By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Housed inside an unassuming art déco home in Mexico City’s recently renovated San Miguel de Chapultepec neighborhood, Padella is an unpretentious but inviting European family-style restaurant with a downhome feel and a surprisingly sophisticated menu.
The décor of Padella is understated, with each of the restaurant’s intimate dining rooms decorated in shades of green, blue and gray, with bits of art and fixtures from the 1920s and equipped with simple wood-covered tables and chairs that make the food the center of attention.
The lighting at Padella is flatteringly soft, projected from a web of geometrically patterned lamps suspended from a white art déco ceiling, and there are framed lithographs intermittently spaced along the walls to give it a homey atmosphere.
In keeping with the restaurant’s style moderne décor, Padella’s nonstop soundtrack is a mix of continental and New Orleans jazz (although sometimes the DJs go overboard and rev up the volume too loud to qualify as background music).
But as I said before, while the ambiance at Padella is tasteful and welcoming (with the exception of the over-amplified jazz music), the real draw here is the cuisine.
Offering a hodgepodge of classic recipes from France, Spain and Italy – as well as a few Mexican, Hungarian and British favorites and an occasional U.S.-style hamburger – Padella could be accused of being a restaurant in search of a national identity.
But somehow, despite its ethnic incoherence, Padella manages to create a unified ambience of bygone-era grace and unobtrusive gourmandise that is delightfully unpretentious and truly delicious.
Padella, which first opened its doors in October 2016, was originally intended to be a stew and braised meat eatery, but the restaurant’s chef, Diego Isunza, would hear none of it.
Instead, he set about creating a hotchpotch menu of carefully selected dishes he liked and was able to recreate using impeccable ingredients.
The owners had intended to keep the menu at Padella short and sweet, but again, chef Isunza had his own ideas and managed to prevail, swelling the restaurant’s bill of fare to more than 30 items.
Among the appetizers, the beet salad with watercress and toasted hazelnuts in a tarragon and pink pepper dressing is a delectable starter that is satisfying but not filling.
Even those who are not fond of beets (myself included) will find this dish to be thoroughly appealing because the tarragon and hazelnut blend predominate over the rooty geosmin flavor of the beets.
Another star of Padella’s entradas menu is the cream of cauliflower soup, delicately sprinkled with bits of fresh bacon and topped with a hint of black truffle oil.
The sheer simplicity and natural goodness of this chowder makes it a culinary masterpiece that is reason enough to return to Padella for an encore meal.
The grilled chorizo sausage in boiled cider is another wonderfully unpretentious dish borrowed from the Asturias region of northern Spain.
This item is listed as an appetizer, but it extremely toothsome so it could easily pass as a main dish or a put-in-the-middle-of-the-table munchie to be shared over a glass of wine or mixed drinks.
The chef is particularly proud of his black squid risotto, but frankly the glutamate taste of the squid ink is too intense and overpowers the more subtle flavorings the rice, making this dish too potent to be pleasant.
Squid ink, used judiciously, can add dimension and indescribable complexity to risotto, but it is definitely an ingredient that falls into the category of a little dab will do you, and in this case, Isunza has definitely overdone a good thing.
If you do opt for the risotto, ask the chef to dial back on the amount of squid ink he adds.
The braised short rib, which is slow-cooked for up to 12 hours in a thick red wine sauce and served with glazed vegetables on a bed of mashed potatoes, is tasty but could use a bit more seasoning to give it a true Provençal essence.
In contrast, the baked chicken in fresh sage and other fine herbs with sautéed chambray potatoes and grilled garlic and pepperoncino peppers is an uncommonly voluptuous affair in its basic, no-frills simplicity, a tour de force of French country-style cookery.
The goulash, stroganoff and shepherd’s pie are also exceptional, as are the beef wellington and boeuf bourguignon.
Desserts at Padella are hardy and calorie-potent, from earthy apple tarts to cardamom-spiked carrot cake to heavily perfumed Pavlova, but like most dishes on the menu, they make good center-of-the-table share plates.
The restaurant has a rather small wine selection, with a heavy emphasis on old European classics and several Mexican bogedas.
As for mixed drinks, Padella’s in-house mixologist seems to want to be in the vanguard of cocktail creativity, developing some rather unusual (and not necessarily appetizing) concoctions, such as peanut-flavored whisky sours and ultra-citrusy gin fizzes.
Unless you have a yen for extreme culinary adventure, I suggest sticking to the classics.
Padella also offers take-out picnic baskets equipped with fruit, cheese, sandwiches and wine, along with everything you need to camp out in the park for a meal under the trees, and a lively all-day Sunday brunch with free-flowing champagne and raucous DJ music for those who prefer to turn their tranquil weekends into riotous disco outings.
During the week, the restaurant is open for more sedate breakfasts geared to the business crowd.
Padella San Miguel is located at General Antonio León 70 and 72, in Mexico City’s Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec (tel: 7591-0979).
It is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All major credit cards are accepted and valet parking is available in front.
These is also a Padella restaurant in the south of the city, located at Avenida de la Paz 40 in Colonia San Ángel, with a more modern, trendy ambience aimed at a younger crowd.