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Wine & Dine
January 02, 2020

Twist of Plate

Text by Shirin Mehta

There is much more to Mexican food than tamales and tacos, discovers Shirin Mehta, who takes a flavourful bite out of Pujol, Contramar and Quintonil, three restaurants in Mexico City that have gained worldwide renown

Here are the things I discover about Mexican food while in that country. That it is unlike the Mexican food that I have eaten anywhere else in the world — here, in Mumbai or even in the US. That it is as diverse as Indian food and has many similarities while being so totally different. That it has been shortchanged in the context of world cuisine but is gaining new respect. That the country’s chefs and restaurants are newly taking sizeable steps into the world of international cuisine. That while the street food is truly scrumptious, Mexican food does not always have to be the cheaper option. This last one, perhaps, is the most significant misrepresentation of all, for I discover that the cuisine lends itself quite naturally to a fine dining experience….

Mexico City reminds me so much of my own Mumbai that I am immediately at home. Cleaner, greener, perhaps…. With that Colonial hangover that the Indian city cannot seem to shake off either. The avenues are wider. There are fountains and monuments everywhere and taquerias, cafes and eateries at every corner, crammed with large families feasting noisily together. It is in its restaurants that Mexico City surges ahead with cutting-edge finality, as compared to most Mumbai establishments. Some of its chefs are players on the world gastronomic stage today, recognised for their ability to take a 1000-year-old culinary tradition that is influenced by Mayan, Aztec, European and Middle Eastern cuisines and plate it up anew.

Prateek Sadhu, executive chef and co-owner of Mumbai’s wilderness-to-table restaurant Masque, is in Mexico City and cooking at Quintonil, a restaurant that has reinvented Mexican cuisine. “Chef Jorge Vallejo (of Quintonil), during his pop-up at Masque, thought that it would be cool to do a chilli exchange,” Sadhu says telephonically. “There is so much that is in common between Mexican and Indian food. The beans and rice, our lentils, the chillies, and their salsa is like our chutney…. I can relate to the cuisine because of the ingredients, the cooking techniques.” And yet, he bemoans the fact that in India and, perhaps, the world, the perception of Mexican food is that it is simply Tex-Mex cuisine. “We tend to think of this as Mexican food, but it is not,” he asserts.

I am guilty too; I realise that now. On a visit to an historical site just outside the boundaries of Mexico City, I had asked the affable-until-that-moment guide where I could taste the best burritos. With a frozen smile and cold eyes, she replied that burritos were not to be found in Mexico; perhaps I would find them on a trip to the US! “This is also true about the perception of Indian food,” Sadhu adds. “Do we cook butter chicken at home every day? Please don’t put us in a box.”

In my attempt to ‘un-box’ Mexican food, I dine at three chef-driven restaurants and applaud the creators for their magnificent flavours….

PUJOL

The Netflix Chef’s Table episode on Pujol and its brilliant chef, Enrique Olvera, has captivated me from the start. I think it is the close-up of the grinding-stone and pestle that it opens with that takes me back to a childhood when chillies for curry were ground manually by stone, a technique that is used extensively in Mexico as well. But, had I expected a rustic restaurant, I would have been mistaken. In the leafy Polanco area, Pujol is a sophisticated oasis of modernity, set in a garden with outdoor seating and bar. Inside, the expansive windows looking onto the greenery, the bright yellow table-top flowers, the use of wood and stone, the terrazzo flooring, attract attention as does a special bar-seating area reserved for taco tasting. We are all set to savour Olvera’s interpretation of Mexican fine dining. Pujol has been ranked number 13 on the 2019 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and been voted the best restaurant in North America this year. Cosme, Olvera’s modern Mexican restaurant in New York that he opened in 2014, made its debut onto the list last year and this year has risen to Number 25.

A choice of two seven-course tasting menus is presented on a scroll with a wax seal — Maiz (corn) or Mar (sea). Hubby and I choose one each. The street snack starter is common to both menus — Pujol’s signature baby corn with chicatana ant mayonnaise, which appears over smoking corn husks in a dried gourd. The baby corn on a bamboo skewer is crisp and representative of one of the hundreds of types of corn that were once traditionally grown in the country. This dish particularly reflects Olvera’s commitment to reviving and keeping alive some of these dying strains of corn. A variety of plates follows, each one skillfully presented, placing traditional and ancient ingredients creatively in a contemporary setting. Some are arranged artistically over a tortilla, raising the street taco to higher levels using fillings worthy of a fine dining dish. The combinations of ingredients, like huitlacoche (corn fungus, in use since the Aztecs) paired with black truffle or sweet potato with pine nut, or ceviche with the juice of cacahuazintle (an heirloom maize variety) or a striped sea bass with hoja santa (an aromatic Mexican herb), burst with new flavours. The octopus chintextle resembles an artwork. I am reminded of Olvera’s confession in the Chef’s Table episode that in his childhood, food was treated as a reward, and that on every birthday, he requested pulpos en su tinta, an octopus preparation that he loved. “And so the beautiful moments of my childhood end up showing up in my menu in some way or form,” he said.

