When Mike Andrzejewski invited Victor Parra Gonzalez to join talents for a seven-course Mexican extravaganza downtown at Bourbon & Butter, the dinner sold out in record time, Andrzejewski said.
Gonzalez is a young chef from Acapulco who runs Jaguar at the Bistro, in Youngstown. After decades in Buffalo kitchens, Andrzejewski is one of the city’s leading chefs, with four places, including Bourbon & Butter, in Hotel @ the Lafayette. Last night they presented seven courses of Mexican-inspired cuisine, supported with drinks from Tony Rials, arguably the best bartender in Buffalo. It was a night to remember.
Gonzalez makes Mexican like no one in Buffalo. His food is nuanced, sophisticated and a far cry from the deep-fried fast fare most of us know. Until last night, diners had to drive 45 minutes from the city to try it.
The five-hour feast started with passed appetizers and a hibiscus acqua fresca, an intensely sweet, forest-fruit sipper that started things off on the heavy side. The chefs presented a mini-torta on a crispy, Ritz-sized cracker with refried beans, shredded chicken and queso fresco on top, as well as a Mexican take on bruschetta, with more beans, melted mild chihuahua cheese and fresh pico de gallo atop lightly toasted Italian bread. The restaurant was filled to capacity, and an initial lull in the action gave us plenty of time to mull over, or in some cases Google, what was to come.
Rials offered a mescal, corn broth, orange flower water and lime cocktail over crushed ice to go alongside an esquite, or fresh corn soup. The liquid was accented with sliced jalapenos, radishes, dollops of cream, piquillo pepper dust and a breadstick schmeared with huitlacoche foam. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn, which the Aztecs first enjoyed as an earthy, funky condiment.
The Youngstown chef used it to add earthiness to the bright, many-layered soup, which saw kicks of uvula-tickling heat from the jalapenos balancing against cool, summery kernels. The mescal would have paired better if it hadn’t come many melting minutes before, but the smoky, citric sip did add a welcome acidity.
The following egg and mushroom tortilla reminded us of breakfast crepes, with fluffy scrambled eggs, cultured crema, an herb-laced crumble and charred shishito mushrooms. It was a subtle, simpler dish after the complex esquite, paired that with a pinot noir rose that was bright and lively, keeping our taste buds awake for the long haul.
Pescado almendrado arrived next, a generous helping of mahi with slivered almonds, more chihuahua cheese sauce, sliced pickled red onions and sprinkles of cress. The fish was mild and texture was front and center, with the crunchy almonds, crisp onion and flaky fish playing nicely together.
Unfortunately, the fish varied widely in thickness, so the edges became overcooked, while the wider end was sashimi-raw. Rials challenged our palates with an 18-year-old Amontillado sherry that bloomed floral and complex against the fish. It cut the cream beautifully.
Rock lobster ceviche was the favorite of many at our table, generous chunks of lobster with rich avocado, charred tomato, a see-through, sweet sesame crisp and generous sprinkles of cilantro. We all agreed we could eat a whole bowl, and the Goose Island lager that arrived with it reminded us of warmer days by the water.
Next, the chefs took us back to chilly weather fare with a hulking portion of braised pork shank, a fork-tender cut of meat with glazed carrots and pineapple, escabeche jalapeno and a smear of mashed potato. Escabeche is a Latin American dish that usually sees fish or chicken marinated in an acid before serving, and the jalapeno had spent so much time poaching, it was almost unrecognizably sweet.
The pork and pineapple were a sweet-umami pair, and Rials poured a Russian River orange pinot noir, which was a complex, dry wine with whispers of the grape floating off lavender and herb undertones. It was a delicate balance that lightened an otherwise heavy, winter-reminiscent dish.
For our final meat, a duck breast al pastor arrived, a take on Central Mexican street food. Al pastor is similar to the Lebanese shawarma or Greek gyro, in which meat roasts on a spit underneath a pineapple and red onion, the juices dribbling down and caramelizing. This version arrived on a corn pancake, with lardo pineapple and a slice of charred, smoky red onion. The duck was lightly caramelized from the fruit acids and a Skerk wine from the Carso region Rials sent us was a light, almost effervescent wine to cut the richness.
Dessert saw us almost at the breaking point, so the miniature portions were a welcome sight. Macerated berry flan was a simple, creamy custard with strawberries on top, a light caramel topping keeping it simple.
Arroz con leche, a toothsome rice pudding with raisins, had fine grains that were al dente, not mushy. With it, we sipped a fragrant, stomach-settling Oloroso sherry and an aged Riesling whose sugars had mellowed into a sulphuric sweetness.
By then, many diners had to-go boxes with a few bites of at least one course by our plates, and Cinderella was dangerously close to her curfew. Gonzalez and Andrzejewski emerged from the kitchen to rousing applause, as they thanked attendees for what the Bourbon & Butter host said was his most successful guest chef appearance yet.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Gonzalez beamed, his arm around the chef he said he long admired. “Thank you for coming; thank you Mike A for having me.”
And thank you, chefs, for testing our culinary limits, challenging our palates and our stamina with a dishes many of us have never seen. If this adventure doesn’t get a few customers up to Youngstown this summer, nothing will.
Lizz Schumer is the author of “Buffalo Steel,” the editor of The Sun and writes about food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She can be found @eschumer, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and lizzschumer.com.