Bringing the Sea to Mexico City – Part 1: Contramar

Mexico City may be landlocked, but Mexico has plenty of coastline and wonderful seafood. Much of the very best of it comes to two related restaurants in Mexico City – Contramar and MeroToro, both owned by the lovely Gabriela Cámara, one of the early leaders of the renaissance of Mexican cooking in Mexico City restaurants. Contramar, the first of Cámara’s restaurants opened in 1998.

Both Contramar and MeroToro specialize in relatively straightforward seafood dishes. The premise behind Contramar is to recreate a beachside seafood shack in the city. That of MeroToro is to bring Baja Mediterranean cooking to the DF. Both succeed admirably.

Neither Contramar nor MeroToro are examples of seafood fine dining in the way that a restaurant like Le Bernardin is. The level of manipulation at both restaurants is limited and the presentations, while attractive, remain secondary to the coastal spirit both restaurants are trying to evoke.

Tostada de Atún

Contramar was the first of Cámara’s restaurants and became justifiably renowned for dishes like the Tostada de Atún, a tostada prepared with a smear of chipotle mayonaisse, house cured tuna, fried leeks, a strip of avocado and a squeeze of lime. It is an original dish that even the ardent Mexican traditionalist, Diana Kennedy, called them “very good.” That they are. It was the first thing we ate when I sat down for lunch during the Mesamerica Congress this past July with a group of friends including Ruth Alegria, Adam Goldberg, and others. It was a a basic presentation that relied on the quality and smart proportions of its ingredients to make it stand out. That is always a good model for culinary success when the ultimate goals are deliciousness and fun.

Aguachile de campechano

The aguachiles, variations on ceviches (aguachiles are not “cooked” as long as ceviches – the fresh seafood remains closer to a raw, sashimi-like state than with a ceviche or , if otherwise cooked, less pickled). The Aguachile de Campechanoserved shrimp, octopus and fish along with cucumbers and red onions in a spicy, vibrant broth created with a combination of lime and chiles. I could go for some right now!

Pickled Vegetables

Pickling was not limited to fish. Pickled vegetables including cauliflower, carrots, onions, chiles and most especially rajas de nopales(cactus strips) were all heartily enjoyed by the table.

Tacos de Esmedregal (Cobia) al Pastor

Tacos al pastorare ubiquitous around Mexico City, but at Contramar they were a bit different than the usual as the “meat” was fish (Cobia) and not pork. They still came with the wonderful spices and grilled pineapple. Delicious!

Ceviche de Almejas Chocolatas

While the cooking did not display the finesse of haute cuisine, it was still artful. Almejas Chocolatas(“chocolate” clams), beautiful brown clams from the Pacific, were combined with salicornia, avocados and red peppers to create a strikingly colorful and flavorful ceviche.

Jaiba suave

Jaibas Suaves, softshell crabs, were fried up, chopped up, spiced up and served with white flour tortillas. Combined, the flavor somehow reminded me of moo-shoo pork. I could have eaten a bunch of these.

Buñuelos de bacalao

We ate Buñuelos de Bacalao, salt cod fritters, served with a spicy remoulade – these were wonderful, hot from the fryer.

Salpicon de Pescado

Another bright spot was the Salpicón de Pescado – seared fish in a sauce with green chiles, Worcester Sauce, maguy and lime.

Butterflied Pargo

Shortly after we had placed our order, this whole, butterflied pargo (a type of snapper) was brought out to show us and then returned to the kitchen for the grill.

Pescado a la Talla Contramar con Chile Rojo y Perejil

The whole grilled fish came back as out last course. It had half with a red chile paste and the other half with a parsley paste.

Mark Miller

The fish was divided at the table by the chef in our group, the inimitable Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe fame. The fish reminded me of the fish grilled whole in Getaria in the Basque Country. It was an impressive display and a lovely fish.

Desserts

The dessert selection looked tempting, but time was not on our side as we needed to return for the afternoon session of the Mesamerica Congress.

Contramar may not quite have made us feel that we were sitting at a palapa on a beautiful Mexican beach, but it came as close as it possibly could have for a busy, urban restaurant in the middle of one of the very largest cities on the planet. It’s a restaurant that offered high quality seafood in pleasing preparations in a lovely, evocative setting. It is the kind of restaurant that I would be thrilled to find wherever I found myself to be.

For additional photos, please see my Flick’r Photoset.


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