Guest Review by Justin M. Schneider
- When: April 2017
- Rating: 12/15
- Time Spent: 2.5 hours; Pleasantly unhurried
- Total Cost: $304; Food Cost: $196
- Previous Review: Pujol Review: One of Mexico City’s Best Restaurants
So, what were you doing 1244 days ago?* Because 1244 days before this review, Chef Enrique Olvera started simmering his mole madre. As the days count up, it has been getting richer, darker, more sinister, more delightful, and more and more recognized as the signature dish of Pujol. As a metaphor, it’s a winner – a melting pot of regional ingredients, humble, lofty, immortal through repletion, always in flux, yet foundational. Pujol, I’m sure you know, is the granddaddy of reinvigorated Mexican cuisine from Distrito Federal (aka D.F., aka Mexico City), which has spawned a movement of young, creative chefs searching for a culinary identity, inspired by mesoamerican roots and achieved by international techniques.
Before I say more, let me tell you about myself: I’ve known the DINKs for almost a decade and a half, and I’m honored that they asked me to write a guest review. I’ve been the “chef” of our friend group for forever, but I chose med school over culinary school. So, while I was stuck in class and mounting crushing student loan debt, the DINKs have lapped me a few times over in travel and culinary sophistication. So, what can I tell you about fine dining? I’m basically a pretender; but my dad was a chef, and I grew up on old-school, rich, Continental classics.
And, what do I have to tell you about Mexican food? Well, I mostly grew up in Texas, so I consider a really good, abuela-made tortilla to be a birthright as essential as BBQ (and before you hate on Tex Mex, take a road trip down to the Rio Grande Valley and eat some regional classics like barbacoa…no, not BBQ, but get some of that while you’re there, too). I now live in San Diego, and I can see Tijuana on a clear day (and they’re all clear days), so there’s a very good chance I’m still eating better Mexican food than you. Straight up. Unless your state touches Mexico, you live in Mexico, or you have your very own abuela, just trust me.
Much like the DINKs in 2015, I came here for lunch and had the 6 course menu. I read somewhere that there is a longer 13 course tasting menu (I guess for dinner), but c’est la vie. I’m just glad I got a reservation less than 2 weeks out! Our menu, much as it did for the DINKs, started out with street snacks:
Course 1: Street Snacks. An impressive smoking calabaza was served simultaneously with an amuse bouche of a thick, fried, corn masa disk (I guess I’d call it a tiny sope) topped with carne, pico de gallo and an avocado round.
The calabaza lid was lifted to reveal baby corn skewers slathered with smoky, rust-colored mayo resting on smoldering dry corn husks.
It’s a distinct declaration of mesoamerican context from the chef: maiz, calabaza and smoke. While sitting in an elegant dining room, the discrete, smoky aroma reminded me of walking up to street vendors and, generally, of rural labor – but in a purified, idealized and contrasted way.
The corn masa texture and flavor of the sope stood out in the amuse bouche, perfectly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, with familiar Mexican flavors on top. More comforting than experimental, it distinguishes itself more through balance than boldness. The baby corn skewers were a huge hit with us. There’s a reason they are still on the menu from the DINKs’ 2015 review. Olvera’s version of elote (one of my favorite Mexican street foods) tasted like they saw some flame before they received a healthy slathering of smoky, spicy (chipotle en adobo?) mayo – flavored with chicatana ants! – and were served with the husks tied back to the skewer. I hesitate to use the word “chipotle” because it might conjure up memories of some fast-food travesty from a few years back. This isn’t like that, though, and the en adobo flavor was delicious – perfect amounts of smoke and spice in the mayo plus a touch of lime. The baby corn idea was fun, and saves the fine diner from corn kernel dental miscues or handling an awkward cob. My only complaint is that I wish the calabaza came stuffed with many, many more of these.
