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Top-notch Mexican: The new La Condesa in St. Helena

  • The bar at La Condesa, St. Helena. November 29, 2011.

There's good news and bad news about La Condesa, the new Mexican restaurant in the old Keller Brothers butcher shop in St. Helena that seems to have the Napa Valley all agog.

First, the good news. The food is really good, as good as any Mexican food I've had, here or in Mexico. With Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg and now La Condesa (The Countess) in St. Helena, we finally have our choice of superb Mexican food.

Now the bad news. It's really expensive. Yellowtail ceviche is $16, two small venison tacos are $16, striped bass entr? is $28, and a strip steak platter from the wood-fired grill is $32. Even the huitlacoche huarache — so named for the mushroom-like corn smut fungus (huitlacoche) and Mexican sandal-shaped tortilla (huarache) — is $15.

La Condesa

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The other part of the bad news is the atmosphere. On a recent Friday night, it was so loud you couldn't hear yourself think. The place was jammed and the sound of human voices had accelerated past bothersome, beyond annoying, into intolerable. The place seemed to be understaffed, although our waiter valiantly tried to serve all his tables with alacrity and whizzed about the room like a dervish. This made the vibe jittery and frantic — the opposite of a quiet, relaxing experience at a fine restaurant. The people at our table decided La Condesa was a victim of its own success. On another visit, on a Wednesday evening, it was loud, but not cacophonous, and there were a couple of open tables. So it may be wise to go Monday through Thursday unless you like the hustle and bustle of jostling crowds.

You'll find La Condesa to be a tequila lover's paradise, with 47 blancos, 50 reposados, 42 a?jos, 21 extra a?jos, and 23 mezcals available by the shot at prices ranging from $8 to $200. Cocktails, beers and moer than 50 mostly Napa Valley wines are also on the alcoholic drinks list.

After enjoying the four seasonal salsas served at Mateo's Cocina Latina, we tried the Seasonal Salsas ($4 ?) at La Condesa with high hopes. They were pureed and delivered with a medium burn, but didn't quite match the quality at Mateo's.

On the other hand, the Pato de Mole Negro ($28 ) was off the charts. The pato itself is a duck breast, seared and sliced, accompanied by a duck leg confit falling off the bone. The leg is covered with the best mole imaginable.

Mole is one of those sauces that define a cuisine, like marinara in Italian cooking. I would suspect that most diners who love Mexican food have encountered some mighty mediocre mole over the years, less than great for many possible reasons: The cocoa (it must be the Mexican kind, blended from Dutch cocoa and cinnamon) is ordinary chocolate. The cocoa is used too sparingly, or it's used too heavily, making the sauce overly bitter. The peanut flavor is missing. The traditional guajillo chilies aren't used. Tomatoes, onion or garlic are missing. The roux is made with wheat flour rather than masa, and so on.

But La Condesa's mole has no flaws. The cocoa is Mexican and in balance with the other flavors, you can taste the peanuts, and the sauce is slightly sweet as well as spicy hot. A spoonful of sour cream to cool the palate and a sprinkling of cilantro to round out its Mexican flavors finishes the plate.

Cochinita Pibil ($8 ) taco is pork butt braised in banana leaf, Yucatecan style, mixed with a rich brown sauce and topped with pickled onion and jalape?, Seville orange and shredded cabbage.


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