It wasn't exactly jumping the shark, but the idea of Chef Jason Gould (formerly of Aries and Gravitas) coming in to help out at Cyclone Anaya's Mexican kitchen (even with its "Fine Mex" offerings) was, in fact, a little surprising.
As Gould, who received My Table's 2007 Chef of the Year award, told us at a special tasting (which means the service was above exemplary) he hadn't really dabbled in Mexican cuisine before.
But while waiting for the next best thing to come along after exiting Gravitas in a dispute with Scott Tycer, Gould started talking with Vienna Molder and Rico Valencia, two of the children of the original owner of Cyclone Anaya. Now managing Cyclone at its Houston and Dallas locations, the pair wanted a way to modernize their menu. (Gould is also working with them on finding a new spot for his own next restaurant venture.)
Brought in as the Research and Development Chef, the Australian native has added some distinctive dishes aimed at diners willing to move out of the comfort zone of tacos al carbon, cheese enchiladas and flautas.
We began with seafood ceviche with jumbo crabmeat and plaintains. The ceviche appetizer was very good -- tart with lots of plump seafood.
The mixed green salad was distinctive thanks to the dressing, which used Cyclone Anaya's own homemade salsa as a base.
Next up were duck empanadas with shredded duck inside the baked shell with a drizzle of green sauce on top, touched with roasted habanero peppers; it was excellent.
One of the best dishes was the seafood stew with shrimp, scallops and fish with roasted peppers and corn in a spicy tomato broth. It was filling and different and completely satisfying.
Gould said he's had some problems with peppers this year, caused by this year's winter. "Peppers need heat to get sugars developed. With the cold weather, they didn't have enough time." To counter this, he's been heating them up to get the oils activated.
We weren't as wild about the fish tacos; they were okay but not unlike the fish tacos available most places. The slow-roasted pork shoulder was ambitious - the fat is supposed to break down the meat to make it deliciously moist without being well, fatty.
The cream corn and black bean sauce that accompanied the dish was outstanding. Rather than taking the corn off the cob and throwing away the husk, they are cooking down the cobs in cream and water, which yields a wonderfully rich sauce.
The crescendo ending was a tamarindo chocolate brownie with a hint of spice that made it better-tasting than the usual brownie.