September 01, 2004

Itzocan Bistro


1575 Lexington Ave. (@101st St.)

Average entree cost: $14.00

Like a runway model at a Prada sample sale, gentrification is about to pounce on Spanish Harlem. Up-market apartments and galleries are slowly moving north of 96th Street on the East Side, and new restaurants are moving beyond the taqueria and lunch counter. At 101st and Lexington, Itzocan Bistro has quickly made a name for itself with its unusual French-Mexican fusion fare and looks to be a long-term resident in this transforming neighborhood.

"...A small warm place with great food, friendly ambiance, good service with affordable prices." These words appear on the back of Itzocan’s takeout menu. While one generally does not rely on menu copy to determine a restaurant’s worth, Itzocan indeed lives up to its own marketed image.

The menu here is as stimulating as the food. Who wouldn’t want to order ancho-chile crusted duck breast with arepas, steamed vegetables and rioja sauce, or the pumpkin and shrimp soup with chipotle crema fresca?

While somewhat oversized, appetizers are a treat at Itzocan, The duck confit and mushroom quesadilla seemed too over-the-top and unusual to pass up. My dining companion and I shared the two large and flaky flour tortillas stuffed with rich shredded duck and melted slices of mild Brie. The smoky duck mingled with the warm cheese to create a delightfully decadent entrance to the meal. There is nothing particularly sophisticated about the arrangement, but the result is undeniably delicious.

Steamed mussels with tequila, lime juice, serrano pepper and tomatoes are the perfect foil to the rich quesadilla. The mussel broth’s crisp and spicy tang manages to delight without detracting from the delicate flavor of the shellfish.

I like Itzocan’s attentive service and I never felt forgotten. But on the night I ate there, the waiter brought out the entrees mere seconds after the empty appetizer plates had been whisked away, making me feel as though it was all happening a bit too fast. My worries scattered when I tasted the pumpkin-seed-crusted red snapper with roasted zucchini and chipotle saffron sauce.

Occasionally, restaurants create truly memorable dishes, and Itzocan’s red snapper is one of them. Forget the word “crusted” for a moment because you’re probably imagining a dreadfully dry chicken breast smothered in crushed pistachios. The snapper was sprinkled with smoky, crispy pumpkin seeds that flavored the fish without overwhelming it. The two flavors, while distinct, worked together to mouth-pleasing effect.

Despite my fullness, I could not say no to the Ibarra chocolate pear tart with goat’s milk caramel sauce. Barely sweetened, this thin tart was the perfect expression of the French-Mexican aspirations of Itzocan – a traditional French dessert, woven with the complex cinnamon-chocolate flavors of Mexico.

There is always a doubt that such a bright and earnest spot will lose its folksiness and/or double its prices once it is established. Let’s hope that the friendly faces and extremely reasonable prices stay fixed at Itzocan.

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Posted by at September 1, 2004 11:49 AM