Chef Jair Telléz already had a successful restaurant, Laja, in a small village in the Valle de Guadalupe (Mexico’s premiere wine region) just outside of Ensenada – when he was lured to the major metropolis of Mexico City by Gabriela Cámara, the owner of Contramar and other restaurants to be the chef at MeroToro, a restaurant celebrating the Med-Mex surf and turf cuisine of Baja. Mero means grouper and Toro is the bull. Unlike its sister restaurant, Contramar, MeroToro does not exclusively serve seafood, even if seafood is its major draw.
It seemed like there wasn’t a restaurant in Mexico City busier during the week of Mesamerica than MeroToro. Only a short walk away from the Blackberry Auditorium where the Congress was held, it seemed as if everyone from the Congress ate there at least once during the week. The place was filled at varying times with the likes of Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, Rodolfo Guzman, Christopher Kostow, James Casey, Rosio Sanchez, Gabe Ulla, Paula Forbes, Adam Goldberg and Brooks Headley amongst others. It was so good and so much fun, I ate there twice that week.
Whereas Contramar was designed to try to emulate the ambiance of a seaside palapa, MeroToro did not try to be anything other than it was – a chic, informal restaurant serving kickass food. A deep dining room held a number of tables down the center, while to one side, there were a few longer tables with banquettes suitable for groups. It was amongst those long tables of dark wood that I sat on each visit.
The culinary ideals of MeroToro reflect Chef Tellez’s own varied background. He grew up on the border and spent much time living and cooking in the United States. The cuisine that he applied to MeroToro is one that like Contramar, relies extensively on good product, served to highlight the attributes of that product. While his dishes were well designed, original and structured, they showed strong influences from Mexican tradition, from the Mediterranean, from California and even Japan.
We kept ordering and the food kept flowing. Many Americans don’t think of Mexico as a bread country, instead thinking that this component of a meal is filled only by tortillas whether corn or wheat. Depending on the ir particular histories of European influence, certain areas of Mexico are more bread oriented than others, but meroToro’s Mediterranean influence puts it squarely in the bread category and the bread was quite good.
For the first lunch, we asked the kitchen to send out food and that they did. It kept flowing. One dish that we had on both visits was the sensationally delicious and well named “Vuelve a La Vida” or Return to Life. Based upon a Baja seafood cocktail, this truly invigorating dish combined stunning Pacific sea urchin with barnacles and black clams in a beautifully bracing lime and chile marinade. We actually asked for more of this during our first lunch despite all the rest of the great food.
Jurel is what the Mexicans call yellowtail. Telléz did a tartare that he finished with a warm citrus and ginger broth. Add to that some seaweed fibers and the sum was a pure breath of pristine sea.
Telléz showed as much of a painter’s facility with color as with taste and texture. This jurel that was grilled and served with yellow tomatoes, red beets and greens. Delicious and beautiful.
The emptied plate was worthy of many a modern art museum.
So far we had taken great pleasure from the “Mero” part of the restaurant, but had yet to see the “Toro.” That was soon fixed with the full flavored Risotto de tuétano, res braseada y vino tinto. This was perfectly crafted, creamy risotto that was pure beef decadence. Telléz showed that he was indeed a master of surf and turf without resorting to cliches. This marvelous dish also showed Telléz’ facility with dishes well out of the Mexican mainstream.
I’ll never forget the grilled Pacific prawns that I had in Ixtapa back in 1988. Full of garlic, chiles and herbs, they became a personal benchmark for grilled shrimp. Tellez’ prawns differed in their spicing. These were more classically Mediterranean, but they were no less delicious. It was another dish that we simply had to get seconds of.
Beef was not the only meat available at MeroToro. The Quijada de Cerdo Iberico al Sartén sobre lentejas braseadas y huevo pochado brought pork into the equation. This wasn’t just any pork though. It was the cheek of Spanish Iberico pigs and it was just as delicious as one would expect of this product. Telléz treated it with a bed of lentils and a blanket of poached egg. Just like in Northern California, it was clear that a Mediterranean cuisine was at home in Baja and by the extension of MeroToro, in central Mexico too.
Tellez’ Mediterranean flair continued with lamb stuffed canneloni and pickled onions. By this point it was clear that the meal would have been just as at home in Barcelona, the original land of mar y montaña, as it was in Mexico City or in Ensenada This is not to say that the meal didn’t offer a distinct sense of place. It did, but the place was one that tied together different influences of Tellez’s northern Mexican and coastal roots. It was a place that was distinctly rooted in the chef rather than the chef having been rooted in just one specific location. It tied together seamlessly.
The rest of the food was a seesaw between the sea and the land. A warm salad of octopus with morcilla was the perfect, yet still unusual blend of sea and land. The octopus was tender and the morcilla an earthy, mineral-rich counterpoint.
Manila clams were cooked with seaweed and cucumber further punctuating the yin/yang of sea and land. The leftover juices put the aforementioned excellent bread to good service as did the juices from the grilled prawns.
We learned during the Mesamerica Congress that Mexico is a land blessed with an incredible assortment and quality of wild mushrooms. A number of these native gems were found in a beautifully composed dish abetted by broccoli puré, lardo and acorns.
MeroToros famous risotto with swiss chard, pancetta and a poached egg incorporated Mexican flavors thereby marrying the Mediterranean and Mexican elements of Telléz’ history and did so in truly magnificent fashion.
Ironically the only dish that was less than perfectly executed was the pan seared mero (grouper). Served with chorizo, chard and salsify purée, it was both a touch dry and salty. Too bad, as this had tremendous flavor and the hallmarks of another great dish. As it was, it was still quite good and its relative imperfection could be easily forgiven given the volume and rapidity of our food and the general bustle of the restaurant over two very full meals.
As with Contramar, we didn’t have time for dessert – a shame. Both lunches were a big party with plenty of milling about and socializing. Even better was that this was a big party with outstanding food. Jair Telléz had the attention of his peers at Mesamerica and deservedly so. His food, both from the sea and the land, was honest, original and truly delicious. He has deftly managed the transition from a small stage to a very, very big one. Gabriela Cámara was wise to bring him on as MeroToro makes a wonderful complement to Contramar and vice versa. They have both in their own distinct fashions helped put the sea in Mexico City.