Like Fogo de Chao, Solera, and Thom Pham’s Wondrous Azian Kitchen, the newly opened Rosa Mexicano strikes an ambitious profile on the Minneapolis scene — it takes ethnic food upscale and downtown and blows it out across a dramatic interior. That Rosa Mexicano (which is part of a national chain) is debuting a series of four seasonal and cleverly themed supplemental menus is further testament to the restaurant’s desire to stand out — it’s a flashy, splashy, ballsy move.
Last week’s press preview of the restaurant’s “Eclectic Cuts: The Art of Butchery” supplemental menu [PDF], which is available from Feb. 22-Mar. 11, showed off some of the strengths of the “go-big-or-go-home” approach to Mexican cuisine, but also exposed some of the weaknesses. Eclectic Cuts highlights hearty, winter-friendly tastes (ranging from veal tongue to pork cheeks to lamb neck) using cooking techniques (such as braising and roasting) and warm, comforting ingredients (like root vegetables and earthy sweetbreads) to match its flavors to the season.
The menu was created by the restaurant chain’s “culinary advisor,” the well-known pioneering California cuisine chef Jonathan Waxman, and executed in Minneapolis by the local location’s executive chef, Brian Pett (below). Transmitting the vision of a talented chef not on site is a risky prospect — executing another chef’s vision can play out like a game of telephone, with dishes becoming unbalanced as they are reinterpreted.
At the outset of the meal, Chef Pett gamely guided the group through the evening’s dishes, but the menu’s Spanish often won the battle, most notably, the word “lengua” turned (appropriately enough) into an agonizing tongue-twister. And while you don’t need to properly pronounce a culture’s food in order to properly prepare it, it’s not a bad thing if you’re pitching the general public on your cooking.
The parade of six dishes (plus guac and a special drink) that arrived landed all over the map. There was a train wreck, there was a show stopper, and there were four dishes in between.
The Rosa Mexicano philosophy on guacamole seems maladjusted at first — while it has a great deal of creamy, pure avocado smoothness and richness, you miss heat, and you miss acid and you miss… well, just about anything that gives a good guacamole a backbone of flavor and depth. But then you take one of the two salsas available at the table — the warmly spiced, almost smoky red salsa or the herbal and then intensely hot green salsa — and layer them over the guac, and, aha, you’ve radically improved it, on the fly, and at a ratio that’s precisely to your liking. A little fussy, but charming and ultimately effective.
Tacos de Lengua (veal tongue tacos, $8 for two) brought together a fruit glaze, avocado, and seared tongue on a tiny tortilla to great effect. These were balanced, rich, and tender as the dickens, an example of how simple dishes made with good ingredients can shine.
By contrast, Mollejas con Huitlacoche (crispy sweetbreads with corn smut, $10) were a disappointment. If you’re going to serve offal, serve offal — let the silky texture and richness of the organ meat take center stage. The thick, exceedingly crunchy breading on these sweetbreads meant that the coating was the star, but plain chicken would have been a more suitable stuffing for such a heavy jacket of starch. The huitlacoche brought a earthy punch to the plate, but didn’t interact particularly well with the fried nuggets that dominated the dish.
Mejilla de Cerdo Guisada (braised pork cheeks served with a soft corn tamale, $19 as a dinner entree) is a dish that you just want to curl up in for the duration of the winter — tender, richly flavored hearty chunks of ancho chili-kissed meat served with delicate grits and a touch of tomato flavor to provide acid and sun. Does this dish alone justify a return visit to Rosa Mexicano? Perhaps. Perhaps it does.
From the heights of the pork cheeks came the depths of the Carne Asada con Tamarindo ($24 at dinner, $19 at lunch), a stack of thick, undercooked, occasionally Hubba Bubba-chewy slices of steak served with a tamarind sauce so strong as to obliterate the flavor of the meat. There’s no culinary law that says that carne asada needs to be thoroughly roasted and richly browned, but the expectation is set by the name, and it’s an expectation this dish failed to meet. A root vegetable mash was a pleasant accompaniment, boasting texture and depth of flavor, but ultimately couldn’t make up for the meat-catastrophe that was the remainder of the dish.
A Braised Lamb Neck Tinga Enchilada ($17) ended the parade of mains with a largely positive whimper. A lack of heat and the strength of the roasted tomatoes versus the lamb made for a tame but tasty dish that had a good onion snap and savory lingering lamb flavor that wrapped up the end of each bite.
Dessert was a show-stopper: a frozen Meyer lemon souffle crowned with a toasted meringue ($7) served with a warm raspberry / pomegranate sauce and a scattering of “sopapillas” (in our case, essentially granny-style doughnut holes instead of the expected beignet-like fried dough). The doughnut holes were sort of irrelevant to the rest of the dish, but tasty nonetheless when consumed with hot coffee. The souffle was delicate, had real citrus bite, and packed enough acidic punch to pleasantly counterbalance the delicately crunchy sweetness of the meringue.
As for the menu’s featured drink, the Mero Mero (“The Top Dog”), I liked it when it was free. This blend of añejo tequila, Amontillado sherry, maple syrup, and chocolate bitters has depth, balance, and sophistication. But at a list price of $14, it’s a bit dear.
With fine tuning, Rosa Mexicano’s Eclectic Cuts menu could turn into an enjoyable diversion for downtown diners; as it is, it’s a game of gastronomic roulette with odds stacked slightly in the diner’s favor.
Our writer and photographer received complimentary food and beverages at this preview dinner.
Rosa Mexicano, 609 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403; 612.656.7144