On the second day of the inaugural Mesamerica Congress in Mexico City in July, the ambitious and talented young chef Daniel Ovadía gave his presentation on using traditional Mexican ingredients in new ways. His approach was heartfelt and artistic, but the most emotional part of his presentation involved a reading of a long poem entitled “Todos Queremos un México Mejor” (‘Everyone Wants a Better Mexico’). See this post on Cristina Potter’s fabulous Mexico-centric blog, Mexico Eats, to get a sense of the poem and see all of her Mesamerica posts for a great sense of the Congress. The poem was recited while Ovadía prepared a dish centered around the traditional white mole of fiestas, symbolizing the travails of contemporary Mexico. It was a powerful presentation. At the end of the Congress I was fortunate enough to dine at his foremost Mexico City restaurant Paxia in the company of several of Mexico’s most celebrated chefs, their spouses and Lauren Resler and Alex Stupak of the two Empellón restaurants of New York City. It was clear that Ovadía’s passion for Mexico was quite real.
Ovadia’s food is not simple. In fact, it tends to be quite complex, almost Baroque in its intricacies. Ovadía has been a student of contemporary cuisine since he was a teenager and he learned well. Like all truly good students, though, he has taken the lessons that he learned and applied them to his own vision. This was apparent in his presentation as well as the meal we enjoyed at Paxia.
The dining room of Paxia is spacious, comfortable and broken up into several levels. We were seated on a large round table on the lowest level. This was a late lunch (that proved to hold me over for dinner too) and we were amongst the last in the restaurant as the afternoon wore on. There was no question that the young chef was out to impress us nor was there a question as to his success.
I sat down to a lovely cocktail that was as tasty as it it was colorful. Ovadía’s approach to cooking at Paxia is Pan-Mexican, using ingredients, dishes and techniques from all over the country, stamping them with his own style. The blood red cocktail featured Mezcal and juice of the chimoy, a Mexican fruit.
Shortly thereafter, our table was piled up with an avalanche of food. The kitchen created tasting sizes of a few of the more popular appetizers of the restaurant and served them all together. Each of the preparations was served in a beautiful blue and white china bowl. Each was a complex, multi ingredient dish and each was very tasty. It became quickly apparent that Ovadía is a chef who really enjoys playing with his food. This was not going to be a minimalist’s meal. While I lean a bit towards a minimalist’s perspective myself, my tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging. The clam en rescoldo (grilled) accompanied by such diverse ingredients as lentils, spring onions, chile serrano and lemon pulp was complicated, but very tasty. It worked.
Though the quesadilla de Oaxaca was a bit too sweet for my preference (it was stuffed with chicken and a chocolate based mole negro and covered with sugar), it had excellent texture and great flavor. It was accompanied by a cocktail glass with more of the tasty mole straight up.
The smoked octopus escabeche was no less complicated and no less tasty.
Lechón or suckling pig is one of my favorite meats when done with skill. The meat and the rest of this dish were executed very well. The flavors were good and the textures were complex. There was nothing not to like about this creative dish, yet while I appreciated the artistry of the composition and the juxtaposition of flavors and textures, part of me would have preferred just to savor the succulent lechón by itself.
That is often the dilemma when faced with complex, creative cooking. If I had the knowledge that this would be the last suckling pig that I would ever have the pleasure of eating, I would have preferred it in a more unadulterated state. However, given my ignorance regarding that question, I enjoyed it for what it was – an exploration of flavors and textures using excellent product, imagination and consummate skill.
More clam and evidence of Ovadía’s Vanguardist sentiments came with with the next dish. Geoduck clam is not a species I had ever previously associated with Mexico, but that was more of a reflection of my ignorance than anything else. Mexico is host to a bevy of products that have a tendency to be very popular elsewhere and so tend to get exported. Yet these, like the geoduck clam, are native Mexican products. Many of them are just beginning to receive their proper attention in Mexico. The geoduck was paired with ice plant, jicama “milk”, salicornia, citrus, cucumber and radish. It was not the most obviously Mexican dish of the meal, but it was still quite good.
With this dish, the presentation was much more spare than that of its predecessors. With a long bone split down the middle acting as the vehicle for its own marrow, there was more of a primal, pre-Columbian aura about it. The marrow was scooped into a fresh tortilla along with the crosnes, onion ash, avocado and three distinct salts. Even with this apparently simple dish, the preparation was quite complex. Here, though Ovadía and his team approached a sensibility approaching those of contemporary Nordic kitchens, yet with a clear Mexican focus. Technique was used to enhance rather than for its own sake.
Mexican flavors are very beer friendly, especially with wonderful, well crafted Mexican beers. The marrow was paired with this hearty Scottish style ale from Tempus, one of the best of the new breed of Mexican brewers.
The irony of this preparation was that it was served on fine china under a cloche. Of course, the cloche was utilized to hold the smoke that permeated this magnificent dish. I had knowingly eaten insects for the first time on this very trip to Mexico. Enrique Olvera’s escamoles (ant larvae) were revelatory and so was this dish. Here the red caterpillar larvae that infest the roots of the maguey cactus proved to be no less than extraordinary for me.
