BY MARTY ROSEN • SPECIAL TO THE COURIER-JOURNAL • February 10, 2007
The Mayan Cafe is a simple, elegant cube: sky-blue walls, black ceiling, fabric wall hangings and enough white tablecloth-clad tables to accommodate several dozen diners.
Based on a recent weeknight visit, when the place was crowded with happy diners, those tables won’t be enough to meet the demand (go early or on weeknights).
The menu is equally simple and elegant in its focus on one of the great cuisines of Latin America: Mayan-style food from the Mexican province of Oaxaca and from the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Yucatan is a big spit of land that thrusts into the Caribbean Sea as if reaching for Cuba. It’s a spot where ancient indigenous roots (Chichen Itza is located on the Yucatan), European influences and Caribbean island riffs mingle to form a distinctive, subtle culinary style.
So lovers of exotic food are justifiably thrilled that Bruce Ucan, whose Mayan Gypsy restaurant closed last year, is back in business — in the same spot.
The menu lists 10 or so starters (crawfish ceviche, $6; chorizo empanada, $5; chili relleno, $4; seafood bisque, $4), and a like number of entrees, most of which come with two side dishes, and all are priced $13 to $15.
These entrees include seafood crepes ($15), Yucatec pork pibil ($14), and sautéed salmon with cuitlacoche cream
A short, well-priced wine list offers plenty of intriguing options, including Spanish and South American wines, starting in the low $20 range and rising to the mid-$40s.
We started with black bean cakes ($5), drizzled with squiggles of tangy crema and garnished with pico di gallo that was a smart, tart, foil for the earthy richness of the crisp, dark cakes.
Jicama salad ($5) wasn’t quite so pleasing. It looked wonderful in the bowl — a tangle of red and green leaves of lettuce, crimson pickled onion, bright lobes of orange and crisp julienne threads of jicama. But a surfeit of bitter greens and an unbalanced balsamic vinaigrette (the sweet overtones of balsamic vinegar were undetectable) missed the mark.
Our entrees, though, were delightful. My wife, Mary, dined on Mayapan chilaquile ($13, sans side dishes; Mayapan was the Mayan capital city 800 years ago), a glorious vegetarian extravaganza.
Layers of thick, homemade tortillas were stacked in a cylindrical tower filled with squash, eggplant, slightly salty Manchego cheese, portobellos and crisply fried greens. A trio of asparagus spears tilted against the tower.
A surrounding pool of red mole was less an expression of any single component (chili peppers, say, or spices or chocolate), than an intricate liquid bond that exceeded any single part and gradually released its mysteries like a finely structured wine.
My roasted leg of lamb was excellent as well — a generous portion of moist, tender, full-flavored meat sauced with a sweet and sour (mostly sweet) tamarind sauce and garnished with red pepper and a sprinkle of ground achiote seeds that added a faint, appealing crunch.
Though the concept was intriguing, one side dish, tamale roulade, was lackluster. Layers of masa, pork, spinach and
pumpkin seeds had been rolled into a concentric circle, then sliced and touched with a hint of tomato sauce. On the plate, though, the dish was stiff, dry and flavorless.
But a side of lima beans was brilliant — roasted till they showed a hint of char, then seasoned with lime and sesame oil.
And if coconut flan ($5) had a dry, uninteresting grain, that won’t stop me from trying the chocolate mousse cake the next time (assuming I can get a table).
Freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen’s review appears on Saturdays. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.
Price Range: Moderate. Entrees, with side dishes, top
out at $15.
Reservations: Parties of 8 or more
Children’s menu/portions: No
Accessibility: The dining area is fully accessible;
reaching the restrooms requires ascending three small
Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Monday-
Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.