It was six years ago this past March that I first ate at Restaurante Pujol, Chef Enrique Olvera’s modern Mexican restaurant in Mexico City. I was there with Rick Bayless, Marilyn Tausend and a small group of travelers from the Culinary Institute of America’s World of Flavors Travel Program. At that time I wrote, “He is an exciting talent doing interesting takes on a very traditional cuisine. It will be very interesting to follow this fine young chef’s career.” Follow Olvera’s career I have, encountering him in NYC at Starchefs’ ICC and in Madrid at Madrid Fusión. I also watched Pujol climb up San Pellegrino’s list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, placing this year at number 36. What I was unable to do, however, until my trip this summer to Mexico City for Mesamerica, the Congress that Chef Olvera was instrumental in organizing, was to revisit his food at Pujol. While in Mexico City, I went to dine at Pujol, not once, but twice. I will attempt to describe my meals as a composite dinner noting the similarities and differences of each tasting menu as a progression through the meal.
Restaurante Pujol looks much like it did when I was there in 2006. It remains small, intimate and chic. The walls are dark, but the tables are lit well enough to be able to appreciate the beauty of the food that is served and placed far enough apart to offer a significant degree of privacy. Service was impeccable.
I am not usually a big beer drinker. Generally, I prefer wine to beer, especially in a fine dining restaurant, but Mexico is a bit different. It is not that the wines, especially at a restaurant like Pujol, are not good. We drank plenty of excellent wines throughout the two meals. I started my first meal with a Mexican craft beer, because my experience with Mexican beers has been excellent and I wanted to try some newer ones that I hadn’t previously had. There were a few that fit this description available at Pujol. I chose the Hidalgo Stout. It was a rich, chocolatey beer with great flavor depth and outstanding balance.
Beer and wine are not the only beverages that beckon in Mexican fine dining restaurants. By the time of my second go round, I had really come to appreciate the variety and quality of Mexican Mezcals. Their image in the United States, though changing thanks to products like Del Maguey, still largely remains one of bad, cheap liquor, notable for having worms in the bottle and the bad hangovers they can produce. While I’m sure bad Mezcal does exist, I didn’t have any of them during my visit. The Mezcals I experienced were simply delicious characterizations of the Agave cactus, each 100% Maguey. While Mezcal and Tequila share certain characteristics, I came to really enjoy and prefer the smoky nuances of Mezcal. The Mezcaloteca, pictured above, was from the town of Miahuatlan in Oaxaca, distilled by Margarito Cortes. Mezcaloteca is a consortium of small producers of Mezcal dedicated to preserving the traditional distillation methods and locations. Each bottle contains all of the specific information of its production. This Cortés was a superb way to enter into my second dinner of the week at Pujol. It was also a great way to exit.
The Mezcal was, of course, served with citrus – in this case orange slices – and sal de gusano de Maguey, a tasty salt made with ground roasted Maguey worms (actually moth larvae that infest Maguey plants) and chile de arbol. Put a pinch on the tongue, take a swig of the Mezcal and follow with a taste of the citrus.
Both meals started with an amuse of elotitos. Elotes are full blown cobs of corn, a very popular street food. These were ears of baby corn that had been roasted and smoked and coated with coffee mayonnaise, chile powder and powder of ground up chicatanas (flying ant). The dish was paired with an infusion of quelites (Mexican greens) with chiles. The corn cobs were smoked in the gourd in which they were served. The dish was a clever and tasty introduction that set the tone for the meal to follow. It was also the first time that I had knowingly ever eaten an insect, although the chicatanas were not recognizable as such.
The idea of elevating street food into fine dining in a restaurant is easier said than done. Certainly, it is not difficult to provide more elegant trappings and even higher quality ingredients than one can typically find on the street, but those are the easy parts. Traditional street foods have become so because they are affordable and very, very tasty. Such is the case with elotes. They can be really tasty and the street often provides a wonderful, colorful atmosphere to go along with them. This was not an easy dish improve upon, but somehow, Olvera did. By using the baby corn, he immediately made the dish more elegant, much like Jose Andres did with his corn on the cob at minibar, also an homage to elotes. Andres and his team emphasized Modernist technique to elevate their dish and they were successful. Olvera stuck to more traditional techniques, but still managed to be successful. His elotito managed to wow, not so much by the technical wizardry behind it, but by the deft use of traditional ingredients, especially the smoke and the chicatanas, both of which added wonderful flavor above and beyond any street version that I’ve had. This was further amplified by the quaff of the tea that accompanied the corn. This dish was not particularly complicated, but it was ingenious, elegant and delicious. It has become a Pujol signature with good reason.
