Margarita Trio – Canonita with Patron Silver and Gran Marnier / Jalapeno with Monte Alban Tequila Silver infused with Jalapeno, Orange, Cilantro / Pineapple with Monte Alban and Cointreau infused with Pineapple and Tahitian Vanilla Bean
Non-alcoholic Trio – Cucumber Melon-Tini, Prickly Pear Juice, Horchata
Warm Tortilla Chips with Guacamole, Spicy Salsa, Smoky Salsa
Roasted Mussels and Shrimp Skillet – Tequila, pasilla Oaxacan Sauce, Housemade Chorizo
Queso Fundido with jalapenos and flour tortillas
Tuna Ceviche Tostada with Ahi, Red Onion, Lime, Avocado, Cilantro, Serrano Pesto / Posole Verde with hominy, diced pork, green chile, tomatillos, oregano, cabbage, red radish / Chorizo Gordita with lettuce, pico de gallo, queso fresco, escabeche
Patzcuaro Duck Relleno – Canela and orange duck confit, savory manchamantel sauce, Mexican crema
Toluca Portobello Mushrooms – Roasted Portobello, Tomato-fennel sauce, seared greens, cilantro pesto, black beans
Wild Mushroom Enchiladas – Poblano cream sauce, white rice, borracho beans, pico de gallo
Santa Rosa Pork Barbacoa – Cilantro Rice, Black Beans, Chipotle barbecue sauce with corn tortillas
Shrimp & Mussels Moqueca with calamari, white rice, peas, carrots, coconut aji Amarillo sauce
Carne Asada Nortena – Outside Skirt Steak, Sweet Corn Tamales, Roasted Serranos, garlic, lime, cilantro
Iced Double Espresso
Tres Leches – Sponge Cake soaked in three milks, fresh strawberries, strawberry coulis, Italian Meringue
Warm Chocolate Brownie – Chocolate-cinnamon Brownie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Cajeta, Candied Pecans
Coffee Flan – Patron XO coffee, Piloncillo syrup
Invited to a special afternoon tasting by General Manager Annaliza McKinney, and Robert Menefee of sister-restaurant Aquaknox, it was an unfortunate effect of earlier plans and traffic that saw me arrive late to lunch at canal-side Canonita, but finding my friend out front chatting with the hostess as well as Annaliza herself my welcome could not have been warmer, the two of us led swiftly to the best two-top in the house, mere inches from the gondola filled waters.
Told that the Chef would be cooking for us, but offering up menus in case something specific struck our eye, it was with gracious tableside service from a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman that the afternoon commenced and with a jokey sort of professionalism guiding us through the afternoon one really could not have asked for better, Northeastern-born but Border Grill educated Chef Donna Willey also stopping by frequently to discuss her inspiration and training, as well as techniques implemented in more than a dozen plates plus two trios of drinks.
Undoubtedly a ‘touristy’ setting, the views of artificial sky alongside the canal juxtaposing traditional Mexican decorations within the restaurant’s confines, it was with a trio of Margaritas and chips rewarmed from an outside source that the dining began and finding both the green salsa and Jalapeno Infusion far too poignant for my tastes it was on the Vanilla tinged pineapple cocktail and guacamole that I focused, the former a formidable refresher with alcohol well balanced by the fruit while the later was rather dull without a bit of the chipotle salsa added to taste.
At this point ready to see what the kitchen could do, tables around us receiving all sorts of divine looking plates, it was perhaps ten minutes later that a sizzling cast-iron skillet arrived and with the smell of smoke quickly filling the air it was only once things finally cooled down that we finally had a chance to indulge in the snappy butterflied shrimp, meaty mussels, and housemade chorizo teaming with spice, each taste as good as the last with a second dish of queso fundido proving most fortuitous in timing as the still-bubbling cheese topped in jalapenos was a bit timid on its own, but a near-perfect addition when spread on flour tortillas with some of the seafood piled on top.
Here requesting service be slowed as our sizable two-top was already filled to capacity with plates, glasses, and utensils it was next to a trio of the Chef’s signature appetizers that we were treated and progressing left to right one would be hard pressed to cite a single bite as less than superlative – the ceviche showing clean acidity alongside its accoutrements while the Pozole was equally well balanced and intensely vegetal, the ‘gordita’ a lightly fried set of bites that was at once bold yet nuanced, creamy but acidic, and entirely greaseless with just the right amount of heat.
Obviously unable to forgo anything stuffed with duck, plus generally fancying most things featuring mushrooms, the next three plates were served in slow succession and although the cinnamon tinged fowl stuffed inside a smoky pepper was indeed quite good it was in fact the fungus that saw me swoon, both the black bean laminated Portobello bathed in fennel tomato sauce and the signature enchiladas showing a deft hand with quality produce, Chef Willey’s time at Border Grill undoubtedly well spent.
Now progressing towards heavier proteins, plus an entirely unexpected Brazilian fish stew, suffice it to say that while the Carne Asada struck me as something I could have just as easily had anywhere both the Barbacoa and Moqueca were amongst the very best bites of the meal, the former brightly spiced and easily cut with a spoon before being added to corn tortillas to form makeshift tacos while the later was a seamless marriage of sea and sweet with coconut milk playing foil to notes of spice that only became evident after a satisfied breath between bites.
Moving onward to desserts, originally offered two but eventually seeing three, it was with a double espresso over ice that the meal would come to an end and although personal preferences obviously have much to do with all things in dining one would be challenged to find a better tres leches in town, the fully saturated sponge entirely sweet yet finding levity in strawberries and meringue, while both the brownie and the flan were also quite good – the former obviously quite hefty while the latter proved far lighter than other versions offered in town, the XO just boozy enough to give it some kick while the unrefined sugar syrup helped soften the blow.
UNABLE TO FAIRLY RATE DUE TO COMP, BUT THREE AND A HALF STARS BASED ON FOOD ALONE: Clearly given the VIP treatment, and as such sampling a far greater swath of the menu than the average duo possibly could, the food that Chef Willey is creating at Canonita is at once almost universally approachable yet at the same time bold and complicated in a way that few other Casino-based ethnic restaurants would dare. Admittedly underwhelmed by more routine plates like guacamole, queso fundido, as well as carne asada and still perplexed as to why the restaurant would outsource something like tortilla chips when executing more complex items so well there is no doubt that a great meal can be had at Canonita by those willing to venture away from the tried and true, particularly when taking into account the vibe and the view.
RECOMMENDED: Chorizo Gordita, Toluca Portobello Mushrooms, Shrimp & Mussels Moqueca, Santa Rosa Pork Barbacoa, Tres Leches.
AVOID: Guacamole, Carne Asada Nortena.
TIP: Now offering breakfast at 8am, a limited menu featuring at least one daily special, with the all-day menu beginning at 11am. Reservations available via Opentable, though walk-ins are always welcome.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN: 5 World Class, 4 Excellent, 3 Good, 2 Fair, 1 Poor