Best Restaurant To Die In The Past Twelve Months (2001)


Forget chicken mole and everything else you know as traditional Mexican food. Consider instead cutting-edge nuevo Mexicano inventions featuring upscale ingredients and light but big beautiful flavors: a subtly spicy carrot and tomato chipotle chili soup; a seared foie gras and lobster sandwich on poblano cornbread with apple jalapeño sauce; or a precisely grilled-to-perfection beef filet with creamy corn and chili polenta, nopales cactus, and black beans in a complex chorizo/guajillo sauce that hit one's palate a half-dozen different ways. Creator of this unique personal vision was Mexican-born chef Guillermo Tellez, for years second in command at Charlie Trotter's culinary temple in Chicago. Icing on the cake -- which here would have been something more like a liquid-centered dark chocolate and chipotle ganache with crunchy caramelized bananas -- was Tellez's domestic partner, pastry chef Leslie Swagger. The restaurant was Mayya, which closed last spring, barely a year after opening. Why? Well, restaurant powers that be dissed South Florida diners as too unsophisticated to pay a premium for sophisticated fare. Meanwhile the rumor mill blamed restaurant powers that be for appalling cost-cutting suggestions ("canned lobster!" was reportedly the kicker for Tellez and Swagger). Admittedly haute Mexican cuisine is a hard sell. Even savvy Northern diners balk at paying prices like Mayya's ($24 to $37 entrées, a $70 ten-course prix-fixe tasting extravaganza) for what they consider refined versions of fast food. The tasting dinners at hopefully immortal Norman's, however, are almost as high ($55 to $65) for five fewer courses. And unfortunately all the publicity Mayya's high-profile owners garnered obscured the fact that the food was much more about Norman Van Aken (or Charlie Trotter)-type creativity than about Mexico. Yes, Mayya was expensive -- and worth every peso.


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