While on an exploratory visit to Oaxaca in search of culinary inspiration, Olvera stated that he discovered an unimaginable variety of moles — red, yellow, green…. And his version is what he has become famous for, being applauded by chefs and diners alike for the complexity and depth of flavour that he has created. Fittingly, the main course of the meal this evening is a sauce. The mole madre 1923 days, mole nuevo. The mole madre that we are served this evening, in a perfect brown circle on our white plates, is 1923 days old (the days are pencilled onto the printed menu) while there is a lighter brown circle of newer mole in the centre. The idea is to compare the two on the palate. Apparently, a hundred ingredients go into its creation, and some old mole is introduced with some new so that the sauce keeps evolving. I taste its intense flavour together with the accompanying green tortilla that has a leaf fused onto it. And it is made better as it triggers memories of Mexican friends visiting Mumbai; they had confessed that back home in Monterey, ‘making mole’ was the excuse that one gave to save face if ever asked why they weren’t at one of the society parties that they hadn’t actually been invited to…. Because it just took so very long to cook up that mole!

ENRIQUE OLVERA
Chef-Owner

Which is the traditional ingredient that you love to experiment with, and what have you done with it?
Corn is one of them. It’s so versatile, and in the restaurant, we’ve done a lot with it. From tortillas, tostadas and tlayudas to sweet tamales and corn powder and as a topping for some of our dishes, like our ceviche with cacahuazintle corn.

What is the biggest challenge in creating Mexican food-inspired fine dining dishes? In what way do these reflect and preserve Mexican culture?
To recreate dishes from a different context (for example, street food) into fine dining is the biggest challenge. People believe Mexican food is cheap, and it is not. It is full of contrasts and is also sophisticated, it is an endless inspiration source for me, and bringing it to a fine-dining environment is also a way to express Mexican culture. I don’t like to use the term ‘preserve’ — like putting something in a museum — food is alive, either on the streets or in a fine restaurant.

Which is the ingredient of the future, according to you, and how will we see it presented on your menu?
I don’t think much about future ingredients. One thing is for certain though: we need to minimise our red meat consumption. Also, to avoid agricultural practices that aggravate climate change. Vegetables would be one solution, but we need to make sure that they grow in a healthy environment. Our menu is notorious for our use of different vegetables.

 

QUINTONIL

In the plush Polanco neighbourhood, we dash across the pavement in the pouring rain and enter fine-dining restaurant Quintonil to discover two silver balloons, that together read ‘24’, floating in the narrow hallway. Chef Jorge Vallejo’s and his wife, Alejandra Flores’ venture has been on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2015 and was, on that very day, ranked 24th in the world and 9th in Latin America. Worthy accolades for the young chef and protégée of Enrique Olvera, and I am excited to taste Vallejo’s version of contemporary Mexican cuisine. Especially since I had missed his cooking at Masque, at their second year celebration.

The narrow, elegant dining room, where we sit down, opens out into a larger one. Over the courses, the tasting menu throws up so many unfamiliar ingredients, flavours and textures. This is probably because Vallejo firmly believes that authentic Mexican food is not possible without native ingredients; Quintonil itself is named after an indigenous herb. The cuisine features a host of fruits, vegetables and herbs like the local chilacayote squash, the green vegetable huauzontles, the chilacayote gourd, or the corn fungus huitlacoche. These are the ingredients that he grew up eating and that he enjoys experimenting with now. Vallejo belongs to a group of chefs who, in Xochimilko in the south of Mexico City, frequent the chinampas — floating islands where small farmers continue to practise ancient Aztec farming methods. He credits the exceptional flavours in his cuisine to these ingredients as well as those grown on his rooftop garden.

Giving a personal twist to traditional ingredients and methods is his forte. Take the dish with caviar, mamey (a fruit) tatemado (chargrilled or blackened) and cream of ranch infused with honey Melipona. The dollop of caviar rests atop a slice of the beautiful orange fruit that has been delicately charred for maximum flavour, served with a dot of ranch dressing infused with the honey of an ancient sacred stingless bee that feeds on the flowers of the Yucatan Peninsula. Or the avocado, perfectly toasty with a crust of burnt chilli, served with pumpkin puree and pineapple. Or the dessert, guava rocks with guava creamy caramel and pink peppercorn gel, in a finale that, as described on the restaurant’s website, ‘evokes the rocky soil of the southern landscape of Mexico City and the stones that pile up in regions such as the Ajusco, the Pedregal and University City’.

JORGE VALLEJO
Chef-Co-owner

What is the traditional ingredient you love to experiment with and what have you done with it?
There are many ingredients I like to experiment with, and it is in accordance with the time of my life and season of the year. Quelites — quintonil is actually a quelite — are wild edible herbs that are found throughout the Mexican territory, and which I consider an essential ingredient in stews, because of the substantial flavour they provide. In Quintonil’s menus there are always quelites, sometimes they are the protagonists, as the huauzontles, and sometimes their presence is subtle, as a mere accompaniment; but if you pay attention, that accompaniment will gain ground on your palate until it is the protagonist again.