Course 2: I had the Octopus, habanero ink, ayocote, veracruzana sauce, while my date had the Sea bass, cacahuatzintle juice, celery. The octopus tasted to me like pure Baja Med but the addition of salsa veracruzana makes me wonder if a similar fusion is happening in Mexico’s other coast. The octopus carried prominent but measured char, and the meat was firm but not at all chewy or bouncy. The char was enhanced by habanero ink coating and didn’t over-penetrate. Despite the blackness in the photo, not even the thinnest part of the octopus was dried up or burnt. It was served with shallots, olives, tomatoes, capers, a few beans and some greens, and I definitely felt the “Mediterranean” of Baja Med. The brine of the olive and capers transported my palate to deep blue, cold, saline ocean off the Mexican coast.
The two bites I stole of the sea bass were also extraordinary: simply cubes of very well-sourced fish (Ensenada? The Gulf?) that were, according to the menu, tossed in cacahuatzintle juice and celery and served in a cute corn husk. It was fresh, tender, and fatty like great sushi. The cacahuatzintle (a type of white corn) juice and celery were very subtle. I mostly appreciated a citrus acidity, which balanced the richness but did not cook the the seabass like a traditional ceviche. The touch of chili pepper warmth played well with the chilled fish. I’m pretty happy at this point, and very glad I had the foresight to order a vino blanco (more on that below).
Course 3: I had the Softshell Crab, meyer lemon and herbs, while my date had the Cauliflower, almond salsa mancha, y chili de arbol. The crab was flash fried to slightly-redder-than-gold perfection and encased the sweet, tender crab meat in the center (and the more crunchy bits towards the legs). It came with a nice herb salad and a thick, intense sauce that was unfamiliar to my palate but carried a lot of umami and a miso-like depth.
A stack of very fresh corn tortillas arrived as well, which I took as permission to use my hands to construct a softshell crab taco.
The tortillas were hot, soft but still sturdy (which is a pretty temporary state for a corn tortilla before they become dry or soggy and altogether structurally unsound, so I appreciated that there was probably someone in the back pressing these out course by course).
The Cauliflower was roasted and comforting. It impressed my date with a variety of textures from the meatiness of the stalk to the tender crowns, and more texture was added with the almond slivers and crispy, wonderful chicken skin. Who doesn’t love crispy poultry skin? The aroma had a hint of fried onions (like the ones you buy once a year to top your holiday green-bean casserole), with an aromatic twist from the almond. The flavor was altogether warm, comforting, and actually managed to appreciate the cauliflower while still doing what cauliflower does best and carry the sauce and toppings.
Course 4: I had the Pork chicharron and purslane in salsa verde, while my date had the Wild herb open papadzul, quail egg, chiltomate. Honestly, I was expecting this to be the most substantial course and thus a bit of a climax of the menu. Rather, it was a bit of a let down. The chicharron was served in four cubes and decorated with verdant tones from the salsa verde, avocado, and the greens. A new batch of very fresh corn tortillas arrived, too.
The chicharron separated into 3 parts under my knife and fork: crispy outer skin, a more meaty middle layer and a deeper layer of plain fat. The crispy, crunchy outer layer was textural, familiar, and full of porky goodness. The second layer’s mix of meat and fat reminded me of untrimmed pork belly but was still edible. Finally, the third layer was tough and chewy, unseared, and without any redeeming depth or richness. This layer remained on my plate when it was retired.
The salsa verde was more tangy with very little spice – I’m sure the intention was for it be more acidic to cut through the fat, but it didn’t do it for me. You’re paying for technique when you pay fine dining prices for cuts like chicharron, and I don’t feel like they achieved it here. I felt a lack of luxury that maybe I would have avoided if I had ordered the wagyu that was next to it on the menu, but who comes to D.F. to eat wagyu?
My date’s dish of an open quail egg papadzul with chiltomate all nestled under a neat pile of wild herbs was full of mouth-watering flavor. Papadzules are similar to hard-boiled egg enchilada from the Yucatan region, so the switch to quail eggs ready to spill their yolks was simple and elegant. The wild herbs stole the show here – imagine the intensity of bitter greens, but substitute some of that bitterness for a harmony of different notes from the deep, dark corners of your spice cabinet. Fernet comes to mind. I tasted winter spices, anise, coriander and mint-like flavors from the wild herbs, to name the few that I can even recognize. The quail egg yolk ran down into the papadzul and combined a rich, creamy and herbaceous experience. As delicious as it was, my date was expecting something more substantial than eggs and experienced a bit of a let down. I’m being nit-picky here; on the other hand, she was still appropriately full, and, in all fairness, wagyu or grilled fish were there to be ordered.
