Caramie Schnell

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Mexican done modern

What might be considered a trio of gimmicks at other restaurants if not executed well, come off as tasty entertainment at Maya, chef Richard Sandoval’s latest restaurant inside the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon.

First there’s the tableside guacamole, available in four varieties: traditional, bacon, spicy crab or tuna tartare, the last of which is made with serrano chilies, chipotle and sesame seeds. It’s topped with cubed raw tuna and simple jicama salad. You can order it as spicy as you’d like. Rather than corn tortilla chips, it’s served with fried wontons, which furthers its Asian flavor profile.

“I had someone order it all deconstructed, with the tuna separated, because they thought it was strange to combine those flavors,” said food and beverage director Fletcher Harrison, who reminded the gentleman that sushi rolls often do just that, combine seafood like tuna or crab with avocado. And there’s a reason its done. The tuna guac is so good you might be tempted to hoard it on your end of the table all night.

Then there’s the “fire table,” where homemade corn tortillas, made with masa prepared in house, are cooked over a round comal, a flat griddle used in Mexico and Central America.

Chef de cuisine Radames Febles called up plenty of corn mills in his hunt for the perfect masa to make the perfect tortilla. He made around 150 different batches of tortillas in his quest, he said. But it was worth the effort.

“It’s the star of our show; it needed our attention,” said Febles, who has been putting in long hours to get the restaurant ready to reopen.

As he’s been telling his friends, “We’re not just opening a Mexican restaurant, we’re opening THE Mexican restaurant. And I’m so excited about that.”

Flaming drinks

Near the comal is a station set up for the bartender to concoct a flaming coffee with Bailey’s, Frangelico, Amaretto or Kahlua for dessert, that is if you prefer to sip your dessert instead of tucking into the de-constructed mocha, our table’s favorite dessert, with white chocolate coffee mousse, a decadent chocolate brownie and lychee granita.

Maya is a formula that Sandoval knows works. His flagship restaurant has locations in New York City as well as in Dubai. Sandoval himself was in town last week, working in the kitchen, tweaking menu items and visiting with guests, asking for their frank opinions about what they liked and disliked about their meal.

“I usually come the week before and the week after a restaurant opens,” said Sandoval, who has restaurants around the country and the world, with seven more restaurants slated to open over the course of the next year. “I work on the menu, work with the flavors. It takes us a few months to get it to where I want it to be.”

Sandoval lives in Newport Beach, but bases his restaurant group out of Denver, since it’s more central to his East Coast restaurants, he said.

New look, familiar flavors

With its antique Mexican tile-work, dark stained wood floors, communal tables, hand blown glass lanterns and stylish leather-upholstery, Maya feels completely different than Cima, the restaurant housed in the space from 2011 up until mid April. In six weeks, the restaurant was gutted and got a complete face lift.

“Before it felt cold, it didn’t feel like a warm place,” said Sandoval who is happy with the new decor, which is very similar to the other Maya restaurants.

The dining experience is more casual than Cima, and the menu has a lower price point, with entrees ranging from $10 for the pork tacos, to $34 for the grilled coriander beef tenderloin with Oaxaca cheese enchiladas.

If you’re looking for something very traditional, opt for one of the three moles: pipian mole made with toasted pumpkin seeds, tomatillos and cilantro; amarillo mole made with hoja santa (a traditional Mexican herb) and chilhuacles amarillos (chiles with citrus flavors and a hint of smoke) and the classic poblano mole from Puebla, Mexico, which is made with around 58 ingredients, Febles said.

“It’s the most complex sauce we have,” he said.

Pair the poblano mole, complete with subtle chocolate flavors, with the beef short rib ($24), a generous portion of fork-tender meat served with black beans, caramelized fried plantains and Mexican rice. A side of pickled red onions cuts through the richness of the meat.

For Chef Febles, the pork carnitas are one of the stand-out dishes on the menu. Slow roasted for 48 hours with sweetened condensed milk, the dish includes two cuts of pig: pork tenderloin and pork shoulder and is served with avocado puree, black beans, Mexican ricotta cheese and red onion-mandarin salsa.

“It tastes like home,” Febles said.

Family footsteps

It’s that very idea — food as memory — that got Sandoval started in the restaurant business to begin with. His father was a restaurateur, but more than that, he grew up in Mexico with his grandmother’s cooking.

“In Latin culture, food is everything,” he said. “There were always massive tables filled with food.”

And to Sandoval, you have to understand that culture to translate it for the diner, which is why he take his chefs on “conferences” each year, basically trips to Central America or Asia, depending on which restaurant you work for, to eat the food, immerse themselves in that environment and draw inspiration from the source.

“It really motivates the chefs,” he said.

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The VailDaily Updated Jul 17, 2013 02:03PM Published Jun 19, 2013 04:20PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.