Dining in Mexico City (photos by Brad A Johnson)
Mexico City might be home to the world’s most underrated restaurant scene. For more than a decade, passionate young chefs in the Mexican capital have quietly redefined the upper limits of their native cuisine. Drawing inspiration from the international modernist movement while evangelizing local farms and classical Mexican flavors, the fine-dining scene here easily holds its own against the best of New York, Chicago, London or Singapore.
The chef who gets most of the credit for starting the revolution is Enrique Olvera, who 14 years ago opened Pujol, an elegant, 40-seat, midcentury modern restaurant tucked into a quiet, tree-lined residential enclave in the federal district’s most prestigious old neighborhood, Polanco. Olvera is often compared with America’s Thomas Keller or Denmark’s Rene Redzepi, and it’s an apt association.
“Would you like your service tonight in Spanish or English?” asks the host who greets us at the door of Pujol. And I overhear him moments later asking another party, “Would you like your service tonight in Spanish or Portuguese?” The service here sets a worldwide standard for grace. The requisite 10-course menu sets an impeccably high standard, as well.
Images from Pujol (photo by Brad A Johnson)
The first thing to arrive is a giant, hollow gourd with a hole in its top, from which smoke gently billows. Two thin wooden skewers protrude through the smoke. I grab one. On its tip is a whole baby corn about 3 inches long that has been roasted and lightly brushed with chili-flavored mayonnaise and dusted with what looks like ash. But it’s not ash. It’s ants. The insects have been roasted to a crisp and crushed into a powder. The adventure has begun.
Around the third course, I receive what appears to be a piece of raw fish atop a chicharron, or fried pig skin. But as I taste it, I realize the flavors and textures are reversed. The chicharron is made from fish skin. What I thought to be raw fish is actually cured pork jowl.
There’s a “taco” course that will exceed your wildest imagination. The tortilla on mine is black on one side while bright green on the other, filled with raw amberjack, black-bean foam and hoja santa, a large-leaf Mexican herb that tastes like root beer.
Risotto vaguely alludes to Mexican rice, topped with crumbled chorizo and a slow-poached egg. Braised oxtail gets wrapped and roasted in parchment paper with avocado leaves. And about halfway through the meal, my waiter delivers a big, white plate with a small tortilla that has been dipped in mole and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. It looks rather plain and out of place for a restaurant this fancy.
“A tortilla,” the waiter announces, “with 120-day-old mole.”
“Wait. What?” I ask.
The waiter smiles, reveling in the element of surprise. “We’ve been stirring and feeding this mole for 120 days,” he says.
“How much longer can you do that?” I ask.
“That we don’t know,” he says. “This is still an experiment.”
Using the same process that turns corn into hominy, the chef marinates papaya until its texture is completely foreign but its flavor is still vaguely familiar. This becomes the base for a dessert that’s partnered with honey ice cream, yogurt, crystalized lemon and honey that’s been turned into sand with the magic of liquid nitrogen.
A banana sits on a shelf for two months until it becomes somewhat gelatinous and gummy – aged, they say – then treated somehow with banana vinegar and buried beneath a flurry of snowflakes made from finely shaved macadamia nuts. As crazy as all this sounds, it is astonishingly delicious.
My waiter at Pujol sees me taking pictures of my food and asks me where else I plan to dine while I’m in town. I tell him Quintonil is high on my list. He scrunches his brow, trying to place the new restaurant. He shakes his head no. “I don’t know that one.”
“The chef used to work here,” I say.
“Every young chef in Mexico has worked here at some point,” he says, chuckling.
There’s a bit of truth to that. In the nearly 14 years that Pujol has been the most talked-about restaurant in Mexico, countless young chefs have lined up for a chance to work in his kitchen, and many have gone on to open restaurants of their own.
The waiter returns a minute later and confesses his mental lapse. “Quintonil. Of course! That’s Jorge Vallejo.”
Vallejo is a close friend and protégé of Olvera’s who cooked at Pujol for more than three years. Vallejo left Pujol three years ago to head the formal dining room at the Cesar Pelli-designed St. Regis hotel, but after about a year, he bowed out to open Quintonil.
