Mexico City celeb chef opens outpost in the badlands of Park Lane
Update 27/8/2018 – corrected erroneous star rating in end-of-review summary
If you’ve told me a few years ago that a Mexican restaurant, backed by famed chilango celeb chef Martha Ortiz, would open within the bowels of the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane then I would not have believed you. It just seems so incongruous – the largely still misunderstood cuisine of Tr😷mp’s favourite country combined with the glossy, primped and frankly uptight environs of a luxury (ish) hotel chain.
The result is some glorious food and a soothingly lounge-like dining room with some neat touches in decor, but also a whole lot of faff. Overeager security guards at the doors are more intimidating than they are welcoming. Overdressed staff were so stilted at small talk, I started to wonder if they were actually malfunctioning Westworld androids. Some tables are so dimly lit that you need your phone’s flashlight to read the menu, while others are so closely packed together that you risk twerking your neighbouring diners when shimmying out to get to the bogs.
First things first
One of Ella Canta’s best dishes by far has to the vampire ceviche. Although effectively sea bass served in a sauce based on a Virgin Mary cocktail, I’m not going to argue when it’s this good. Meaty, springy strips of fish in a sauce that ranged from sweet to umami and then tingly hot. It was so good, I had to stop myself from picking up the dish and slurping up every last drop.
The guacamole left me unmoved, especially with its showy and ultimately inconsequential goldfingered grasshopper. More satisfying were the pair of sauces on the side – a treacly sweet and tangy fruit relish on the one hand and a nutty sweet and moreish sauce on the other. The totopos provided for scooping were stodgy and stale in texture, which is especially disappointing given how pleasingly distinctive they tasted – malty and almost gingerish on the one hand, nutty and umami on the other.
Ella Canta’s version of tamales was a suitably soft and nutty parcel of cornmeal that came stuffed and topped with tender and reasonably earthy sinews of lamb. While enjoyable enough, it was a tad two-dimensional so it’s just as well that that dish was a starter rather than a main.
Although the soft shell crab initially seemed meagre in size for a main, it actually proved to be easily sufficient. Plus, just as importantly, it tasted delightful. A wondrously crisp and oil-free flash-fried carapace contained fluffy, zingy fresh meat. The relative heaviness of the deep-fried carapace and the nutty sweet pumpkin puree was neatly offset by the pineapple puree. Sharp and sweet, yet not at all overpowering. The floofy soft and nutty, if slightly overheated tortillas were near-perfect accompaniments. Soft shell crab rarely gets better than this.
The Amazon’s duck breast was allegedly cooked medium rare, but the slapped-arse shade of pink looked rare(ish) to me. Although there was enough fat and dimpled, neatly browned skin to savour, the meat itself was a tad too tough.
The accompaniments largely made up for this though – the tart and nutty mole accentuated the unctuousness of the duck fat, while the sweet and starchy plantain puree neatly offset the umami rice. Tortillas, served on the side, were a little overwarmed and were thus, quite unexpectedly, not as superlatively nutty and soft as the ones accompanying the soft shell crab.
Although oddly spiralised, the nopal salad was still enjoyable. Firm swirls of cactus were dotted with surprisingly tame slices of chilli.
The over-sugared churros were a double disappointment – floppy on the outside, hollow on the inside. They would’ve been entirely unsatisfactory but for the dark, bittersweet chocolate dipping sauce on the one hand and the tangy, mildly sweet dipping caramel on the other.
It either takes a certain chutzpah to serve a dessert based around huitlacoche, a fungus growth that afflicts corn, or I’ve been underestimating the culinary adventurousness of the Mayfair set. The exceedingly moist and nutty ‘cake’ of corn was almost like a gently sweetened polenta, an association strengthened by sheathes of caramelised baby corn laid to the side. At the centre of it all was a clump of earthy mushroom-like huitlacoche tinged with a herby sweetness. I enjoyed the whole thing, but it’s certainly not a dessert for everyone – if you took away the crunchy, nutty and fine-grained dusting of cinnamon and cornmeal (or whatever it was), then this dish could easily have pulled double duty as a savoury dish.
Given the pitch-perfect quality of the dipping chocolate provided with the churros, it was no surprise to find that the hot chocolate was no Cadburys-in-a-packet jobbie. Thick and bittersweet with a spicy lift at the end, it’s the hot chocolate I’ve been missing all my life.
Any vegans that have somehow tripped their way through Ella Canta’s doors will be inexorably drawn to the vegan hot chocolate. Although not a bad imitation, it’s clearly identifiable as a chocolate-flavoured coconut drink if you’ve ever had any of the supermarket chiller cabinet stuff. While not a bad imitation, it wasn’t anywhere as thick or as bittersweet as it should’ve been to be truly convincing.
The Prehispanic lemonade tasted much like any other lemonade I’ve ever had, but with a light smudge of chilli heat.
