On first glance, it's impossible not to be romanced by Tintorera. The new Silver Lake restaurant — the first U.S. venture for chef Maycoll Calderón of Mexico City's Huset and the latest in a string of modern Mexican openings (Tallula's, Verlaine, Maestro) — is truly transportive.
You step off of Sunset into an aquamarine-lacquered entryway flush with flora, then descend a few steps to a breezy open-air dining room. Palm trees line the patio. The buttery glow from strung bulbs and hanging wicker orbs instantly makes you feel a couple of points more attractive. I've not been to Huset, but photos depict a similar patio — expansive, green, soothing — although here it's accented with an of-the-moment pale pink (you know the color).
If you're a born cynic, you want to be mad at the mismatched wooden chairs for their obvious charm, or to roll your eyes at the mural of the mermaid/sea warrior with a blue shark (the titular “tintorera”) shooting out of its breast. But it's dead cool. Open a door just past the indoor kitchen and you'll find a cozy, dimly lit, speakeasy-style indoor bar, itself a frond-printed paradise.
Then there's the menu. There's coconut water in one of the ceviches and a Meyer lemon margarita. It's as if Calderón has gotten inside our collective dining minds and figured out the buzzwords to get our pulses going.
And that's his goal: The Venezuela-born chef says that Tintorera is his chance to explore the possibilities of California produce, to play to the L.A. crowd with his nontraditional take on Mexican food. It's a reasonable proposition. Calderón got his share of media attention at Huset and previously spent a decade working with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. And he's certainly dedicated, spending 100 percent of his time in L.A. until he feels the restaurant is self-sufficient enough that he can divide his time between here and Mexico City.
But then the food arrives, and it's surprising that he's behind the line every night.
Overseasoning sabotages many seemingly well-conceived dishes, smothering more delicate flavors: Sharp citrus erases hope that you'll taste that coconut water in the mixed ceviche (with equally intense poblano chili), while vinegar-blasted bits of mango in the pyramid-stacked watermelon salad obliterate both the melon and nubs of goat cheese. A pile of crisp radishes and snap peas atop a piece of roasted red snapper was absolutely coated in salt, almost to the point of being inedible.
While playing to our collective ingredient obsessions, the kitchen can lapse into overkill. On my first visit, avocado was on nearly everything: mashed under mayo-laden crab on a tostada; nestled in a wedge under the fish in that coconut-water ceviche; sliced into crescents adorning the top of a soupy arroz con pollo. And of course, it was the star of Tintorera's superlative guacamole, which comes showered in cotija cheese and finely chopped pico de gallo.
One of the best — and most bewildering — dishes was the mixed ceviche with hummus. The two don't seem as if they're going to get along, and the combination looks as unappetizing as it sounds, seeing as the hummus is on the looser side. But the nuttiness of the tahini balances out the heat of serrano chili and that Mike Tyson KO punch of acidity that plagues other dishes.
Look, this is my first review for L.A. Weekly. I'm new in town. I may have prejudices coming from the hard-nosed world of New York City dining, but I do know this: If you're a restaurant that hangs its hat on seafood, it should be treated with respect. And yet more than a couple of bites of ceviche tasted less than sparkling fresh, and a $34, six-ounce filet of sea bass with an oversized swoosh of mashed sweet potatoes and cherry tomatoes was bland and too rare at the center — perhaps because Calderón is making all of the cooked fish dishes on cast-iron instead of the grill that's promised on the website. The food looks pretty enough, but even the most lovely dishes fail upon closer inspection: Lean in and you'll find that the tuna “tartar” is a little mushy and drowning in a jalapeño emulsion and chili oil — or that pieces of the ceviche hang together, the result of sloppy knife work.
As one of my dining companions noted
It is possible to keep the initial Tintorera fantasy going: The restaurant is the sort of place you can sway to a lilting reggae version of “Thriller” while sipping a pleasingly floral, fishbowl-sized elderflower gin and tonic and dipping house-made chips into that great guacamole. You could tell a friend, “Don't go for dinner; go for a drink and a snack,” the increasingly familiar, noncommittal “recommendation” that downplays what a restaurant is supposed to do — provide a good meal. But, as one of my dining companions noted, “Guac and a cocktail do not a restaurant make.”
It's a shame, because barman David Mora, also from Mexico City, has a nuanced touch with drinks both alcoholic and non: A bourbon-tamarind-vermouth concoction known as the Bad Hombre is just tart enough, sidestepping the sweet downfall of so many cocktails. And a booze-free Thai lemonade, with a layer of suspended chia seeds, was the most refreshing drink I've had of late.
Desserts are a bright spot, too, including a caramel ice cream–anointed fig tart, served hot and gooey in a cast-iron pan and topped with bits of charred rosemary to announce the dish with a forest-y aroma. A rich, sweet slab of cornbread with crunchy-sticky glazed hazelnuts is graced by a mezcal-scented cajeta sauce that the cake drinks up nicely. Both drive home that “I'm in Tulum, not steps off Sunset” feeling.
And again, there's the obvious pleasure of eating outdoors, and Tintorera delivers on that in a more grown-up way than Frogtown's Salazar. But you can't help but wish the entire place had more of Salazar's swagger, that the execution would be on point, the servers a little less asleep at the wheel. On my first visit, two of the same cocktails appeared from my one order. And getting a tropical shirt–clad server to pay attention to the table long enough to bring a check — unless you're in a large party — proved futile.
When my friend ordered a nonalcoholic Green Power, essentially a carbonated iced matcha, our server met him with a blank look. “It's on the menu,” my friend pointed out, opening it to show him. The reply: “Are you serious? I didn't read that section.”
Calderón says he wants to update the kitchen with a grill and expand the menu to include more meat-centric dishes in the coming months. Given the gorgeous setting and the way Calderón intuitively seems to know what Silver Lake diners want, there's potential in Tintorera — if only the entire place would “read that section,” so to speak.
TINTORERA | One star | 2815 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 741-0055 | tintorera.la | Daily, 5-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. | Appetizers, $11-$22; entrees, $34-$38 | Full bar
Following the September departure of restaurant critic Besha Rodell, L.A. Weekly will be publishing reviews in the coming weeks from a number of voices. Karen Palmer is the former editorial director of Tasting Table; you should read her recent piece for the publication: “In the age of the influencer, do restaurant critics still matter?”