Years ago in Venice, California, my husband and I took a seat at an oceanfront cafe. We watched a guitar-playing singer on roller skates whiz by, catch a glimpse of me, and then make a beeline back to our table. The man planted himself before us, blocking my view of the ocean.
With a warbling voice, he destroyed every song in his extensive repertoire. After each serenade, we’d give him a couple of bucks, say, “Thank you. That was great. See that woman at the last table there? She’s dying for a song. Please go make her happy.”
About $20 later, he did.
On a recent Thursday night, I was reminded of that day at the new Mexican restaurant Piramide in Park Slope. Twice a month on Thursdays, the five-piece mariachi band Mexico Lind plays. Seconds after my husband and I sat down, the musicians — wearing embellished suits that Elvis would’ve killed for — made their way to our table to perform. This group happens to be talented, not passive-aggressive like our California performer. After one song, they moved on to the next table.
The band was just one surprise in an evening full of special moments. The first is the restaurant itself: In a town with plenty of hole-in-the-wall, so-so Mexican joints, Piramide (pronounced Puh-rah-ME-duh, and named for the ancient Chichen Itza pyramid in Mexico) delivers carefully seasoned “modern Mexican” cuisine in an attractive setting. The large room may not be as chic as some of the new Park Slope places, but with a wall of French doors facing Fifth Avenue, sand-colored tile floors, and an inviting blonde wood bar with a hacienda-style, terra cotta “roof,” it is a handsome place.
Owners Geraldine and Pasquale Viggiano, who opened Piramide, their first venture, in September, have hired two talented chefs: Mexican born John Zitlalpopoca of Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center and Amber Smith creating desserts. Zitlalpopoca employs the bold flavors of Mexican cooking, lightening some of the preparations and plating the dishes carefully.
For instance, order guacamole and a table covered with bowls of minced jalapeño peppers, onions and tomatoes, chopped cilantro, halved limes and several ripe Haas avocados is wheeled over. Tell the runner that you prefer more or less onions, or however you like your dip, and he’ll start by mashing the ingredients with a pestle in a traditional stone bowl (a “molcajete”). The mix is bright and chunky with the herb adding freshness, and the fruit lending a pleasantly acidic edge.
The multi-layered sweet potato soup resembles a blooming poppy. The deep orange mix is served in a modern white bowl that dips in the front as if you’re peering into a portal. A swirl of “crema” (runny sour cream) makes a whirlpool over the top and in its center is a cluster of barely sweet, crisp, honey-roasted pumpkin seeds. All the topping would just be window dressing, if each of the ingredients didn’t perform their job so skillfully: The “crema” adding tang to the sweetness of the vegetable and the seeds’ crunchiness adding texture.
Among the restaurant’s “platos tradicionales” are “tacos el carbone,” available with either a corn or flour tortilla and filled with grilled chicken, steak, mahi mahi or grilled vegetables. We tried the flour tortillas filled with steak. Three arrived filled with perfectly seasoned, rare cubes of beef and a bit of Monterey Jack cheese adding tang to the works. Slices of avocado and tomato can be incorporated into the tortilla, but the combination of the rich meat and sharp cheese didn’t need much embellishment. The traditional plates are served with moist yellow rice and a dish of lightly seasoned pinto beans.
A glass of not-too-sweet sangria worked well with all the dishes. At the moment, there’s a small yet evolving wine list. (More choices will be available when the restaurant is granted its liquor license.)
The most opulent dish on the menu is the grilled tuna. With a stylized arrangement of wedges of the grilled fish perched atop a “yucca pupusa,” a swirl of bright green cilantro sauce ringing the assemblage, a scattering of sauteed eggplant, zucchini, onions and spears of grilled asparagus, there are simply too many elements to the dish. However, I’d still order it for the “achiote”-marinated tuna — rare in the center with a whiff of the grill complementing the fish, and the sauce vibrant with the clean-tasting herb.
That “pupusa” is a pleasure as well. The crunchy little disc of the ground yucca tastes like mashed potato and is filled with a mild, creamy cheese and a bit of hot pepper.
I wouldn’t leave the restaurant without trying the bread pudding, a dessert that was introduced the night I visited. It should become a standard. Smith’s rendition is crisp and slightly chewy on the outside and custardy within. The center is filled with mellow apple pieces, cinnamon and raisins, making it an ideal dessert for a cold night.
Smith’s “tres leches” (three milks) cake features two exceptionally light layers with a delicate, milky taste and aroma. A crown of whipped cream sits over the dessert and a few ripe raspberries add color and their unique, sweet-tart flavor.
Avoid Thursday at Piramide if a roving mariachi band isn’t your thing, but do give the restaurant a try. The owners and waitstaff exude pride in their establishment and truly want to please. Add that to the refined Mexican fare, and it looks like Fifth Avenue’s got a keeper.
Piramide (499 Fifth Ave. between 12th and 13th streets in Park Slope) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $15-$24. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday. Dinner is available daily. On weekends, brunch is served from 11 am to 4 pm. Subway: F to Fourth Avenue, R to Ninth Street. www.mexpiramide.com. For more information, call (718) 499-0002.