Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Xiomara: Go for the Mojitos, Stay for the Pork

I'd driven by it hundreds of times on the way to Osteria La Buca for gnocchi, Scoops for ice cream and Larchmont for other recreational activities involving food/eating. For three years, Xiomara, located east of Highland on Melrose Ave., was the restaurant "in the corner of my eye," but I knew nothing about it other than what I had gleaned from a spattering of Yelp reviews. The mojitos, made from real sugar cane (as opposed to "fake" sugar cane), are supposedly "the best in LA," and the food, while expensive, is pleasing to the palate.

Because I'm mostly a wino when it comes to consumption of liver-leaching beverages, and I had other wallet-shocking restaurants on my "to eat" list, Xiomara always seemed to be overshadowed by the Osteria Mozzas and Fraiches of the LA dining world. I wanted to go there, but needed someone to push it to the forefront of my foodie radar.

This past week, after forcing my good friend into an early celebratory birthday dinner, Xiomara finally made it to the top of my list. I sent my friend an e-mail with fifteen different restaurants (with links to the menus included), and he immediately responded that he'd like to try Xiomara. Reservations were easily secured for this past Saturday night at 8 pm, and I was left with only one final concern -- what to wear to the upscale Cuban-inspired eatery.

As we strode into the half-full restaurant on Saturday night, I was glad I had chosen a form-fitting long-sleeved steel grey dress and heels. The upper-crust clientele occupying the tables downstairs and upstairs were well-attired and reeking of wealth still unburdened by the economic recession. I took it as a sign that the food would be more than just an average plate of garlic-soaked chicken from the budget-friendly Versailles. I took the serving trays filled with glasses of mojitos as a sign too. Both my friend and I ordered the restaurant's signature $12 drink as soon as we settled into our two-person table overlooking the downstairs dining room (the place to sit).

When our silent Bob-esque waiter dropped the drinks off at our table, my hand immediately dove out to catch the glass that appeared to be tipping over. It took me a second to realize that the glass was slanted and was meant to be a "Leaning Tower of Mojito." After one sip of the work of Cuban bartending art, I knew why the mojito at Xiomara is so acclaimed. Unlike the glass, the lime, mint and sugar were perfectly balanced -- not too sweet, not too tart, and most importantly, I didn't wind up with a mouth full of mint leaves.

The auspicious beginning to our night continued with a generously stuffed bread basket containing crispy plantain chips and succulent pieces of butter-toasted white bread. My friend and I were in carbohydrate heaven as we gorged ourselves on the diet-destructing simple sugars, content to consider it our appetizer for the evening. The bread and the complimentary quiche slice, dropped by our table without a word from the server, were more than enough to keep our mouths occupied while we waited for our entrees, the highly recommended Chilean Sea Bass on Corn Guizo, roasted with a crispy corn crust and served on chile mashed potatoes and corn stew ($34), and the Seared Pork Hash, Yuca con Mojo Platonos y Chicarron ($23.50) that translates to a shredded leg of pork, marinated Cuban style and served with black bean jus, marinated cassave, and fried rip and green plantains.
Because we have reached a point in our friendship where we no longer fear each others germs/backwash, my friend and I opted to split the two entrees. I started with the hash, he started with the sea bass, and we agreed to swap mid-way through. Though the pork hash sounded like something one might encounter at a Cuban restaurant of a less prestigious nature, the construction of the dish was nothing short of spectacular -- in both presentation and height. I had no idea what I was eating as I forked my way through the succulent braised pork and accompaniments, but the flavors blended so well that I hated to part with the rest of it when I reached the half-way point. It was the type of dish I might crave on a cold "winter" day when I actually need to wear a sweater or pair of closed-toed shoes.

After the unequivocal success of the pork hash, I knew that the sea bass could never live up to the taste that now lined the inside of my mouth. Try as I might to see the bright side (ie. that it was nice to finish with something "lighter"), the sea bass, while well-cooked, fell a bit flat. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the crispy corn crust against the tender, moist flesh, but found the chile mashed potatoes and corn stew to be distractions rather than enhancements to the dish. The spicy vs. sweet flavors were somewhat overpowering for the delicate sea bass, and I couldn't help but wish the entree had been prepared in a way that would better showcase the mild fish.
Despite the slight tongue disappointment at the end of the meal, my friend and I were both pleased with the "in the corner of my eye" restaurant. Enough so that I can see it moving to another section of my "To Eat" list -- to the section labelled "I Want to Go Back," with a side note, "Next time I'm eating both halves of hash."


Esi said...

About six years ago, my friend and I spent the entire summer perfecting our mojito recipe. One of the keys is definitely to avoid the mint leaves in the teeth. Is it sad that $12 for a drink doesn't seem expensive? This looks like an amazing meal!

Heather said...

mmmm. this sounds so good :) i love your silent bob-esque waiter ;) i've had a few of those, too. i love mojitos, and screw around with them all the time... they're good with so many different things in them!!

Diana H. said...

Esi - I know, right? $12 seems normal now! So sad!

Heather - My dad discovered mojitos this summer and started making them for himself on particularly warm nights. I couldn't believe he'd never heard of them before! Must be a generational thing. What do you put in yours?