Amid all the eye-catching flourishes installed inside Maïz64, a rare new option for Mexican fine dining in D.C., the most important may appear to be the most humble. Considering the glass cubes that display golden-dipped casts of corn with akimbo husks, a communal table made out of a slab of parota wood that weighs more than a ton, and a charcoal-burning Spanish oven visible through an open kitchen, customers who enter the refurbished restaurant in the old B Too space (1324 14th Street NW) near Logan Circle might breeze right past the squat, white chimney with a circular metal top tucked behind a small bar at the front. This gas-fired comal, the flat-top stove traditionally responsible for cooking tortillas, is where chef Alam Méndez Florián plans to showcase Maïz64’s namesake ingredient.
Starting Tuesday, October 5, Maïz64 will offer an a la carte menu (full version below) that folds Mid-Atlantic produce into the type of refined cooking that Méndez Florián, a 31-year-old Oaxaca native, has become known for at Pasillo de Humo in Mexico City and at pop-ups around the world. Once the restaurant finds its footing, a six-seat bar surrounding the comal will serve as a theater for a seven- to eight-course tasting menus that will include a variety of tacos — and triangular stuffed tetelas, quesadillas, crispy tostadas, or other masa-based dishes, all prepared à la minute — that hammer home a deep connection to the sacks of heirloom Mexican corn stacked in the prep kitchen downstairs.
The 64 in the restaurant’s name refers to the number of corn breeds that have been identified as Mexican. When Méndez Florián shows off a few kernels of blue corn harvested from the state of Tlaxcala and destined to become tortillas, he hesitates before tossing them in the garbage. “In my mom’s town they don’t let anyone throw away corn kernels,” he says. “We give it to the chickens.” While explaining the significance of maiz, or corn, in Mexican culture, he references a Mayan story of creation.
“They say that the men were made with corn masa. That’s the reason we want to represent it in our restaurant and our name as many ways as we can,” he says. “For us, it’s the base of our food and has the same value as gold.”
Maïz64 will use four different colors of corn, turning whole kernels into masa through the process of nixtamalization and on-site grinding with a molino the size of a small horse. Tortillas act as the base for artfully plated tacos with fillings like a terrine of pressed suckling pig that gets decorated with lime-green dots of avocado puree, a tomatillo relish, and pork rinds. A charred broccoli taco comes with cashews and a black mole that begins with a mother sauce from Oaxaca. Tortillas arrive on the side for an oven-roasted octopus al pastor Méndez Florián accents with eggplant ash puree and grilled pineapple relish. Charred eggplant also joins tomatillos and jalapenos in a pounded salsa martajada that will be one rotation of the two table sauces the chef will regularly offer.
A vegetable tostada, made with yellow corn for a coarser crunch, supports a Yucatan pumpkin seed sauce and a confetti of crisp produce (jicama, bell peppers, seaweed, cucumber, red onion) with a red chile emulsion, salsa macha, and cilantro. That dish underscores the idea that Méndez Florián will pull from multiple regions, which explains a bicoastal trip from pibil-style roasted chicken breast with potatoes, fennel, and mint, to a Pacific-referencing, butterflied fish a la talla that’s marinated in morita and pasilla chiles and coated in a spicy mayonnaise before it hits the grill.
One of the dishes Méndez Florián is most excited to serve is a portion of lobster and mussels ($38) that have been seared in butter, arranged over a mussel tamal that substitutes the mollusk’s broth for water, and served with a lobster and epazote herb bisque. On the lighter side, there’s a cactus paddle salad with fava bean puree and a soft-boiled egg in a lime and oregano vinaigrette with cilantro and mint.
Méndez Florián will still commute back and forth to Mexico, although he’s pledged to stick around D.C. to oversee the opening stages of the restaurant. All the traveling may have contributed to a poor early review from the Washington Post at Urbano 116, the Old Town Alexandria restaurant that represented the chef’s entry to the D.C.-area dining scene. After a year of business, it flipped into a Tex-Mex approach that catered to the tourist-heavy neighborhood but led Méndez Florián to leave.
At Maïz64, Méndez Florián brought on an old friend from culinary school with an impressive resume to manage the day-to-day operations. Jessica Camarena says she’s worked with Michelin star chef Christopher Kostow in California and spent two years at Pujol, perhaps the most famous restaurant in Mexico.
Pastry chef Elisa Reyna will mix French technique and Mexican flavors with seasonal sorbets and ice creams in flavors like mango, strawberry, and vanilla grapefruit. Her version of fresas con crema (strawberries and cream) contains vanilla panna cotta, yogurt sponge cake, a queso fresco ice cream, strawberry sorbet, strawberry jelly, and freeze-dried strawberries. A chocolate mousse comes with Swiss meringue and café de olla (spiced coffee) sorbet. Mexico-based mixologist Arturo Rojas consulted on drink menu that includes a tequila and amaranth horchata cocktail. A basement bar with a more casual food menu and beers from both sides of the border is expected to open in a few months.
With its focus on heirloom corn masa, forthcoming tasting menu format, and upscale approach, Maïz64 promises to bring D.C. the type of Mexican fine dining venue the city hasn’t seen since Victor Albisu shuttered Poca Madre over a year ago. Whether it fulfills that potential remains to be seen, but the restaurant appears primed to add a unique perspective to a Mexican food scene around D.C. that has dramatically improved over the past two decades.
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