Good Mexican Food on the Lower East Side; Praying With Christy Turlington, Eating Brunch

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Won't happen. Walking on Ludlow St. last week, with all around me the evidence of gentrification in an economy that might not quit, I had the same sensation I've gotten for a while down there, which is the sensation that progress has stopped. It's as if the good times have frozen cultural growth?which, Slav that I am, I associate with misery, pain and struggle. But we'll see. I suspect there's a gigantic piano suspended above the Lower East Side, ready to drop at the economy's whim and wipe out this unlikely pleasure-zone of a neighborhood like a box of jelly donuts. Back to the freaks and the Hispanics.

    Until then, restaurants will keep popping up all over the place, like the good new Casa Mexicana at the corner of Ludlow and Rivington Sts. The place serves gentrified Mexican food of the El Teddy's variety, which is to say it's tarted up but not in an obtrusive, pretentious way.

    So we had a tortilla soup, which is a hell of a tortilla soup: a thick orange tomato-based broth worked through with dairy products, specked with little pieces of one of those cheeses Mexicans are always throwing into everything and sifting over everything, and a mess of tortilla strips atop it, waiting to be slapped down into the creamy-hot soup with the back of a spoon. It looked like someone had thrown a handful of breadsticks over the bowl. We also ordered the chicken soup, which, in that pan-Hispanic way, is characterized by a clear, thin broth infused with the flavor of corn and thick at the bottom with fat pieces of rice and shreds of very good chicken. The soup's accompanied by a little vessel of chopped red onions, tomatoes and green pepper?a mild sort of green pepper that tastes bright and vegetative, and that has no interest in ripping the roof of your mouth off. You dump all the chopped vegetables into the soup, which is resultingly that much more special and delightful. Yet still, I kept thinking that the chicken soup up at Flor's Kitchen in the East Village was better.

    For appetizers you should order the pellizcadas. These consist of thick, grainy little tortillas, not much bigger than a John F. Kennedy half dollar, and slightly cupped. That is, their sides are primped up like the sides of those ashtrays you used to make back in pottery class in middle school. Atop, or rather within, the tortilla cup is a hot green tomatillo sauce. Atop the tomatillo sauce, a morsel of shredded chicken. Atop the morsel of shredded chicken, a dollop of sour cream. Which, finally, is sprinkled with some creamy white cheese the name of which didn't stick when the waiter told it to me. A very good dish, if physically insufficient, given that you only get four of the little things.

    We also ordered a dish that consisted of a congeries of chicken chunks, grilled cactus strips and scallions, all floating in and sticking out of a hot tomato broth. The stewy dish came in a molcajete, which is that lava-stone pot beloved of indigenous people on Mexican savannahs. The dish was accompanied by a basket of tortillas, so you could make little wraps of all the stuff in the pot. But the dish was exhausting. Cactus doesn't taste good unless you're a Sonoran rodent, and I didn't feel like making my own little sandwiches.

    The menu's heavy on beef and pork, which Casa Mexicana seems to specialize in, so naturally we ordered fish. It wasn't a bad idea, as it turned out. A scallop dish was excellent. It consisted of merely three scallops, but that's okay. They were perched around the edges of the plate, each resting on soft, sweet, almost caramelized slices of plantain. In the center of the plate was a formed mesa of excellent, lightly scented rice. (What a chore forming that rise cylinder must have been. I wonder how many immigrants they employ to stack the grains up, one by one by one by one.) Around the rice was a moat of hot green tomatillo sauce. So what you did was break up the rice into the sauce so that you have rice that hurts your mouth, and that plays well against the smooth, slippery, texturally "cool" scallops, which were lightly browned around their edges. A sea-bass dish was fine, too, with the brown-fried fish resting over slabs of perfect zucchini.

    Casa Mexicana's sole weirdness, if you can call it that, is its Euro atmosphere. People spoke French at the bar and wore leather trousers, and music reminiscent of the Gypsy Kings wafted over the sound system. Our excellent waiter, who knew his stuff, asked us if we'd like a glass of wine when we sat down. That usually doesn't happen when you're dealing with Mexican restaurants, but these aren't your run-of-the-mill taco-stand Mexican restaurateurs, apparently. The oversized blue-glass stemware looks a Lebanese tourist picked it out for his mistress in some housewares emporium off Broome St.

    Anyway, a Euro ambience has managed to infiltrate the Lower East Side, which, Gen-X graybeard that I am, I still associate with ABC No Rio, kettle fires and the cover of that Beastie Boys album. Maybe that's progress.

    Casa Mexicana, 133 Ludlow St. (Rivington St.), 473-4100.

    Christy? Christ! Of all the good restaurants on Cornelia St., Le Gigot seems to attract the fewest people for brunch, even though it's probably the best place for the job, as I've found having eaten there regularly since it opened a couple years ago, always with an elderly friend of my family who attends church downtown. The way it works is that I wait on the sidewalk outside his church for the congregation to spill out, including my friend and, interestingly, Christy Turlington, who used to attend Mass there regularly, and still might. That was always weird: watching pour down the church steps the humble middle-aged members of the church, heading across the street toward the subway, wearing on their faces those boiled-potato expressions that always grace churchgoers' faces after Mass, walking obliviously past the phone-kiosk Calvin Klein ad in which Turlington's wearing, like, nothing?and then the woman appears on the church steps herself, blinking in the sunlight, making every fellow human being of hers in the same field of vision resemble a clove of garlic, wafting down the stairs into the welcoming arms of the big, fat, jolly priest there to see people off into the remainder of their Sundays.

    And once, moreover, when actually accompanying my friend to an Advent Mass, I witnessed the theologically interesting spectacle of the woman progressing with head bowed and with hands clasped down the church aisle in a line of other parishioners, taking half steps toward the aisle, accepting the Host and then shuffling back to her pew to pray alongside housewives. Like the greatest disasters in history, it was one of those events that force a radical reconfiguration of theologians' conception of the relationship between God and man, between divine justice and temporal existence. And so Turlington beseeched her maker in the gray sempiternal light of the Advent, amidst the mingy smell of December woolens. I'm not religious but it was, honestly, moving?this pagan icon, on her knees.

    But back to Le Gigot, where I always go with my elderly friend when he gets out of Mass, and where you can ignore the crap New York brunches throw at you and eat a better class of food. The usual brunch stuff, like the eggs Benedict and the kandied french toast, is offered, but there's also the best Niçoise salad I've encountered in my life. The slab of tuna, cooked medium, is smoky and perfect; the slices of hardboiled egg are slightly warm and perfect; the little slabs of anchovy are sour-sweet and fresh and perfect; the application of oil is judicious and perfect; and so on. And there's an extremely good beef bourguignon, and usually creamy soups, served in oversized white tureens, into which you submerge chunks of bread in the same way that God submerges sinners in boiling pitch in the Inferno of Dante, that Catholic whose work Christy Turlington probably reads on transatlantic flights.

    Le Gigot serves a flambeed banana for dessert, which is mildly dramatic in its presentation. And?no small thing?the staff at Le Gigot has figured something out about making cappuccino that other Americans haven't. The coffee itself is strong, not milky, and the foam is wonderfully thick?almost weirdly thick, like whipped cream, or spackling paste, or that pasty, watery stuff in tureens that hippies out in Boulder like to root their hands around in when they're on mushrooms. The restaurant gurgles and chuckles with the sound of steaming milk.

    Le Gigot, 18 Cornelia St. (betw. Bleecker St. & W. 4th St.), 627-3737.