Taberna -- Upscale Mexican Food in Beverly Hills

I've been advocating for years that an upscale, elegant Mexican restaurant would do well in Beverly Hills/West Los Angeles. (I don't mean the El Cholo kind of eatery, as much as I like that down home Tex-Mex cooking, as evidenced by my recent rave HuffPost article on their venue.) I mean a sophisticated Mexico City-Paseo de la Reforma-style restaurant, one offering the sophisticated, complex dishes of the various provinces... food cooked beautifully by a masterful chef. Now my wish has been answered... in spades. Taberna Mexicana (369 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills (310)858-7070) has opened in a location once home to a half-dozen other restaurants, from The Ginger Man to, recently, Luau... but this one is a keeper, and I suspect it will be here for a long, happy time.

Chef Alex Padilla has created an exciting and interesting menu of regional Mexican dishes.

The reason is a master chef, Alex Padilla, who has created a menu based upon his years of experience cooking in Houston and upscale Northern California eateries, especially San Francisco's Boulevard, where he spent 17 years working with mentor Chef Nancy Oakes. The space has been entirely redone to reflect a laid-back Mexican aesthetic, with indoor and outdoor seating for 110, plus a handful of seats at the tequila-rich bar. At this writing, the main dining room wall -- replete with rather dizzying Mex tiles -- is still awaiting some calming artwork. A stunning young hostess, Lauren, who leads you to your table, more than makes up for this glaring design note. General Manager Matthew Washton recently opened John Sedlar's Playa, but has moved nationalities from Spain to Mexico at the urging of the new restaurant's owners.

Cochinita Pibil is a Yucatan pork stew cooked for many hours with chiles and spices.

The whole striped bass has been roasted in the wood-burning oven with vegetables and herbs.

Oh, my, this glorious food is such a sparkling attraction, from the Ceviches to the Cochinita Pibil to Pumpkin Seed-crusted Scallops, a monster Lamb Shank to a Prime Rib Carne Asada, two fabulous soups -- Tortilla and Albondigas (that's chicken meatballs) and a handful of unique Tacos and Enchiladas. Did I mention that one feature of the restaurant space has been an asset since its birth decades ago... a bricked wood-burning oven in the far corner which has been the stalwart aid of every chef who has ever worked at this site. Our first dinner featured a sensational whole Striped Bass ($35) which had been roasted in this oven with vegetables and chiles. Moist, flaky, reminiscent of Ensenada. Following the trend toward creatively-crafted cocktails, the Taberna team mixes a mean selection of fruity concoctions... but I stick to a classic Margarita on the rocks, no salt, and then finish with a Caipirinha, while my companions drank bouquet wine, Pisco Sours, Mexican beers and such.

The room is low-key and inviting, with a small tequila bar in front and outdoor patio seating.

Honduran-born Chef Padilla created the varied menu just for this location... and tells me that he is pleasantly surprised at the breadth of the produce at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market. We talked about his years working alongside Chef Nancy in San Francisco, and I mentioned that her husband, Bruce Aidells, the sausage king, was an old friend and reader of my restaurant newsletter. (I eat a Boudin Noir from his larder a few times a month at my Saturday haunt, Le Petit Four on Sunset.) Alex spent has spent much time traveling through Mexico to find new dishes, and items like Tequila-Poached Shrimp Cocteles, Crab Cake Rolls, Pacific Spiny Lobster with tequila mushrooms, may appear on the menu. Chef Alex later mentioned to me that he doesn't use any lard, only good olive oil and kosher salt. I smilingly replied that I liked foods cooked in lard, they're more flavorful, but he demurred.

My favorite dish, a sophisticated chile relleno (not the usual cheese-oozing version).

