I didn’t know what to expect, or even think, when I heard the first rumblings last week about a restaurant that had just opened with a chef who was a celebrity in his native Mexico. So of course, imagining I might recognize the name, I had to ask: Does he have a famous restaurant down there? Yes, came the answer, he did have one. But what he mostly has is a famous TV show. In the Spanish-speaking world, Aquiles Chavez is apparently as big a food-themed star as Anthony Bourdain.
That said, and with the photos above as my props, you shouldn’t be surprised when I report: the days-old La Fisheria in Houston has the showbiz portion of the evening down pat. Chavez and his three business partners transport us out of Houston and Texas and the United States to some beachfront someplace wonderful that we don’t quite recognize but have always longed to go. La Fisheria is our “nice restaurant” at the beach, where we go on nights we want to put on a shirt with a collar and enjoy high-quality food with a terrific bottle of wine. Or two.
No dazzling blue water’s in sight beyond the front porch at La Fisheria, but inside there are light woods, handmade tiles and a burst of Caribbean colors born on the coast of the chef’s home state of Tabasco, funnelled through every island fantasy we ever had. And yes, there are inner tubes on the wall in case we swim out too deep. Which, by the way, is a good analogy for the food. When any dish here seems less than glorious (glorious being what most of the dishes are), it’s because it’s trying too hard not to be the same old thing diners love. Maybe the inner tubes should be in the kitchen instead of the dining room.
After three visits over three days within La Fisheria’s opening week, I’m here to tell you I could eat the good stuff often and forever and never get tired of it. This, for instance, is Chavez’s version of a tiradit0, swimming (literally) somewhere between Japanese sashimi and Mexican ceviche. There’s an incredible citrus component at work on these slices of salmon and white fish (snapper, in this case), with a wonderful crunch from thinly sliced carrot and radish, plus tiny cubes of cucumber.
Another slightly off-the-wall starter that happens to be magnificent is a “salad” (with no lettuce) built around artichokes and a dressing/dipping sauce of cilantro and mashed potato. Like an aioli, sort of, except thicker. It’s also neither the first nor the last dish at La Fisheria that’s meant to be eaten with the hands. You make a bit of a mess reveling in these tastes, and the chef wants to pin a medal on you for it. In food, mess equals passion. In food, mess equals enjoyment.
Although my photo doesn’t do it justice, if I were asked to choose (as at the Grammy Awards) the Best New Dish of the Year, meaning any year I’m not too old to remember, I’d probably open the envelope and read “Mussels with beet coulis.” The notion sounds totally weird, but when you experience these mussels first sauteed in butter and white wine then served within a loose puree of beets, you’re happily going where no taste buds have probably ever gone before.
Ordering the ribeye with truffled mashed potatoes and ratatouille lets me not only taste something wonderful and red in my glass but lets me talk a moment about La Fisheria’s quirky wine program. As best I can tell, all the bottles being offered right now are from Mexico – that’s right, from a place huge numbers of Americans don’t even know produces any wine. The whites are generally light, not at all overly oaked (gracias a Dios!) and simply perfect for a seafood-crazed menu. The reds are promising too, most hailing from the Baja peninsula around the U.S. border at San Diego.
Desserts are still a work-in-progress at La Fisheria – hardly a major scandal after only three or four days of operation. While the finale pictured above, a mound of fried yuca fritters (okay, they’re called torrejas) paired with an ice cream made with the exotic herb hoja santa, is fine, I predict we’ll soon see more things that are lush, sweet and decadent in the American sense. After all, while “Spanish Spoken Here” seems the motto of the staff and more than half of the customers, it’s America in which Houston, Texas, resides. Which, naturally, makes the vacation-style getaway offered by Aquiles Chavez at La Fisheria all the more luminous. And all the more necessary.