db Eats: Ella Canta

db’s Lucy Shaw heads to the bonkers but brilliant Ella Canta on Park Lane for guacamole garnished with a golden grasshopper, soft shell crab tacos and lashings of Tequila.

The concept: Martha Ortiz doesn’t do things by halves. Proud, passionate and provocative, she describes eating chilli as being like “a kiss from a good lover”. The daughter of Mexican artist Martha Chapa, who has a penchant for painting red apples, Ortiz is a big deal in her native Mexico.

Her flagship restaurant, Dulce Patria in Mexico City, appears on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list and she’s carved a niche for her unique take on modern Mexican cuisine, all the while writing popular cookbooks and appearing on TV.

The staff at Ella Canta wear Frida Kahlo-inspired floral headdresses

Her arrival in September at The Intercontinental hotel on Park Lane at what used to be the Cookbook Café has been a long time coming. Press releases about the project were sent last July.

Named Ella Canta (meaning ‘she sings’ in Spanish), a glance at the website, featuring Frida Kahlo weeping technicolour tears, is a taste of things to come.

The décor: Unafraid of colour, the restaurant is a riot of dusky pinks and earthy oranges that screams of sun-scorched Mexico.

Partitioned into cosy sections via wooden screens, giant cacti abound and the room throbs to a jaunty Latin soundtrack that’s so inviting, I have to restrain myself from dancing on the table, and that’s before my first Margarita.

The female staff wear red dresses and Frida Kahlo-inspired floral headdresses, while both the menus and the coat tickets are hot pink. Hotel restaurant interiors are often painfully dull – opting to be bland and inoffensive rather than interesting.

Ortiz’ design team has worked hard to avoid falling into this trap, and as a result Ella Canta already feels like a destination restaurant.

The food: While Mexico is the primary inspiration for Ortiz, she’s a multi-faceted creature who takes cues from everything from art to music. She goes to the V&A rather than the local market for inspiration, treating her plates like paintings and the restaurant like a stage for the stories she wants to tell.

In keeping with the theatrical theme, the menu is divided into overtures (starters), the main act and the final curtain. In November Ortiz will debut an £85 black-themed tasting menu to celebrate the Day of the Dead. “Black is death. Black is beauty. Black is strength,” she says. Martha doesn’t really do small talk.

Octopus with smoked chill sauce

Her dishes are as eccentric and exuberant as she is. First out of the blocks was a bowl of ‘nationalistic’ guacamole prettified with jewel-like pomegranate seeds, given a salty tang from the addition of crumbly ricotta, and, for the final fantastical flourish, it comes garnished with a golden grasshopper that appears to be keeping watch over the bowl.

The guacamole was among the best I’ve tried, with a pleasing kick of heat running through it. Vladimir, my ebullient Mexican waiter, stood at the table to ensure I ate the critter, which tasted like a chocolate wafer biscuit.

Tiny pickled salmon and avocado tostadas laced with chilli chipotle exploded with hot, sour and savoury flavours, while the octopus with smoked chilli sauce, which came with Lima London-like splotches of avocado, was soft and inviting but lacked the brilliance of the last pulpo dish I enjoyed, at Francis Mallmann’s 1884 in Mendoza.

The only real miss of the evening was the shocking pink ‘vampire’ ceviche with mango and sangrita sorbet, which was so sweet and fruity it tasted like a dessert that had been invaded by chunks of fish. 

Signature dishes: For those keen to try a true taste of Mexico, order the black molé with duck, plantain purée and red rice, which Ortiz describes as “like tasting the night”.

Another show stopper is the soft shell crab, which arrives amid vivid swooshes of sweet pineapple purée and spicy guajillo hummus. Served with feather-light tacos, it’s the Mexican take on crispy duck pancakes, and when all the ingredients are rolled up tight together in the taco, they become so much more than the sum of their parts.

Before the curtain comes up be sure to try the churros. Light, fluffy and sprinkled with sugar, they come with a creamy caramel dipping sauce and a molten chocolate sauce topped with glitter that makes it shine like the cosmos on a clear night.

The pretty Talavera Purpura cocktail

One of the desserts is called ‘Maria arrives from Mexico’. No further description is given and we left none the wiser as to whether or not there had been a visitation.

The drinks: For a restaurant that’s keen to promote high-end Mexican cuisine, I was disappointed to be presented with a small wine list with just one Mexican wine on offer.

Ortiz has a chance to showcase some exiting Mexican wines and educate consumers about the wine revolution taking place in the country, particularly in Baja California.

Feeling no strong desire to try any of the few wines offered by the glass, save for an elegant flute of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, which paired perfectly with the soft shell crab tacos, slicing through the fatty crab, I decided to explore the cocktails instead, which were wonderfully balanced and almost too pretty to drink.

The vivid violet Talavera Purpura, made with Casamigos Blanco Tequila, homemade papaya shrub, lime, egg white and lavender syrup, was tart, thirst quenching and perfectly balanced so that none of the elements were too assertive on sipping.

Ortiz also offers a series of twists on the Margarita, the most successful of which is the Daisy-Do, which flings kaffir lime, pear purée, ginger syrup and sage into the mix and is served in a tall, elegant coup Daisy Buchanan would approve of.

Who to know: The staff at Ella Canta are Ortiz’ greatest asset. From Lucy, the South African alternative medicine student, and Manuel, the dashing half-French half-Spanish sommelier, to Stefano the Sicilian beverage manager, it’s been a long while since I’ve encountered such warm, friendly and genuine staff who all seem to be having as much fun as the guests, and, with their diverse backgrounds, are a magnificent microcosm of London life.

Don’t leave without: Trying a few of the many mezcals stocked behind the bar at the back of the restaurant. Bar manager Stefano will guide you through the offering, which includes one that’s infused with Ibérico ham. Best of all, they’re served in the traditional Mexican style with worm salt and slices of orange.

The petit fours arrive in a whimsical way that serves as a metaphor for life, which I won’t reveal, as I don’t want to spoil all of Martha’s surprises.

Last word: Ella Canta has just opened and is still finding it’s feet, but it has such charm and character I’ll forgive it almost anything.

For those who are bored of never-ending tasting menus or bland white tablecloth venues, a night at Ella Canta will revive your faith not only in the London restaurant scene, but in life and its ability to surprise and delight.

As adults we often lose our capacity for wonder and our ability to dream. Ortiz brings a little of that back with her unique blend of Mexican magic.

Ella Canta, One Hamilton Place, London W1J 7QY; Tel: +44 (0)20 7318 8715

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