Three pots and other myths

I grew up with three powerful prejudices about Mexican cuisine, completely determined by the fact that: 1) I've never been to Mexico; 2) Bachelorhood demands an intimate acquaintanceship with Taco Bell; and 3) "Authentic" Mexican cuisine was just Taco Bell with real silverware and a liquor license.

These prejudices were instilled at an early age by an impatient father whose admonishment still echoes in my jaded ears: "Come on! Hurry up and order! It all comes out of the same three pots anyway!" He said the same thing about Chinese food. The prejudices are correlated: Mexican cuisine always involves beans — and whatever pleasures spring forth from a Mexican dinner, one will pay dearly the morning after. It may be crass to bring up such an indelicate remembrance, but who hasn’t been warned about such things when digging into a cheese-stuffed habañero at Señor Mickey's?

These and other misconceptions were shattered one cold dark afternoon, a thousand miles from Mexico, in a steel-blue and steel-gray room on Woodward in Detroit known as Agave. It opened in May 2002, where Stewart’s used to be, right next door to the Whitney.

The room is clean and sparse, like an art gallery. There are no felt paintings, no piñatas banging you in the forehead, no waitresses clapping their hands and singing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish. It has a bar that boasts many fine tequilas and a margarita that’s the best this beer drinker has ever tasted. Its windows rise to the ceiling, with the city outside rolling by in waves of glorious nothing … and it's raining.

Chef Carlos Bonilla, the cherub-faced conductor of Agave's kitchen, welcomes me into his small and busy kitchen, and for the next 20 minutes I'm doing the best uncle-at-a-wedding dance just to stay out of his assistants’ way. The kitchen’s jamming, and the lunch hour is drawing to a close. I see mussels being arranged on plates, sauces delicately poured over medallions of meat. I don't see those three pots my father told me about. Perhaps they've been thrown into the walk-in, away from visitors’ eyes.

Chef Carlos is 25 years old, articulate, fast-talking, always smiling or about to smile, and excited about what he's creating at Agave. He was born in Mexico City, has lived in Detroit for the majority of his life, and is engaged to a young lady at the bar counting her tips and who flashes a ring when asked if that's true. Carlos attended Schoolcraft College Culinary Arts program, won an important food competition, knocked around at a few other restaurants, and is now the wunderkind behind one of the most ambitious, creative and direly needed restaurants in Detroit.

The chef describes his approach to the food at Agave as "French-Mexican fusion," which immediately bums me out. I hear "French" and I think "expensive," "pretentious," "pseudo-intellectual" and "let's grind up some organ meat and call it delicious." But after sampling what Carlos is talking about, I love the French. I love Gérard Depardieu and perfume, berets and poodles.

There is a very generous portion of the Agave menu devoted to seafood. Carlos reminds me of the vast coastline that Mexico possesses. Fish is a staple south of the border and it’s well-represented here in this jewel on M-1. The dish that Carlos decides to make for me is called "mahi mahi en crema," and as you probably have discerned, the en crema is where the once-hated French comes in.

"Mahi mahi en crema" is grilled mahi mahi topped with a chipotle-cilantro cream sauce, then crowned with a small heap of mango salsa, accompanied by a (dare I say it) mélange of julienned carrots and squash, and a beautiful, lumpy, creamy-white dollop of Parmesan-infused mashed potatoes.

Mahi mahi is the exotic and appealing way of saying dolphin fish. It's not a dolphin, damn it — it's a dolphin fish. It's not a mammal and it doesn't squeak love poems to its mates half an ocean away. Oh, but it is delicious. It's firm and juicy and holds on nicely to whatever seasonings and sauces you want to throw at it. And Carlos knows exactly what to throw at it.

He marinates these beauties in lime juice for 30 minutes before throwing them on the broiler for a little cooking, a little marking. He finishes the cooking in the oven to preserve its character, to keep it from drying out. Then he pulls it out, drizzles the sauce over it, letting it reduce a bit on the sizzling broiler plate before installing it near the potatoes and the vegetables on a big warm plate. A little more sauce, a careful placement of mango salsa on top, and ship it!

This may seem simple. This may appear pedestrian. You may wonder why I am even wasting ink on a fish dinner with some spuds and some fancy-cut veggies. I'll tell you why. It's that damn French-Mexican fusion that Carlos insists upon, and it's clearly understood why this dish rocks, why it takes you away from the rain and the newspapers blowing down Woodward, splashing outside in pure Detroit style.

The sauce begins with a roux. That's French for butter and flour and constant stirring and "oh man, is this supposed to look like this?" Fish stock is added. Heavy cream comes next. Chipotle peppers and cilantro are added according to your level of heat tolerance. Where are the pinto beans? Where’s the stringy white cheese? Where are the waitresses demanding I try the "Cinco de Mayo Sin City Salty Steak Poppers?" They are nowhere to be found as I separate my first bite of mahi mahi from the filet.

Perhaps it's because Carlo's said "French" early in our conversation that I’m seeking out something complex in this dish. I've seen enough French sex-farce films to know that if it's French, it has to be complicated. Two-sisters-and-a-sauté-pan-salesman-and-a-missing-briefcase-full-of-underwear-on-the-Metro kind of complicated. But it's Mexican too; full of spice and heat and character and all kinds of culinary machismo. It's soft and buttery going down, but before it reaches bottom, you've forgotten all about Gérard Depardieu and skinny girls smoking big fat cigarettes, and your palate is swarming with peppery twang and tropical splash. This transition takes place in the course of one bite! Truly a mysterious thing Carlos has created, and a sorcerer's potion could not do more to drastically change the mood and timbre of a diner's soul.

This kind of complexity is pleasantly wearing, so it serves you well to interrupt this dizzying duality with a mouthful of mashed potatoes. That's right. Carlos mercifully left that pile of dry, brown-red rice so ubiquitous in "Mexican" restaurants off your plate. Whereas potatoes are the perfect side to allow the tongue to forget the circus for a moment, before returning for more. Allow a breath, a respite. A margarita rinse and you're back in business. The mahi mahi waits for you, acting all French and Mexican, and playful and snobby, and warm and soft and buttery. This is a dish you do not want to go away. You eat it slow. You transform. You get stoned and bleary-eyed with every bite.

Carlos tells me that he's ready to change the menu already. He's ready to move on, to create more brilliance, more circuses, more head games. He's young and easily bored. Will he stop making "mahi mahi en crema?" Will I once again be forced to decide between one of three pots? Will I return to the lonely mornings of a sweaty upper lip and gastronomical regret? Will parades of hoop-skirted, teenaged girls once again crack their gum and ask me if I want to try the Terrific Taco Threesome?

Say it ain't so Carlos. Say it ain't so.

Chef Carlos Bonilla's recipe for Mahi mahi en crema

Agave is at 4265 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Call 313-833-1120.

Read other chefs' stories in Chow!! (this week's special restaurant collection):
Tribute's Takashi Yagihashi refines the yin and yang of multicultural cuisine.
• Laurent Devin keeps the Gallic fires burning at Elaine Bistro Français.
Udipi's Thilagam Pandian cooks her way to places of the heart.
Loving Spoonful ladles out the full flavor of Shawn Loving's approach.
Dan DeMaggio is new to the table at Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]

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