Where to eat in Mexico City, 2018 update

A gourmet weekend in Mexico City? Great idea. Mexico’s capital ranks among the best cities in the world for luxury dining, on par in many respects with New York, Singapore, London or Tokyo. And in case you haven’t noticed, Mexican food isn’t what it used to be.

Chefs Enrique Olvera has become almost as famous as Thomas Keller or René Redzepi. And his former protégé Jorge Vallejo is already nipping at his heels. Indeed the latter recently overtook his mentor in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings. Regarding that list, only two cities worldwide claim two spots among the Top 20: Mexico City and Lima, Peru. (San Francisco has only one restaurant on that list — Saison — while L.A. has none, so take it all with a grain of salt.) Still. the dining scene here really is great, with a strong roster of rising stars soon to challenge the likes of Olvera and Vallejo.

Most of the city’s best restaurants are concentrated in the neighborhood of Polanco, which is tantamount to L.A.’s Beverly Hills or San Francisco’s Nob Hill. The adjacent neighborhoods of Condessa, Roma, Juárez and Cuauhtémoc are also rich with possibilities, as this general area of the city is where most of Mexico’s finest hotels are concentrated.

Lunch in Polanco is probably even more popular than dinner, especially among the wealthy residents who live in the neighborhood’s impeccably restored mid-century modern townhouses and for whom a leisurely lunch is an indicator of social status. Many hold standing reservations throughout the year, I’m told. And while some restaurants open for lunch as early as 1pm, lunchtime in this city doesn’t really begin in earnest until 2 or even 3 o’clock — and almost certainly involves sipping a luxury tequila. As such, most locals don’t eat dinner until 8 or even 11. Only a tourist would dare to dine at 7 or — gasp! — earlier.

These are my favorite restaurants right now in Mexico’s capital:

Pujol

Enrique Olvera moved his groundbreaking Pujol to a new location in Polanco in the spring of 2017, not far from the original. The new version is more casual than the original, whose design was a case study in mid-century modern luxuriousness. The new restaurant is an indoor/outdoor experience that encourages co-mingling of guests, whereas the original Pujol was an oasis of intimacy and privacy. I feared that the casualization of Pujol might diminish this restaurant’s extraordinarily high level of professionalism, but it didn’t. Service and hospitality here are still absolutely superb in every detail.

Weather permitting, everyone enjoys their meal in the indoor dining room, then migrates outside to the outdoor living room for dessert and after-dinner drinks under a canopy of trees. The kitchen extends into the garden, where the chefs use a pit in the ground to roast goats and tamales and whatnot.

The biggest change to the menu, other than the introduction of more rustic, indigenous cooking techniques is the introduction of a new taco bar. When making a reservation, guests may choose between the dining room (and regular degustation menu) or the new taco bar, a long dining counter that runs the length of the dining room and  features an eight-course omakase-style menu of nothing but tacos. Each course is paired with a different beverage, which includes locally brewed beer, Mexican wines and mezcal. Tennyson 133, Polanco, +52 55-5545-4111, pujol.com.mx


Zanaya

The Four Seasons hotel recently emerged from a major refurbishment, a long-overdue upgrade that included the development of a new coastal Mexican restaurant called Zanaya, where the indoor/outdoor dining room opens onto the hotel’s lushly landscaped interior courtyard. This has quickly become one of the city’s most important power lunches, leisure and business alike.

The young chef in charge is Tonatiuh Cuevas, who grew up in Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific Coast near Puerto Vallarta. He’s tapped into that semi-rustic coastal heritage and installed a wood-fire pit (zarandero) over which he cooks guajillo-glazed Pacific snapper and dogfish to make zarandeado fish tacos.  The tacos are served family style with several salsas (including a serrano aguachile that’ll melt your tongue), grilled onions and handmade corn tortillas.

There are other things to get excited about here, including spectacular ceviches and grilled tuna coated in the ashes of charred chilies. As good as everything else truly is, the real draw here is the zarandeado fish tacos. After you’ve had the tacos, only then should you begin to explore further. This might very well be the best thing you eat in Mexico City  this year. Paseo de la Reforma 500, Colonia Juarez, Mexico City, +52 (55) 5230-1818, fourseasons.com/mexico


Quintonil

As previously stated, chef Jorge Vallejo is a former protégé of Olvera at Pujol. And while Quintonil has leapfrogged ahead of Pujol on the World’s 50 Best list, in my opinion Quintonil isn’t quite as good as Pujol. That said, the restaurant has grown tremendously in the few short years that it’s been open. The evolution from 2013 to now is remarkable, not just in culinary refinement but even more noticeably in service and hospitality.

Vallejo named the restaurant after his favorite wild green, a type of flowering amaranth indigenous to Mexico that chefs across the country are rediscovering. Quintonil is a very casual, unassuming restaurant that occupies a single-story flat on an quiet residential street a few blocks away from Pujol.

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. The spirit of legendary Mexican mid-century designer Luis Barragan lives in the walls here.

Meals here begin with handmade tortillas, pressed from heirloom corn that’s grown on the outskirts of the city. Mexican sardines are smoked and bathed in aguachile. Jerusalem artichokes are transformed into tamales and painted with brushstrokes of burnt yogurt.

You might encounter a ceviche of scallops splashed with prickly-pear broth powderized sea urchin roe, or a salad of wild greens is made up of nine different quelites (wild herbs) grown specifically for Quintonil.  Newton 55, Polanco, +52 55-5280-1660, quintonil.com


Diana

The flagship dining room of The St. Regis hotel overlooking the golden statue of Diana the Huntress on the famed boulevard Paseo de la Reforma. This is where Quintonil’s Jorge Vallejo first rose to acclaim after leaving Pujol. The menu in those days (and until recently) hewed mostly French. But no more. In late 2017, the restaurant emerged from a beautiful makeover that saw the installation of a breathtaking glass-walled wine cellar that hugs one entire wall of the dining room. More importantly, the redux comes with a new menu focused not on French cuisine but Mexican.

