2 1/2 stars
Mi Vida: 98 District Sq. SW. 202-516-4656. mividamexico.com.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Lunch mains $10 to $25, dinner and brunch mains $14 to $38.
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published March 23, 2018.
Vibrant plates and a stunning interior have Mi Vida shining brightly
Flanked by exterior torches, a massive door with jewel-colored handles opens to several floors of mesmerizing details, including a life-size faux tree, a flock of hand-painted butterflies and a mezzanine reminiscent of a hacienda overlooking the dreamily illuminated bar. Day of the Dead skulls have no home here.
“We wanted to tell a story, like Roberto does” with the cooking, says Michael Reginbogin, a principal with Knead Hospitality + Design in the District. Mi Vida’s culinary visionary is Roberto Santibañez, the New York-based cookbook author and restaurateur behind Fonda in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Most of the expected dishes are done right at Mi Vida. Its guacamole is appropriately lush, queso fundido bubbles with white cheese and zesty chorizo, and if you like your ceviche on the tart side, red snapper with toasted coconut, lime juice and jalapeño deliver, big-time. Credit for the consistency goes to executive chef Andres Meza, previously with Rosa Mexicano in New York and National Harbor.
“We’re aggressive with heat and seasoning levels,” says Santibañez, who also cooks his beans one of two ways here: with avocado leaves and potent chile de arbol, or a combination of earthy epazote and jalapeños. Expect the chips to be light, crisp and warm, and the lighting to be so dim you’ll need to break out a flashlight to see what’s for dinner.
Roast chicken yields an enormous bird flanked with scene-stealing sides: a bowl of grilled street corn bound with cotija cheese and mayonnaise, and a heap of pickled cauliflower, carrots and other vegetables. Blushing slices of grilled skirt steak, topped with mellow roasted poblanos, get a mushroom cream sauce rich enough to suggest a classic French kitchen. But the breakout star is the roasted and butterflied catch of the day — red snapper most recently — half of which is painted with red adobo (chile sauce) and half brushed with green (the hotter of the applications). Two tones are better than one.
As with the design and the food, the service is fueled with passion. Consider the attendant who announced her name and informed us, “I’m going to take PHENOMENAL care of you tonight!” I appreciate the thought, but the minder’s enthusiasm trumped her efficiency as she splashed almost as much water on the table as in my glass and subsequently misremembered the way I asked for my margarita. (Up, no salt.) She also forgot to bring us an order of foie gras mousseline served with cut-up churros, among the shareable introductions on the menu.
All of which means I’ll simply have to return to check the service for consistency and follow up on a recommendation to try Mi Vida’s riffs on guacamole, including one with grapes and another with blue cheese. Santibañez says Mexican food legend Diana Kennedy cringes at the latter option, while he loves the jolt. Whatever, the chef is on a roll.