Who says fusion cooking is bad? Anyone who thinks that has never experienced the cooking and foods of Mexico. Mexican cuisine is a glorious example of how wonderful fusion can be when given enough time, ingenuity and skill to make it work. That the products available to cook are as wonderful as they are in Mexico doesn’t hurt either. Towards the tail end of my visit to Mexico City for the first Mesamerica Congress in July, several friends and myself had a chance to visit a restaurant that is a clear demonstration of the wonders of contemporary Mexican cooking. Amaranta, in the city of Toluca, blends the various influences of Mexican cuisine into an organic and delicious example of all that is wonderful about this country’s amazing food.
Using primarily ingredients and traditions from around Toluca, chef Pablo Salas has fashioned a kitchen that pays it respects to the area’s traditions and flavors, yet does so in a creative, beautiful and above all, delicious fashion. About an hour’s drive west from Mexico City, Amaranta should be on the destination list of anyone serious about eating the best Mexican cooking.
Garañona is an herbal liqueur similar to Chartreuse. It comes from nearby Metepec, originating in the Bar 2 de Abril. Containing over 30 different herbs, it also shares the vivid green color of Chartreuse. Our meal commenced with a cocktail featuring this liqueur. Called a Martini de Garañona, the drink contained some dry anise liqueur and a touch of soda. Served in a salt-rimmed glass, I’m not sure what made it a “Martini,” but it was a lovely and unusual introduction to the meal that was to come.
In Puebla, I had the most delicious sandwich that I can recall. The pelona had bread that had been deep-fried and was incredibly light and airy as well as crisp. Such too was the bread of our opening bite, a Pambecito de Mole Verde. The bite size sandwich was stuffed with chicken as well as the mole and was rather tasty. Mexico is home to some of the best sandwiches that I’ve ever had, yet, somehow the great sandwiches of Mexico don’t get the appreciation that they deserve outside of the country. They represent some of the fusion native to Mexico’s contemporary cuisine with a marriage of European influence, Mexican ingenuity and indigenous ingredients, such as the mole verde served here. Given how great my experience has been with sandwiches made with deep-fried bread, I must say that I’m surprised that I have never experienced one outside of Mexico.
The pig has rightfully grabbed a central spot in Mexico’s culinary canon. It is not just the glory parts either. Pig’s feet when prepared with skill can be wonderful. My experience with them in the past has been with dishes that have emphasized their glutinous texture or their crispness. Salas, used them in a fashion that I hadn’t previously experienced. He prepared them as a carpaccio, pairing them with vegetables and perfectly fried tostadas for textural contrast and with vinegar to lighten their richness. It was a beautifully plated dish that worked in every respect.
Chef Sals’ brother, Francisco, is the sommelier. He knows his brother’s cooking very well and he knows his wines too. He did a fine job of pairing nothing but Mexican wines and spirits with our dinner. The first wine, from Mexico’s wine capitol of the Valle de Guadalupe, was the 2009 Nuva from Vinicola Fraternidad. It was a crisp blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Moscato that had good acid that worked well with the pig’s feet.
Salas’ next dish was sensational. He took carp roe and sautéed them simply with tomatoes, onions and chile. The dish was modernized with a cilantro “air” demonstrating a sympathy with the Vanguardists of Spain. The “air” could easily have been nothing more than a gimmick for the sake of modernity, but it was one that truly enhanced the dish without making it heavy.
The roe was well paired with another Mexican white, the Silvana from Viñas Pijoan. This is a Chenin Blanc based wine augmented with sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Moscatel. It was crisp, fruity and well balanced.
Mexico, like a number of other countries has seen a resurgence in craft beers and few countries make better beers than the best Mexico has to offer. The next course was paired with an excellent one – the Vienna, a lager from Cerveceria Berber.
Mexican cooking, at its best, balances bright flavors, a variety of textures and an undercurrent of nuance that rivals any other cuisine that I have experienced. Salas’ Tostaditas de Salpicón de Conejois a prime example. This wonderful dish had it all. Tostaditas are typically a form of street food and the street food of Mexico is already special compared to that from most other cultures, but this elevated it even further. The rabbit was delicious, but what elevated this treatment was the nuances it received from a variety of herbs, including the controlled use of pápalo, the herb used to such great effect in the Cemita Milanesa from Puebla. Every component of this complex dish had an important role including the refried beans, queso ranchero and the special local heirloom purple tomatoes. This was a wonderful dish that was amongst the best I had during this most delicious trip.
