After selling shares in Ofrenda last year, chef Luis Arce Mota took a sabbatical to his native Mexico. He spent the majority of his time traveling around, spending time in the kitchen with his father’s family is his hometown of Mazatlán, eating and learning about the cuisine in Oaxaca, and examining ancient Aztec techniques in the center of the country. Mota now aims to combine his recently attuned knowledge of regional Mexican fare with his years of technique-driven French training at his newest eatery, La Contenta (102 Norfolk Street; 212-432-4180) on the Lower East Side.
An avid traveler, Mota has journeyed and investigated food all over the world: He spent time traversing the markets in France and touring South America and Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. And this isn’t the first time the chef has taken off to explore the fare of his homeland; when he sold his piece of Cafe Condesa in 2009, he went back home to examine his roots.
He opened Ofrenda just after returning, aiming to integrate his deep knowledge of classical cooking methods with the bold flavors of Mexican fare. There, he took dishes like his family’s pozole or menudo and altered the recipes slightly for better results. To reduce the grease, he’d lower the cooking temperature to make it easier to skim off the fat.
At La Contenta, Mota plans to go down a less traditional route, although some more authentic dishes will be on the menu. Using high-quality products sourced from Mexico (he’s working with El Barrio Tortilleria), the restaurant will focus on combining south-of-the-border flavors with French methods.
Expect to see a wide range of chiles (chipotle, jalapeño, chile piquin, ancho, poblano, chile de árbol, guajillo, and serrano) highlighted in mother sauces in dishes like the Tostada de Cangrejo with sweet blue crab meat, celery root purée, chile de árbol, and crispy kale. Pork Ribeye a la Plancha will feature New Mexican green chile, pineapple, brussels sprouts, pork, beans, and mustard. “I’m going to try to use different peppers in each appetizer to show people the difference,” says Mota. “It’s my own Mexican food.”
Seafood will be a large component of the menu as well. Expanding upon the simple marisco presentations of his Mazatlán roots, Mota plans to offer his personal takes on the region’s simple cuisine with selections like Langosta a la Mantequilla — poached lobster, chile morita butter, parsnip purée, green peas, mango, and vanilla.
An avid diver and surfer (he has traveled to Australia and even Antarctica for water-based trips), Mota would like to work with sustainable seafood as much as possible. While he’s still teasing out the details, sourcing is an important matter for the chef; he follows the Marine Stewarship Council‘s (MSC) advisory list. You’ll never see red-list items like Chilean sea bass on his menu. “I’ve seen nets catching everything in Mexico,” says Mota. “My parents’ house was in front of my surfing spot; there used to be a ton of sea urchin, then people found out they could get money for them, they’d take everything. It’s ignorance.”
Once La Contenta is rolling through dinner service, Mota plans to introduce brunch and lunch. To cater to local construction crews and those looking for a cheap midday meal, he plans to offer a deal with an entree, side, and beverage (including house-made aguas frescas) for around $10. Brunch will be a bit more formal, with choices like poblano benedict with poached eggs, poblano sauce, queso fresco, and spinach on top of English muffin. Time-honored selections will also be featured, including chilaquiles, a tortilla casserole with Oaxaca cheese, tomatillo chipotle salsa, sauteed onions, and eggs any style.
The cocktail program will share the same ethos. Rare Mexican ingredients will be mixed into a creative selection of signature tipples. Going further than the regular tequilas and mezcals, La Contenta’s partner and head bartender Alex Valencia is offering alt-agave spirits from different regions of Mexico, including sotol (a northern Mexican distilled spirit), bacanora (an agave-derived liquor from the state of Sonora), and raicilla (a distilled spirit from Jalisco that predates the arrival of the Spanish). You’ll see them in drinks such as the 1937 Mexico City recipe the Mexican Firing Squad, a combination of sotol, lime juice, grenadine, Angostura bitters, and soda.
For Mota and Valencia, the goal is to combine their love of their homeland with their culinary education. “We’re going to apply what we’ve learned at La Contenta,” says Mota. “It’s nothing fancy; the prices aren’t going to be crazy. We just want to do what we know and see if people like it.”
La Contenta is slated to open for dinner on Wednesday, February 11.
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