Over a spicy jalapeno-infused margarita and a bowl full of the chunky "real guacamole" last night, I looked around the busy bar at Yelapa Playa Mexicana (2303 Richmond, 281-501-0391) and felt a wave of relief wash over me.
I admit to being very nervous about the restaurant's lifespan when it parted ways with Chef L.J. Wiley last November. Wiley's food, though highly inventive and technically brilliant, could be polarizing to diners looking for a more traditional Mexican meal. But without the man who helped open the restaurant and had made it the iconoclast that I loved, I was worried that it would lose its way entirely and end up shuttered, like so many previous tenants.
However, salvation for the restaurant has come from within...in a way.
Brandon Fisch, formerly of The Burger Guys and -- prior to that -- Bootsie's Heritage Cafe, took over the position of executive chef this past Monday and has been working full steam ahead in the kitchen since then. It's a return to his roots, as Fisch was a sous chef at Yelapa when it first opened.
General manager Brett Story seemed thrilled to have Fisch back in the kitchen, explaining that he and owner Chuck Bulnes had been holding things down themselves since last November. "It was like, 'Whose turn is it this day?'" Story said of those months, clearly happy to be back in the front of the house.
For his part, Fisch seems equally thrilled to finally have a kitchen of his own. The menu at Yelapa has already become more streamlined, although favorites like that "real guacamole" -- the "summer" version, shown above, is a thrilling blend of buttery avocados, watermelon radishes, mango and a concentrated blood orange puree -- will stay on. A chalkboard menu by the front door listed daily specials, and it appears that Fisch will be keeping Wiley's focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients while blending in a few of his own.
My dining companion and I tried one of the new dishes last night, a simple plate of bacon-wrapped Gulf shrimp with a smoky quartz-colored sherry gastrique. Two different kinds of peppers were threaded through the shrimp, stuck onto wooden skewers. It was fresh, unfussy stuff that let the sweet flavor of the shrimp -- just subtly enhanced with the sherry reduction -- shine through.
"That's what French cooking techniques teach you," Fisch said as I asked about the gastrique. "Just use simple flavors and layer them on top of one another and you'll have something exquisite."
Another dish, a rich tomato bisque with herb-studded chevre in the middle, was the ideal buffer before heading back into the blustery evening. And to match a belly warm with soup, my heart warmed to see a restaurant I truly love back on its feet and poised to be even more successful with young, focused Fisch in the kitchen.
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