Palmilla: a cocina done right [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

Newly opened Palmilla lights up Hermosa’s Pier Avenue. Photos by Chelsea Sektnan

I have become wary of restaurants that take high style to extremes; there are plenty of places I could mention where someone has spent cash and creativity on the décor, seemingly without ever considering what might be served inside their oh-so-hip spot after it opens. Hermosa has a surfeit of these establishments already, most of which opened as restaurants and quickly became bars that serve mediocre food.

So when I saw the elaborate architecture at Palmilla and heard that it was owned by the same people who own a chain of bars that caters to the college crowd, I figured that the odds were not good. Palmilla’s menus had the words “Cocina y tequila” beneath the name, and I expected that the focus would be on tequila than cocina.

I visited the first day they were open to the public and discovered cause for optimism. The menu had a lot of the right words, noting the use of fresh wild seafood, aged Angus beef, and house-made tortillas; managers who don’t care about food usually don’t pay for premium ingredients. The focus seemed right too – not on bizarre or flashy ideas, but on refined versions of traditional items. I tried a sampler of ceviches, a short rib taco, and a New York steak, and they all hit the mark. Nobody was pushing tequila shots, either – I had two glasses of very good wine with my meal, and I left impressed. There were some of the problems of any new establishment, with main courses arriving mere moments after the appetizers, but I chalked that up to the kind of thing that would even out with some experience.

I returned to Palmilla with my family this week to see how the place was coming along. They hadn’t visited before and were dazzled by the look of the place – mosaic brickwork and a pleasant patio outside, white pebble walls and brickwork accented by candles and hanging chains inside. We were shown to a booth at the rear of the house, and we walked beneath bulbous hanging lamps to an intricately inlaid round table.

That interior is spectacular, but there is a price for style – voices echo from those solid walls, and even though the music was relatively low, we struggled to be heard as we discussed our choices. Our server brought fresh hot flour tortillas along with two salsas, one spicy, the other a milder roasted version, plus some honey butter. I’m not a fan of honey butter, but both salsas were appropriately zippy and obviously freshly made. I prefer chips to the flour tortillas and asked for them – they arrived hot within moments.

The ceviche trio had been so good that I considered ordering it again, but I remembered the generous portions and settled on a Palmilla salad to begin. That turned out to be an excellent choice, small greens mixed with grilled apple, jicama, grape tomatoes, white cheese, and roasted pumpkin seeds in a pepita lime vinaigrette. The tartness of green apple and the vinaigrette was perfect as a counterpoint to the sweet jicama and tomatoes – all the individual flavors were traditionally Mexican, but the result was sophisticated and modern.

Since we were in a place that specialized in tequila, we decided to try mixed drinks – a “Silver modern margarita,” a Cabo Cosmo, and a pineapple Serrano margarita. Our server Taylor had recommended the latter, and it was milder than I expected; the cilantro was just a whisper of flavor and a garnish, Serrano chile a hint of heat on the palate as the drink went down, with the pineapple and tequila dominating the flavor. It was surprising that you could taste the quality of the tequila with that many things going on, but you could. Interesting as it was, the more conventional silver modern was more to my tastes, all clean, crisp flavors that were very refreshing. The Cabo Cosmo was a sweeter drink that reminded me of the hibiscus-infused Mexican soft drink called Jamaica, and I can imagine it would go down very well on a hot day.

We were only about half through with the salad when our main courses arrived, creating a problem – the tables at Palmilla are small, the dishes huge, and there just wasn’t space for everything. My wife used her considerable tetris skills to fit everything together, but we still had to balance one plate on top of the basket of chips.

(When we mentioned this to a manager who stopped by to see how we were doing, he smiled ruefully – apparently this problem has come up many times. We also mentioned the problem with the noise, which he said they’re trying to control without injuring any of their cherished décor. As much as I admire the look, I’d rather dine in comfort and less style than vice-versa.)

Palmilla bills itself as a “cocina y tequila.”

My companions had ordered a seafood burrito and chipotle chicken with mushrooms, while I picked a steak Tampiqueña that came with a chicken mole enchilada and a side dish. The seafood burrito was a simple item done very well, a substantial portion of wild shrimp in a light tequila cream sauce inside a fresh tortilla, tipped with an excellent tomatillo sauce. There was a dollop of guacamole and some pico de gallo, both fresh, and mild Spanish rice on the side. At $15.00 it’s probably the most expensive burrito in Hermosa, but still a good bet because every element is thought out and in perfect balance.

The chicken with a mild chipotle cream sauce was also expertly cooked and served with mushrooms that had a fine earthy flavor, but the star of the meal was a side item, the honey lime mashed sweet potatoes. I have never been much of a fan of sweet potatoes, and adding honey to something sweet would not have occurred to me, but the addition of lime juice made them extraordinary. This was the most innovative individual item of the evening and a complete success – whoever thought of this should be congratulated.

My Tampico-style steak was made with filet mignon rather than the usual skirt steak or cheaper cut, and it was meltingly tender – the most expensive item on the menu at $36.00, but worth it. Taylor had given me a steak knife, but the steak cut easily with a butter knife or the side of a fork. It looked small but had a big flavor, as it had been rubbed with a spice mix that lent it a touch of smoky heat. The sliced roasted green chile and onion mix that was served alongside it wasn’t to my taste – it had strong, sharp flavor that didn’t seem to blend with anything else. The other accompaniments, a short rib taquito and the mole enchilada, were excellent and made for an impressively composed plate. I had ordered roasted corn on the cob with a dusting of spices and cheese as my side dish, and I was quite happy with it. It might look unappetizing, the edges blackened from the fire, but it tasted excellent – if you are dining here and see one go by, you might not be inclined to order it, but fire-roasting brings out the sweetness and gives it an appealing smoky flavor.

Desserts were offered, a tres leches cake and horchata flan, but we demurred as both were said to be very sweet – I might have liked something simple like churros, but they are only offered alongside the flan. The big portions here make it unlikely that they’re going to sell a lot of desserts, but the management might consider offering something small and simple for those who like a little something along with their coffee.

The service throughout the evening was attentive and friendly, an achievement in a packed restaurant, and we left with an appreciation for the artistry in the kitchen at the front of the house. Our dinner for three with four drinks had run $118.00 not at all bad for cooking of this caliber. I will probably sit outside next time, weather permitting, as it is quieter and the tables seem a bit larger, but I will be back. Yes, they have the tequila bar and the party vibe, but this cocina is doing some things that deserve further study.

Palmilla is at 39 Pier Avenue in Hermosa – open daily, dinner only. Pay parking in nearby lots, full bar, patio dining. Phone 310-374-4440. ER

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