Course 5: Mole Madre 1244 days, Mole Nuevo. Before this dish arrived the staff placed a single spoon before each of us, and we had a few minutes for reflection and anticipation. I’ve seen what’s next on TV. I’ve read about it. I’m wondering, can you put a sauce on a plate and serve it as a course? A round, white plate arrives with a two-tone, circle-in-a-circle plating of the new mole and the mole madre.
The new mole is a bright orange-red and makes up the inner circle. The mole madre makes up the outer circle and is dark brown in color with an almost aubergine hue. A heady aroma of sweetness, smoke and spice wafts up. The mole is actually not alone; it comes with tortillas too, of course. They’re a mix of fresh blue and white corn tortillas, dressed up by being pressed in an hoja santa leaf (a large, dark green leaf with the flavor of anise.) Starting with the new mole, it is rich, smoky, spicy, sweet, and carries a refined en adobo flavor.
It’s already a very complex and flavorful sauce. It’s already the best mole I’ve ever had.
The mole madre is even more rich, and now earthy, worldly and seductive. The smoke and spice blend away a little while chocolate comes forward and a touch of licorice is drawn out by the accompanying hoja santa tortilla, but I preferred to skip the tortilla and enjoy it with a spoon alone. Hype justified. Every small spoonful took me on a delicious journey which I repeated again and again until my plate was clean. This dish is heavy with metaphor, but at this point I’m too caught up in flavor to think too much.
Course 6: Dessert. Before our desserts arrived, we were served a palate cleanser of pulque sorbet over guava slivers. The pulque flavor played very well in the sorbet and was subtle, but identifiable, when eaten alone and supported the guava, which was much sweeter than I’ve experienced in guava paste or pastries. Much appreciated after the lingering savoriness of the mole.
I had the Chocolate tamal, guayabate, tonka bean while my date had the Vanilla flan, chamomile cream, thyme dessert. My chocolate tamal had a (maybe shouldn’t have been) surprising masa-like texture and an almost baking chocolate lack of sweetness. It took me a few bites to reconcile the flavor with the texture, but the guava paste helped bring everything together, adding just the right amount of sweetness for me. My date’s dessert of Vanilla flan, chamomile cream, topped with thyme was wonderfully light, airy and floral.
I was ready for a spoonful of the chamomile cream to linger as my final bite until a surprise churro arrived. The churro was thinner than traditional, giving a nice ratio of hot, fried, cinnamon and sugar coated exterior to chewy interior.
We’ve arrived full circle back to street snacks.
The Wine: Fluxus Blanco, Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, 2015. 91% Palomino, 9% Chenin Blanc. The nose is citrus, fruit and pear, which follow through in the mouth as well, with a little bit of mineral backbone (although, less minerals than other wines of the region, which can even struggle with salinity due to its soil and proximity to the ocean). Palomino, for what it’s worth, is one of the oldest varietals to the region, originally planted by the Dominican missionaries as they traveled up the Baja and present-day California coast starting in the 1700’s. I hadn’t heard of Fluxus before, and they seem to only make this one offering.
Final Verdict: Fly to D.F. Book it now. Stay in Condesa or Roma Norte (way cooler than Polanco). Drink a lot of mezcal, try pulque, try wine from Valle de Guadalupe. Eat all the great food in whichever colonia you find yourself in. Go out of your way to eat at Pujol. If you’re trying to decide between Pujol or Quintonil I can’t help you – I don’t think like that. Eat at both if you get the reservations, and you will be the winner. My only note is that Pujol is the O.G. I found Chef Enrique Olvera’s food to be thoughtful, thought-provoking, respectful of his roots and forward thinking. Delicious.
*I did the math: It was Thursday, November 7, 2013.