BY MARTY ROSEN • SPECIAL TO THE COURIER-JOURNAL • AUGUST 8, 2009
“Ethnic food” is a convenient label. Like the classifications used in book and music stores, it’s one of those devices that simplifies life for diners (not to mention critics).
But that same convenience and simplicity also distorts reality and stifles creativity. In music, there’s a pernicious notion that “ethnic music” — blues, say, or traditional folk — is not a product of individual artistry
but, rather, springs full-blown from anonymous cultural soil. It’s as if the great blues harp player Sonny Boy Williamson or the Virginia banjo master Dock Boggs weren’t creative artists, but “products” of a place and time.
The same thesis tends to marginalize “ethnic” chefs. So in the case of Bruce Ucan, chef-owner of the Mayan Cafe, it’s easy to characterize his cooking as a product of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; after all, his menu includes familiar items like chili rellenos, quesadillas and enchiladas.
And it’s true that Ucan’s cuisine draws on his Yucatan heritage. But it’s also true that his cooking is shaped by an original, sensual imagination that transcends his geographical origins.
In his hands, a conventional chili relleno (lunch, $4) becomes a personalized work of art. Pan-searing brings out the mellow intensity of a poblano pepper. It’s stuffed with roasted vegetables, kernels of corn, potatoes and a luxurious dash of manchego cheese — then finished with a velvety tomato sauce that reveals its tender heat slowly, bite by bite (if you crave more heat, request a dish of jalapeno cream sauce, a silky liquid with a carefully
measured smoky heat).
Crisp masa-based tortillas — made in house, and unlike any other tortillas in the area — form the basis for what look like traditional open-faced Yucatan-style salbutes — but Ucan’s salbutes are covered not only with familiar toppings such as black beans and (Capriole) goat cheese, and tender shards of pork, but with bright slices of fine-grained smoked salmon or sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese (lunch, three salbutes/$8; dinner, a shifting assortment of special preparations).
Ucan’s standard dinner menu offers agenerous assortment of choices: shrimp in pumpkin seed cream sauce ($17), pan-
seared salmon in a garlicky cuitlacoche sauce (cuitlacoche being an “exotic” fungus that grows on corn, $18), all plated with meticulously prepared sides that might include rice, plump, tender plantains, or Ucan’s legendary tok-sel lima beans, flash-cooked with pumpkin seeds and parsley, then tossed with scallions and lime juice.
But it’s the nightly specials that best illustrate Ucan’s scope of vision. On Mondays, he offers a rotating farm-to-
table menu featuring local meats and produce. One night, he offered Fiedler Family Farms pork in a creamy white mole sauce constructed of chilies, white chocolate and what seemed to be finely ground almonds. He plated it with crisp, flash-fried greens and those crunchy, soft, intensely flavored limas ($20).
Another night, his inventive spirit created pan-seared salmon doused in a lush peach sauce flecked with green herbs (circa $18).And when it comes to mole sauces, his palette includes rich depths of color, like the creation he served one night with beef tenderloin: an earthy, brick red mole made from guajillo peppers, espresso and banana peppers that was intense, but not hot enough to sear the tongue.
Service is attentive and knowledgeable (even when I’ve been able to slip in unrecognized, which has become increasingly difficult). A recently revamped wine selection (designed by general manager Ann Shadle) seems affordable and well attuned to Ucan’s bold flavor combinations. The smallish dining space (about 50 indoor seats, plus al fresco dining on the sidewalk) is chic and comfortable.
And if a recent finishing course of light, airy pumpkin flan is any indication, it would be a catastrophic error in judgment if, at the end of a meal, one decided to forgo dessert.
E-mail freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at email@example.com.