There are only two men in Mumbai who understand classical Mexican cooking. One is Executive Chef Ananda Solomon at The President, Cuffe Parade, and the other, Bon Vivant Asit Chandmal at Sterling Apartments, Pedder Road. So, if you are planning to eat at El Mexicano, the six-month old restaurant at The President, you better put yourself in the hands of Chef Solomon, or invite Mr. Chandmal and let him do the ordering. I have done both, with great success. They have helped me to discover a brand new cuisine and culture.
One thing you have to understand is that this is not Guju-Tex-Mex or even American-Tex-Mex, this is genuine Mexican cooking, coming down from Mayan and Aztec civilisations, influenced by the Spanish conquistadors, food as cooked and served in Mexico City, in Acapulco, in Guadalajara, it involves 200 varieties of chillies, corn and cacti, spicy hot sauces made with thick black chocolate, sharp tequilas and frozen margueritas. Tortillas, tacos and salsa are only a beginning, not the end.
There is a pretty lift, all glass and chrome, that, like a Rolls Royce, silently glides to the hacienda
on the first floor. The hacienda is El Mexicano, constructed on the side of the swimming pool. You can almost visualise a bandito coming from the opposite end, riding a mule, sombrero on head, one of our cotton floor mats (durries) across the shoulder. Inside the hacienda, it is all understated elegance, I can see Elisabeth Kerkar's hand everywhere. I think the Taj owes a big debt to Mrs. Kerkar, without her its properties would have looked like Oberoi's. It is a bright restaurant, tables spaced out, a large bar, and windows through which the caballeros can look inside and play. The staff is well trained, as the waiters serve you, they announce the names of the dishes, and, if you inquire, tell you exactly what they are. A little educational, but then you are entering new waters.
On the table, compliments of the house, are placed a bow of jalapenos (plump yello chillis, treated with vinegar and salt), to refresh your mouth, a bowl of long green Mexican chillies, fiery hot, and a bowl of totopas (small, wafer-sized, chips of tortillas), served with guacamole and salsa sauce. At the President, the totopas are specially made. However, in Mexico, I am told, they are the leftovers of the previous day's tortillas, which are broken into small pieces and eaten for breakfast. Enjoy these, but go easy on the green chillis, they can put a fire in your mouth.
Now order the appetisers. And if you can't make up your mind, which most probably you won't be able to, with names such as tostaditas de queso enchiptole and las dos ruedas de ceviche jarocho, order an assortment of five items. There is a provision for this on the menu. There are vegetarian and non-vegetarian appetisers. If you want my advice, take the little tartlets, filled with crispy corn and stewed mushrooms in a tangy green and chiptole chilli sauce. They are small mouthfuls, put the whole tartlet in the mouth and enjoy the combined taste of fresh corn and the smokey flavour of the dried jalapenos. Also try the pickled red snapper, with tomato salsa and pickled onions, or a sesame flavoured fried red snapper. There are also barbecued chicken winglets, spiked on a stick, the end of the stick smartly wrapped in a green plantain leaf strip to prevent your fingers from getting soiled. And order a few frozen margueritas, one at a time, you can sip them through the dinner, as the ice slowly melts. Turn the glass around to get the salt on the rim.
