Xixa in Williamsburg: Makings of a Great Restaurant, With Some Ways to Go
241 South 4th Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 (at Havermeyer; map); 718-388-8860; xixany.com
Service: Well-meaning but not always spot-on
Setting: Cozy, lounge-like
Must-Haves: "Fricco-dilla," gorditas, guacamole nam prik num, carnitas
Cost: Around $30-40/head, without drinks
Grade: Recommended with reservations; the menu has some real hits, but plenty of dishes that aren't.
Why do we need editors? (Having spent years as one, I ask myself this often.) To catch glaring mistakes or omissions, sure. But more, to trim the fat. Taking a writer's rough copy—often a profusion of ideas and an outpouring of energy—and slashing the unnecessary. Not every thought, whatever the merit it has, belongs in a given piece. Writing needs focus and cohesion.
I found myself pondering this at Xixa, in Williamsburg—which strikes me as a very good restaurant in need of an editor.
Not the restaurant's basic premise, which is quite involved but essentially works. Owners Jason Marcus and Heather Heuser started with Traif, just up the block. It has a tongue-in-cheek mission of using unkosher foods and preparations, and pays no culinary allegiance other than that defiance; it roams freely between nations and cuisines with a menu long enough to make several stops. Xixa, says Marcus and Heuser, aims for the same, but with a more specific jumping-off point: "Heather and Jason began formulating the idea of a Mexican restaurant and wine bar, but... different, like a Traif version of Mexico City."
Xixa—pronounced shiksa and a reference to Heuser, the non-Jewish girlfriend of Marcus, who is Jewish—starts in Mexico but certainly doesn't stay there. At its best, Xixa's menu explores the natural affinity between Mexican flavors and other cuisines: There's a brilliance in guacamole encountering Thailand in a "nam prik num." And in black sesame making an appearance in sikil pak. Many of these cross-cultural mashups succeed, some beautifully.
But in between those highs, the 30-odd dish menu has a number of lows. Nothing terrible. But at least a few dishes that don't live up to their promise, meaning that a meal here could leave you sated and delighted—or happy enough, but a little put off.
How to make an excellent meal at Xixa? Start with the "fricco-dilla" ($9), a dish so right that I'd come back for it alone. There's no tortilla in sight, rather a 6-inch tuile of Asiago, every bit as appealing as a crisp cheese wafer could be, topped with chorizo, potato purée, black beans, an egg that bursts open on first fork-cut, and tomatillo to enliven the whole thing. The pleasures of huevos rancheros, chorizo-and-eggs, and the cheese-crisped edges of a grilled cheese sandwich all at once.
Several of Marcus's dishes have me believing that hybrid Mexican-Thai should be a new genre. Guacamole "nam prik num" ($6) introduces avocado to fish sauce and palm sugar, with roasted tomato and poblano. It sounds like the sort of idea we'd dream up in a "How do we doctor up guacamole?" brainstorming session; wonder if it was going to succeed brilliantly, or fail spectacularly; and fall in love with the results. Really, what doesn't fish sauce improve?
It's a must-order, as is the bowl of Thai esquites ($6): a riff on the Mexican corn salad in which we learn that tom yum broth and Cotija cheese can coexist, especially when the broth is this fragrant, the corn this sweet.
Carnitas ($16) don't look like carnitas, but preserve the essential elements thereof: the rich meat and the crisped-up edges. Pork belly and cheeks are formed into a loose block that falls apart with a poke, so succulent that you might forget the other elements on the plate, which are no slouches, either. (Since our last visit last week, the dish has been changed a bit; it's now Wagyu beef cheeks prepared in the same manner, with brussels sprouts, fava beans, and black trumpet mushrooms.) Crisp corn gorditas ($7) cradle rock shrimp, flavors of shisho and nori as unexpected accents. And achiote-grilled hamachi collar was handled just right in the "Tix n Xic" ($21), the fish not overwhelmed, the pickled onions all the accent it needs, plantain "tortillas" filling out the dish.
But drunken white shrimp ($17) were left half-eaten on our table—the mushrooms oversalted, the flavors one-note, the bacon not doing much to justify its admission into the dish. Foie gras and pork belly pozole ($11), with roast tomatoes and hominy in the ancho-guajillo broth, is a perfectly tasty version of the dish, but in the bold spices of the bowl the slivers of foie seem bizarre interlopers, not a logical part. And I wished the blue crab–pork taquitos ($8) had been one or the other.
The restaurant experience, too, has its high spots and lows. Our server one night was extraordinarily attentive, until she wasn't. I've got no problem with the kitchen choosing how to pace a menu of small plates, but here there was no attention paid at all—six plates landed on the table at one point, such that they couldn't physically fit; a last plate arrived 20 minutes after the penultimate, by which point we were picking at the dregs and ready for dessert. Drinking smooths out the corners a bit, and I was a fan of the tequila setup—the spirit served in a sipping glass, with backs of lime juice and a spicy pomegranate sangrita. But a request for more lime juice was met with an eyebrow raise and a "Sure... I suppose... but we might have to charge you," which felt a bit like adding a surcharge for extra cherries on your Shirley Temple. I'm hardly expecting freebies—it's not as if I'd asked for my tequila topped off—and it's in handling moments like this that restaurants distinguish themselves as customer-friendly or not. Suddenly, the server's not on your team. Is the cost of half an ounce of lime juice worth the price of leaving your patrons uncomfortable?
Had I gone with a date and made a dinner of the "fricco-dilla" and the guac-nam-prik, the "Tix n Xic" and the carnitas, I'd be a genuine Xixa convert. As it is, I'd make the return trip just for those dishes. And an alterna-Xixa, where only the best plates made the cut, would be one of my favorite recent openings. But the frequent wild successes on this menu highlight the shortcomings elsewhere.
It's clear that Xixa is a restaurant that sees possibility in reinvention. So I'm hoping that the genuine curiosity and creativity on display will push the kitchen to hold on to the dishes that work, and reinvent the ones that don't. Xixa gives an impression of ambition and energy, a well-meaning restaurant that wants to do its own thing, and do it well. And for that reason alone, I'm optimistic.