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Mexican fusion style good on paper but not on plate

HYPE, as it turns out, can be a dangerous thing. In some cases it is absolutely unavoidable as football World Cups and Summer Olympics tend to carry the weight of global expectations on their rugged shoulders and very rarely disappoint.

But when hype is generated on a smaller scale with more modest budgets it can get in the way of the ultimate enjoyment.

When it comes to catering, hype can be absolutely fatal. Naysayers and the clinically depressed (a subset which includes restaurant critics) are absolutely loathe to encounter tales of people actually enjoying themselves and spend their dark, cold nights plotting how to show them up for the phonies they are.

Even worse is when you desperately want to like a restaurant, to get out of it the joys that everyone else seems to be deriving.

When you are one of the few who doesn't see the marvels of the kitchen in an otherwise uber-popular restaurant, the world can suddenly be a very lonely place.

Maya has been open for more than six months and has a staunch set of supporters mainly of the North American variety, a distinction that will be elaborated on shortly.

Since its October opening, Californian chef Brad Turley has left the city, returning to the United States last week to open his own place.

The location's previous iteration, Zoco, served more than adequate modern tapas but lacked the all-important X-factor to bring in the crowds; but talk of the inconvenient location within the Shanghai Grand Plaza residential compound has proved absolutely moot given Maya's incredible popularity.

The dark, moody interior has been replaced by the Cosmo Group (which also runs the equally popular Velvet Lounge) with a brighter, chicer design that is both trendy and practical at the same time.

As far as the fare goes, this is not your padre's Mexican cuisine. Chef Turley has traveled extensively around the region and has absolutely fallen in love with the tastes and flavors of the Orient and it shows in his cooking.

The hefty chef has matured with each step of his career here and appeared right at the top of his game when he suddenly announced his decision to bail (the Cosmo Group state that Turley is still in charge of its kitchen and will return to Shanghai at regular intervals).

Just as early pioneers found success in fusing Asian elements with traditional European cooking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the noughties has seen many a chef grab the concept and run with it.

At Maya, Turley has taken what he loves about Asian cuisine and hung it on a Mexican shell that most Americans can recognize and appreciate.

The menu is a smart, two-page affair which looks great on paper. Alas, this only serves to drum up greater anticipation that the kitchen is unable to match.

The roast duck quesadilla (55 yuan/US$8.10) looked great on the menu, with Pepperjack cheese and Hoisin sauce. Unfortunately, it simply didn't work, with the tang of the cheese overwhelmed by the suckling pig sauce. Basically cheesy Peking duck, the starter was a cloying mess of bird and cheese.

The pumpkin and goat cheese chili relleno (stuffed pepper/ 55 yuan) was also similarly one-dimensional.

There was hardly any texture from the cheese while the sweetness of the pumpkin obliterated everything else. The pomegranate (an apple-like fruit grown in South China and Southeast Asia) reduction looked clever but ultimately delivered very little to the overall dish.

Plumping for the blackened beef might have been a mistake. Sliced rump steak for 180 yuan may not be great value, but what was ultimately wrong with it was the over liberal sprinkling of chili oil. In fact, the dish was swimming in the stuff, making each bite of meat unpleasant for anyone expecting more nuanced flavors. The ultimate insult came from the stone bowl chili verde roast chicken (115 yuan). For that price all one gets is three chunks of chicken and plenty of potato.

Maya is not pretending to be fine dining but rather a modern eatery, and thus prices must be judged as such. The menu is well-written but the execution fails to match.

It is not just about liking Mexican food either.

A vast majority of Americans have grown up on the stuff and, if the spate of Mexican joints opening the past year is any indication, find great comfort in enjoying it and its permutations abroad.

Perhaps Turley has used Maya as a test run to take the concept back to the United States where with adequate supply of Asian ingredients he will find a great following.

One wishes him well if that be the case, as that would be the only explanation for his sudden flight from here.

Rosemary Chicken Flautas to generate a festival mood

With the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, it is understandable many are not thinking of the annual Cinco de Mayo holiday which falls on Tuesday.

But as virus alert warnings abound, which undoubtedly put a dampener on proceedings, there's no harm celebrating on behalf of our Mexican comrades in their hour of need.

American cafe Malone's is having a monthlong Mexican food promotion and executive chef Ken Wong offers this relatively simple recipe for those looking to get in the mood at home.


4 pieces skinless, boneless chicken breast halves cooked and julienne

226 grams hot sauce

1/4 teaspoon rosemary

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

226 grams shredded Monterey Jack cheese

226 grams shredded Cheddar cheese

12 pieces 15-centimeter corn tortillas

1 tablespoon vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius.

In a medium bowl, combine the julienned (horizontal strips) chicken, rosemary, hot sauce and ground cumin. Mix together.

In a small skillet, heat vegetable oil over a medium heat. Place a corn tortilla in the oil for one to two seconds on either side to soften. Repeat with all the tortillas (if possible have someone help do this), then place tortillas on paper towel to soak up some of the oil.

Put one tablespoon of the chicken mixture in the center of the tortilla and sprinkle some cheese on top, roll up tortilla and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, seam side down. Repeat with all of the tortillas until chicken mixture is gone. Sprinkle any remaining cheese over rolled tortillas. Bake tortillas in preheated oven for 15 to 25 minutes or until crispy and golden brown. Serve with mixed green top with salsa, sour cream and guacamole.

Ready to serve.


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