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Upstairs, Downstairs 

With COYOACAN COCINA MEXICANA on one level and Taqueros on the other, Chef-proprietor Guillermo Peters brings his visionary Mexican cuisine to the Garden District.

I spent four years convincing naysayers that Taqueros was worth the drive to Kenner, that two ripe avocados' worth of guacamole should cost $8 and that a Mexican restaurant in a cement-floored suburban strip mall is justified in serving $20-plus entrees when they are superlative. Chef-proprietor Guillermo Peters, a technical and creative force, recently moved his operation into a renovated-to-order Garden District building containing Taqueros, a casual taqueria, downstairs, and Coyoacan, a fine-dining venue, upstairs. His up-market creations, some favorites from the original Taqueros, now have the surroundings they deserve -- a handsome room of iron and wood, Mexican tile and handwoven cotton, hammered flatware and smoky lighting. Peters' food is still extraordinary, but the convincing continues.

"Authentic" appears frequently on Peters' menus, and the foundation for Coyoacan's food is indisputably Mexican. That said, few preparations are familiar, and none resemble the offerings of most Mexican-run cantinas this side of the border. The flavors are clean, even given the complexity of the dried and fresh chiles that appear in nearly every dish, and the raw materials are pristine: fleshy venison chops, sea-saturated octopus, super-ripe avocado, sunny squash blossoms. You could imagine this food in a fashionable restaurant in Coyoacan (a Mexico City suburb), or in a Mexican seaside resort town, but not in the rural countryside that, right or wrong, permeates most "authentic" visions of Mexico.

It's impossible to eat Peters' sophisticated sauces without reflecting upon the classical tenets of French cuisine. Considering this, and the creativity and daring that imbue such dishes as his signature chile relleno de mixote, a lamb-stuffed roasted poblano with a habanero-fired seasonal fruit sauce, it may be more useful to think about Coyoacan's food as nouvelle Mexican.

One evening the aggressively dark three-chile sauce (mulato, pasilla and ancho) surrounding two venison chops was leggier than a 1961 Bordeaux and appeared to have bubbled up from the center of the earth. It was reminiscent of mole poblano but more intense, its bitterness, garlic and soot-like grittiness unsoftened by mole's fruit and chocolate. Although the flavors of this chile lava were relatively unbridled, overall it possessed the distinction, the controlled breadth and the immaculate finish of a French reduction sauce.

Sweet morsels of lobster and fruity strips of poblano chile plump the crepa de langosta to the circumference of a fat Cuban cigar; the crepe also springs to life in the presence of a refined sauce, one of tepid cream, toasted corn and the low-volume essence of pasilla chile. The tomatillo-chipotle sauce underlying a fish-and-shrimp-stuffed poblano is rugged and less mysterious, but it still drives the dish, the smoked chile lending solid footing and the tomatillo tang a nexus for the green olives in the seafood stuffing.

Spain's influence upon Mexican cooking appears in some dishes, such as the frequent pulpa en ajillo special, wherein minced garlic bejewels pieces of impossibly tender octopus; it creates an elegant seafood taco when combined in warm corn tortillas with sides of pickled mirliton and avocado. There's usually a small, pricey ceviche appetizer, the fish (grouper when I tried it) transformed to plush flesh from a wash of gently bitter citrus.

You might ease your palate into the chile-stoked main courses with a brothy soup -- zucchini with squash blossom (a special) or mild chicken-tortilla. Or just jump in: A blackberry-habanero vinaigrette fires up the cool spinach, jicama and goat cheese of Coyoacan's namesake salad.

The tequila service sets a gold standard, while wine selection presents a challenge, as I learned when a spicy Spanish tempranillo turned to limpid fruit juice when exposed to that three-chile sauce. Peters compiled the suitably red-heavy wine list; request his consult for pairings.

No detail has been spared, no taste left to chance. Diners are responding to this precision with election-year force -- the bomb-throwing, and return attacks, on local food message boards regarding Taqueros/Coyoacan's authenticity and its rulebook is ferocious. Despite the 31 states of Mexico, and the innumerable variations on tamales, mole sauces, tortillas and enchiladas, not to mention this country's regional distinctions -- Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, even Wyo-Mex -- some Americans have, alas, formed ridiculously obstinate opinions about "authentic" Mexican cooking. Often these opinions don't coincide with Peters' interpretation of his own homeland's food culture.

The rules are more difficult to defend. In his foremost role as a visionary artist, Peters is bound to trigger controversy; unfortunately, even diners who embrace his art are liable to find some of his business decisions unsavory. The "no free chips and salsa" policy is reasonable, but charging for each additional tortilla isn't, and neither are two-sip designer margaritas for $12. There are no substitutions period, no blended margaritas allowed upstairs and no cross-ordering between the two restaurants. A convent might have fewer restrictions. In asking us to expand our horizons, Peters has narrowed his to a point that arguably exceeds artistic license. Bear in mind, however, that he does have "a vision," a refreshing thing in this tradition-ensconced town. Certainly no other local chef treats comparably high-quality meats and seafoods to such an exhilaration of Mexican ingredients, technical skill and originality. I'm prepared to defend this uncommon breed of cooking for another four years, with the appropriate caveats. I sincerely hope someone is listening.

click to enlarge No other local chef treats high-quality meats and - seafoods to such an exhilaration of Mexican ingredients, - technical skill and originality as COYOACAN COCINA - MEXICANA Chef-proprietor Guillermo Peters. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • No other local chef treats high-quality meats and seafoods to such an exhilaration of Mexican ingredients, technical skill and originality as COYOACAN COCINA MEXICANA Chef-proprietor Guillermo Peters.
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