By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Two words rush to mind every time I step into the new Rosa Mexicano: great design.
Dominating a corner of the former Hecht's department store across from MCI Center, the restaurant is all broad windows and soaring ceiling, a vast stage set pulsing in red, yellow and tangerine. On the rear wall, a thin curtain of water flows over about a million blue tiles, with a summer's worth of beautiful faux butterflies floating above the water's surface. Behind the bar, hundreds of rose petals are displayed within illuminated panels.
"Have a margarita!" the scene practically cries out -- just make sure it's a "clasica" shaken with Cointreau, lime juice and Herradura Silver tequila rather than the signature pomegranate version, which goes down like a vaguely alcoholic Slurpee. Waiters in handsome embroidered shirts brush by with lava-stone bowls full of bright guacamole or bubbling queso fundido, the warm white cheese scattered with poblano peppers and a crumble of chorizo.
Judging from the crowds and the challenge of landing a table at prime time, you might think that Washington had never seen an upscale Mexican restaurant. As for the cooking . . . well, a lot depends on the day and what you order. Occasionally, the kitchen welcomes its audience with winning flavors such as a hearty soup of tender chicken and tortilla matchsticks -- the familiar sopa de tortilla -- or pork cooked to shreds and showcased in a little black skillet with tortillas, creamy beans and jicama salad for a taco of character. At too many other meals, though, Rosa Mexicano amounts to shiny packaging for seriously middling food. Lamb shanks supposedly marinated in chilies and tequila are ceremoniously unveiled from beneath a parchment paper cover at the table, but the result is deflating, like showing up at the theater and finding out the star has called in sick. The meat lacks depth, its seasoning needs more heft. Red snapper blanketed with chopped tomatoes, onions and capers combines damp fish with a topping that whimpers when it should shout. Good thing it comes with fluffy herbed rice to fill up on.
Rosa Mexicano came to the capital in December from Manhattan, where there are two sister restaurants of the same name. Expectations here ran understandably high. Rosa Mexicano in New York was the home of the late Josefina Howard, a celebrated Mexican cooking maven. And no less an eye than designer David Rockwell was tapped to create the new restaurant here. Add to the equation Washington's paucity of distinguished Mexican food, and you've got buzz.
Things get off to a rousing start with a bowl of guacamole mashed near your table, seasoned to your taste with cilantro, onions and peppers and offered with chips -- virtually flavorless on my initial visit, light and redolent of corn thereafter. Every waiter's welcome is followed by a pitch to order the guacamole, and you should, because it's a treat -- and because some of the remaining appetizers are as reliable as a fortune-teller. The marinade on the seviche of scallops, shrimp and fish is so creamy and sweet, and packs so little heat, that you wouldn't be surprised to find this appetizer listed alongside the flan and tres leches cake on the dessert menu. Lobster tacos are strangely seasoned crumbles of lobster on saucer-size tortillas, a $12 loss.
Matters improve if you distance yourself from seafood. The crescent-shaped quesadillas, three to a plate, ooze warm cheese, mushrooms and the earthy corn fungus known as huitlacoche. Presented with a gently tingling tomatillo sauce, they add up to first-rate noshing. The brightest first course, literally, is shreds of roast duck arranged with lovely house-made tortillas and set on an eye-catching pool of yellow pepper sauce teased with habanero. The duck, those wrappers, the complex sauce -- each element builds on the success of the others.
Entrees repeat some of the sins that precede them, as surf once again loses out to turf. Garlic-marinated grilled shrimp are acrid with salt, while grilled beef short ribs, or tablones, are simply wondrous. Crisp on the edges, the well-seasoned meat falls apart at the touch of a fork; velvety, soft-cooked pepper and onion strips are draped over the whole. This may just be the best main course in the neighborhood right now. You don't have to eat meat to enjoy yourself here, however. The firm, dark green chiles rellenos, plump with spinach and raisins, are very good. A coin of goat cheese crowns each chile, and a tangy sauce of roasted tomatoes colors the plate. If only the menu offered more such hits.
"Dessert?" the waiter will ask. "Another margarita" would be your best answer. Apple bread pudding is thick and rubbery; poke it with your fork and the stuff jiggles like cranberry sauce in a can. The famed tres leches cake is here gussied up with tropical fruit. I'll stick to the homier version served in just about every other Latin American eatery around town, thanks. The restaurant's flan is too dense, and the Mexican cheesecake, with a center well of liquid caramel, proves gummy.
Right now, Rosa Mexicano is the city's most glamorous source for chips and dip. I'll remember it when I want a sassy drink, a comforting plate of melting beef, or a tasty quesadilla or two. Meanwhile, I'll keep my fingers crossed, and hope this newcomer's substance soon catches up to its style.