Saying Yes to Yelapa

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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
​It looks like the curse may have been lifted from 2303 Richmond. The location has seen many restaurants come and go over the years, some which have had achingly short lifespans. Most recently, it was the home of The Chimney (for a few short months) and before that, Saute. But its newest occupant, Yelapa Playa Mexicana, seems determined to shake that curse.

The man behind the original Berryhill Fish Tacos, Chuck Bulnes, is back in the restauranteur saddle once again with Yelapa, which is named after the resort near Puerto Vallarta and emphasizes the Jaliscan cuisine of the area. One of their best items is a tangy campechana with rock shrimp, crab claws, scallops, avocado and enormous chunks of lime and olive-laced white fish. Other ceviches lace the menu, with ingredients that hint at a much deeper cuisine than simple coastal Mexican: a Fuji apple, chorizo, grilled scallion, and litchi pickle ceviche and one with citrus, Pasilla chiles, black sesame, hibiscus and ginger.

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Gazpacho "shots" with a fried squash blossom
​Of course, traditional dishes dot the compact and intelligently designed menu -- grilled red snapper and grouper a la plancha -- but it was the less traditional items that piqued our interest. Executive Chef L.J. Wiley is young by restaurant standards, but the time he spent in high-end kitchens like Morimoto and Jean-George Vongerichten's Spice Market clearly left its mark. Instead of a boring, Baja California-based menu, we were faced with adventurous yet disciplined dishes like cucumber gazpacho topped with smoked mussels, avocado oil and a slice of banana (yes, banana -- and it was good) and braised lamb shoulder with an intriguing-sounding "Mexican kimchee" (we'll have to try that next time).

The dishes we did try on our visit were nothing short of spectacular, though.

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The restaurant is airy, comfortable and open - no stuffiness here
The gazpachos come in three different sizes, the smallest of which is a "shot" for only $2. It's the best way to try these whimsical soups, which we highly recommend. We also had a chance to try the squash blossoms, which normally come with the grouper as a side item, and which made us want to order the grouper just to get them again next time. The flor de calabazas are stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and crab, then fried in a light batter and are extraordinary.

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Fish and shrimp tacos

​Our entrees were equally spectacular. Eager to see the old Berryhill fish taco updated in this swanky new setting, we ordered those alongside a very simple-sounding pollo with huitlacoche and creamy polenta. We loved the presentation of the tacos -- all the toppings were arrayed neatly in a geometric dish, in a fun build-your-own taco manner -- but the chicken caught us entirely off-guard. The skin was crisp, the meat intensely juicy. We've never had chicken this good in any restaurant, anywhere. When quizzed, Wiley said that he merely gets a skillet "screaming hot," salts it, then puts the chicken in until the skin reaches the desired crispness. We know there must be more to it than that, but Wiley wasn't letting all his secrets out to play that night...

What we really ordered the pollo for, however, was the huitlacoche underneath. We've always wanted to try corn smut (no, really, that's what it's called in English -- and, yes, really, we've always wanted to try it). When corn becomes infected with the fungus called Ustilago maydis, the kernels are replaced with "large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms" (thanks, Wikipedia!) and the result is said to be the Mexican version of truffles. We weren't disappointed. Between the velvety polenta and the sweet, musky earthiness of the huitlacoche, we were in heaven.

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Crispy-skinned chicken with huitlacoche and polenta
​It was almost too much to force down any dessert after this, but the clever fruit salad made with Fuji apples and pomegranate seeds in a vanilla oil and ginger broth was the perfect palate cleanser and end to a rich, satisfying meal. No heavy desserts here -- Yelapa's focus on fresh, bright, bold flavors make something like a chocolate lava cake seem like a crass interloper.

We can't wait to see what the coming months bring for Yelapa. Under the guidance of an experienced owner, a general manager snagged from the best seafood restaurant in town (Reef) and a brilliant young chef in the kitchen, we expect big things for this modest little restaurant.

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