Images of Quintonil (photos by Brad A Johnson)
He named the restaurant after his favorite wild green, a type of flowering amaranth indigenous to Mexico. It’s a very casual, unassuming restaurant that occupies a first-floor flat sandwiched between low-rise apartments on a quiet residential street a few blocks from Pujol. To better understand the namesake weed, ask for the Quintonil cocktail, which is made in the style of a mojito but with muddled amaranth leaves standing in for mint, while mezcal replaces the rum. You’ll never look at a mojito the same way again. And you’ll want another one, and another.
The small restaurant barely accommodates 30 diners inside, with room for another 20 on the backyard patio, which is boxed in on all sides by two stories of cracked concrete. Perhaps drawing inspiration from legendary Mexican midcentury designer Luis Barragan, the uncluttered dining room is low on frills but high on grace.
My meal here begins with a rustic pueblo loaf baked to order and served with black bean puree and fiery red chili salsa, which gives the impression that what’s about to follow might be somewhat classic. But what comes next is a thoroughly modern riff on Mexican nationalism.
A ceviche of scallops is splashed with a light prickly-pear broth and laced with pickled cactus paddle, avocado oil, sea beans and powdered sea urchin roe. Roasted pumpkin is cloaked in a rich, sophisticated mole and decorated with charred tortillas and basil sprouts. A salad of wild greens is made up of nine quelites (wild herbs), including quintonil and huauzontles. I enjoy a soup of Oaxacan string cheese studded with crisp nuggets of pork belly. Braised wagyu brisket comes with a sauce of dried chilies and pulque, a milky, much-maligned Mexican moonshine made from cactus sap.
Another young chef to emerge from the tutelage of Pujol is Eduardo Garcia, who also spent time at Le Bernardin in New York. He recently opened Maximo Bistrot Local, an intensely locavore cafe inspired by the casual bistros of France but with a strong allegiance to his country’s own flavors. The bistro is worlds away in style from Pujol or Quintonil, but the chef’s refined training is evident in simple, everyday dishes like Baja sea snail tartare with serranos and tomato water, or roasted chicken with wild mushrooms and huitlacoche.
Images of Maximo Bistrot Local (photos by Brad A Johnson)
The restaurant sits at the corner of a bustling intersection in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, on the opposite side of Chapultepec park from Polanco, surrounded by gentrified colonial mansions, art galleries and advertising agencies. A famous soap opera actress is seated at the table next to mine, but her bodyguards keep the paparazzi at bay, although the occasional autograph-seeker does manage to slip in.
French connections and beyond
Of course, not everything leads back to Pujol. Israel Montero, a twentysomething Venezuelan, came of age in the kitchens of Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse in France. Alfredo Chavez, from Michoacán, also trained with Bocuse as well as Guy Savoy in Paris and Alfred Portale in New York at Gotham Bar & Grill. The two chefs are partners at a new restaurant called Kaah Siis, which loosely translates from Mayan as “cool place” and refers to the restaurant’s vibrant young spirit.
Images of Kaah Siis (photos by Brad A Johnson)
Mexican rock music blares on the stereo. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls. The crowd is fashionable and beautiful, and almost assuredly fashionably late for dinner. On the night I dine, the restaurant is fully booked from 8 p.m. to midnight, yet most of the reserved guests don’t actually show up until nearly 10 or even 11. “Sorry, so sorry,” a woman calmly says as she and her high-heeled entourage breeze into the restaurant nearly two hours after their reserved time. “Of course, of course!” says the maître d’, brushing it off like no big deal. Being late in Mexico is understandable. But canceling a reservation at the city’s hottest new restaurant? Inconceivable.
A fat rectangular slice of smoked trout is drizzled with Pedro Jimenez sherry and brushed with green pea aioli. The maître d’ stops by to pair it with a bright, citrusy sauvignon blanc from Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley. Up next is a domino-size slice of pork-face terrine with a white-bean puree and pickled baby vegetables. Grilled Pacific octopus rests in a creamy, almost pudding-like lobster sauce. And when the rack of lamb arrives, the scent of dried chilies fills the air.
