[ review ]At Paloma, there are no signs that say "sit up straight," but I do. There are no signs that say, "chew with your mouth closed," but I do that, too. There is a footnote on the handsomely bound menus that requests that customers in the art-lined dining room silence their cells, but it's the only written rule of decorum at this refined Mexican restaurant transplanted to Bella Vista three months ago after a 10-year run in the Great Northeast.
"Refined" and "Mexican restaurant" don't often find themselves in the same sentence, at least not in South Philly, where our beloved bare-bones taquerias hold down corners like Marlo Stanfield. But tucked behind the brick arches of the old Mezza Luna is a rarer kind of cantina, one where the water flows from claw-foot pitchers and your napkin is folded when you return from the bathroom. At Paloma, Frida and Diego reproductions line the vanilla walls, and pink orchids bow in narrow window niches. The tablecloths are pressed. So are the waiters' slacks.
This all sets a stage for a crossroad of French techniques and Latin ingredients, where cactus paddles and beurre blancs, habaneros and vol-au-vents mingle like foreign-exchange students at a freshman mixer. Paloma's chef and co-owner, Adán Saavedra, calls it alta cocina, the Mexican equivalent of haute cuisine. I call it elegant and exciting.
Would you ever use those adjectives to describe a Caesar salad? Unlikely. But the one at Paloma earns the words with its crisp sleeves of romaine arranged in a vertical tower. A golden potato-bread crouton, its center cut out like a doughnut, held the salad upright, a Caesar skyscraper ringed by dried hibiscus petals. The presentation is oh-you-fancy, but Paloma's eat-with-your-eyes-first approach doesn't mean Saavedra, who was born in Michoacan, grew up in Mexico City and came to Philly in 1985, shortchanges the tongue. That dressing, damn, I could have backstroked through its savory waves of garlic and anchovy, and the oven-dried Jamaica flowers crunched on contact, shattering into shards of fantastic tactile acidity.
"How is it?" Barbara Cohan-Saavedra, Adán's wife of 20 years — they met when Adán tagged along with his cousins' mariachi band to Tequila's one night in the 1980s — floated toward the table. I forgot my manners and garbled a reply with my mouth full, but fortunately, she didn't kick my uncivilized ass out the door. While the cooking at Paloma commands reverence, the mood Barbara curates in the dining room is light, warm and decidedly no-starch.
It's personal the way Cohan-Saavedra, a lawyer and jewelry designer, stops to talk to each group, explaining with pride about the food "my husband" cooks, soothing reservations about the spice level — nothing's spicy unless you want it that way — while encouraging chili-heads to request a side of hubby's house-made habanero salsa. The night I dined, she even played the part of ESPN's BottomLine, providing the dining room with scoring updates on Game 6 of the NLCS. It stings to even mention the Phillies, but I do so to illustrate the kind of hostess Cohen-Saavedra is. Her casa es su casa.
And she's right to brag about the habanero salsa. It's righteous, and I applied it liberally to my entrées, though Saavedra's sauces are strong on their own. Escoffier would be proud of his velvety beurre blanc; his mama would be proud of how it's deftly infused with tomatillo and jalapeño, friendly fire for the mild branzino fillet "crusted" with nopalitos and bejeweled with ruby pomegranate seeds. Apple, ginger and morita chilies turned a textbook red wine sauce into something interesting and exquisite; the glossy, garnet reduction flowed around a pan-roasted duck breast piped with mamey sapote, a sweet potato-like Latin fruit, and white-rice pyramid (fluffy, but more dated than sophisticated) like the Nile during the Plagues of Egypt.
As the only item with definite heat, the luxe lobster poblano soup didn't require the extra habanero. "Note that the poblano is a very unpredictable chile," explains the menu. "Please ask your server about today's heat level." Last week's crop of mean greens must have been especially capsaicin-rich, because the resulting cream-blushed soup stoked a slow, steady burn, amplified by a wonderful surface swirl of guajillo chili oil.
I cooled off with Cohan-Saavedra's minty mojito layer cake frosted in thick, cool rum buttercream. She makes all the desserts for Paloma — more than two dozen sorbets in her repertoire alone — and prefaces the presentation of the sweets menu with, "This is what happens when you give a maniac an ice cream maker." Results included a sneaky strawberry-habanero, deceptively pretty and pink, but also a chipotle-chocolate scooped from a fresh batch that had yet to set. It arrived at the table halfway melted, spilling into the dimple supporting a sphere of the brilliant kiwi-vanilla, the fragrant sweetness of the latter mellowing the tartness of the former.
There's flan, as well, but it's savory, made with mushrooms and dressed with cilantro-and-pumpkin-seed pesto. I mention it here because, as with the chocolate-chipotle sorbet, it was a rare moment Paloma tripped up a presentation. I expected a silky set custard infused with the earthy essence of mushrooms, but instead received a jiggly mesa of curds and chopped shiitakes, oysters and portabellas — more like a pile of scrambled eggs than anything resembling flan.
Though textural success evaded the chocolate sorbet and the flan, the flavors were still on point. The only other complaint I can levy against Paloma is that the cost is on the lofty side — most entrées are in the $28 to $30 range — but, "I'm working to lower the prices," Saavedra promises. He says a trim is two weeks away.
You can wait till then. Fine dining is dying, people like to say, but at Paloma, it's never felt so animated.
Paloma | 763 S. Eighth St., 215-928-9500, palomafinedining.com. Dinner Tue.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$14.50; entrées, $26-$34; desserts $6.50. Reservations recommended.