The Village Voice wrote recently of a “Mexican Food Moment” in New York City, including The Black Ant (La Hormiga Negra), a new restaurant in the East Village from the same folks behind Ofrenda across town.
It certainly does seem that there are a lot of new Mexican restaurants lately—and not merely the cookie-cutter TexMex kind that serve standard-issue burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, and the like. For a while, it seemed like every other chef was opening a gourmet taco joint.
The focus here is inventive dishes inspired by chef Mario Hernandez’s native Oaxaca. The website declares on its landing page, Cocina de Autor—referring to the chef as “author” of a cuisine—which would sound pompous if written in English, but seems to describe this restaurant exactly.
True to the name, there are a number of dishes with dehydrated edible insects shipped from Mexico: a guacamole made with ant salt; a tortilla topped with fried grasshoppers; a side order of crickets. Ant salt even appears in several of the cocktails. Several bloggers have reviewed and photographed these items (here, here, here). We weren’t about to go near them.
Fortunately, if you’re insect-averse, there’s plenty to enjoy. There’s a variety of smaller plates in various categories that serve as appetizers ($8–14), entrées ($22–27) and sides ($6), most not exactly resembling anything I’ve ever sampled in a Mexican restaurant.
Our dinner was at the publicist’s invitation, and we gave the chef only one restriction: no insects.
We started with tuna ceviche with a tomato-ginger base (above left), served on a slate platter with an ant drawn in chalk. This was extremely spicy: a bracing start to the meal. By comparison, a grilled shrimp salad, with guacamole and beets (above right), was a bit bland.
The Buñuelos de Pato (above left) was a tour de force: crisp roasted duck dumplings with mole negro poured tableside and grated cotija cheese. I wasn’t so sure about the Zegetza (above right), which combined a diver scallop, toasted corn, and shredded oxtail: the ingredients clashed with one another.
You won’t go wrong with either of the last two entrées we tried, both of which were lovely. Short rib (above left) was perfectly braised, in a chichilo negro sauce. Suckling pig (above right) was bathed in a green Oaxacan mole and bedecked with vegetables.
We concluded with a quartet of desserts, three of them with corn: a cornbread, a corn flan with popcorn, and a corn ice cream. I wouldn’t fault any of these, although our favorite was the one without corn, a strawberry flan covered in chocolate (lower right of the photo).
The Black Ant is at the vanguard of Manhattan’s New Mexican wave. The food is inventive and well prepared. The bar serves a range of clever, tequila-based cocktails that pair well with the cuisine. The usual caveats of a comped meal apply, but we were quite pleased with The Black Ant, and would heartily recommend it.
The Black Ant (60 Second Avenue between 3rd & 4th Streets, East Village)