In a word:
Upmarket Mexican: think tacos and tequila, then think again
This is definitely a place that cultivates a vibe. Not an atmosphere, not an ambiance, but a vibe. Luridly patterned Day of the Dead skulls loiter about the place, grinning their toothy grins: some stare down at you from the walls, some hold flickery candles that cast an eerie light onto the tables. The small restaurant buzzes with mood music and the chatter of diners—even on the Wednesday night when we visit—but not so much so that you can’t hold a conversation. There’s a big painting of Frieda Kahlo on one of the walls. It’s all very cool. But it doesn’t feel studiedly so, which is always refreshing.
Molé has a cocktail list which is as impressive as it is inventive, and seems to consist largely of clever and classy updates of old favourites. Sure, there are margaritas here, but they’re as similar to those day-glo slushy fishbowls as I am to Usain Bolt. Proper tequila probably helps. Something called a Nuevo Margaria is sweet and sharp, rimmed with a smoked chilli salt which adds depth without overpowering the tequila and the agave syrup, whilst another spin on the classic, a Jarabe Jalisco, is clean but with a lingering complexity and a dry, satisfying finish.
We begin with what can only be described as a vast mound of guacamole, which is creamy and smooth, with a fresh and fruity zing from a scattering of pomegranate seeds. It’s not life-changing, but it’s a fresh and tasty little plate to snack on whilst we order. Next comes a plate of patatas bravas—probably more Spanish than Mexican, but when presented with a plate of crispy little fried new potatoes in a spicy, smokey and creamy sauce, all such quibbles evaporate.
It’s hard to make oxtail sexy. It’s had a bad rap, being associated more with tinned soup than anything else. But the good folk at Molé manage to do just this: their oxtail taco is piled high with rich and earthy shredded meat, soft as butter, whose lingering flavour is given crunch by a tangle of lettuce and amaranth, and a sharp little burst of piquancy by at the very end by a single blackberry.
Beef anticuchos—skewers to you and me—have a charred and smoky flavour from a rub rich in cumin and chilli, and more than a passing acquaintance with a charcoal grill. This smokiness is cut through by what can only be described as a ludicrous quantity of chives, which is better than it sounds by far. It’s a bit heavy-handed, though, and could probably do with less time on the grill. Octopus tacos are well-cooked, with soft chunks of delicate cephalopod, but could do with something to bring it all together, something to give it a bit of lift and vibrancy.
Any lingering suspicions that Molé doesn’t do seafood very well, however, are dispelled by a black ceviche. Slivers of diaphanous octopus, firm and fresh sea bass, and meaty, briny mussels are marinated in lime juice, which ‘cooks’ the raw fish and transforms it into something subtle and marvellous. It’s a dish which offers layers of flavour; the initial zing and crunch of fish and lime and vegetable gives way to a subtle undertow of the sea, provided in no small part by those fat, fresh mussels. It’s a rather lovely thing to look at as well, decorated with (hopefully) edible petals, and a big, crunchy thing which turns out to have more than a passing resemblance to a prawn cracker. It’s a great palette cleanser, and a perfect counterbalance to those big, beefy flavours, as well as an excellent dish in its own right.
It would be churlish to go to somewhere called Molé and not try the molé, wouldn’t it now? The sauce comes drizzled on a chicken taco, and it also comes with a warning from the chap taking our order—apparently people don’t know what they’re getting in to when they order it. Challenge accepted. Imagine the best mince pie you’ve never had, as cooked by Salvador Dalí. Waves of fruit and cinnamon and cloves give way to smoke and spice from toasted chillies, which eventually end on a note of rich, dark chocolate. The thick, mahogany sauce manages to be simultaneously dry, fruity, spiced, bitter, and complex without being too much. The rest of the taco, the chicken and the tortilla, the tangle of lettuce and paper-thin radish slices, can’t really compete. But they don’t need to. They’re really just vehicles for that sauce, which I’d happily just eat with a spoon.
You’d probably forgive Molé at this point for not doing much in the way of desserts. They don’t really; there’s a choice of two. But they’re both rather good. There’s a dulce de leche creme brûlée, which is rich and creamy without being overpoweringly so, and comes with a goodly layer of brûlée’d sugar to crack away at. There’s also what they call a deconstructed mango cheesecake. Normally I have an aversion to deconstructing things—it remind me inevitably of bad literary theory lectures and worse puddings. Molé, though, bucks the trend. Quenelles of something almost like parfait or mousse are spiked with chilli, which provides a surprising contrast to the sweet mango. The smoked chilli salt which last showed up on a margarita glass makes a welcome return here, providing crunch and yet another layer of flavour. Maybe I should be less sceptical about deconstructed things in future.
Molé is far from perfect, but what it does well, it does very well indeed. Bring your appetite, and bring an open mind. Buckle up; you’re in for quite a ride.
Mole Taco Bar
16 Picton Place, London
0207 486 1995