Blue corn tortilla chips, fried plantain and yucca chips and two salsas are on the table when you are seated, and automatically I always order the Guacamole ($9), here a smart plate of the pureed creamy fruit topped with chunks of tomato, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, and salty queso fresco. "He makes everything from scratch every day," GM Washton noted. He said that Chef Padilla was born in Honduras but raised in Houston in a traditional Hispanic family. "His menu is heavily influenced by Central American concepts as much as Mexican." And you must remember that he has a background in French and New American cuisine from working as Executive Sous Chef for so many years beside Oakes, a James Beard-award winner. (He started at age 18 at her restaurant as a dishwasher, became her apprentice and was ultimately trained by her to be a master chef himself.) Matt also mentioned that Alex's mom is a chef; she worked for Ninfa's in Houston, the most famous Tex-Mex place in the state.

Hostess Lauren will guide you to your table.

General Manager Matthew Washton and Exec Chef Alex Padilla are making this a hot spot.

As we talked I was busy digging into the oval pot of Cochinita Pibil ($21) which had appeared on the table. "It's a Yucatan stew, pork shoulder marinated in achiote paste in a banana leaf for 48 hours," the chef later told me, "then served with pickled red onions, fried plantains, and Mexican crema." Surprisingly, a little bland but very flavorful.

The scallop ceviche dish is delicious, served with passion fruit and truffled salt.

Manager Matt mentioned that the chef is notoriously health-conscious. "Notice that nothing on the menu is smothered in cheese. He doesn't like junk food, and is always exploring the farmer's markets to get local produce." By then I was busy slicing off a chunk of the Prime Rib Eye Carne Asada ($38), delicious and juicy, although I noted to my companions it seemed a bit salty. (It may have been the mole rub.) However, we quickly finished the entire platter... it was served with Mexican herb fries and Shishito peppers. Actually, we all noted later that this food doesn't pull any punches when it comes to mouth-searing spices and dynamic flavors.

The albondigas soup is succulent chicken meatballs in a spicy broth.

A note about the service: it was professional and low-key; our wait person, Vietnamese-born Tinh, had worked before with Matt and kept the pace perfectly. I was rapturous about my starter of Callos de Acha ($12), which was raw, silky sea scallop ceviche with fresh passion fruit and truffle salt. An intriguing red chile heat kicked in. There is an Ahi Tuna, a Shrimp-and-Halibut, a Conch, and Oyster-and-Salmon Roe ceviches yet to be tried. A choice of homemade flour or corn tortillas was a higlight of the taco selections... I chose the corn, of course. The Fish Taco ($16) is one way to go, although he offers seven interesting ones... next visit, the Chicharron de Pato ($16), a crisp braised duck taco. Five unique Enchiladas... these are not the predictable ones smothered in sauce and melted cheese, rather a light layered dish... we had the Del Mar ($16), shrimp and blue crab in Pacholo sauce. There's a roasted rabbit (yikes) in green mole sauce ($16), pork, and even a brisket in ancho pepper gravy ($14).

My passion for a good chile relleno is well known, and this is one of the best I have ever eaten.

My passion for Chile Rellenos has been well documented here on HuffPost. This one ($18) was given a lighter spin, a plump chile was roasted, not fried, and it was not oozing with melted cheese, as is usual. Instead, the deep emerald Poblano contained a colorful mix of spinach. zucchini, mushrooms, spicy tomato sauce, and a judicious amount of crumbled Oaxacan cheese. Loved it. Side dishes come separately... and yes, I did order a big plate of fluffy, tomatoey Mexican rice ($4)... black beans and grilled cactus is $5. A few desserts... the flan is a little dense, but the Tres Leche cake is superb.

Taberna Mexicana is operated by Niel Morgan and Chris Harter. Chef Alexis is their corporate consulting chef, so eventually he may move on elsewhere, but I have been assured he will spend at least a year here. Based upon a few meals already, I can confirm that all is well with the world when we have such a splendid upscale authentic Mexican restaurant conveniently ensconced in Beverly Hills for all to enjoy. Hasta luego, my friends!

Taberna is open from 11 am to 11 pm daily.

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