Mexican fine dining, straight from the source

Mexican fine dining? That’s Ameyal’s proposition. A reviewer must have an open mind but ‘Mexican’ and ‘fine dining’ in the same sentence? I had no idea what to expect.

Take a moment to mentally list all the stereotypes that come to your mind about Mexican food and culture. Go on, I’ll wait. I bet you’ll rack up more than 10. Now blow them away. Banish that burrito. Cremate that cactus. Pulverise that poncho. Ameyal is so far away from these (literally) cheesy stereotypes that the only way you’ll see a sombrero in there is by Googling for an image. Let me explain how my impressions of Mexican food have been changed forever by this quietly confident new gem on Valencia’s restaurant scene.

Ameyal is located just a few steps south of the Mercado de Colon, an appropriate location since the the renovated market hall is itself creating a strong reputation as a destination for gastronomes. The discreet entrance – where you’ll be met by a smiling host – leads into a plush ‘mezcal lounge’, somehow simultaneously modernist and cosy. On the walls, the large black and white photographs could be of a Spanish city but in fact it’s San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, famous for its colonial Spanish architecture.

The space opens up into a smart dining room with floor to ceiling windows onto a small courtyard. With clever trailing greenery (look carefully to spot the little chilli plants), Ameyal has turned their narrow yard into a peaceful haven, with a small fountain bubbling into a clear pool.

This humble spring is more than just an aesthetic water feature – ‘spring’ has a special significance here. The word ‘Ameyal’ means ‘spring’ in Nahuatl, the indigenous languages of Mexico. You already know some other Nahuatl words because the English adopted them, for example: ‘coyote’, ‘chocolate’, ‘chilli’, ‘tomato’ and unsurprisingly given its ubiquity in Mexican cuisine, ‘avocado’. The connection Ameyal’s owners are keen to make is that their establishment is a bubbling source of the best of Mexican culture. And since opening in March 2016, the Ameyal brand of quality food and cultural insight has been flowing into Valencia.

There are two drinks lists at Ameyal: one for vino (which includes both Mexican and Valencian wines) and one for ‘cocktails and Mexican drinks’, which includes tequila, mezcal and sotol. General Manager Oscar Asiain proudly informed me that their carefully curated drinks menu makes Ameyal the home of the most diverse collection of Mexican alcohol in Spain. What an education. There’s even an intriguing section on the mezcal list called ‘ilegal’. Unfortunately, due to requiring full mental faculties to experience and retain information on my visit (aka: being a pathetic lightweight), I had to skip the booze. Luckily, my companion happily took one for the ‘24/7 Valencia’ team, consuming a ‘Mula de Guanajuato’ cocktail recommended by Asiain. I sampled a mouthful. After a full frontal thwack of tequila tempered with grapefruit and lime juice, bubbles erupt into the nose as the tongue is steam-rollered by ginger fizz. Woo, it’s a thrill! But as the ginger ebbed away, it was replaced by something… smoky. My wide-eyed wonder turned to nose-wrinkling confusion. This peculiar acquired taste didn’t bother my companion, who wore a wide smile as he drained the attractive mugful. My non-alcoholic lemon water was more suited to my taste.

More than cheese-with-everything, the stereotype I was most concerned about was that Mexican food can be fiery hot but without the depth of flavour of other spicy cuisine, such as Indian or Thai. Not so here. Allow Ameyal to showcase their food by opting for the Menu Ejecutivo/Mediodia or, if it’s evening, the Menu Degustación.

Every dish has wow-factor. Even down to the petite homemade bread roll Laura offered us (we chose seasonally-appropriate pumpkin and seed). The multi-sensory-ness of the experience is carefully curated. Many dishes are designed to be eaten as finger-food. Which may be unusual in ‘alta cocina’ but how else does one eat a taco? Or a tiny wafer cone of jalapeño cream studded with citrus pearls (an ‘aperitivo del chef’)?

A major asset to Ameyal is the superb team under the direction of Asiain. We didn’t see the key protagonist, head chef Mauricio Gomez Vives, but servers Laura (Valenciana), Alex (Cuban) and Danny (Mexican) demonstrated that Ameyal does ‘alta servicio’ too. As well a comprehensive and confident understanding of the menus, they possess that magical ability to sense when you need them before blending into the background. And they’re responsible for some gastronomic theatrics: dishes need explaining, sauces need pouring and – a highlight of the a la carte menu – avocados need mashing at the table. Ameyal’s guacamole is the freshest in any restaurant worldwide because it’s made to order, in front of you, by your waiter.

Danny poured our soup over three ‘textures of corn’ – the bright yellow squash soup softening a still-life arrangement of cornbread, mini corn and milled maize. Next, it took us a while to translate ‘pulpo zarandeado’ – literally ‘buffeted octopus’, which sounds more unfortunate than ‘stir-fried’. The crispy/chewy seafood was balanced on a soft herby ‘bizcocho’ (muffin/scone), sweet-potato purée contrasting with a dark chipotle ‘tinta’ (ink). Next were tostadas: soft wheat circles topped with beans, festooned with radish, flowers and lemon gel spheres. Then corn tacos two ways: ‘buey’ (ox), pan-fried and meltingly tender, and an Iberico pulled-pork.

The wow-moments didn’t stop coming. One dessert claimed to be a humble ‘de plaza’ dish (street-food) but Ameyal lift their buñuelos to fine-dining calibre. The fried doughballs are speckled with cinnamon, filled with a smooth custard and a syrup was added at our table, poured with a flourish by Danny.

As the name suggests, Ameyal is as refreshing as a mountain spring, to be enjoyed by all who find it. Leave the guitar-playing poncho-wearing neon-cactus establishments behind and seek this source of Mexican enlightenment.

C/ Conde de Salvatierra 39, 46004 Valencia
Tel: 963 205 837 / 963 236 153
Zona Canovas
Price per person: Menu Ejecutivo 25€, Menu Degustación 49€ (both include tax and service, but not drinks)
Allergens are marked on the menu. Ameyal isn’t suitable for vegetarians or vegans without prior consultation.

by Suzanne Worthington
photos by Suzanne Worthington

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