The mariachi band was not an auspicious introduction. They were playing out in front of Los Colibris on King Street late one night last month as the Royal Alexandra Theatre spat wide-eyed Walters and Eunices out into the evening, as crowds of tipsy young men and women wobbled arm-in-arm from the Fashion Week festivities at David Pecaut Square.
A sucker is born every minute; in the Theatre District, I'd put it closer to two, at least. Barring a few exceptions, the street is lousy with tourist traps. Los Colibris's band put me more in mind of Mexicali Rosa's-style artifice – the sort of ersatz Mexican that most Canadians have grown up with – than real-deal hospitality and food.
But Los Colibris is anything but a tourist trap. It's the first up-market Mexican place in the city with polished service and genuinely uncompromising cooking, executed with love and craft and finesse.
The 150-seat room is the work of Andreas Antoniou, the young restaurateur behind Estiatorio Volos, on Richmond Street West. There are linen cloths on the tables and quiet, up-tempo music overhead. They serve Mexican craft beer here; Mr. Antoniou is an expert at combining fine dining service and a modern, casual mood. But the food here, from an untested and relatively unknown chef named Elia Herrera, sets the place way apart.
Ms. Herrera grew up in Cordoba, in central Mexico, in a prominent culinary family. Her grandmother, Luz Carmen Dominguez de Herrera, was a de facto culinary ambassador for the country, producing elaborate state dinners at the Vatican and in the Spanish court. Ms. Herrera's mother, Elia del Carmen Herrera, also became a chef; she now runs the family's national catering enterprise from their hometown in Veracruz state. Ms. Herrera followed her mother and grandmother's career path; she began cooking when she was six years old.
Yet a life in Mexico would have been too predetermined, too comfortable, she worried. Ms. Herrera moved to Toronto 10 years ago to work as a pastry chef. She ran the desserts at Mistura, Canoe and Scarpetta before signing on with Los Colibris.
Outside of the staff meals she often cooked before service, she'd never been known as a savoury cook, and she'd never led her own kitchen crew. By many accounts, the restaurant's opening months were shaky. (It opened in June.) But her dishes today tell a different story.
Los Colibris serves the foods that Ms. Herrera grew up with: the delicate corn dumpling and confit chicken stew called called tesmole de pollo; the pork and fruit and spice-stuffed peppers dish called chiles en nogada; scratch-made flour and corn tortillas that are cooked to order; gossamer bunuelos doughnuts with soursop sorbet. It's Veracruz-style home cooking, much of it, issued from an expert palate, in many cases with wildly uncommon finesse.
Ms. Herrera's green pozole, a special recently, makes a good introduction. The flavours and the seasoning are calibrated as if with laser guidance: tart green tomatillos and Mexican oregano, savoury stewed chicken and lime-soaked corn kernels that lend an earthy, soulful layer over top of it all. It's a sophisticated soup, but also fresh-tasting and simple. If you closed your eyes you could be in a market in central Mexico.
The chef's "Tijuana Caesar salad" comes from a more inventive corner of her mind. The romaine leaves are lightly grilled so they're crisp-tender and smoky, combined with the porky, smoked paprika taste of homemade chorizo sausage, with cotija cheese, with classic, creamy Caesar dressing and pomegranate seeds.
Her torta de elote is also atypical. Torta de elote is a sweet cake made from fresh corn, butter, eggs and condensed milk and usually served for dessert. Ms. Herrera's kitchen serves it as a savoury course, pulling back the sweetness and adding whole fresh kernels so it tastes richly, intoxicatingly of late-summer corn, but with a texture somewhere between toasted brioche and chocolate cake.
She dresses the cake with a thick, dark, low-burning adobo chile sauce and with brisket that's been braised to falling apart.
Her chiles en nogada, a national dish in Mexico that's often eaten in the fall, is also a must-order. Like so many of the country's greatest dishes, this one is both simple, and remarkably complex. Ms. Herrera follows her grandmother's recipe, with more than 30 ingredients in the stuffing alone, she said. There's ground pork, prunes, apricot, green apples, cinnamon, olives, capers, almonds, pine nuts, plaintains … That filling is stuffed into whole poblano peppers, which are charred and then floured and dipped in egg whites and shallow-fried; the peppers comes napped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. This is cooking with depth and personality. If all you know of Mexican food is Baja-style tacos and chicken chimichangas, the best of Ms. Herrera's dishes will alter your conceptions for good.
Not all of her work is polished enough. While the appetizers (entradas calientes) were terrific, mostly, the main dishes (platos fuertes) often suffered from heaviness and unsubtlety. The flat iron steak came on a thick smear of refried beans, with crumbled chorizo sausage that only underscored the fuerte; some lightness would have been an enormous help. The confit pork belly in adobo sauce, although beautifully roasted, suffered the same problem, and the huachinango a la Veracruzana – fried fish in a tomato, caper and olive sauce – was boring the first time I had it, without enough acidity. On another night: fish is either spanking fresh or it isn't. The piece I had the second time was not.
I suspect that most of these issues are a result of Ms. Herrera's inexperience; I'm also confident given the strength of her strongest dishes – of which there are many – that the weakest ones will improve with time. Instead of the fish or the beef, have the tesmole de pollo, a wicked-delicious chicken stew topped with dumplings that are made from masa corn flour and pork fat. Get the pulpo à la parilla, grilled octopus in a shallow, verdant-smelling broth made with jalapeno peppers, basil and coriander. Or get the queso fundido: that house-made chorizo sausage, smothered with melted cheese and served with those made-to-order tortillas. (Los Colibris and its casual downstairs sister restaurant, called El Caballito Tequila y Tacos, employ a cook who does nothing over his eight hour shift but make tortillas, Ms. Herrera said. Respect.)
And do not neglect Ms. Herrera's desserts list; she's a magnificent pastry chef. The tres leches cake is a must, refreshingly semi-sweet instead of cloying, served with pineapple, coconut macaroons and soursop sorbet, as well as a cochineal-red gel made from hibiscus flowers. Or get the bunuelos, a beautifully patterned, deep fried pastry that looks almost like a magnolia flower, that comes with a square of hazelnut rum cake, superbly sweet-sour guava sorbet and dulce de leche ice cream.
And then enjoy that mariachi band on the way out. You'll never listen to Cielito Lindo the same way again.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of people's minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.