Pujol has become a Mexican dining destination in Polanco.
My initial first trip to Mexico City covered a wide culinary swath, including exquisite street tacos, market-fresh seafood tostadas and meals at raucous cantinas. One type of restaurant that Street Gourmet LA founder Bill Esparza was convinced we should experience was “alta cocina,” high end Mexican cuisine. His pick was Pujol, a sleek temple of gastronomy on a Polanco side street from chef Enrique Olvera, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and one of Mexico’s leading practitioners of molecular gastronomy, if people still even use that expression.
For our amuse bouche, our server instructed us to lift the lid on a gourd, revealing a burning corn husk and twin tubes. This ingenious play on a Mexican street food classic reminded me of reverse pop-ups with skewered baby corn bathed in coffee infused mayo, lime and salt.
Our bread course began with a baguette served on hot stone with smoky salsa de chile de arbol; creamy white cow butter dusted with dried chile powder; and yellow Veracruz goat’s butter with lime peel.
A chewy, pull-apart roll of semillas (seeds) included crunchy pumpkin.
Muffin-shaped banana bread was somewhat sweet and seemingly incongruous, but at least it tasted good.
Cebiche de pescado a la Veracruzana (195 pesos ~ $16) played on Veracruz’s flavors and seafood focus. Rosy robalo (snook) strips supported a recognizable but satisfying mixture of lime juice, thin strands of red onion, tomato, sea salt, tangy capers and thin shaved olives. Chile guero contributed mild heat.
Laminas de aguacate rellenas de camaron, mayonesa de chile puya, pesto de cilantro (195 pesos) was less like a relleno and more like a sandwich, with top and bottom sheets of creamy avocado containing sweet minced shrimp, topped with a spicy puya chile aioli accented with tart lime peel and coriander.
Escolar en adobo Oaxaqueño, cuitlacoche nixtamalizado, pure de chicle poblano (195 pesos) was the night’s best seafood dish, with a juicy fillet crusted with sweeter, mildly spicy chile Poblano. The plate hosted chile poblano puree and musty, umami-rich huitlacoche kernels dusted with sea salt and graced with squash blossoms.
Robalo marinado en guajillo y ajo, piña, cebolla cambray, chile Serrano (298 pesos) was a lesser fish dish, with a thick, chile-crusted fillet that was too watery. The fish came with scallions, dill, julienne pineapple, dime cuts of spicy serrano chiles and a sweet, fruity sauce, which all helped to form tacos.
Barbacoa de cordero lechal, consome de jitomate, chayote, calabaza, chicharo (395 pesos) was the night’s big ticket item, and it was an interesting twist on barbacoa. Instead of cooking the lamb in the ground, wrapped in maguey, he cooked a slab sous vide and partially submerged the meat in tomato consommé, curled cucumber sheets, scallions, cylinders of chayote squash, chicharos (fresh peas, served in the pod) and more. Since this was our big ticket item, it invited extra scrutiny. The lamb was tender and plenty easy to eat, but there was very little textural contrast. One of my favorite things about classic barbacoa is finding crusty, browned pieces. Well, that and pancita – chile-rubbed offal – which was also missing from our entree.
We didn’t order dessert, but we did receive some good mignardises: squares of peanut nougat, sweet and spicy pineapple-chile pate de fruit, and hibiscus dusted truffle.
Hidalgo Stout, brewed in a neighboring state, wasn’t especially friendly to dishes we ordered, but the rich, chocolatey beer eschewed the country’s typical lager and Pilsner paradigm and proved irresistible.
Enrique Olvera also owns and operates a pair of gastro-delis in the neighborhoods of Chapultepec Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec, which he calls Eno. Teo may be even more interesting; Olvera works with staffers at this kitchen and workshop to investigate and learn about cuisine using “creatividad, sensibilidad e inteligencia” [creativity, sensibility and intelligence]. As it turns out, Chef Olvera wasn’t in Pujol’s kitchen during our meal, but with many dishes, chefs helped demonstrate that he’s already at the leading edge of contemporary Mexican cuisine, and as long as he continues to delve deep – which it sounds like he’s doing – he has the potential to serve as a beacon of gastronomy, and not just in Mexico.