What is the biggest challenge in creating haute cuisine dishes inspired by Mexican food? How do these reflect and preserve Mexican culture?
Mexican cuisine is made up of many regional and territorial cuisines, that are consolidated as in a recipe book over hundreds of years, from the countryside, the sea to the city. That is, an immeasurable tradition precedes us. So for a relatively young chef, the challenge is to be consistent with this story; we as Mexicans respect these traditions very much. In the way of cooking at Quintonil, innovating means presenting and preparing the ingredients with all the potential they have: that the quelite is the freshest; that the fish is the result of a highly sustainable chain, both in its acquisition, as in its transport and preparation; that we respect the times of nature; that nothing is artificial or forced. Thus our ancestors cooked, with what was available both temporarily and spatially. Under that same premise, we must cook.

What is the ingredient of the future, according to you, and how will we see it presented in your menu?
I cannot know what will happen in the future as such. In Mexico today, we eat what we ate many years ago, so I could say that our gastronomy is a way of living in the future. Unfortunately, ecosystems in the world are at risk due to their overexploitation, among other things, and if we do not act radically, many products could disappear not only from our menus but also from the planet. I read a while ago that insects will take centre stage in future foods, given their proliferation, their nutritional value and energy content and their ease of availability. At Quintonil, we prepare and eat many of them: grasshoppers, cocopaches, ants, even their eggs…they are a delicacy. However, we cannot deny that today, everything is in danger, and we must act so as not to have to think about future foods and continue enjoying what we have now.

 

CONTRAMAR

We have a 5 p.m. reservation at Contramar — restaurateur-chef and political advisor Gabriela Cámara’s much-loved, lunch-only, seafood restaurant located in the Roma neighbourhood. (She also advises the Mexican government on food policy.) It shuts at 6.30 p.m., a succinct comment on the long, leisurely alcohol-fuelled lunches that Mexicans love to indulge in. Contramar is the ideal venue for this — the large airy interior, the white-clad tables that overflow onto the pavement, the brilliant-blue marine mural that dominates, the waiters in their formal white shirts, black waistcoats and bowties and, most importantly, the freshness of the flavours of the seafood as well as of the incredible desserts. “The idea of Contramar from the beginning was to bring a palapa or beach café from Zihuatanejo, from Troncones, that part of the Pacific…to the city. It was basically about being on the beach eating fresh fish that was caught that morning,” Cámara says in the documentary A Tale of Two Kitchens that leads the viewer into the lives of the people working at Contramar and Cámara’s San Francisco-based restaurant, Cala. (She opened Onda in Santa Monica this summer.) An unusual kitchen culture is revealed, one that believes in giving people a second chance, embracing felons as well as those with drug or alcohol problems. “They actually care about the people who work here,” comments a staff member.

While we wait for our table, I flip through Cámara’s latest cookbook, My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions, which I now wish I had bought. Hunger pangs and a sighting of the lushly-loaded dessert tray had obviously clouded my judgement. The wait is worth it. Hubby goes the tourist route and orders tequila which he downs with glasses of lemon juice. I get a paloma, or tequila cocktail, which makes me happy. A furtive look around at other diners (the city mayor is known to eat here) quickly establishes the raw-tuna tostada as a hot favourite, and we quickly order the same. Topped with chipotle mayonnaise and slices of avocado, this is, indeed, a standout dish. We then dig into the restaurant’s signature butterflied, grilled red snapper with red and green salsas, made according to a traditional recipe. Vanquishing the stack of hot, soft corn tortillas and refried beans that it is served with, we spend the rest of the meal debating on which one we prefer…red or green. Stuffed to the gills, our attention wanders back to the dessert tray and fig tart that I have been dreaming of….

At 6.30 p.m., closing time, the restaurant is still a-bustle with diners loathe to leave. Cámara’s fresh, simple, hearty, almost home-cooked flavours keep them hungering for more.

GABRIELA CÁMARA
Chef-Owner

Which is the traditional ingredient that you love to experiment with and what have you done with it?
One traditional ingredient that I love to cook and experiment with is corn. One way to prepare corn is to nixtamalise it — which is the process of turning dried corn into masa (dough). From the masa I make fresh corn tortillas.

Would you consider the food at Contramar as Mexican cuisine? How have you personalised these dishes? In what way do these reflect and preserve Mexican culture?
Yes, as the ingredients are sourced locally, even the fish comes from the waters off of Mexico’s shores. The restaurant was initially inspired by the palapas on the Pacific coast of Mexico and the fresh fish you eat at the beach, and I have made dishes my own by focusing less on tradition and more on ensuring that each ingredient and the end result is delicious. By working directly with farmers and fishermen, we seek to preserve not only specific ingredients but the communities responsible for cultivating and catching our food.

Which is the ingredient of the future, according to you and how will we see it presented on your menu?
Insects are the ingredient of the future! We may see chapulines — grasshoppers — in a guacamole.

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