Chef Joanne Weir and restaurateur Larry Mindel are opening Copita, a tequileria and eatery officially opening on May 1, though they are serving April 28-30 from 11am to 11pm, and the food world is abuzz about it. This high-powered partnership started with a margarita contest.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to challenge Joanne Weir to a margarita-making competition. Joanne Weir is a chef, a culinary teacher, television personality and kitchen consultant, sought after for her precise palate. Her most recent book is “Tequila, A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites.” But Larry Mindel doesn’t scare easily. He’s a restaurateur with a golden touch. He has opened Ciao, MacArthur Park, Guaymas and Prego. He turned Il Fornaio from struggling bakeries into a very successful group of Italian restaurants. He’s the co-owner of Poggio Trattoria restaurant in Sausalito. I live in Sausalito and this is a beloved place for locals, where you often dine next guys who live on their sailboats at one table and Carlos Santana to the other side. And everyone marvels at how even the spinach is so amazing. But now he turns his focus south of the border.
The margarita competition has two differing versions. According to Larry, he concocted a “Lorenzo” heavy on the tequila, and lighter on the lime juice and agave syrup. He shook it with ice, then served it up, martini style, with a delicate salt rim. “It was really strong,” Larry said. “So everyone was tipsy by the time they tried Joanne’s. The second margarita was bound to win because the first was so potent.”
According to Joanne, “Larry’s was terrible. I love the taste of tequila and the acidity from lime, so a balance is what you want, with just a hint of agave so it’s not too sweet. Mine was perfect.”
When drinking tequila based cocktails, I almost always find myself wanting a margarita made with a blanco with spicy food or a Don Julio Anejo straight up with milder, more savory Mexican. In ambitious hands tequila cocktails can often get too complicated or sweet to be food-friendly. The manager and “tequila curator” of Copita, Fernando Guzman, has changed that notion. His margaritas were excellent, and the cocktails all had a delicate touch that kept them bright, citrusy and food-friendly. He made a “Mexican 75” with sparkling wine, tequila and lime juice, as well as a “Raspado” with shaved ice, tamarind juice, and mescal with a salt and chili rim. But the ‘Prado” was Joanne’s proclaimed favorite. (She had just set down a plate of Mexico City style quesadillas filled with potatoes and chorizo and topped with crema and queso fresco.) Joanne is as charming as she is talented, so when she declared this cocktail with corazon blanco tequila, maraschino liquor, fresh lime juice and egg whites “sexy” we all vigorously agreed.
Larry and Joanne’s common spot is not only their prowess in the food industry, but also a love for Mexico. Neither could nail down their favorite spot there, but Mexico City, Oaxaca, and both coasts were mentioned with much affection. In particular, they sited the Pacific side as influential of the ceviches. Their menu has the basic, fresh fish with tomato, onion, cilantro and Serrano chili, as well as halibut with mango and cucumber, but it’s the shrimp aguachile that they both get a little dreamy-eyed over. “I could eat this every day,” Larry said.
There are no fiesta platters at this place. “I hate pushing away from the table at a Mexican restaurant too full from rice and beans and cheese,” Larry said. “This is more refined. More like Mexico.” Though he admits, an almost promiscuous regard for tamales, “They are my biggest passion. I like them all. I had a grandmother from Texas who used to make them by the hundreds for the holidays. Pork is my favorite, but the chicken ones here are made with wood-roasted meat.”
Their rotisserie is the heart of the menu, and their spit roasted chicken is seasoned with chile guajillo and served with pickled spring vegetables and heirloom beans with housemade chorizo. “It’s Mexican, but with a California sensibility,” Joanne said. “Everyone working with me in the kitchen is from Mexico, and all of them are passionate about food. We work to keep it fresh, seasonal and light. We are all learning a lot from each other.”
It’s not a large restaurant, with 50 seats indoors and 15 outside. It has a low-key, casual elegance. The rotisserie is the focal point; it’s embossed with decorative tiles from Mexico. Bowls from the local Heath Ceramics are stacked on the counter—a blend of Mexico and Sausalito that seems very natural. The bar itself is polished hardwood, reminiscent of an Old World cocktail spot in Mexico City with bottles of premium tequila displayed. There are a few tables outside on the sidewalk for people watching on Bridgeway Avenue and a glimpse of the bay. I pictured sitting out there on a warm evening, sipping a sexy Prado and having seasonal salsa and ceviche. I’ve started putting the word out with friends and neighbors in Sausalito, “It’s going to be a very good summer.”
From “Tequila, A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites.” by Joanne Weir
A prado is a grassy “meadow” or “field” in Spanish. This aptly named drink is the loveliest green. Airy and light, with a generous dose of agave, this cocktail is sure to impress. Its heavenly foam crown is most easily made by employing an interesting technique: remove the spring from your cocktail strainer and use it in the shaker as a whisk!
2 ounces blanco tequila
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 egg white
1 flamed lime peel for garnish*
Combine all of the ingredients except the garnish in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice and shake vigorously for 5 seconds. Using a whisk or the spring from the cocktail shaker, whisk the drink to create a little bit of foam. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the flamed lime peel.
*Flamed Citrus Peel
Remove a 2-to 3 inch-long piece of citrus peel using a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. To flame the peel, light the end of a toothpick or bamboo skewer with a lighter. Hold the burning toothpick or skewer about 2 fingers above the rim of the glass and warm the outside of the peel. Then, holding the peel just above the flame, sharply squeeze it, propelling the oil from the peel through the flame and into the glass. Drop the flamed peel into the cocktail.