If the elotito wasn’t sufficient to show how traditional Mexican foods fit into contemporary fine dining, the next course slammed the concept home. Chef Olvera served a tostada of escamoles(ant larvae) with epazote, kohlrabi leaf and chile dusted with onion ash. The ash was applied at the table with a simple tap or two of an ash containing wad of cheese cloth. When this was served at the first dinner, I had not caught its full description and was naive to the fact that the star ingredient was escamoles or ant larvae. I ate my dish only to discover after the fact what they were in actuality. Not knowing what they were, the dish contained what I thought were the most buttery and delicious kernels of corn that I had ever had. I totally adored this dish in my naiveté and still adored it even more-so once I understood what it was. I also respected it even more. It tasted like corn on steroids with great accenting flavors and wonderful contrasts of texture with a finish that lasted like a great wine’s. The dish was absolutely sensational and mind-blowing. I would certainly have tasted it and I’m sure I would have still loved it had I known what I was eating , but I would likely have been more guarded in trying it than I was. In either case, I was very, very happy that I had this dish, one of the tastiest and most interesting dishes that I’ve eaten this year. We had this again during the second dinner, though at a much later point in the meal. It was every bit as delicious the second time as the first.
At the second meal, the first course to follow the elotitos was an agua fresca. Agua frescas typically contain fresh fruit, seed or cereals blended with water and sugar to make a beverage. These too, are classic on the streets of Mexico. This one, however, was not so classic in composition. It contained tuna water, mint and lime. Like its street food counterparts, this was quite refreshing and a nice, albeit somewhat sweet start. Though tuna water received top billing, the flavor of tuna was indistinguishable from that of the mint. Whatever tuna was there was quite subtle.
“Tacos” are another example of Mexican street food and something many diners in the United States think of as being Mexican cuisine – period. They may not get much respect outside of their native country, but that is because most US Americans associate them with the likes of Taco Bell. Those who belittle tacos have never had them in Mexico, where even in their simplest forms, they are typically delicious and they clearly have never had Chef Olvera’s, who once again, elevates them to true fine dining.
In the spirit of its origin as street food, this was still hand food, but its contents and the finesse of the preparation is what brought this dish above and beyond. Snook is a carnivorous coastal fish, whose flesh is white, firm and delicious. Olvera served it with dabs of black bean puree, a crunchy chicharron of its skin, onion, cilantro, lime, chile powder and a Oaxacan style tortilla of chayote with hoja santa on the back side. The combination offered a beautiful array of flavors and textures over a few bites. This dish was repeated at the second dinner substituting sea bass for the robalo. It remained delicious.
Olvera has a masterful hand with fish and its accompaniments. Here, he served red snapper that had been fried sufficiently to crisp its skin along with five different green “moles.” The word mole in Mexican Spanish has both specific and general meanings. The word may refer to specific complex sauces, such as a Mole Poblano or in a more general way as the term for “sauce.” Though these sauces were not simple, they each featured a main ingredient that dominated the flavor, they were not nearly so complex as the deep, rich moles from Puebla and Oaxaca, for example. Here, the snapper was sauced directly with a coarse mojo of squash, cuaresmeño chile, green onions and herbs. To the side placed in an orderly fashion were 5 green moles: mint, epazote, cilantro, onion and hoja santa.
For the second meal, the snapper was smoked rather than fried. Again, the dish remained delicious, though it was fun to see how a variation in cooking technique could effect the result. In this case the underlying flavor and textures of the fish varied, but the overall effect of the dishes remained quite similar.
Olvera’s style throughout both meals was consistent and refined. The next course at the first dinner, suckling lamb taco with a tortilla made from poblano pepper with avocado cream, pea tendrils and a sauce of tomato with hoja santa, returned to the taco theme with a plating similar to the robalo. Here, besides the lamb replacing the fish, avocado cream replaced the beans. Superb.
To accompany the barbacoa, we were poured a Mariatinto from Mexico’s premiere wine region, the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. It was a tasty red with good acidity and fruit. The wine is produced from a blend of grapes, typically centered around Tempranillo and Garnacha.
At the second dinner, my second beverage was another Mexican beer. This was yet another of Mexico’s great craft beers. It went very well with the next few dishes.
Enrique Olvera had just returned from the MAD 2 Symposium. This was a relatively new dish. It bore the distinct influence of Rene Redzepi, though with the local Mexican stamp that the New Naturalism requires. It was an exploration of cilantro that would likely have pleased even those who despise this herb. Combining the entire one month old cilantro plant including the roots along with a sauce of cilantro and seeds, it tasted more like jerusalem artichoke or celeriac than it did cilantro. The native flavor was there, but subtle, giving way to a more nutty taste. This was a surprisingly great dish given its simplistic premise, but then it is making dishes like this so good that has made Redzepi and his movement so influential. Olvera learned well and has made it his own.