Let's move on to the soups. There are four: the first has cacti, mushroom and roasted tomatoes in it; the second is an aromatic coriander soup with grilled chillies; the third is seafood; and the fourth is a classical Mexican with tortilla strips, avocado and pasilla chillies. What are pasilla chillies? I can't know what all the 200 chillis are, I am not a Mexican. I have the seafood soup, it is both experimental and rich in the fish it procures from the Gulf of Mexico and two oceans. Though the seafood here does not come from Mexico, it comes from Goa and Cochin, flown every morning, fresh. And in my soup I have seen shrimps, clams, squids, mussels and part of some larger fish, flavoured with chipotle chilli and epazote leaves. The latter are some kind of herb, slightly pungent, you will notice the taste when you drink the soup. We move to fish (pescados Ymariscos). The fresh red snapper is, perhaps, your best bet. The original comes from Veracruz, here it comes from Cochin, flown in, and you will have to be an expert to tell the difference. Locally, we call it rani, and it's a red fish all right, with reddish scales. It is a round fish, not flat, and a large one, weighs five to six kilos. In Mexico, it is available in abundance, here it is a little more difficult to get, but you get it. The way they make it at El Mexicano (there is a Mexican chef, Salvador, to assist Chef Solomon) is wrap it in banana leaf and bake it with tomatoes, olives and jalapeno chillies, and serve it with vegetables and Mexican rice. The tomatoes are actually tomatillos, they are green in colour and with a skin (shell), like gooseberry. The fish is soft and moist, the tomatillos give it a slight sour taste, the jalapinos make it spicy, the vegetables give a pleasant coating to the rice.
The other items in the seafood section include fried prawns, interestingly done in a tamarind sauce, also served with rice. Or grilled prawns, with garlic and guajillo chilli sauce, served with vegetables and a creamy pasta. I have not had this, so I cannot describe it. Please, excuse. There is also a freshly saurteed crab, with tomatilloes and chipotle chillies, flavoured with epazote leaves. Chef Solomon tells me it is a Southern Mexican speciality.
Ananda Solomon is a gifted and an educated chef, he is one of the prize gems of the multi-talented Taj cuisine. He spent time in Thailand, learnt Thai cooking, and started the Thai restaurant at The President. He went to Mexico, travelled all over the country, studied different schools of Mexican cooking, worked three months at its most prestigious restaurant, La Hacienda D Es Morellas in Mexico City. He says: "Every visitor to Mexico must eat one meal there." And he talks of authentic Mexican cooking, it is totally different from Tex-Mex, no rajmas, please, in fact there is not a single restaurant in Mexico City which sells Tex-Mex. Mr. Solomon's El Mexicano has a small Tex-Mex section at the end of the menu, otherwise, the rest is classical Mexican. The addition is for those who are nervous about going beyong Tex-Mex, but tastes are changing. In the beginning, 60 per cent opted for Tex-Mex, now it is 40 per cent, mainly vegetarians, Gujarati vegetarians. Incidentally, the food at the Thai Room is authentic Thai, no modifications.
Besides chillies, the Mexicans pioneered chocolate, and they use a combination of the two. Ask for the grilled chicken breast done in a dark chocolate and chilli sauce. I find it difficult to describe this, it is chocolate and yet not chocolate, a dark sauce, sweet and with an after-taste of spice, and the chicken breast is thoroughly wrapped in it. There are various other sauces, referred to as moles, and oregano and chipotle chilli sauce, a pumpkin seed sauce, a chilli and tequila sauce. And yes, don't forget the tequila shots in between your food.
The vegetables section also uses the moles and the dishes are served with Mexican rice and refried beans. I recommend one item in this: nopalitos huichol. It is cactus, yes, cactus. It is a popular and common vegetable in Mexico, sold in large piles in bazars, used in soups, salads, with meats, as plain vegetable. And its flower is used in desserts. I do not know if it is any different from Indian cactus. but this is the flat variety, like the palm of a hand, with the thorns on both sides, large and pokey, you see the plants in Western movies. They cut the ones at the top of the plant, which are tender, the lower ones are fibrous. They wear gloves when they scrape the thorns off with a sharp knife, trim the sides, but leave the skin on, and the pulp between the skin. Then it is thoroughly cleaned, cut in the way you want, at the El Mexicano you get it in strips, cooked and served. The restaurant gets tinned cactus, already cleaned, and kept in a brine solution. I would like to buy a tin, but they don't sell it wholesale, they sell it tossed with fresh vegetables, in a spicy Chile de Arbol sauce. Try it, tonight, at El Mexicano, The President, and forget the rajma. Have a tequila shot on me, and bite the chilli.