Zazil, like every book published today, it seems, has a subtitle: Coastal Mexican Cuisine. My experience of Mexico has mostly been coastal, as it happens: Guaymas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatanejo. Hot sun, bright blue water, and sugary sand dominate the memory, followed closely by eating charbroiled fish-on-a-stick hawked up and down the beach, and then feasting on ceviches, broiled spiny lobsters, and white-fleshed fish served in sauteed garlic.
Unlike the other restaurants with which it shares the fourth floor of the Centre, which are closed off behind dark-brown shiny facades, Zazil's fourth wall is open and inviting, separated by only a low metal railing, like the patio-lined eateries of a resort. You get a vaguely beachy sensation of glittering and white and blue, intensified when you sit down and can admire the bright white walls, which evoke Mexican villas clinging to cliffs above the sea, referenced in the blue fabric upholstering the pale wood and chrome chairs and the sinuous banquette.
We're lucky enough to be sitting at one of the banquette tables near a fat column wrapped in tree limbs, admiring the enormous basketlike weavings encasing several huge light fixtures hanging above us. Aline is pleasantly reminded of the work of San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, currently being shown at the de Young Museum. "This," she says, "is a nice room."
The menu is pretty fancy no charbroiled fish-on-a-stick here not to mention pricy. The offerings run to chilpachole de canegro, i.e. spicy crab soup, whose description requires two lines and references four different chilis, and enchiladas de flor de jamaica, which are hibiscus flower enchiladas with chipotle sauce and queso fresco. All the prices are in the double digits.
The drinks menu offers 15 individually named margaritas, which is more dazzling before I realize that 14 of them are named for the different tequila they contain, bumping up the tariff from $10 to $11 or $12, depending. I go for the bottom-line margarita Zazil, not just because it seems a good value at $8, but because it's named after the restaurant. Too late I realize it's also the only one tinted with blue curaçao, kinda goofy-looking but very Girls Gone Wild. Aline chooses the margarita Corzo, made with Corzo Silver, described as "elegant and flavorful, with notes of citrus and vanilla." We're brought lovely warm little corn tortillas, obviously hand-made, wrapped in a napkin, and a trio of salsas, which the server identifies as "mild, medium, and hot," in a tricky curved glass holder. When we request more information, he points out guajillo (the mild green sauce), chipotle (the smoky brown medium one), and then identifies the reddish hot sauce as "mixed." It's fun to dip chunks of torn-up tortilla in them; they're all thin, full of flavor, and enticing.
We can't resist the guacamole, theatrically prepared tableside, in a heavy black molcajete (mortar), which is just for show, lined as it is with a black plastic bowl. The server spoons three avocado halves into the bowl, asking "mild, medium, or hot?" before adding diced tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice. We've gone for the medium alternative; it's entirely pleasant, but Aline misses the salt and crunch that tortilla chips, inevitable in any Mexican restaurant but here, would provide. (I now regret that I didn't ask if the kitchen had any on offer, or would fry a few up to order. At dinner, I would have felt like a rube, but in reality she was right.)
Our other appetizer was called a tamal Campechano, a Campeche crab tamale made of corn mesa, we read, stuffed with shredded crabmeat, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed with sauce chiltomate. It came prettily topped with shredded queso fresco, but was disappointingly dull, the flavor of crab drowned by the tomatoey sauce.
And our main courses were equally disappointing. Well, the cochinita pibil was more than disappointing. I thought it was a disaster: a carefully assembled banana-leaf box filled with tasteless soft shredded pork in a sauce that betrayed nothing of the axiote and orange juice marinade described. I've never had such a boring version of the dish.
Aline, after considering and rejecting the idea of shrimp enchiladas, went for the huitlacoche chicken, since she'd never tasted the exotic corn fungus it was stuffed with, alongside, supposedly, portobello mushrooms, squash, and white corn. The presentation was dazzling: a big boned breast, sided with lacy potato strings, on a bed of potato purée, with fresh vegetables including bright green zucchini and bright orange carrots on the side. It took some doing to reveal the stuffing, which turned out to be a thin black purée tasting of nothing much. The chicken itself was nice and moist, but neither the stuffing nor the not-very-garlicky garlic-poblano sauce lent it much glamour.
We chose a chocolate tamale from the six enticing and rather unusual desserts on offer, but it ended our meal with a thud: We couldn't taste much chocolate nor chili in the brown mesa, and it wasn't noticeably improved by its bed of mixed-berry sauce, nor squiggles of chocolate sauce, nor whipped cream. Girls Gone Mild, I thought. I felt apologetic.
And, accordingly, when I returned for lunch (same menu and prices as dinner) with Eliza and Mary, I warned them that my first meal here hadn't been a stellar one. When the agua frescas that they ordered arrived weak (the watermelon one) and sugary (the orange version), I steeled myself for another disillusioning meal.
Imagine my surprise (and relief) when the ceviche trilogy that we started with turned out to be bright and sparkling, even verging on delicious: the Mazatlan shrimp version drenched in lime, the Puerto Vallarta chunks of tilapia flavored with green tomatillo and topped with a wedge of ripe avocado, and the Ixtapa seafood medley featuring bits of octopus. This was the best thing I'd eaten at Zazil.
We sampled a fresh cilantro cream soup, poured at the table from a little pitcher over a tangle of toasted almonds and fried cilantro; the soup tasted buttery and mildly herby, though not much like the faintly soapy tang of cilantro.
But it was pleasant. And our main courses were even better. We enjoyed the two tender beef medallions anointed with a mild yellow Oaxaqueno mole made with tomatillo, guajillo chili, and avocado leaf, with a carefully molded pyramid of white rice and the same sauteed vegetable assortment as with Aline's chicken, and the tikin xic fish, a massive tilapia filet marinated in sharp axiote, grilled, then curled around a stuffing of black bean purée and avocado. This was the spiciest dish I'd had here. My own choice was the Veracruz-style seafood and rice, an oval cast-iron casserole that revealed a half-langoustine atop tomatoey rice bearing chunks of fish, squid, and clams and mussels still in their shells. The langoustine, which had been cooked separately, offered several sweet bites of tail and claw, and I enjoyed extracting shreds of meat from its tiny legs.
The rice and seafood beneath it was less enthralling, especially when I considered its $26 tariff. For that I expect a dish to dance on the plate, a feat almost achieved by the witty house take on tiramisu, requesón cheese layered with almond cookies garnished with fresh berries, if not the fairly standard flan. My second meal at Zazil was miles better than the first. But it wasn't a place I'd be resorting to soon.