Posted by: KristenSiefkin in: Food/Beverage -
My husband and I just returned from a 10-day vacation in central Mexico. As usual, our chief objective was to eat, so we enlisted the help of Ruth Alegria of Mexico Soul and Essence, a company that “immerses cultural travelers and cuisine lovers to the culture, gastronomy, art and history of Mexico.”
Ruth made a list of “must-see” Mexico City sites and after breakfast we set off with one of her expert guides, Francisco, to see Mexico City. To say Mexico City is impressive is an understatement. Built on top of the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the metropolitan area is home to more than 21M residents, boasts more museums than any other city in the world and features a vast array of food types.
Most of the “mercados” (markets) in Mexico are incredibly fascinating, but Ruth suggested we check out Xochimilco located about an hour south of Mexico City by car. It was a true step back in time to walk amongst the “puestos” (the outdoor stalls) manned by men and women who watched my husband and me with deep curiosity.
The Mercado was simply enormous: neatly displayed were row upon row of ceviches, produce, dried chilies, tacos, roasted corn, candy, socks, cheese, and even live animals. As we roamed the halls, we munched on handmade blue corn tortillas stuffed with potatoes, freshly-made chicken tamales and sampled a multitude of moles – the array of which was mind-boggling. At last, after two hours of wandering in sheer wonder we bought a few pounds of mole – an almond variety – which was rich in both flavor and color.
We followed our market tour with lunch at Cafe Azul y Oro, owned by Chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita who is also the author of Diccionario Enciclopedico De Gastronomia Mexicana. The restaurant, located at the University City of the UNAM, http://www.unam.mx/patrimonio/english/index.html, has been part of the World Heritage List since 2007.
The venue itself was more cafeteria than restaurant, but the inventive menu with its strong Oaxacan influence was delicious and highly affordable. My husband’s cochinita pibil was the winning plate. Later that week, we took a cooking class which informed us that this very traditional, easy-to-prepare dish contains pork butt, Achiote paste, garlic and spices wrapped in a banana leaf. Served with a very flavorful sauce of marinated onions, tomatoes, and chilies and served with a side of corn tortillas and black beans, this dish is pure comfort food.
Although I swore I would never eat again, we met up later that evening with Ruth and some new foodie friends at Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s high-end restaurant in the uppity Polanco neighborhood. Considered by many to be Mexico City’s premier dining experience, Pujol takes a modern and distinctive approach to Mexican cuisine and offers an a la carte menu, as well as four- and seven-course tasting menus. I opted for the four-course, while mi esposo (my husband) felt ambitious, taking on seven. Each course was paired with local wines, microbrews and cocktails. My meal was as follows:
• The amuse bouche included a variety of soups and small and flavorful bites, the most notable being a hollowed gourd filled with baby corn that had been roasted over the husks of corn and lathered with a lime mayonnaise. A playful version of the corn on the cob you see being sold all over Mexico by street vendors, this dish set the entire table abuzz.
• Following was my first course, a tamale filled with Huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn during late winter and is considered the truffle or caviar of Mexico. The tamale topped with a light and airy cheese foam and sprinkled with dehydrated powder of the Huitlacoche. Meanwhile, Ruth enjoyed a salad called “La Milpa” or the “farm.” Scattered atop was the dust of jumiles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumiles, a small, dark brown bug that resembled a miniature bettle. Because of our inquisitiveness, the chef sent out a small ramekin of the whole bugs. In their entirety, they tasted highly floral; Ruth told me it was due to the bugs’ diet. It was unbelievably delicious.
• Next up was a light and delicate ceviche-like dish – Robalo (a salt-water fish) marinated in green onions and Serrano chilies. The clean flavors were stunning. I could have eaten an entire plate of this and been completely satisfied.
• The ceviche served as the perfect palate cleanser for the main course, a breast of turkey pounded thin and prepared sous-vide; it was then dressed in adobo sauce and served alongside an earthy, to-die-for parsnip puree. The turkey – while cooked through – remained pink which was a bit off-putting for my American sensibilities. My dining companions, however, gobbled it up without complaint.
• I concluded my meal with a plate of local artisanal queso (cheese). More mild than the cheeses of North America and Europe, it was the perfect way to end.
At 1am, 5-hours later, we were the last guests to leave the restaurant. Our hosts patiently waited for us to put on our coats as we recounted all of the evening’s dishes and debated which was best. While we couldn’t agree on which was the most excellent, we could concur on one thing: Pujol provided one of the most interesting and memorable dining experiences in recent memory.
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