Life imitates art along Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma in October 2016. A quarter of a million people descend on the capital’s grand boulevard to watch a procession of drummers, acrobats and giant skeleton marionettes dance their way towards the city’s historic centre. The origins of the Day of the Dead may date back to the Aztec period – when pre-European cultures held a month-long festival in honour of their deceased loved-ones – but until the opening sequence 2015’s Spectre – that visceral, four-minute tracking shot that follows Bond from street parade to rooftop shootout in the Mexican capital – no such parade ever existed. (For a more authentic depiction of the Mexican holiday see the effervescent, utterly-charming, Oscar-winning cartoon Coco.) Mexico City’s ‘traditional’ Day of the Dead pageant is now an annual street celebration. One day it hopes to rival Rio’s.
One Mexican who’s been championing a contemporary take on the time-honoured tradition for a little longer is Martha Ortiz. For the previous eight years, Mexico’s most famous chef – a household name in Central America thanks to regular appearances on Top Chef Mexico – has devised the Painted Black menu at her award-winning restaurant Dulce Patria in Mexico City. The darkly dramatic, highly-Instagramable selection of dishes uses activated charcoal – a tasteless, oxidised carbon – to turn plates of food the colour of death, and is currently available at Ortiz’s London outpost, Ella Canta.
Ella Canta is a hotel restaurant, and, unfortunately for it, and us, feels like one. Opened in the bowels of the InterContinental Park Lane in 2017, the restaurant occupies a large, soulless space at odds with the culture and cuisine it sets out to champion. Indeed, there’s little to suggest you’re in a Mexican restaurant at all. Sporadic cacti, floral headpieces on female staff and some clichéd Frida Kahlo references are about as far as things go. An insipid colour palette, undecorated walls and a playlist of European house music are strange choices, given the length the menu goes to in its attempt to celebrate the dynamism and flavours of the country it takes as its muse. Perhaps they ran out of money. Unlikely, given that cauliflower tacos are priced at £21 and make-your-own lamb-and-avocado tortillas cost £28.
Which makes Ella Canta’s Painted Black menu a rather reasonable proposition, priced, as it is, at a relatively rational – you’re on Park Lane remember – £70 per person. That’ll get you a cocktail – the tequila and Cointreau Lady in Black is a winner – followed by six dishes that arrive in varying shades of grey. Highlights are the octopus with black sesame sauce and lime, and the seabass with onion ash powder and potato puree. A pork taco with black bean sauce won’t have your taste buds screaming for more, but a nutty, biscuity pudding most certainly will.
A word to the wise, dishes on the Painted Black menu are all on the small side. The menu could do with at least one more substantial main course. Arrive with anything approaching an appetite and chances are you’ll be left hungry. Luckily, there’s the à la carte menu to choose from, which is full of the sort of bold, brave flavours that characterise Ortiz’s unique vision of contemporary Mexican cool. Just be prepared to pay those Park Lane prices.
The Painted Black menu is available at Ella Canta until 16 November, priced at £70pp, ellacanta.com