A visit to a Mexican restaurant, fancy or otherwise, would not be complete without guacamole. La Puerta Azul, an upscale eatery outside Millbrook, offers a fairly conventional guac, with the usual ingredients, including tomato, onion, cilantro, and a balanced touch of seasonings. The texture is spot-on: not too creamy and not too chunky. What makes this guacamole stand out is the fact that they mash it with a mortar and pestle right at your table, which adds a certain charm to your dining experience. That, and the fact that it’s $12 an order.
La Puerta Azul is located on Rt. 44 between Millbrook and Pleasant Valley in a strip plaza, amid a tanning salon, fitness center, and a tile gallery. Across the street is a tired-looking local grocery. But don’t let any of that deter you. The restaurant sits back, hacienda-style, flanked with hibiscus and impatiens, shrubs and stones, and hanging leather swings. Its pale beige stucco exterior, along with a formidable stone tower and signature blue door, is a marked contrast to the rest of its surroundings.
The inside does not disappoint, either. It’s a mix of classic Mexican décor with a modern twist: ceramic tiles, wooden booths with brightly embroidered pillows, exposed wooden beams, bold-colored artwork, and a sleek indoor waterfall. The place is cool and modern, traditional and welcoming at the same time.
While a good deal of the menu is on the pricier side of what you might expect to pay for Mexican food—the dinner entrees range in price from $18 for the traditional Arroz con Pollo, to $25 for the Bistec a la Punta, Filet Mignon with Tequila sauce and peppers—La Puerta Azul is good value for the price point compared to other fine dining establishments in the region. The fare is thoughtful and creative, and authentic. Executive chef Ramiro Jimenez, a native of Mexico City, grew up cooking alongside his mother and grandmother.
After migrating to Manhattan to pursue his culinary career, Jimenez spent a number of years working his way up at some of the city’s premier Latin restaurants, such as Patria, Chicama, and Noche. In 2006 Jimenez was hand-selected to be the executive chef of La Puerta Azul after a chance meeting with owners Bradley and Ashley Reifler, a Manhattan couple.
Jimenez’ vision for La Puerta Azul is to create high quality, vibrant, authentic Mexican food using the freshest of ingredients with a sophisticated flair. “Mexican food is so much more than just rice and beans and hot peppers. I want to share my heritage, culture, and passion for real food,” he explained. “I want to serve it the way it is made in Mexico.”
Jimenez seems to have successfully imparted this vision into the food. Having always wanted to try ceviche, I opted for the Ceviche Verde de Atun ($9), tuna in a mixture of lime juice, tomatoes, oranges, and pickled jalapenos, served atop a basil sauce. The genius of ceviche is that the proteins in the fresh, raw fish are broken down by the acids in the citrus juice, thereby “cooking” the fish without heat. The result: a rather attractive marriage of the fresh tuna, the cool citrusy tang of lime juice and bits of orange, the spicy acidic crunch of the pickled chilies, and the savory basil sauce.
My companion and I also tried the beef empanadas ($8). To simply call them beef turnovers would not do them any justice. Savory ground beef, capers, olives, and tomatoes were encased in warm, crusty pastry, artfully drizzled with a condensed milk-sweetened chipotle aioli, and served, rather minimally, on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce. We were intrigued by the sweet and salty dichotomy of flavors and the careful presentation of this traditional Latin appetizer. It was clearly a manifestation of La Puerta Azul’s concept of preparing classic Mexican cuisine with panache.
Some of the other appetizers include Ceviche Acapulco ($10), a shrimp ceviche comprised of tomato, cilantro, onion, jalapeno, and avocado; Sopa de Maiz ($8), a sweet corn soup enhanced with leeks and poblanos; and Tamal Blanco ($7), which is white corn steamed and wrapped in a husk with chicken, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro.
For brunch entrees, my companion selected huevos rancheros ($10); I ordered the chorizo omelet ($10). Huevos rancheros is a classic Mexican breakfast dish that is comprised of eggs, black beans, salsa, and tortilla. As soon as I saw my companion’s plate I was struck by plate envy. I wanted what he had: a festive tower of alternating layers of tortilla, black beans, salsa, shredded chicken, lettuce, cheese, and topped with two beautifully poached eggs. The chicken, an atypical but appropriate inclusion, was smoky and seasoned just so.