The chef in charge of Diana now is Fernando A. Sanchez Ortiz, a young chef who, with his new menu focused on contemporary Mexican flavors and techniques, is destined to become one of Mexico’s next great culinary stars.

It might sound hyperbolic to say the kale salad is extraordinary. It is, after all, just a kale salad. But it’s so much more than that. Ortiz dresses it with a chili adobo, which has just a hint of heat to it, along with shaved cotija cheese. Trust me, it’s the best kale salad you’ll ever eat.

Better still, the chef takes the flavors of suadero tacos (essentially braised beef belly) and stuffs it instead into a freeform ravioli, which he serves in a spicy beef jus, topped with a cloud of lime foam. He transforms beef cheeks into barbacoa, which he cooks in agave leaves, an ancient technique that imbues the meat with a slight sweetness.

You’ll want to pair every single dish with a wine from Mexico. That new cellar? It showcases one of the best wine collections in town. Paseo de la Reforma 439, Cuauhtémoc, 52 55 5228 1818, stregismexicocity.com


Lorea

Spain’s legendary Michelin-starred restaurants continue to provide much of the training to the young chefs in Mexico who are now powering the capital’s culinary revolution. Chef Oswaldo Oliva worked for 7 years at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, and at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia before that. He left Mugaritz in 2015 at the height of his fame to return home to Mexico City to open Lorea. The restaurant occupies a multi-story townhouse in Roma Norte. The dining room and kitchen are on the second level.

There are essentially two options at Lorea: an elaborate nine-course tasting menu, or an even more elaborate tasting menu that goes on until you scream, “Uncle!” No two tables receive exactly the same menu. Most guests will be invited to enjoy one of their courses in the kitchen while standing and chatting with the chef.

The most memorable bites from my nine-course tasting (more than ample) include warm “mochi” made with fresh mint and pistacchio, peanut tofu in a shrimp consommé, roasted pigweed with duck jus, glazed pork jowl on toast and a portobello-sized clump of huitlacoche still attached to a cob of corn.

Opt for the beverage pairing and every dish will come with something unusual to drink, ranging from hot herbal tea to a fizzy local beer, old sherry, and fantastic Mexican wine. Sinaloa 141, Roma Norte, +52-55-9130-7786, lorea.mx


Noso

Here’s another Mexico-Spain-Mexico story. Mexican nationals Sandra Fortes and Miguel Hidalgo met while working at the famous El Bulli in Spain. They fell in love, married and returned to Mexico and briefly operated a restaurant in Xalapa (Veracruz) called El Molino del Quijote. They eventually moved to CDMX and opened Noso, but their timing wasn’t particularly great. The restaurant opened a few days before 2017’s horrific earthquake, which immediately dampened the buzz of their highly anticipated debut, which should have been one of Mexico’s most talked about openings of 2017. Instead, it’s been a slow but still increasing crescendo.

Noso is a gorgeous restaurant. Designed by Faci Leboreiro, an elite architecture firm based in Polanco, the center of the restaurant appears to be carved from a single, massive boulder of granite that leads into a serene, minimalist dining room that is elegant in its simplicity and comfort.

Fortes and Hidalgo cook contemporary Mexican food with modernist Spanish influences. Their technique is exquisite. They are champions of subtly. They never hit you in the face with big flavors. Every bite of what they serve is delicious, whether it’s a beautiful glazed cylinder of foie gras or seared Baja scallop hiding beneath the veil of a delicate mushroom tuile.

It seems to me these young chefs are still cooking the food they learned in Spain and haven’t yet fully realized the potential that surrounds them here in Mexico City. That might sound like I don’t recommend this place, but I do. It is a gorgeous experience from start to finish, even if their cooking doesn’t feel as deeply personal as what I’ve sampled at the other restaurants on this list. But just like Quintonil, I suspect this restaurant is going to grow and evolve very fast, so watch this space.  Avenida Presidente Masaryk 311, Polanco, +52-55- 5801-0338, noso.com.mx


Raiz

Israel Montero, a young chef from Venezuela came of age in France in the legendary kitchens of Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse. Alfredo Chávez, a chef from Michoacan, also trained with Bocuse, plus Guy Savoy in Paris and Alfred Portale in New York at Gotham Bar & Grill. The two chefs opened a restaurant together several years ago called Kaah Siis, which took Mexican flavors and applied them to their classical French training. They soon realized that their customers were much more interested in their Mexican inspiration than their European techniques, so they eventually closed and remodeled and reopened the restaurant in 2017 as Raiz. The menu is now pure Mexican, but still very much a bridge between old and new.

The dining room is more serene, more romantic than before, although the crowd is as fashionable and beautiful, and almost assuredly fashionably late for dinner, as ever before.

Their cooking dives deep into the vast ethos of Mexican cuisine, albeit with a contemporary worldview. Almost everything on the menu comes from the farms just outside of Mexico City or else from Puebla, Michoacán, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Morelos. A lot of what you’ll see on the menu will sound familiar: tacos, tostadas, moles, aguachiles… and some of it will be exactly what you’re expecting, as is the case with things like carne asada tacos made from prime ribeye. Still other dishes, like pork belly with burnt chipotle mole or smoked cod tostadas will catch you off guard and provide a wonderful sense of discovery. And if you want to eat like there’s no tomorrow, there’s also an elaborate eight-course chef’s tasting. Schiller 331, Polanco, +52 55-5250-0274, restauranteraiz.com


Photo by Brad A. Johnson

The view from Diana restaurant at St. Regis Mexico City (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)

 

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