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La Valentina, Mexico City

| By Jonathan Kandell | From J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

 Just a few years ago, Mexico City journals were filled with laments over the inexorable decline of traditional Mexican cuisine. At fault, according to pundits, were evolving tastes and lifestyles imported from abroad. The young, dressed at The Gap and tuned into rap, were devouring hamburgers and pizzas. The elite, clad in Armani and attached to cell phones, were nibbling in bistros and sushi bars.  

Gone was the era when the workday ended with a late lunch that stretched into early evening, as entrepreneurs and politicos bonded over spicy enchiladas and teary mariachi songs about treacherous liquor, deceitful love and other injustices. The new global economy demanded briefer, lighter, more business-like meals that enabled diners to return to their offices and resume battle against the financial and export markets. Was Mexican cooking up to the task without losing its soul?  

The answer at La Valentina has been a resounding sí! The restaurant is perhaps the best of a growing number of exponents of nueva cocina mexicana --the local variant of nouvelle cuisine that goes easy on the lard and fiery chile, without abandoning gastronomic authenticity. La Valentina first opened in San Angel, a residential neighborhood on Mexico City's southern fringe. But like several competitors, its most successful incarnation is in Polanco, a more central district where old mansions and slow-paced street vendors are giving way to mirrored glass high-rises and fast-track investment bankers. The restaurant is located in a mall of designer boutiques and marble floors, yet its dining rooms are a nostalgic blend of rustic wood furniture and exposed wood beams.  

Just like its ambience, La Valentina offers cuisine that juxtaposes the contemporary with the traditional. The recipes, said to be rescued from the handwritten ledgers and oral accounts of grandmothers, draw on such ancient Indian ingredients as squash blossoms, hoja santa (an herb made from a heart-shaped leaf) and huitlacoche (black corn truffle). But the food, served in moderate portions by nimble, attentive waiters, is light enough that most people can rise from the table, button their suit jackets without sucking in, and go about their business during the rest of the afternoon.  

There are memorable main courses. Filete en pipián perfumado de pulque (a sliced steak with a sauce of pumpkin seed and fermented agave juice), indios en la ventana (sea bass or red snapper with a mild chile ancho sauce served on a bed of broiled cactus leaves), and mole de tamarindo (chicken in a tamarind sauce) are outstanding dishes that most foreign patrons--as well as many Mexicans--probably haven't tried before.  

Unless one intends to come back to La Valentina several times, the best way to sample its cuisine on a single visit is by making a meal of appetizers from various Mexican regions. Tacos de chilorio (shredded pork barbecued with chile guajillo and oregano and rolled into tortillas fresh off the griddle) is a favorite recipe in Sinaloa and other northern states. Quesadillas de la Negra Naomi (baked tortillas stuffed with caramelized crab meat) are truly the height of sophistication for the cooking of Campeche, a state on the Gulf of Mexico. Pastel de eloxoxitl (don't even attempt to pronounce it, but know that it is a corn pastry with tomato sauce and green pepper strips) is an old, almost forgotten standby from Puebla, a central Mexican state.  

This should leave just enough room for dessert. The appropriately named mi cielo (my heaven) is a walnut cake topped with a gelatinous almond layer. For something lighter try the pay de petalos de rosa, or rose petal pie. Turning tradition on its head, save the tequila for last. There are more than 50 varieties, several of them superpremiums such as Encantado and Porfidio served in Cognac snifters.  

If you forget your cigar, don't panic: across from La Valentina lies La Casa del Habano, one of the city's top purveyors of Cuban cigars. Of course, this means making your way back and forth past an envious queue of patrons waiting for you to surrender your table.

Jonathan Kandell, a former Latin-American correspondent for The New York Times, grew up in Mexico.    

LA VALENTINA   Avenida President Mazarik 39   Phone (52) 5 282-2514 Rates Dinner $35 per person, including a tequila and 15 percent gratuity