Huitlacoche, aka corn smut, is a product that exemplifies the ingenuity of Mexican gastronomy. In its natural state, it appears rather frightening, looking like a cancerous growth on corn. Fortunately, it is not cancer. It is a fungus, a type of mushroom. The first people to eat it must either have been very hungry, very drunk or just plain lucky, but I am glad they did, because when used well (as it usually is in Mexico), it is absolutely delicious. Salas did indeed use it well, transforming it from something that appears to be a blight into a beautiful and delicious dish.
He took pieces of huitlacoche, centered them in a bowl, sprinkled guajillo chile flakes and added some fresh epazote. Huitlacoche broth was then poured on top.
This dish of wonderfully earthy flavors, with enough but not too much spice, represents the specialness of Mexican ingredients. The presentation was lovely, but not in and of itself particularly special. Taken as a whole, though, it was.. It was comfortable and exciting in each and every spoonful. For dishes like this, I would happily return to Mexico over and over again.
The Huitlacoche was paired with this lovely, low alcohol (12.5%) Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from La Redonda in Querétero, another of Mexico’s fast-improving wine-producing provinces.
Salmon is not typically associated with Mexico, but in the hills outside of Mexico City, varieties of land-locked lake salmon, very much like trout, not only exist, but thrive. They are the main local fish of the region. These had been fed with crayfish, marinated in adobo, grilled and served with esquites, creamy chile manzano salsa, borage and cilantro vinaigrette. It was a delicious surprise and well paired with a Malbec from L.A. Cetto in the valle de Guadalupe..
Bread wasn’t served until close to the end of the savory portion of the meal. This was not a bad way to do it, because though this bread is called “piojosa”, which literally means “lousy”, it was anything but. It was delicious with crisp crust and a pillowy soft crumb that reminded of some breads I enjoyed in Italy. I could have easily filled up on this had it been available throughout the meal, but instead, I got to taste it without letting myself get carried away. Had I still been hungry, I would not have felt guilty eating more.
The final savory course followed the standard pattern of being comprised of red meat. In this case, it was braised oxtail with a salsa borracha or “drunken sauce” that was made with beer, pasilla chiles, piloncillo and other ingredients. The plate was enhanced by salt cured nopales, fresh fava beans and tomato.
Warm tortillas were served with which to encapsulate the ingredients as this was ultimately hand food. The flavors were bright and deep, as they were throughout the meal.
Desserts were simpler in presentation and sophistication, but no less tasty than the savories. Salas’ corn cake was paired with local guava in the form of a foam and Moscos (orange cream liqueur) flavored gelatin.
I wasn’t surprised at the quality of the Mexican savory wines, since I have had good Mexican wines before, but I was by this sweet wine, from L.A. Cetto. It was a very well made, well balanced wine that worked beautifully with the desserts.
This dessert was a good example of the fusion that is Mexican cuisine. It took classic european preparations and recast them with ingredients central to the Mexican pantry. The creme brulé, in particular, used what is probably the single most important ingredient of the Mexican pantry – corn. In Mexico, corn is not yet the one dimensional crop that it has become in the United States (though I fear with the influx of genetically modified corn from north of the border, that may be changing) and it showed here, giving a nuanced depth of flavor that elevated what might otherwise have been a fairly ordinary dessert.
Our beverages pairing finished with a cocktail that featured Moscos, a locally made orange liqueur. Francisco did a wonderful job of filling our glasses with quality Mexican products, both local and from around the country.
Salas used Moscos along with Bailey’s and Brandy to create a warming treat with which to wash down the last of this superb meal.
Amaranth is a wonderfully nutritive grain that is used in Mexico to make outstanding sweets. This bon bon finished our meal with tasteful style. Given the name of the restaurant, it was also particularly suiting.
Chef Pablo Salas, his restaurant and his staff were all warm, inviting and generous. It was well worth the trip from Mexico City to experience his cooking and a meal that was from top to bottom Mexican. At the top of this post, I called Mexican cuisine what to some, for some reason, is a dirty word – fusion. Ultimately, aren’t all cuisines? Is there a national or even a local cuisine that has not been influenced through either ingredients or technique by other cuisines? Even Japanese cuisine, one held in the highest esteem by most who are interested in such things, has incorporated elements from other cultures, thereby making them their own. So too, Mexico, but it hasn’t happened overnight and that is what separates these cuisines from the fusion-haters’ glare. Mexico has taken a wealth of indigenous ingredients and added others from Europe, Africa and Asia in ways that are totally seamless and as natural seeming as tomato sauce is to the cooking of southern Italy or the peppers of Sechuan, China. Pablo Salas has used the ingredients that are present in his country, whether indigenously or established over time and fused them with techniques both traditional and modern to create a style of food that is somehow both personal, yet universally and organically Toluccan and Mexican. Amaranta is a wonderful restaurant. it is off the beaten track of international recognition, but it shouldn’t be.
For more photos from Amaranta see my Flick’r photoset.