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, we were instructed to lift the lid on a gourd, thereby revealing a burning corn husk and twin tubes. These were like reverse pop-ups with skewered baby corn bathed in coffee infused mayo, lime and salt. This was an ingenious play on a Mexican street food classic.
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.
Cebiche de pescado a la Veracruzana (195 pesos ~ $16) played on the flavors and seafood focus of Veracruz. Rosy strips of robalo (snook) 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 a 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 oaxaqueno, 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 blosssoms.
Robalo marinado en guajillo y ajo, pina, 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 consomme, 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 were both too full to enjoy dessert, but if we did advance our gluttony, my vote would have been for “platano tatemado, helado de jengibre, burbujas.” Roasted plantains and ginger ice cream clearly would have been a good match, and it would have been fun to see how Chef Olvera delivered “bubbles.”
Hidalgo Stout, brewed in a neighboring state, wasn’t especially friendly to the dishes we ordered, but the rich, chocolatey beer that eschewed the country’s typical lager and Pilsner paradigm was impossible to resist.
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. Even more interesting is Teo, a kitchen and workshop where he works with staffers 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.