The biggest shadow hanging over many a pre-theater dinner is anxiety about getting to the show on time. Will the service be prompt, is there time for dessert, where is the check, can we cover four blocks in two minutes? The human element in these sorts of situations is always incalculable, but it does help if your pre-theater restaurant is across the street from the theater. That’s brick-and-mortar reassurance. And if we’re talking the Geary Theater and Colibrí Mexican Bistro, I mean right across street. But don’t jaywalk; the street (Geary) is insanely busy.
"Mexican bistro" is a phrase I would like to see more often. We have plenty of taquerías, a surfeit of them, but, perhaps, not enough restaurants that do justice to the sophistication and variety of Mexican cooking. Mexico is a huge land of deserts, seashores, mountains, plateaus, and tropical jungles, each of which produces a distinct set of ingredients. And, like its huge neighbor to the north, it’s a mishmash of cultures from old world and new. The result is a cuisine not quite like any other in the world, and Colibrí offers a nice sampling of it.
The restaurant (whose name means "hummingbird") opened a little more than four years ago in a space once held by a California Pizza Kitchen. The layout is a little awkward, especially at the front; the entryway is narrow and the huge bar bulges toward the door, so incoming guests must negotiate a series of tight curves before things open up farther back, toward the display kitchen. The look is that of a quietly stylish cantina, with plenty of wood, hand-painted ceramic tiles, and rustic tchotchkes a water pitcher, say, perched at the edge of a booth.
For a sense of Mexican cooking’s singularity, we need look no further than to the nopales asados ($7.50), strips of young cactus leaf that have been marinated in olive oil, garlic, and herbs, then grilled and served with mushrooms and oregano. There could hardly be a greater symbol of the desert than the cactus, but the grilled leaves have distinctive tartness and plump texture a world removed from sandy desiccation.
Many dishes one has often seen on other menus benefit from little extra touches. Queso fundido ($12), a kind of Mexican cheese fondue, is frequently enlivened with chorizo (the chili sausage that leaks its signature orange grease everywhere) and so it is at Colibrí, with the added attraction of mushroom slices, for a bit of extra heft without extra fat. Quesadillas ($9) are enhanced with your choice of either strips of fire-roasted poblano peppers or epazote. Even ceviche in the style of Veracruz ($16), a standard combination of cubed white fish, lime juice, cilantro, onion, jalapeño pepper, and olive oil, gets a sly tweak from green olives.
(Fungus-lovers, incidentally, will not only find mushrooms popping up in various dishes but also a canny deployment of huitlacoche, the fungus that grows on corn and is sometimes considered a kind of Mexican truffle, the very breath of the earth. Here it is stuffed into a chicken breast, along with some other savories.)
Several of the larger plates are sauced with a verve and style that would do a good French restaurant proud. Although the pan-seared duck breast in the pato en pipián ($18) was cooked a little more than I would have preferred, the sauce a green mole of pumpkin seeds and tomatillos, peppery and fruity was brilliant and singular. So was the tamarind mole, a caramel-colored elixir of dark, tart intensity, pooled around a clutch of sautéed prawns ($17). That plate included, for comic relief, a corn cake, like the last pillow someone forgot to pick up and put away after a sleep-over pillow fight.
The kitchen also offers a regional Mexican specialty that rotates monthly. We probably tend not to think of the Distrito Federal as a region; it’s the capital and center and a sprawling, smoggy megalopolis. But it’s also the home of peneques ($16), batter-fried dough pockets stuffed here with beans, set on a bed of corn kernels and zucchini dice with meanderings of black-bean purée, and topped with a blood-red tomato-chipotle sauce, some chunks of queso fresco, and a large rivulet of crema. The dish simultaneously suggests the bounty of Mexico and the culinary legacy of the Indians (whose agricultural trinity consisted of corn, beans, and squash), while giving vegetarians something to enjoy without having to make do with small plates raked up from the fringes of the menu.
The desserts are more routine but do go beyond flan. Pastel de tres leches ($8) is a little too much like Mexican tiramisù for my comfort, but Colibrí’s version manages not to overdouse the sponge cake while coating it with white meringue frosting and (a nice touch) shavings of white chocolate.
The nearest thing to a contemporary, postmodern dessert is probably negro y blanco ($8), a fine chocolate mousse served with whipped cream in a coffee cup beside what the menu calls a "white chocolate confection": basically a pointed cap of white chocolate filled with ice cream. The confection was tasty and visually striking, but the white chocolate seemed to have been child-proofed and was difficult to crack open and eat gracefully. There is always an element of theater to having dinner out, of course, and even the act of eating itself can offer moments of excitement and visual interest. But when theater becomes spectacle, with white-chocolate shrapnel skittering across the table and ice cream squirting onto neighboring lapels, you know it’s time to make like a hummingbird and whiz gracefully away.
Mon.Thurs., 11:30 a.m.10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.11 p.m.
Sat., 10 a.m.11 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.10 p.m.
438 Geary, SF