So I guess I’ve broken one of my New Year’s resolutions (actually, to be exact, pre-New Year’s resolution), which was to blog more often, and we’re just barely into the first month of 2011. The hangover I nursed after a super fab X-Marx New Year’s Eve dinner had hardly subsided before I was traipsing back along the pat-down central that is O’Hare airport. Yes, my travel grind is in full swing so blog entries may be a little sparse in the upcoming weeks (ok, ok, I’ll try as much as I can to be up-to-date with the postings!). Last week, I was in Mexico City for the first time, a city that has always intrigued me since I first saw Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s masterful Amores Perros, truly one of the best films of the ‘naughts, during the 2000 Chicago International Film Festival. The city was like another character in that film – insanely frenetic, morally corrupt, colorful, careening, lascivious, an urban metaphor for complicated lives. Although Mexico City is one of the world’s grand, great cities (at 25 million people, two Chicagos can fit into its urban density), I was a little apprehensive when this business trip came up on the schedule, given its track record on crime and violence. When I heard though that Rick Bayless, Top Chef Master and Chicago’s pride, said that Mexico City was currently one of the hot, up and coming cities for dining in the world, I resolved to explore its culinary scene as much as I could during my visit, crime and violence track records be damned. And thank you Rick – since I had some really terrific meals, which could be in the running for my year’s most memorable dining list, in Mexico City, a rambunctious, contradictory, stimulating, cosmopolitan place (and parts of it did remind me of my hometown of Manila).
I did my restaurant research before coming, and everyone, from Bayless in an interview to social networking food maven Ellen Malloy (whose palette I hold in high regard), indicated that if you had one night for a great dinner in Mexico City, you should go to Restaurante Pujol, number 72 in Restaurant magazine’s Top 100 Restaurants in the World for 2010. Chef Enrique Olvera, who actually trained at our very own Everest right after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and before coming back to his hometown, is widely-acknowledged as the leader of New Mexican cuisine, selected by Food and Wine magazine in 2008 as one of the 10 “Next Chef Superstars” who will rock the restaurant world. And man, did he rock my world (yes, he was cute and charming and very fond of Chicago, but it was all about his food, gutter-dwellers!) with a dinner that was transcendent, startling, idiosyncratic.
Our dinner at Pujol started with the theatrical: an amuse bouche with three components that included a raw zucchini flower stuffed with bean paste, fresh asparagus stalks in a tart lime dressing, and roasted corn sprinkled with flying ant powder (you read that right dear readers) roasted in some pre-Hispanic era Yucatan flower-pot-looking contraption. It also ended with the theatrical- a second dessert of a strawberry sorbet doused with flaming Mezcal at tableside. But the more restrained courses that came in between were just fantastic, genius, and highly memorable.
My favorite dish of the meal was the starter course of avocado flautas stuffed with shrimp and served with a pepper mayonnaise and a cilantro emulsion (left). The flautas were diaphanous, melt-in-your-mouth sexy, yet soulful and dreamy as well, with the mayonnaise and the emulsion strong, but not overpowering, complements. It was a dish that recalled and honored traditional Mexican cuisine but gave it a truly contemporary spin.
My entrée was a guajillo pepper and garlic rubbed sea bass served with a pineapple puree, cooked pineapple slices and a steamed leek. I marveled at how the fish maintained its delicacy despite the potentially assertive rub, and I loved the surprise flavors and textures (sourish-sweet, down-cushiony) that the pineapple puree contributed to the dish.
My first dessert (the one I had before my eyebrows and bangs were singed by that flaming Mezcal) was a lovely chocolate tamales (left), light yet confident, un-dense, served with a refreshing white chocolate ice cream, and luxurious circles of atole de chocolate, which tasted like a cross between syrup and puree).
I also had a spectacular dinner at Jaso, where chefs Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias, who met and fell in love at the Culinary Institute of America, play with highly-contemporary, confidently global flavors (he with savory, she with desserts). I loved, loved, truly loved, my starter of a squid dumpling (the squid skin soaked in water using some technique that rendered it very firm like a dumpling wrapper) stuffed with a rich crab and shrimp filling, enveloped by a softly-delirious, seemingly-never ending “foam” (more like a thick sauce to me) of layers of parmigiano and squid ink (the bottom layer of the squid ink was allegedly frozen than thawed, or something like that…however it was done, it was delicious!). It was a stunning dish (left), a truly continents-hopping, multiple-passports-carrying one, with Italian, Asian, and Mexican flavors in it, integrated yet indefinable.
I was just ok with my entrée of a red snapper in a white truffle and lobster broth (the white truffle flavor seemed to have vaporized into the ether), but Arias’ desserts knocked me out. Her chocolate cake was firm where it should be and gooey where it mattered (just like some of the guys I’ve dated…ooops!) crowned with a sweet-bitter gallette crust, on top of which lay some really amazingly-constructed semi-freddos. The cold-hot, sweet-bitter-salty, creamy-toasty flavor combinations were wonderfully accented by Ecuadorian coffee bits. I wasn’t too thrilled with the apple confit in the other dessert I had, but I loved the apple tart it was resting on, sweet yet masculine, as well as the luxurious pistachio ice cream that came with it.
In addition to Pujol and Jaso, I also visited Naos, where Monica Patino, one of Mexico City’s acclaimed female chefs, riff on Mexican food with a very modern perspective and a hipster flair. I especially liked her versions of pork tostados (right in the photo at left), made with suckling pig meat, and crème brulee, using vanilla from Papatla in Veracruz, where they actually have a Vanilla Festival during Lent (huh?), served with a welcoming densely-flavored guayaba compote.
I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of Mexico City dining (I didn’t even sample the street food!) so I’m coming back soon. And hopefully I’ll get a Gael Garcia Bernal sighting the next time (yumm-o)!