When writing a restaurant and dining oriented food blog, the priority is to check out and write about new places. That is a mixed blessing. While it is a lot of fun to explore and experience new things, it means that I don’t get back to the places I love nearly as often as I would otherwise like. This is especially true when returning to places with frequency such as New York City, where there is always a hot new restaurant (or several) to try. However, when I go back to a place only once in a while, I like to mix it up and revisit some old favorites as well as spots that are new to me. This was the case on my recent return to Mexico City for Mesamérica 2014. I did get to a number of places that I had not yet experienced, but I also returned to a few old favorites, both to relive past glories and to experience some new ones.
There are few restaurateurs who are as successful as Gabriela Camara at providing superior quality food and creating a vibrant scene across multiple restaurants. In Mexico City, I have experienced two of her restaurants, MeroToro and El Contramar, both fantastic with lively atmospheres and impeccably sourced, delicious and accessible food. While I did not have the opportunity to get back to the wonderful MeroToro on this trip, El Contramar was the first stop for my son, Andrew and I, after we checked into our hotel. We had a lunch date to meet up with two talented and delightful friends of mine, Anne Engamare McBride and Jody Eddy. The place is busy, raucous and a little bit wild. It is also all fun and great seafood, as it is a contemporary urban version of a classic Mexican seaside seafood shack. From their classic tuna tostadas to the creatively delicious al pastor style cobia tacos to the spectacular two-sided whole grilled pescado a la talla (pargo – a type of snapper is used) with one side brushed with a green perejil or parsley sauce and the other with a chile rojo, and everything in between, the food hits the spot! It hadn’t changed from my last visit, which in this case, is a very good thing. It also remained a magnet for visiting chefs and foodies as other guests at the restaurant that afternoon included the likes of Mario Batali, Danny Bowien, and both Frankies – Castronovo and Falcinelli, amongst others. Indeed a couple of days later, passing by in a taxi, I spied Batali and crew there again for lunch.
While El Contramar is and should remain a bastion of culinary stability, mixing in new dishes now and again, but retaining the tried, true and delicious, Paxia, Chef Daniel Ovadia’s modern Mexican flagship, is the opposite. The center of a burgeoning culinary empire that will also be heading to the United States in the near future, Paxia is all about change and evolution. Ovadia’s culinary subject matter at Paxia is Mexico itself, but with Ovadia’s personal spin and interpretations. Paxia is a theatrical restaurant with a multilevel space, focused lighting and table-side finishing service that belies the complexity of preparation that goes into Ovadia’s dishes. A dinner at Paxia is an evening’s entertainment with dinner included as part of the entertainment. From cocktails finished at the table to the show-stopper, Ovadia’s Mojarra Frita al Revés (in which the cooking oil is poured over the fish rather than the fish cooked in the oil), to finishing sauces and more, much is prepared directly in front of the diners. While some knowledge of Mexican cuisine is helpful in terms of the intellectual appreciation of the meal. the bottom line is that the meal is fun and all of the dishes are delicious. Compared to my last visit, the decor has changed somewhat and Ovadia’s dishes are less elaborate in appearance with fewer obvious ingredients. His cooking was excellent before, but his increasing restraint is resulting in a clearer focus and less distraction. His continued evolution as a chef will be fun to watch, especially as he broadens his market to the United States.
Finally, for me no visit to Mexico City can be complete without a visit to one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Chef Enrique Olvera’s cooking, like Ovadia’s is based on traditional Mexican cooking and ingredients, but their styles are vastly different. Both are complex and both are delicious, but Olvera’s cooking is much leaner in design and showmanship than Olvadia’s, but is no less interesting or fun. Olvera’s focus is to elevate classic Mexican street food into something beyond. When one considers how delicious classic Mexican street food is, this is a rather tall order to create something that actually improves it without being pretentious. Somehow, Olvera manages to do just that though. He finds the essence of the dishes and uses the finest Mexican ingredients along with an artistic eye prone to a minimalist palette to make his dishes truly shine. On my last visit, I had been surprised and overwhelmed at the pleasure I received from a dish based around escamoles, the larvae of special flying ants. Based on their deliciousness and novelty to me at the time, Olvera’s escamoles was my dish of the year for 2012. This time, a new escamoles dish was just as delicious, but without the element of surprise, it wasn’t the true stand-out of the meal. That distinction, for me, was left to his Madre Mole, a dish that focused on mole, a sauce with many different varieties and styles that represents the complex essence of Mexican cuisine. Most sauces serve to augment solid foods such as meats, fish or vegetables, but with moles in Mexico, they are the main component of the dish with any meat, fish or vegetable on the plate there only as a vehicle for the sauce. In Olvera’s minimalist fashion, he took out the solid element from the plate completely, leaving only fresh, soft tortillas de maíz to sop up the liquid deliciousness. What helps to make Olvera’s mole even more special is that he has maintained the same mole base for over a year adding new ingredients to replace the sauce that is used. The result is a deliciousness of unusual complexity. The relative lack of textural variation serves to heighten the focus on the flavor and mouthfeel of this wondrous dish. Olvera and Pujol never cease to astonish me.
Another happy return for me was staying again at The St. Regis Mexico City (see Instagram video at the top of the post – taken from the hotel), but the remainder of our visit to Mexico City was spent enjoying restaurants and chefs new to me. I aim to focus on them with more detail as the summer unfolds.