Petit fours were accompanied by a miniature ferris wheel thing that represented the cyclical nature of life, or some such metaphysical chuff. It’s something to twiddle with at least, while enjoying the crisp and milky rice krispie squares, the tangy and sweet fruit pastille squares and the milky, sugary sweet and yieldingly soft caramel sweets.
Going back for seconds
We’ve now reached the stage in our civilisation where ‘lychee and rosewater’ could quite easily be a shampoo, a cozy-mystery series about spinster detectives or a drink. In this case, it was the latter, with the hint of rosewater accentuating the sugary sweetness of lychee. Although a tad too cloying to be truly refreshing, it was still pleasant enough.
Almost every other new Mexican restaurant in London seems to serve an octopus dish. Ella Canta’s effort used segments of tentacle, not for their lightly salty evocation of the sea, but for their springy texture to convey a selection of sauces and garnishes into my mouth. The unctuously creamy and distinctly flavoured avocado sauce was arguably better than the standalone guacamole dish, while dollops of a zingy and lightly spicy sauce went well with sharp, sweet onions and the refreshing sprouting sprigs. Not bad. Not bad at all.
A neatly trimmed slab of pork appeared to consist of a series of small porcine curls and medallions, each one more tender and moist than the last. While the meat itself could’ve been a little more characterful, the quivering layer of fat more than made up for this as did the skin. It somehow managed to be both crisp and yieldingly tearable at the same time, ripping apart easily under the pressure of my teeth.
Although the accompanying chilli sauce was insipid, the crisp and refreshing garnish was welcome as were the reasonably nutty and soft tortillas even if they weren’t as good as they were the first time around.
Cabbage was unexpectedly delightful, the tautness of the supple leaves contrasting neatly with the crunch of almonds and pumpkin seeds. Lightly bitter, the leaves also bowled me over with an intermittent blue cheese-like funkiness. While scintillating, it was so unexpected that I feared I might have been experiencing some sort of stroke.
After the unconventional joys of the cuchiatole and corn cake, the cacao and corn cake was a stiflingly conventional molten chocolate cake modestly pepped up by a nutty dusting of corn on the side. The smooth, refreshing and flavourful cinnamon ice cream cupped by a lattice tuile was far more satisfying.
The modest herby sweetness of eucalyptus wasn’t enough to pep up a rather tame and weak espresso.
Three isn’t always the magic number
The fish in the pickled salmon tostada was texturally similar to smoked salmon but with an unsurprisingly tart and somewhat sour flavour. It was easily the best element of this starter, given the shrug-inducing tortilla and sauces, even if it did leave me thinking that I’d have been better off with some smoked salmon.
Ella Canta’s other pork main is a Yucatan-style cochinita pibil. The sinewy hunk of pig was umami, tender and lightly fruity with the fruitiness emphasised by the citrusy garnishes. Bitter cabbage, nutty beans and tart pickled onions along with nutty and fluffy tortillas helped round out this main. It’s hard choosing between the cochinita pibil and the other pork main as they’re both very good, albeit for different reasons. Just have both. Done.
The cabbage was almost as good as it was before, albeit with the odd and unexpected blue cheese-like flavour less strident than it had been the first time around.
A tamarind drink had a surprisingly treacly guava-like sweetness. It never became too cloying though thanks to the smoky, tangy heat of chilli. While not especially refreshing, it was certainly memorable and pleasing which is more than can be said for most non-alcoholic drinks.
Caramelised guava and burnt cinnamon candy arrived in a totally unexpected form. The musky sweetness of lightly candied pieces of guava shone through despite being smothered under a pillowy layer of fondant-ish but ultimately inconsequential cream. It was an odd construction; I would’ve preferred far more of the thin yet crunchy and nutty biscuit served on the side and less of the sugary cream.
Ella Canta faced a tricky task in bringing its vision of high-end, spend-worthy Mexican food to London. Its cooking had to be identifiably Mexican in a city that has only just weaned itself off abominable Tex-Mex food, while also being creative enough to justify its high prices. In the end, the kitchen has played it all a little too safe. While there’s plenty of joy to be had on the menu, much of it feels like a modestly more refined version of the cooking at (the newly reopened) Santo Remedio.
If only more dishes had been like the vampire ceviche – a lip-smackingly delicious dish that you can’t get anywhere else, vibrant and alive in its own identity. As it stands, the high prices and stilted service make Ella Canta a restaurant purely for committed Mexicophiles and the gilded 1% that can’t bear to step out of their Mayfair comfort zone. That’s a real shame as Ella Canta could’ve been so much more. Perhaps it still can be, in time.
What to order: Vampire ceviche; Soft shell crab; Octopus; Cabbage; Both the pork dishes
What to skip: Churros
Name: Ella Canta
Address: Intercontinental Hotel, ground floor, One Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1J 7QY
Phone: 020 7318 8715
Opening Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11.30-01.00, Thursday-Saturday 11.30-03.00 and Sunday 11.30-18.00.
Reservations? Highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including service and soft drinks when split between two: £70 approx.