Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Cardenal Virtues; Cardenal Sins

We'd considered 3 restaurants in the Centro Histórico for our "splurge" meal. One, El Círculo Vasco Español features mostly Spanish cuisine during the week, but on weekends offers an extensive buffet of seafood for $179 pesos pp. We actually went up and looked at it. At just after one in the afternoon, the chafers and cold dishes were filled, covered and waiting for guests to arrive. That there were no guests yet was just an indication that Mexicans eat at later hours than Norteamericanos, but the idea of chafing dish seafood "on hold" held little appeal for me.
The other restaurant, on Isabel La Católica, a block south of our hotel, was the palatial Casino Español, a place of grandeur if there ever was one. (Panorama QuickTime Movie of Stairs.) There are actually two dining rooms there. The ground floor room, "El Mesón" is very simple in decor, with Venetian blinds and dominated by a Coke cooler, and has a slightly less expensive menú del día than the sunny yellow upstairs dining room, with linen tablecloths and nice looking wineglasses. However, the upstairs dining room is not necessarily dressy, as I was assured by Ruth Alegría ("Ruth in Condechi") on the Mexico forum.
But in the end, I felt that the menú of the day (less than $120 pesos) was rather restrained (although one could order a la carta instead.), so we postponed a meal there for another trip.
We decided on the third candidate of our short list.
El Cardenal is a classic, downtown, suited business persons' clubby dining spot. The ambience is conservative and genteel. Now it also seems also opened to nicely dressed,. well-behaved tourists like us and people wearing printed T-shirts. To accomodate the influx, the operators have used yield management to squeeze maximum income out of the three floors of dining rooms. They are connected by both stairs and elevator. Smartly dressed hostesses equipped with walkie-talkies dispatch customers to the tables as they become available.

Thus it was that we were seated almost in front of the elevator, on the third floor. The atmosphere in the corridor was somewhat sterile, but we could focus on the food and generally ignore the less than stellar seating. (I'll concede that we came on a busy Saturday afternoon.)

Our waiter brought us a Molcajete de Queso Fresco, Aguacate, y Salsa Fresca Verde. (It came unbidden, but it later appeared on our bill. Fortunately, it was very good and only cost $25 pesos, the cheapest thing we ate.) There was also a basket of pretty good bread and pastry sesame sticks.

Susan ordered an Ensalada Oscar (Butter lettuce, tomato slices, a little onion, and three generous slices of very good goat cheese. Olive oil and vinegar were available to dress the salad to taste); Sopa de Pescado y Nopal (a clay pot carrying a flavorsome fish stock, garlic, onion, fish chunks and nopal, with a touch of chile); Cazuela de Róbalo y Epazote (almost a reprise of the soup, but more chunks of fish, a more concentrated brown broth, and lots of fresh leaves of epazote); a dish of rice on the side, which she skipped.)

I ordered Tacos de Pato (very good, meaty duck tacos, accompanied by a small dish of very good guacamole. I shared the tacos with Susan).
Main course; Róbalo en Barbacoa. (Fillet of sea bass coated with chile, baked in parchment and a touch of beer.) Very good. Rice.

I ordered dessert: Pastel de La Casa (several layers of mocha-raspberry cake; good but quite unnecessary. Cafe Espresso; not good.

We shared a half bottle of a Spanish white wine. It was very nice, but it didn't go very far, of course.
(I didn't take photos, an exercise of self restraint in these upscale surroundings, but the birthday celebrants at the table behind us freely took many shots. The payoff was when three suited troubadours with guitars came to them and sang a beautiful rendition of "Las Mañanitas". I enjoyed a free ride on that performance.)

We were contemplating the tip for the pretty good service, when the check came with the tip already printed in. It was in the near vicinity of what we would have given, perhaps a bit more generously if on our own.

You may draw your own conclusions.

My conclusions: very good food, good enough service, poor treatment in the customer relations area (bad seating; unordered add-on; tip already printed on cc slip, waiting for signature.) But overall. we were pleased with the meal. On the other hand, our previous breakfast there, although simpler (and far less expensive) seemed more gracious.

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