartreuse and grapefruit.) We wanted to keep our flavors authentic, so we made our sorbet with tamarind (a bean pod with an intense sweet/sour flavor, popular in many cuisines around the world), grapefruit, and orange. Many of our diners were trying mezcal for the very first time, and the sorbet actually got a few votes for best course on the entire menu!
Now, the main course. This one was inspired by a breakfast that Jennie recently had in Mexico City, where she was offered grilled cactus and cheese. She was so taken with the flavors and textures that she really wanted to put it on the FRANK menu. The pads of the prickly pear cactus, called “nopales,” are delicious and have been a staple in Mexico for millenia. They have a tart, astringent taste, almost as if they’d been marinated in vinegar, which most people are shocked to discover. The cheese commonly paired with cactus is called “panela,” which is confusing to some people because panela is also the name of an unrefined raw sugar cake that is common in Central and South America. But Mexican panela is a cheese with a strong, chewy structure, so it can be grilled to a nice delicious crust without melting and losing its shape. For the protein on the plate, we chose beef short rib, one of our favorite cuts, and also popular in Mexico. We were able to get USDA Prime short rib from our friend Clark, whose family runs Vintage Beef farms and consistently produces the best beef we’ve ever worked with. One of the things we love about short rib is that it’s the beef version of bacon…it has that remarkable ability to be both crispy and succulent and juicy at the same time due to its fat content and its high level of collagen. We braise our short rib for 10 hours at low temperature until it is so tender it’s almost hard to work with. Then we remove all the meat from the bone and cartilage (very laborious!) and reserve the fat. Then, just before serving, we saute that meat in the fat, so it’s crispy on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside. A perfect meat to place beside the tart, crisp cactus and the grilled cheese. To round out the plate, we put our famous 63.5 degree shell-poached egg on the plate. It always impresses folks who’ve never had an egg cooked at the proper temperature of 146F or 63.5C. (Most poaching and boiling is done in water that’s 200F or higher, which means the white is overcooked and the yolk is still raw. When you cook an egg at a much lower temperature for much longer, you get a uniform, silky, custard-like texture throughout the white AND the yolk.) We also passed homemade tortillas around the table, both white and blue corn, and we had made a homemade butter with ancho chile in it to spread on the tortillas, and also offered passion fruit margaritas in addition to wine. (We squeezed more than 60 pounds of limes over the course of 2 weekends to make these dinners…not an easy task, nor cheap, since the lime shortage has driven the price of limes sky high!)
And last but certainly not least…dessert. I had a hard time selling my idea to Jennie and Adrien, because neither of them like flan. And neither do I. But several years back, just before I left for MasterChef, I was introduced to a version of flan that blew my mind at my favorite local Mexican food restaurant, Agave Azul. The texture was nothing like a traditional flan…it was more like a ricotta cheesecake. I kept prodding their chef to tell me how he made it, and he never would, so I had to embark on my own experimentations to recreate it. I finally settled on a Mexican cheese called “requeson,” which is very similar to ricotta. It gave the flan a rich, irregular texture, removing the jelly-like texture that turns many people off from flan. After describing it to Jennie and Adrien and assuring them they’d love it, they still weren’t entirely sold. So I made a batch and took it to Jennie’s place and left it in her fridge for them to taste. And one bite was all it took. Our flan was flavored with reduced tequila and vanilla, and we used piloncillo (“PEE-lone-SEE-yo”), the rawest form of sugar, and tequila to make the caramel. Piloncillo is a fabulous ingredient…it comes in little brown cones which you’ll often see in the produce section at Latin American markets. They squeeze the juice from sugar cane, boil it down until it’s syrupy and thick, and pour it into cone-shaped molds to set. Sugar doesn’t get any more raw than this, the flavor is intense and dark and rich. On top of the flan we put some candied pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, which have been an important food in Mexico since long before the Spanish conquistadores first set foot on its shores. We also put some raw cacao nibs on the plate…cacao is the pod that chocolate is made from, but in its raw form, its crunchy, bitter, and intensely flavored. And I can’t tell you how many people said, “I hate flan and was scared when I saw it on the menu, but this was DIVINE.”
And we served the dessert with some Mexican-style hot chocolate, rich and intense with heavy cream, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, and chiles.
This was a truly fabulous dinner, and as I mentioned in the beginning, Adrien named it “Con Gusto,” which has many contextual connotations in Mexico. Not only does it mean “with pleasure,” it also means “welcome, what is mine is yours.” And it also means “with passion.” If you’ve never ventured beyond the border towns of Mexico, or the Americanized beach resort towns, you have yet to experience the single most striking thing about Mexico…the hospitality of its people. And food is ALWAYS the first and most important symbol of hospitality there. If you recall the Thanksgivings of your childhood,when all the relatives gathered for an over-the-top feast…this happens almost weekly in Mexico. ANY occasion warrants the gathering of the generations, and a ridiculous overabundance of food. Food is how the people of Mexico show their love for each other, it occupies a MUCH more sacred place in their culture than it does here in the US. As Adrien spoke about his family’s heritage and what food means to him, he brought things full circle by saying, “It has been so interesting to see what Ben and Jennie are doing at FRANK, because it reminds me so much of my family dinners as a child. This isn’t a restaurant. You don’t get this at a restaurant. These guys are sharing their love with you, and you are sharing it with each other…with all these new friends you’ve made tonight. Food has the power to make these kind of connections, but a restaurant robs it of that kind of power. That’s what makes FRANK so special, and so exciting to be a part of.”
I usually spend so much time blogging about the food at FRANK that I don’t often talk about this, which is REALLY what FRANK is all about. Our diners sit at an 18-foot long table that we built ourselves out of lumber reclaimed from an old farmhouse in Ft. Worth. The table is narrow, so the people across from you are very close. We sit 18-20 per night, so the people sitting next to you are actually touching shoulders with you. It’s not a roomy experience, to say the least. But this, combined with a little wine for lubrication, and a few plates of delicious food cooked with love, are all it takes to break down those ridiculous social barriers we’ve put up, to keep our interactions with our fellow man superficial. “How are you today?” “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” After 2 or 3 hours of dining with complete strangers in this setting, people have discovered new best friends. I joke at the beginning of FRANK, “Sit next to someone you came with, but across from someone you’ve never seen before until tonight…I promise you’ll be best friends on Facebook by the end of the evening.” But it’s actually true…deep friendships have been forged around our table. Occasionally Jennie and I will be walking around Dallas and we’ll come across groups of people who met at FRANK, and now dine together regularly and have become very close. And while we both love to cook…THIS is why neither of us could ever be chefs in a conventional restaurant, because our love for cooking is born out of our love for PEOPLE, not for our love of ingredients and techniques.
And FRANK has been an extraordinary and rewarding place to let that love run wild!!