Mexican food is about form and shape as well as ingredients and combinations. This dish had both, incorporating the classic shape of the flute, more commonly seen in rolled up tortillas that had been stuffed and fried, along with perfectly sliced, perfect avocados and the aptly named seafood cocktail known as vuelve a la vida or “return to life.” The seafood included squid, octopus, and shrimp combined with a cilantro emulsion and chipotle mayonnaise. It brought the elegance of fine dining to the bold, delicious flavors of Mexican classics. Its deft preparation and simple harmony left any pretensions behind.
To this point of the second meal, my entire experience at Pujol had been of Mexican provenance, but with this German Riesling, I experienced a more global side of the restaurant. If there is a wine more generally food friendly than Riesling, I haven’t tasted it and this one certainly did nothing to dissuade my opinion. Its bold acidity, low alcohol and ripe fruit lend it to many a cuisine. It married very well to the next couple of dishes.
Tempura fried octopus, olive, tomato, and young basil and cilantro emulsion was both a textural and a flavor delight. With a table full of food photographers, we hurried to get the photos and still enjoy the evanescence of perfect crispness. The batter was light and so was the “ridiculously” tender cephalopod. The flavors bore the Mediterranean influence present in Veracruz, substituting basil for cilantro in the pico de gallo and adding a bit of olive in a sauce. This dish was beautiful on the plate and delicious in the mouth.
Borrowing a line from another of my favorite chefs, Massimo Bottura, Chef Olvera introduced this delightful dish as “Potatoes, but no Potatoes.” Bottura is famous for highlighting expected elements of a dish that are not present. Such was the case with this dish. Instead of a classic potato pillow, Olvera used corn. It was filled with a potato foam and served with chintextle, a red chile paste from Oaxaca and little river shrimp. This was a sensational bite with a burst of pure corn flavor and a hint of chile. It was corn at its very best.
Our first meal was more meat centric than the second with this course the culmination. The central component was a beautifully cut piece of delicious roasted suckling pig accompanied by a variety of pickled vegetables with a smooth black bean soup poured table side. Throughout both meals, Olvera demonstrated that although typical Mexican cooking may not always have the trappings of world class fine dining, the cuisine does have the complexity and the sensory components that make it worthy of the very best in fine dining. This dish took many components of the Mexican kitchen and put them together in such a way that showed them clearly to be truly world class in every respect.
Where I live the fate of bananas that age so long tends to be in a batter to make banana bread, however, at Pujol, these aged bananas are put to much better use. This was a dish that he presented at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. We had it both nights we dined at Pujol, with variations. Both had thirty day aged banana. The first was paired with sour cream, banana vinegar cacao and mint. The second was paired with ground macadamias, cacao and banana mousse. It was incredibly well balanced with the bitterness of the cacao nibs working off the sweetness of the banana. The first night we had it, it was good, but the second night it was brilliant.
Another dish we had both nights was this flaming prune sorbet with sal de gusano de Maguey. Flaming Txabentún, a Yucatecan anise and honey liquor, was poured onto the sorbet in dramatic fashion for a refreshing and tasty treat.
The main dessert for the first dinner was this broken mango mousse accompanied by passionfruit sauce, coconut ice cream, coconut gelee and macadamia nut. The tropical flavors were brilliant with the sweetness balanced by the wonderful tartness of the magnificent passionfruit.
This was a delicious interlude of house made hot chocolate done with beans from Chiapas and water. This was served at the second dinner.
As the name implies, the piñata needed to be broken, although here with a spoon rather than a stick. Once broken, the sugar shell exposed its contents of tropical wonders including passion fruit and coconut. The plate also contained lime meringue, peanut cookie and orange. The aroma of the passionfruit was particularly intense when the orb was broken.
We finished our meals both nights with this dish of Oaxacan chocolate, Txabentún liquor, orange cream, chile powder and tonka beans. It was a wonderful finish to two wonderful meals.
Well, we actually finished with a bit more Mezcal, it was that good. This time, we had another from the Mezcaloteca line, a perfect way to end such fabulous meals.
Mexican cuisine has long been known as having many delicious dishes, but for some strange reason outside of that country, few realize how sophisticated it really is. At Pujol, Chef Olvera does a masterful job of capturing the history, the flavors, the textures, the colors and the sensitivities of food from all over Mexico and somehow makes it his own. He does not try to make the dishes too complex. He keeps them simple enough to reflect their origins, but adds enough finesse and interpretation to elevate it to the highest levels. Pujol is a truly special restaurant and one of my absolute favorites in the world.
For more photos from these meals, please visit my photoset on Flick’r.