This review of a Yucatan restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Kuuk almost certainly has two meanings. Firstly as a play on the word ‘cook’, which suggests a small, quirky and playful restaurant. The fully apostrophised name, ‘K’u’uk’, is almost certainly an allusion to the Mayan name for the prehispanic deity Quetzcoatl. Kuuk may have been a quixotic and bashful little hideaway once, but it certainly isn’t anymore. Originally located in a small and unobtrusive building near a strip mall in the northern part of Merida, the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan state, it now has far grander premises. Situated inside a converted mansion near the equally massive Fatherland Monument, it has the look, air and decor of an aristocratic pile crossed with a big portrait gallery.
The illusion isn’t ruined by the McDonald’s directly across the street, but by numerous factors once you get inside the semi-palatial chambers. Pale yellow lighting gives everything a jaundiced pallor, while both the air conditioning and the staff struggled to cope as more and more diners progressively filled up the restaurant. Once you factor in the cheesy piano muzak and the chatty, noisy atmosphere, Kuuk feels more like a museum canteen than the fine dining restaurant it purports to be.
The tasting menu kicked off with a ‘seaweed fossil’ allegedly made from gingko, cactus, smelt, ‘pollen’ and presumably seaweed, but it tasted more like a cracker that had gone a bit off. A topping of bland seaweed cream was even less convincing.
A green salad with ‘mentholated’ honeydew wasn’t nearly as exciting as its description would have you believe. Slightly minty melon balls, fruity puree and some crisp, thin slices of veg were refreshing, but otherwise unremarkable. It’s as if the ingredients were twisted to fit the visual joke of vegetables served on a leaf-like dish, rather than chosen because they made for good eating.
Spinach ‘tea’ tasted like a partially-melted sore throat lozenge hitting the back of your mouth. It was thankfully easy enough to wash away this medicinal taste using the refreshing cool sorbet. It was oddly grainy though and only had a passing taste of lemon basil.
Something edible and enjoyable finally arrived in the form of corn fritter cubes. A smooth bean sauce added more pleasing nuttiness, while some sweetness was added via sun dried tomatoes. Occasional hits of chilli spice were soothed by a creamy slice of avocado.
It’s hard to know what’s more ridiculous about the tostadas – there are so many choices. There’s the meh morsels of meat and cream and the bland tortilla chips they’re sandwiched in between. Your eyes have probably already been drawn to the photo below though – the tostadas were served on a marble arch. An actual arch made out of marble. By this point the restaurant had started filling up and service starting slowing down to a sluggish crawl. As my hunger gnawed at me, I ended licking the marble arch out of desperation. Despair and indignity are my bedfellows.
I was finally able to stop tonguing the hunk of marble once the ravioli arrived. Supple pasta-like folds were filled with earthy and taut sea snails and mushrooms. The blank sauce was a poor accompaniment, but the crumbs of salty black pudding proved to be an apt if unusual garnish.
I had thought that the marble arch would be the most risible thing that would grace my table the whole evening.
I was wrong.
Cold and limp prawn loaf, the sort you might find on a cheap prawn toast takeaway, wrapped in a curl of pork crackling is the sort of nonsense I’d expect from the kitchen of an ambitious stoner, not a professional restaurant. Not even the admittedly meaty gravy and fresh chives could redeem this embarrassment. If this is a joke, then the comedian needs a slap.
Tomato veil turned out to be a surprisingly unctuous cream with a spicy edge, all wrapped in an edible red wrapper. Although the latter didn’t really taste of tomato, I’ll take what I can get following the prawn toast debacle.
It takes a special sort of talent to overcook duck and make it too chewy as well. A slither of crispy skin and fat wasn’t enough to liven up a seriously drab piece of meat. The radishes and what should have been a rich and complex pumpkin sauce were instead flat and lifeless, overshadowed by a second brown and peppery sauce instead. It’s dishes like this that me want to curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep.
The venison was little better. Cooked well-done, it was tough and bland. Some consolation came from the hints of earthy moreishness in the thin venison stock. Soft barley and crisp, earthy vegetables contrasted with each other nicely.
An ice cool mango jelly cleansed my palate of the generally ineffective and frankly dreadful savoury courses. What followed next was most unexpected – avocado leaf ice cream that somehow mixed hints of aniseed with those of coriander. It was a refreshing counterpart to the adzuki-style beans and crumbs of cheese, both deliciously satisfying when taken with the rich brown sugar sauce. It’s as if this well-balanced and layered dessert full of depth had suddenly wandered in from a different restaurant altogether.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of the avocado leaf ice cream.
Initially wreathed in liquid nitrogen, the pineapple foam was just as good as the avocado leaf ice cream but in a different way. The initial intense hit of pineapple faded quickly, with the herb-scented and flavoured crumbs taking its place with their crunchiness and bracing cold.
Intensely sweet ice cream with a nutty edge was sandwiched in between a pair of peppery and nutty sweet meringues. Crisp then soft. Sweet. Lovely.
A very odd meal of two very distinct and different halves ended with some well-crafted petit fours. Highlights included a buttery sweet empanada and a distinctly flavoured coconut cookie. Pecans embedded in a crisp sugary wafer and served on a bed of crushed peanuts looked like a repeat of the seaweed fossil joke from the very beginning of my meal, but was more memorable for all the right reasons with its effective sweet nuttiness.
Someone needs to liberate the talented pastry and dessert chef from Kuuk, instead of leaving them to be overshadowed by an amateurish front of house and a kitchen that’s prepared to send out savoury dishes that are visually overwrought and substantively bankrupt. How Kuuk managed to elevate itself into such grand premises and retain any sort of following is a mystery for the ages.
Address: Avenida Romulo Rozo #488 por calle 27 y 27A, Col. Itzimná, Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico
Phone: 0052 999 9443377
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 13.00-23.00 and Sunday 13.00-17.00
Total cost for one person excluding soft drinks and tip: MXN1000 (£40 approx.)