Seeds of a revolution
Although Olvera gets the lion’s share of credit for inspiring Mexico City’s avant-garde dining scene, Pujol certainly wasn’t the first world-class restaurant to challenge the mold. The restaurant that more likely set this revolution in motion is Tezka, which opened in the mid-’90s under the direction of Juan Marie Arzak, one of Spain’s most influential chefs who, although already famous in his native San Sebastian, was still 10 years away from the pinnacle of his global notoriety.
To run the kitchen at Tezka, Arzak tapped fellow Spaniards Mikel Alonso and Bruno Oteiza, who took the city by storm with a cutting-edge fusion of Basque and Mexican cuisines. After a few years, Alonso and Oteiza left Tezka to open a place of their own, Biko, in which they loosened their ties to Spain and focused more intently on the flavors and traditions of Mexico without forgoing the modernist techniques of their trailblazing mentor. Roughly 15 years later, Biko feels as fresh and cutting-edge as if it had opened just yesterday.
Images of Biko (photos by Brad A Johnson)
The restaurant occupies a serene, chic, second-floor space in a heavily guarded bank tower in the heart of Polanco. Lunch here is still one of the most difficult reservations in the city.
It’s nearly 2 in the afternoon when I’m seated for an eight-course lunch at a window table overlooking the tree-lined Presidente Masaryk Boulevard. The first thing my waiter asks is, “Can I offer you a tequila?” He presents an elegant trolley loaded with fine, barrel-aged agave liquor.
Pretty much everyone begins a meal here with a crystal flute of tequila, which automatically comes with a companion flute of sangrita (fresh-squeezed tomato juice, which is sometimes jolted with a squeeze of lime or orange) because, well, that’s the way they drink tequila in Mexico City.
The tequila is merely a palate teaser. Every course will be paired with a different wine, mostly old-vine Spanish but also Chilean, Portuguese and, of course, Mexican. The meal assumes a purposely languid pace, offering a break between each course to fully contemplate what has just happened and what might transpire next: lamb meatballs with blueberry sangrita, perhaps, or seared foie gras paired with the fatty belly of mackerel in a puddle of what is essentially an apple smoothie.
The server presents a bowl filled with clusters of dried green flowers and leaves that look curiously like expensive marijuana buds. Then, slowly, into this bowl he then pours a bright green soup.
“What is it?” I ask, slightly afraid to hear the answer.
“Cream of amaranth,” he says.
Ah, so it’s another wild green similar to the one I tasted at Quintonil, but different. Nuttier.
I soon find myself eating baby squid and some sort of semi-translucent noodles in a celery broth. I stare in amusement at a dish of baby spot prawns, their detached heads delicately fried and served alongside. And when the beef course arrives, its beauty takes my breath away.
I sit in stunned silence as the waiter describes the dish, a brisket of beef that has been cooked in the spirit of the Yucatan’s cochinita pibil. It doesn’t look anything like the classic pork dish cooked in banana leaves. This is a cigar of shredded beef rolled in a sheet of gelatin so thin it’s almost not there. The plate is painted with drops of pink, green, red and white semi-liquids, each representing a different element of the chefs’ inspiration: banana leaf, pickled onion, porkfat and chili. The sommelier uncorks a bottle ofcabernet.
Lunch doesn’t begin to wind down until 5 p.m. The sun has already faded behind Polanco’s high-rise skyline. I look around the dining room. The little old ladies who lunch, who arrived well before me, are still sipping sherry, nibbling on chocolate truffles. Businessmen at the next table are still passionately negotiating a deal. They’ve just ordered another round of tequila.
I’ve been here for three hours already. And like everyone else at Biko, I simply don’t want to leave.
Lunch and dinner,
Presidente Masaryk 407, Polanco
Lunch and dinner,
Schiller 331, Polanco
Maximo Bistrot Local
Lunch and dinner,
Tonalá 133, Colonia Roma
Lunch and dinner,
Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco
+52 55-5545 4111
Lunch and dinner,
Newton 55, Polanco
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.