June 26, 2007

Looks bad, tastes good. Why, it must be smut

Bruce Ucan: Photo by Nicole Pullen After a brief hiatus, former Mayan Gypsy chef Bruce Ucan is back at it with Mayan Café, in the East Market location where Mayan Gypsy started outSmut. Corn smut. It’s a nasty name for a nasty-looking thing, a black, disgusting fungus that turns corn kernels into swollen gray blobs that look like an alien mutation, a sight so gross that the ancient Aztecs named the stuff “cuitlacoche” or, literally, well, “black turds.”Although cuitlacoche may look like something the dog dragged in, it tastes really, really good. So, while North American farmers curse and destroy smut-afflicted corn, Mexican growers are more inclined to praise Lord Quetzalcoatl, peel off the pillowy black fungus and serve it for lunch. Or put some in cans and ship it north to savvy restaurateurs.Selling it to Anglos can be a challenge, though, so the few eateries around the United States that serve cuitlacoche (pronounced “wheat-la-COH-chay”) generally describe it with more appetizing euphemisms. “Mexican caviar,” for instance. Or, at Louisville’s excellent Mayan Café, “exotic mushroom,” appended to the Aztec “cuitlacoche” without the literal translation.Mayan Café chef Bruce Ucán prepares cuitlacoche in a dreamily accessible fashion, pureed into a silken, sweet cream sauce that showcases its delicate, sweet and subtly mushroomy aroma and flavor.Spotting it on the menu in Uxmal Salmon ($15), my wife excitedly ordered it, then practically sat there banging her knife and fork on the table until it arrived. A fair-sized block of salmon was gently sautéed to a medium-rare pink interior, garnished with sprigs of fresh watercress and tomato dice, and surrounded with a chocolate-brown pool of cuitlacoche cream. It was splendid, although the cuitlacoche crepe that Ucán used to serve at his old Mayan Gypsy restaurant may have been even better — a simple, delicate crepe forming a subtle backdrop for the delicate, er, fungus. (The crepe is sometimes available at the new restaurant as a daily special.)Mayan Café is Ucán’s third venture, or fourth if you count the old blue taco-and-burrito van (literally “The Mayan Gypsy”) that used to go around to suburban construction sites to serve Mexican workers. He opened the first Mayan Gypsy on East Market Street back in the late 1980s, then parlayed its success into larger, more upscale quarters nearby. Now, after some time off last year, Ucán has returned to his first location (which in the interim had housed Kim’s Asian Grill). It has been elegantly renovated with sky-blue walls, black ceilings and striking wall hangings by next-door neighbor gallery owner Mary Craik.We stopped in at a lunch preview right after opening (Eat ‘N’ Blog, Jan. 31), and things were looking good. Now, after six months, Ucán has clearly found the groove (not that he ever lost it). Mayan Café, like Mayan Gypsy before it, ranks as one of the most original and creative Mexican restaurants in town, subject to the disclaimer that his innovative take on Mayan cuisine — the tropical fare of Mexico’s Yucatan and neighboring Guatemala — is a far cry from your usual Mexican tacos and burritos. In fact, Ucán has broadened the Café’s menu a bit to feature a few “Mexican” dishes — quesadillas and a chilaquile — along with lunch sandwiches and a few seafood items that could pass for international fare with a light Yucatan accent. But those of us who like our ethnic fare as authentic as possible will find plenty to love at Mayan Café, including some familiar Mayan Gypsy dishes and some new ones, too. Full bar service includes a short but decent international wine list with most bottles under $30 (and a few selections offered at half-price on Wednesday nights), plus a short list of mostly Latino bottled beers.We started dinner with two shared appetizers, beautifully plated on rectangular white earthenware. A pair of two-bite empanadas ($5) were crispy golden-fried pastry turnovers stuffed with a savory black-bean puree and mild goat cheese, perched on a spicy fresh-tomato sauce and garnished with fresh pico de gallo and a swish of sour cream. A chile relleno ($4), a gently hot, dark-green poblano pepper, was stuffed with an intriguing blend that the menu described as chorizo, corn, potatoes and Spanish Manchego cheese, with a light cream sauce.Our main courses included the previously described Uxmal Salmon with the cuitlacoche, and my choice, a familiar dish from the old Mayan Gypsy, Yucatec Pork Pibil ($14). Billed as “Mayan oven-roasted pork,” it bore a surprising resemblance to a Yucatan version of old-fashioned Kentucky pulled-pork barbecue in its texture and rich pork flavor, with subtle, aromatic but not fiery Mayan spices standing in for the hickory smoke. It came with a red sauce based on achiote, a Mexican spice better known for its red color than its gentle, slightly earthy flavor. Dinners come with two side dishes each, and the four we tried were all just fine. “Roasted lima beans,” better known to fans of the old Gypsy as the Mayan “tok cel,” were roasted to a smoky, almost caramelized goodness and dusted with exotic spice. Three different “cakes” were based on corn (with plenty of yellow niblets to add texture); yucca, the Caribbean cassava plant, laced with spinach and a piquant hint of mustard, and squash, loaded with tender chunks of zucchini. (The sides are also available a la carte. An order of three or more would make an excellent option for vegetarians on an otherwise mostly meat-full menu.)  Desserts are made in-house and come in rational sizes that make a pleasant finish to the meal without that sodden feeling of wretched excess. Coconut flan ($5) was a good representation of a traditional flan with a light touch of shredded coconut. Bread pudding ($5) was a dense, spicy round topped with a succulent, not-too-sweet cinnamon-scented Mexican chocolate sauce. Although they were billed as coming with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, respectively, the kitchen exercised cook’s license for the summer solstice, substituting fresh, tangy-sweet fruit sorbets.Outstanding coffees from Jackson’s Organic — a perfect, chocolatey short espresso and a hearty cup of a special Mexican Chiapas blend — put a final exclamation point on a Mayan Happy Meal. With a Dos Equis Mexican beer and a couple of Jamaican Red Stripes ($3.50), a filling dinner for two came to a reasonable $66.52, plus a $13.48 tip for excellent, careful yet non-intrusive service. Mayan Café813 E. Market St.566-0651www.themayancafe.comRating: 90 points NIBBLESYou say ‘gelato.’ Hey! I say ‘gelato,’ too!Last summer, like a cold, creamy comet streaking across the suburban skies, Gelato Gilberto landed at the sprawling Summit shopping complex, making quite a name for itself with Italian ice creams and sorbets as good as you’d find in Naples or Rome. It lasted only a few months before closing for the season; now we’re delighted to learn that it’s back, just a bit farther out in the East End at 9434 Norton Commons Blvd. (423-7751). For urbanites reluctant to go beyond the Watterson without a passport, Gelato Gilberto is also now available on the dessert menu at Primo (445 E. Market St., 583-1808), and by the dish at Caffe Classico (2144 Frankfort Ave., 894-9689).Old-fashioned Fourth at Old Stone InnSimpsonville’s historic Old Stone Inn plans a Fourth of July community celebration with games, music, food and fireworks, starting at 4 p.m. The event is sponsored by Old Stone Inn and the Simpsonville Fire Department; proceeds will benefit the WHAS Crusade for Children and the Luci Center, a Shelbyville charity that provides therapeutic riding for children and adults with disabilities. Festival fare will include burgers, brats and hot dogs until 8 p.m., with music by Lewis Mathis (6-8 p.m.) and The Cumberlands (8-10 p.m.). The cash bar will be open from 4-10 p.m., and the evening will conclude with fireworks. Old Stone Inn is at 6905 Shelbyville Road, Simpsonville, Ky., (502) 722-8200; www.oldstoneinnky.com Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com