Review: The world’s best restaurant opens a pop-up in Mexico. Jonathan Gold tastes its beauty and conflict
The best thing I tasted last month may have been a lobe of fresh cacao fruit straight from its pod, a pale, glistening thing whose sweet essence whispered of litchi, vanilla and perhaps guanabana, with a crunchy seed whose rich bittersweetness barely hinted at the flavor of what most of its kind is destined to become. The second best may have been a young coconut at whose bottom rested a bit of caviar and a spoonful of coconut cream — I was directed to gently glide my spoon across the translucent flesh, scooping up perhaps a gram or two of the delicate jelly that coated its surface. The third may have been a sliced tiny banana, slicked with seaweed oil and dotted with a paste made with its own burnt peel.
Chocolate, coconut and bananas — flavors as familiar as childhood and as old as time, transformed or detransformed, presented in ways that in retrospect make them seem almost mystically of a time and of a place. And if somebody had read me the last sentence without pointing out that he had experienced these things at Noma Mexico in Tulum, I might have snorted hot coffee out of my nose. René Redzepi’s cooking is transformative, but it always sounds kind of weird.
If you follow the usual food-obsessive social media feeds, you have been seeing a lot of snapshots from the Maya Riviera lately: sunsets and smoothies; still, blue seas and spindly jungles that look as if they’ve escaped from an Henri Rousseau painting. There are a lot of tacos in Quintana Roo, but none have been so lovingly chronicled lately as the cochinita pibil from Taqueria Honorio in downtown Tulum.
At the moment, an Instagrammed Maya ruin or mezcal negroni conveys what “I went to school near Boston” does if you happen to have graduated from Harvard: You have found a way to land an impossible seat at the seven-week run of Noma Mexico, and it is only a matter of hours before your feed starts to bristle with those loving shots of cacao fruit, coconuts with caviar and oil-slicked roasted pigs being carried around the sand-floored patch of jungle on a bed of banana leaves.
Noma is the Copenhagen restaurant considered by many people, including me, to be the best in the world, a kitchen whose chef, Redzepi, figured out how to combine the dominant strains in world cooking — localism, seasonality, sustainability and science — into a single seamless whole. If you have noticed a surge of fermented vegetables, foraged leaves and plates arranged to resemble the forest floor, that owes something to Noma’s influence. If it didn’t occur to you that the last tasting menu you experienced was essentially vegan up until dessert, that may have been Noma’s influence too.
Redzepi’s many-coursed dinners have the same kind of narrative arcs you might expect in a well-structured novel, themes that barely register as a flicker at the beginning of a meal coming to roaring denouements toward the end, simple things like the taste of an apple or the curve of a tiny shrimp bending within their context to serve story more than they might any culinary effect. A composition of rose petals and blueberries is never quite just a bowl of flowers and fruit. I was at the party in March celebrating the last service at the converted whalers warehouse Noma had occupied for years, ebelskiver and Champagne followed by a stroll to the sprawling, graffiti-splattered armaments shed where the restaurant is set to reopen this November. At the rainy end of a Danish winter, the soft, white sand of Tulum seemed very far away.
But Noma has always striven to be something beyond a restaurant with fixed walls. It founded the Nordic Food Lab in a houseboat that bobbed a few yards from the original restaurant, and it has been behind MAD, a huge summer gathering of chefs and thinkers about food. It has flown its entire staff to longish residencies in Tokyo — the clam tart is still one of the best things I have tasted from the Noma kitchen — and Sydney. In principle, the restaurant on the Yucatán Peninsula, which Redzepi has visited dozens of times, is nothing new.
In a lot of ways, Noma is a restaurant run on art principles. Redzepi spends months researching, planning and tasting in the areas where he plans his residencies, with the care of an auteur researching his next film. You could probably think of the residencies as something like movies presented in another medium, and the stories his staffers tell about Redzepi’s abandoned paths — turtles in Tabasco, game in Chiapas — are nearly as compelling as what actually makes it to the plate. What Redzepi and his former co-chef Rosio Sanchez brought back to the team for these dinners is not Mexican cooking, but cooking inspired by the traditions and flavors of Mexico.
So there are compositions of tiny cactus with tamarind, baroque fruit salads and a sort of chile-hot fresh-corn pozole buried under a riot of jungle flowers. The familiar Yucatecan puffed tortillas called salbutes become thin, hollow crisps like Indian puri, filled with grasshoppers and tomatoes. There is an exquisite ceviche of queen clams from Mexico’s Pacific Coast. (We were told that we just missed out on the even-better melon clams.)
Oysters were wrapped in astringent chaya leaves, slow-cooked octopus tentacles were laid on a kind of Yucatecan pumpkin-seed pepián and a tostada was layered with lightly poached escamoles, the improbably large ant eggs sometimes called Mexican caviar. Ribbons of squash were served in another squash. The suckling pig appeared in tacos — four women made tortillas of local corn at a spot just in front of the kitchen — and Sanchez prepared a two-day black mole for the scallops. The meal finished with grilled dried chiles stuffed with an intense sorbet made with chocolate from Chiapas.
Was the meal a sort of graduate-level introduction to the culinary opportunities of Mexico’s south? In a way. I had never experienced so many different old breeds of corn, so many edible flowers, so many tiny bursts of anise, onioniness and lemony green. The tables were handmade, the grill was hand-forged, the complex of roofless, wall-free dining rooms was worked into a dense thicket without cutting down any trees. (It may sound as if Noma Mexico were constructed in a wild area, but it is on the jungle side of the long, unbroken strip of hotels that lines Tulum’s beach.)
The hard questions of context and appropriation remain. Noma Mexico does indeed serve $600 dinners in a fairly poor part of the world, and the intricate supply lines it established with local farmers are likely to evaporate not long after the crew packs up to return to Denmark. The restaurant is making a statement that belongs to Mexicans to make. Arguments about localism and sustainability may seem trite when most of the customers travel thousands of miles to eat a meal.
But in a way, it may be like criticizing Francis Ford Coppola for filming in the Philippines or V.S. Naipaul for setting a novel in Africa: Redzepi is creating something that otherwise would not exist. Beauty and conflict are often intertwined.
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