The combination of ingredients made an outstanding taco, but the stars were the chinicuiles themselves. My fear would have been that they would have been mushy, chewy and/or gooey, but fortunately my fears were allayed. The larvae (typically misrepresented as “worms”) were crunchy and redolent of a magnificent smokey flavor. This wonderful plate proved to be my favorite dish of the meal and one of the most enjoyable and memorable that I had eaten all year. I don’t know how well I would enjoy them in other circumstances, but here they were truly delicious and something very, very special.
Ovadía took a page out of the Alinea menu progression by adding this mostly sweet course in the middle of the meal. It was unexpected, but tasty nevertheless.
The progression veered back to the clearly savory with sweetbreads that were cooked in honey and served with beef stock that was poured tableside and charred lemon that was grated tableside by Chef Ovadía. The sweetbreads lay atop a leek purée. This was another dish, like the bone marrow, where its relative visual simplicity belied its inherent complexity. I love well prepared sweetbreads and these were no exception to that rule.
Mexico is also well known for its spirits, especially Tequila and Mezcal. This special Jose Cuervo Tequila was served with the sweetbreads for an unusual yet effective pairing.
Turkey is a native bird of the Americas and is of course the featured traditional entree of the US Thanksgiving holiday. It is also a meat that is often the accompaniment to a mole.
Here, Chef Ovadía served it with a chilmole, a Yucatecan dark mole, poured over it table-side, pickled vegetables and a cacahuacintle corn purée. The turkey was juicy and delicious and the chilmole a wonderful base. The other components were well suited to this lovely dish.
This nice Mexican Syrah picked up nicely on the spice of the chilmole, which was really the centerpiece of the above dish despite the featuring of the lovely turkey.
Ovadîa featured this dish of albino trout from the mountains outside of Mexico City during his Mesamerica presentation. Here it was cooked in tortilla ash and served with native mushrooms.
In addition to the mushrooms already on the plate, Ovadía shook another large fungus that resembled coral from the sea over each plate to add more earthiness to the plates. This earthiness was offset a bit by crystallized grapefruit.. The trout was moist and delicious as were the mushrooms, though it is difficult for me to ascertain how much of a contribution the mushroom shake added to the final effect. While its visual appeal was clear, the actual contribution was not without having a “before” taste to compare with the “after.” Nevertheless, if it was just simple “showmanship” it didn’t detract from the deliciousness of the dish.
Herbal medicine has a longstanding tradition in Mexico. Muicle is a member of the acanthus family and its leaves and flowers have been used to make a tea to aid in digestion.
Ovadía made a tea from muicle using a technique borrowed from Pedro Subijana. The leaves were boiled in a pot.
Eventually the color achieved a vivid yellow-red.
With Subijana’s technique, the hot tea was sucked up through a filter into a container, from which it was ladled into a cocktail shaker.
The muicle was then transformed into a delicious and theatrical dessert cocktail with coconut, chia, celery and Mezcal Espedín de Santiago Matatlán.
The first full-fledged dessert was this airy yogurt sponge with almond and honey cookie, black cherry marmalade and milk merengue. Ovadía’s use of color throughout the meal was exceptional, reminding me of Arzak.
Rather stuffed, we managed to nibble down these lovely mignardises that remained as colorful, beautiful and delicious as the rest of the meal.
Though still quite young, Daniel Ovadía has been a student of cooking and fine dining for some time and it shows. His ability to use intricate techniques and combine multiple ingredients in a complex fashion is clear. He has also been a student of the traditions of Mexican cuisine and once again has learned his lessons well. He incorporates a variety of ingredients and traditions from across Mexico into his cooking. I am not familiar enough with the restaurants of Mexico to know if he is the only one currently combining these traditions and ingredients with modern technique in this fashion, but I doubt there are many, if any, doing it quite like he is doing it. All of the chefs around me appeared to be as impressed with his food as I was, which, to me, supports that conclusion.
Ovadía’s style is not spare. He is by no means a minimalist. Much of his cooking style appears to be from the influence of the Spanish Vanguardistas, though applied to Mexican ingredients and traditions. It is a style, however, that currently is not as much in vogue through most of the world as it was a few years ago. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or that he should follow the trends towards the Scandinavian influenced New Naturalism or Japanese asceticism that seem to be currently more in vogue. That said, as good as Ovadía’s food is (and it is very good), I can’t help but think that it could be even better with additional focus. Every plate has so many ingredients. The overall effects work, but are they all necessary and do they all truly enhance each plate? I’m not sure, but Daniel Ovadía’s exuberance and enthusiasm are palpable. He loves what he is doing and he very much wants to show that to the world. It seems to me that at this point, that is why every plate comes with so much. He just wants to put it all out there and not hold anything back. There is no doubt in my mind that as he continues to grow and harness his enormous talents, skill and knowledge that the world will indeed come to know and appreciate the food of Chef Daniel Ovadía.
For even more photos, please see the Flick’r photoset.