Thursday, August 6, 2009

El Barzón: Saucy

Photo courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

True foodies know that you can’t judge a restaurant by its awning. Such is the case with El Barzón, a rather humble-looking establishment where you’ll find some of the best sauces under the Detroit sun.

El Barzón is what happens when a chef from Puebla, Mexico works for eight years at a AAA Four Diamond –rated Italian restaurant (in this case, Southfield’s still-shuttered Il Posto) and infuses his knowledge of both culinary traditions into one menu. This is a kind of fusion cuisine you won’t see anywhere else: a menu that is one-half traditional authentic Mexican, and one-half traditional authentic Italian.

Photo courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

Chef Norberto Garita, co-owner of El Barzón, uses his hometown of Puebla as a launching pad to present his restaurant’s most-sought-after specialty, Mole Poblano, a chicken dish named after its distinctive regional sauce that is not only difficult to find even in the corner of Southwest Detroit aptly-named Mexican Town but even more difficult to find done correctly. Garita’s is impeccable: a rich, deep mahogany-colored sauce made with chile seco, cumin, sesame seeds, tomatillo, garlic, anix, almonds, toasted bread, platanos, chocolate, and more. Commonly thought of as simply a “spicy chocolate sauce,” true mole is much more complex, and Garita’s shows all the subtle notes of sweetness, fruitiness and spice that are brought on by all the many different ingredients. Time and patience is key here, as this is a sauce that cannot be rushed, and only a truly talented saucier could master. Whether it was his childhood in Puebla, the city from which this mole originates, or his years training in Il Posto’s kitchen that lent Garita his superior sauce-making skills is irrelevant: everything this man pours onto a plate is absolute perfection.

Photo courtesy of my crappy camera

For appetizers, the Chiles Rellenos are stuffed with tasty ground beef and cheese and slathered in a rich yet light expertly-seasoned tomato sauce. The Bis di Pasta, which features Strozzapreti Norcina and Cavatelli alla Boscaiola (both also available individually as entrees), is simply stunning. The juxtaposition of these two sauces—one a truffle-scented sausage and tomato sauce (the Norcina), the other a garlic and mushroom cream sauce (the Boscaiola)—is a palate-pleasing shock. Both are rich and wonderful and to choose a favorite would be impossible (which is why I recommend the appetizer in which you get a sample portion of both!). The noodles themselves are equally exquisite—dense and perfectly al dente, Garita’s years at Il Posto have trained him well on the intricacies of pasta-making (if it were as easy as throwing noodles into a pot of boiling water, I would do it…who am I kidding, no I wouldn’t).

Is the camera or the person holding it to blame?

For an entrée, you have over 50 selections to choose from, and that’s not including the tacos or tortas. Chicken, Veal, Pasta, and the occasional pork dish and Barbacoa (steamed goat), all with portions available in lunch or dinner sizes (and almost all priced $18.00 and under). If it’s got sauce on it, you can’t go wrong, and you’d best believe that everything on this menu comes with some kind of elaborate sauce.

Whether your hankering is for Mexican or Italian, there is a wide (and I do mean wide) variety to choose from, and it is all prepared with the most painstaking attention to detail. HOWEVER (because there is almost always a “however”), the meat is not the highest quality. And that’s my nice way of saying (because I like this place, I really do), that the meat is, well, not good. BAD. The meat is bad. The chicken is tough and more likely than not to have gristle, the veal is even worse, the seafood is by and large rubbery, but the pasta is really really good and I swear to you, I swear, the sauces are simply amazing. And I’ve had luck with the ground meats! Those are good; stick with those. Due to the low-grade quality of most ground meat we’re accustomed to ingesting, even if the ground meat used here is just as bad as the poultry and veal you’ll most likely never even notice. So skip the veal. And the chicken. And even if you must get the Mole Poblano (and most people who visit here really must), just know that the star of the dish is not the chicken, but rather the sauce that accompanies it.

I’m sorry I had to say that. No other reviewer has said that. But it had to be said. I am sorry.

Devotees of traditional Mexican cuisine will not be disappointed. El Barzón offers traditionally-prepared tacos, corn or flour (corn!), with choices of meat including goat, spicy pork, and chorizo (Mexican spicy sausage) and adorned simply with cilantro and lime-splashed onions (the lime takes the bite out of the onions, and is common in authentic Mexican cooking); they also offer tortas, Mexican “sandwiches” served with choice of meat, beans, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, onions, and jalapeño peppers. Italian food aficionados will be pleased with hearty Gnocchi and wonderful traditional sauces such as Bolognese, Palomino, and Arrabbiata—generic Eye-talian cuisine this is not, and Garita has clearly not forgotten his time at Il Posto. The sauces are all incredibly rich and no amount of cheese, butter, oil or cream was spared in making them.

But despite Garita’s finely-honed skills in Italian cuisine, his heart still seems to lie in Mexico. Diners start with a basket of piping-hot tortilla chips served with green and red salsas. Before you read further, wipe that image of Old El Paso Chunky Salsa right out of your head: these are traditional salsas (mole verde and mole rojo, more sauce than salsa which, as we already know, is Garita’s strong suit), more the consistency of watery soup and absolutely chunk-free. The flavors are also unlike any that you’re accustomed to in a salsa; there is very little tomato in either, but lots of, oh, nuts…peppers…chiles…maybe a hint of citrus fruit? Tasting these salsas is almost like tasting wine, trying to discern the different notes of vegetables and fruits and identify them. They become more complex the more you taste them, and change the longer they’re in your mouth. Another item that El Barzón has become known for is the guacamole: fresh, handmade and, unlike the salsa, very chunky. I, however, don’t care for overly-oniony guacamole, preferring to have it overly-garlicky instead, so this was not my cup of avocado. Others enjoy it very much. I stand by Woodbridge Pub on this.

Definitely the person holding it

Desserts—again, both Mexican and Italian—are merely average. Not bad, but not great. Cheesecake, chocolate cake, tiramisu, sorbet, profiteroles, flan…all the usual suspects from both cuisines. Stick to something slightly left of center (like the tartuffo), or skip it altogether. The wine list is also lackluster (something Garita apparently did not inherit from his time at Il Posto), but the hand-written tequila list is most impressive (and at $12.00 per shot, almost as expensive as most of the food!). To give you a point of reference, the names “Cuervo” and “Patron” make an appearance but are just two out of some 25 or so.

Garita (left) and team, courtesy of Sean Gabriel Photography

When Garita opened El Barzón in 2006, many of his diehard clientele from Il Posto followed him to this otherwise desolate corner of Michigan and Junction Ave. (don’t worry, it’s safe; there’s no one even there to rob you). On any given night you might find the surrounding streets full of Beamers, Lexi (plural for Lexus), and Escalades…what you won’t find is a valet. Here you get all the quality of four-diamond dining (except the meat, I’m not talking about the meat) but all the down-home friendliness and casual appeal of a Detroit corner diner. The staff is exceedingly friendly and accommodating, though many only speak a smattering of English (not unlike Il Posto in that regard). And with all entrees priced at about half or less of what Il Posto used to charge, it’s no wonder all the old clientele is willing to make the drive.

To sum it all up, I made a rhyme for you: the prices can’t be beat…STAY AWAY FROM THE MEAT.