Jolie Cantina’s Lobster Tacos
Article by Monica Gutierrez-Kirwan
I visited Jolie Cantina – Smith Street’s recent addition Mexican-French restaurant — three times in its first three weeks of business. The food kept me coming back for more.
From the moment Jolie Cantina opened in the space formerly occupied by Porchetta, at the corner of Degraw, it’s done a brisk business, helped by it’s festive lounge-like interior and upbeat music. As for cuisine, Jolie Cantina isn’t producing a fusion of Mexican and French as much as a slight mingling; the two work well together.
The meals start as they do in every Mexican restaurant: with salsa on the table. Here, the salsas arrive as a trio — Chile Ancho, Chile Serrano and Chile de arbol, in ascending order of spiciness. One taste and I knew there was a talented chef in the kitchen. I couldn’t stop eating the chile de arbol, which was earthy and spicy, and layered with a complexity of flavors.
I interviewed Chef Eliseo Gonzaga in his kitchen and asked him what made the salsas so delicious. He told me he added toasted almonds to the chile de arbol salsa. It makes sense; Chef Gonzaga is from the state of Puebla in Mexico, famous for its Mole Poblano, made from a blend of chiles, dried fruits, nuts and spices.
Gonzaga has an interesting background—an immigrant story of hard work, overcoming obstacles and a little bit of luck; one of many such hidden stories behind New York City’s kitchens.
Gonzaga’s first job after arriving from Mexico was washing dishes at Demarchelier, a French restaurant in the Upper East Side. He spoke no English. After two weeks, Gonzaga asked the head chef if he could work the salad station. The chef dismissed him, but the following week, when the salad chef did not work out, the restaurant gave Gonzaga the position, on trial, for a week. He worked himself up from there, eventually working at Bouley and, finally, at Jolie, a French restaurant on Atlantic Avenue that was well loved by many but often was not busy, perhaps due to its location.
Jolie’s owner, Benjamin Tretout, explained to me that at his French restaurant on Atlantic, Gonzaga had started putting Mexican specials on the menu, to the delight of customers. After seven years of working together, the two men figured they’d open a French-Mexican place.
“This is Brooklyn, so anything is possible,” Tretout said to me.
Of all the dishes I sampled at Jolie-Cantina, the Chilaquiles are a strong contender for my favorite. Chilaquiles are a staple breakfast or supper meal throughout Mexico. The dish consists of frying tortilla strips and adding salsa to soften the tortillas and absorb the flavor of the salsa. Many restaurants get it wrong. Jolie Cantina gets them right. The Chilaquiles arrived at the table with a perfect consistency of tortillas that have been allowed to stew in a lovely salsa verde. The Jolie version is served topped with chicken tinga at brunch, or with crab tinga for dinner. Tinga is a typical stew from Puebla, usually made with pork or chicken, tomatoes, garlic, onions and chipotle peppers. These are the best Chilaquiles I’ve tasted outside of Mexico.
The tacos are also great. I tried the lobster tacos and fish tacos, two per order. The tortillas were soft and perfectly heated. Some places don’t heat them properly and the result is a crumbling tortilla, yet these were delicious.
The fish tacos are not the classic Ensenada taco of deep-fried, battered fish. Gonzaga’s take is a grilled dorade fish, topped with a spoonful of huitlacoche and cilantro. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn kernels. It’s an ancient ingredient in Mexican cooking, considered a delicacy. In Mexico, huitlacoche is used as a filling for quesadillas, tamales or crepes. I was surprised and delighted to find such a taco in New York City – what a treat!
This huitlacoche was beautifully prepared with garlic and epazote. Gonzaga told me he grew up watching his mother cook the delicacy.
The lobster tacos featured plenty of lobster and were topped with a sublime chile habanero-saffron salsa. I can still taste and smell the salsa, and found it essential to order extra as a side.
Another favorite dish was the seafood salad, a hearty meal filled with perfectly fried oysters, crunchy on the outside and succulent on the inside, meaty crab and calamari, served mixed into a bed of fresh greens with roasted almonds and a citrus dressing.
On the French side, Jolie has earned its badge of honor as a mecca for hand-cut French fries, which come with a slight crunch and perfectly golden. One could order a plate of fries and glass of wine as a meal. A perfect companion is the Ribeye steak in Bordelaise sauce, dense with the flavors of black pepper and cognac.
French wines dominate the list but Tretout is interested in extending the selection to organic and Mexican wines (Yes there is such a thing — the Valle de Guadalupe makes many quality bottles.)
For the kids, my son’s favorite at brunch was the Croque-Monsieur, which arrived crisply toasted, looking a bit gooey and creamy, served with fries. It’s not part of the kids menu, but the restaurant does offer a children’s menu and high chairs.
I ate so much on my visits that I hardly had room for dessert, but was glad I tasted them anyway. Dulce de Leche crepes and churros, a mexican treat, usually eaten with hot chocolate, were delicious. One taste of the churros and I was transported to a Mexican plaza, enjoying a churro still piping hot and sprinkled with sugar.
I wouldn’t have thought that a restaurant on Smith Street would take me back to the flavors of Mexico, but Jolie Cantina did the trick.
241 Smith Street between Butler and Douglass