Restaurants & Bars 6

A Newbie's Week in Mexico, part 2

pilinut | Apr 3, 200802:18 PM

As the memories get dimmer, the struggle to remember all but the most striking details of a meal starts to flag, so--before my scanty notes (and brain) fall into the recycling bin. . .

Thursday breakfast found me back at Bondy for huevos rueveltos con machaca, scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, and shredded dried beef. I really liked Bondy as much for its food as for its uncanny resemblance to the favorite pasteleria of my childhood in faraway Manila, blessed as it was with heaps of churros con chocolate, milojas, yemas and many other delicacies that spanned three continents.

Dinner that night was at a nearby Argentine restaurant, Cambalache, where we had pieces of slow-roasted lamb and a very tender grass-fed rib-eye steak. The lamb was a bit on the salty side, but the rib-eye was close to perfect. And this restaurant (part of a small chain, I believe) has the most beautifully designed grill I have ever seen. The grill itself is made of a series of V-shaped bars placed quite closely together and slanted pronouncedly towards a gutter at the front of the grill. Thus, most of the fat drips into the gutter rather than the coals, and the back of the grill is also higher off the heat than the front. The whole thing is controlled using chains and pulleys. Someday, I will have a similar contraption!

Friday was a special day. I ate my first nopales at Cafe Bell: Cecina de Yecapixtla con nopales. A thin cut of beef similar to skirt steak simply grilled and served with grilled nopal, rice, and the usual very good salsas on the side. The nopal was mildly sweet, texturally interesting, but with no pronounced flavor.

Dinner was at Pujol, where we had the tasting menu. Started with an amuse-bouche, a miniscule crabcake on a pimiento sauce--good, but nothing new. First course: Ravioles de aguacate, camaron rasurado, mayonesa picante. As I recall, it was the avocado that I'd describe as shaved, and they were draped over the prawns, and served with a very light, thin, mayonnaise.

Second course: Esparragos, habas, flores y quelites con holandesa de chile de arbol, cacahuate y esencia de trufa. This was one of the best dishes of the evening: cool, perfectly crisp asparagus spears, fava beans, a delicate leafy green (which turns out to be the quelites, wild spinach), with chopped peanuts and a smear of hollandaise on the side, drizzled with just enough truffle oil and sprinkled with salt.

The third course was a bit of a surprise: Chapulines al sarten, aire de tortilla-mantequilla negra, epazote, guacamole, rabanito. "Chapulines" sounded vaguely familiar, and I thought they would be some kind of shellfish. The moment I saw that small pile of tangled twigs topped with a pale yellow foam approaching the table, I knew this was going to be a first for DH, who is neither a Asian (we eat almost anything) nor Mexican. I had to break him in before he realized what was on the plate, "Remember the time in Manila when you ate fried shrimp with shells on? Remember how you enjoyed that? Well, this is going to be similar. . ." Actually, it was similar to eating shrimp shells, but the chapulines are harder and more likely to poke. The tart-spicy flavors of the sauce were very nice, and the pronounced tortilla flavor and aroma of the aire was absolutely masterful, but we were grateful for the cushioning effects of the tender corn tortillas that were served on the side.

The next course, Esquite de 2 granos, mayonesa de oliva, queso fresco, chile piquin, concome clarificado was the dish we liked least. A sour broth was poured over hominy, and (I think) blue corn, and it was neither delicious nor interesting.

Fifth course: Huachinango de Veracruz, was a thick fillet of red snapper, pan-grilled, with a bit of fried garlic on top and spinach leaves underneath. Nicely cooked through, but the soggy skin was a disappointment. By the time the Costillas cortas de res braseadas en forma de mole de olla, came around, we were quite full. And the braised short ribs, though fork-tender and tasty, didn't really taste much different from most braised short rib dishes (and there are too many) in SF.

But we were looking forward to the cheese and dessert courses, and these did not disappoint. The Quesos Mexicanos (Reblochon de Puebla, Tomme de cabra, and Ensenada) will cause neither France, nor California, to look over its shoulder, but the shredded carrot jam, red beet compote, and tomatillo jam that respectively accompanied the cheeses were outstanding. Each one retained its vibrant color, and distinctive flavors, and all went well with the best of the cheeses, the Ensenada.

Dessert was the other stand-out course. I had not been expecting much from something described as "fresas con crema," but Mexican strawberries were very good everywhere, and at Pujol they were fantastic. And Pujol's foams are nothing to sniff at! This one contained all the sweet perfume of fresh strawberries. When such a foam floats atop a blanket of whipped cream, itself covering the sweetest strawberries and a satiny sorbet on a platter with fresh berry sauce and chocolate chips, the effect is of alternating layers of textures and temperatures, and idealized forms of strawbery-ness. At the every end came the mignardises: a semi-liquid jelly of tamarind and mescal, a dark chocolate filled with strawberry sauce, a madeleine, a tiny vanilla milkshake, and a white chocolate lollipop with strawberry-sugar sprinkles. If I were to return to Mexico, I would certainly return to Pujol, especially if it was asparagus and strawberry season.

After Pujol, I expected everything to be pretty anticlimactic, but we still had a couple of interesting meals. Saturday dinner, after 6 hours at the Museo de Antropologia, was at l'Artichaut, a block from the hotel. The menu read like something from the 1960s. We could not resist ordering the oeufs en gelee and salade lynonnaise, which were decent--no regrets. But the tequila souffle was truly splendid! The tequila was pronounced, but far from overpowering, and the souffle was excellent--no silly cream sauce to disguise any flaws. My only regret is not ordering another tequila souffle. Now I'll have to wait until the next trip, when I shall have three.

Sunday, after trekking up, down, and around Teotihuacan, DH's kind colleagues took us to have birria at the very crowded cantina El Polar, which has been around for decades, and has no branches--always a good sign. I've never had birria, and had feared it would be some kind of gamey-vinegary goat stew, but this was wonderful! Large, tender chunks of goat flesh in a very rich, judiciously spiced soup were tasty without being gamey at all. On the side, avocados which, sprinkled with salt and rolled in warm tender tortillas, were the perfect foil for the birria. (I was told that the meat had been simmered for a long time in the broth, but I find it difficult to believe that meat can stay so juicy after a long simmer. It seems more likely to me that the meaty parts are roasted, cut up, and then added to that delicious soup.)

Monday, just before leaving, we had lunch at Los Almendras on Campos Eliseos, and found that Yucatecan food seems quite different from the rest of the Mexican food we had tried. (As I said, I'm a newbie.) We had an appetizer plate which included longganiza (and a few other things I neglected to write down, overestimating my memory), and relied on the waiter's recommendations for our main courses, Cochinita pibil, which sounded very intriguing, with its marinade of seville oranges and annatto, and Pescado Tikin-xic, rubbed with annatto and spices and cooked in banana leaves. In a way it was appropriate that our last meal of the trip opened our eyes to the potential culinary delights of another region, making the next trip an even more desirable one than the first.

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