Margaritas made with volcanic ash. Braised oysters with chipotle bearnaise. Foie gras with habanero-spiked guava. There’s a revolution afoot in this city’s restaurants.
The eyebrow reflexively shoots up. The first thought is globalization, that creeping sameness that threatens cultural individuality when tradition fades in favor of pop sensibilities.
But to understand what’s happening with cutting-edge Mexico City cooking, it is important first to understand what’s happening in the Condesa-Roma district, side-by-side Mexico City neighborhoods built at the turn of the last century. Located on the southern side of Chapultepec Park, the city’s expansive green space just west of the old downtown, Condesa and Roma were all but abandoned after the 1985 earthquake sent wealthy Mexicans racing for the suburbs. The slide into decay was rapid in this crime-ridden city of about 19 million people.
Twenty years later, Condesa and Roma are among the city’s most exciting neighborhoods as under-40 professionals embrace the city anew. These upper-class young Mexicans, better educated and more worldly than their parents, are tearing down rickety midcentury buildings to make room for edgy, modern architecture; they’re diligently restoring historic homes and hotels. Bookstores and art galleries share the tree-lined streets with sidewalk cafes serving cuisines from around the globe -- and Mexican food that doesn’t remind them of their mother’s.
These professionals have a serious restaurant habit, says Guillermo Osorno, the editorial director of dF, the capital’s city magazine. The restaurant scene is booming, with three times as many top-tier restaurants doing a brisk business today compared with five years ago.
Going out for serious Mexican food is in itself a change in the culture. “In Mexico City, we feel that the best Mexican food is what we have in our homes. Mexican food in restaurants has always been a step down,” says Osorno. “Now we have a kind of Mexican food that you can only find in restaurants. That’s new.”
This generation also has been eager to redefine what it means to be Mexican, says Gabriela Camara, a 29-year-old entrepreneur whose Contramar seafood restaurant is one of the most vibrant spots in Condesa-Roma. “These days, Mexico is hot in the art world. We have our own fashion designers, architects, musicians. Our actors are hot in Hollywood. Everything Latin has enormous possibilities,” she says.
And it doesn’t have the old limitations. When Camara and a group of friends fresh from university couldn’t find a place they wanted to eat at, they opened Contramar, the city’s first “beach food” restaurant. And from that moment seven years ago, business-suited professionals have lined up outside its door waiting to snag tables.
“Traditionally, good food in Mexico City was expensive French or Italian or Spanish, and then there were taco stands,” says Camara, who now has seven restaurants, including two tapas bars, an Italian trattoria and an American-style diner. “My generation is willing to be Mexican without being traditional.”
Camara’s attitude is reflected in her food. Tuna sashimi tostadas with chipotle sauce and sauteed leeks are her signature dish: It’s a simple combination that brings Japanese and French sensibilities to a Mexican standard.
A handful of women, including Camara, are making waves by treating traditional Mexican cuisine with less reverence. At Aguila y Sol, Martha Ortiz, 38, turns heads with her flamboyant presentations and unexpected combinations of common ingredients. And Monica Patino, 50, is redefining Pan-Asian dishes with the zip of Mexican chiles and herbs like epazote at MP Bistro Cafe.
Even Patricia Quintana, whose 1986 “The Taste of Mexico” is the featured cookbook for sale at the National Museum of Anthropology, is throwing hibiscus flowers into her mole and wrapping up masa-less tamales at her restaurant, Izote.
‘Absurd’ for some
Not everyone is charmed by the new Mexican cuisine. Diana Kennedy, the British-born author of the seminal “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” characterized it as “barbaric” in an issue last May of Mexico City’s dF magazine. “Ridiculous,” she called Ortiz’s dishes. “Absurd.”
Kennedy, who has spent the past five decades chronicling the history of Mexican cooking and compiling the recipes universally respected as “authentic,” was no kinder to Quintana, calling her new ideas “a horrible distortion” of Mexican cuisine. However, she wasn’t universally dismissive of the movement: She proclaimed Camara’s tuna sashimi tostadas to be “very good.” Kennedy was not available for comment.
“It’s quite a challenge for these chefs,” says dF magazine’s Osorno. He predicts that not all of this first wave of chefs will survive. Still, the popularity of culinary experimentation appears to be growing. “These new chefs have a public persona, like authors and artists. Their cookbooks sell well. The most powerful people in the country are always in their restaurants,” Osorno says.
Of Mexico City’s new-wave chefs, only Camara started in Condesa-Roma; the other exciting restaurants are in Polanco, a chic neighborhood on the north side of Chapultepec Park. If Condesa-Roma is Greenwich Village, Polanco is Beverly Hills.
Patino, who dares to serve Asian food with a Mexican flair at MP Bistro Cafe, sees her food as part of a natural evolution. Kennedy gave Mexicans the “treasure” of their culinary heritage, Patino explains. “When we want to know something about Mexican food, we go to Diana Kennedy. I can’t read my grandmother’s recipes. She wrote down ‘add chiles,’ but she didn’t say what kind or how many.” Now that the anthropological heavy lifting has been done, anything is possible, she says. “Before you can break the rules, you have to know them.”
After establishing La Taberna del Leon as a standard-bearer among traditional Mexican restaurants, Patino opened MP Bistro Cafe to cater to a younger crowd. That menu includes Mexican corn chowder spiced with curry, braised oysters with chipotle bearnaise and dim sum infused with Mexican herbs.
Walk into Aguila y Sol and you’re immediately struck by the decor, which celebrates Mexico’s traditional culture: A huge volcanic rock metate (a traditional stone for grinding Mexican corn) sits near the door; antique Xochistlahuaca clothing from the state of Guerrero graces the walls. Upstairs in the stark white dining rooms, however, it’s pure Nuevo Mexican: A suspended ceiling lighted from above provides architectural drama.
With the seriousness of an academician, which she was, Ortiz explains, “I really feel that Mexican cuisine is very sensual. It is made by women and comes from a great heritage of Mexican women. I want to honor them by making each plate an object of beauty.”
Surrounded by the swirl of beautiful people who have made her 3-year-old restaurant a center of excitement, Ortiz has a bodyguard by her side. He’s one of dozens in the restaurant, as well as on the street in front on a recent Tuesday night. In Mexico City, the rich and powerful are plagued by kidnappings, an economic more than a political crime in this stratified society.
Even amid such chaos, the food commands attention.
She serves fideo (vermicelli) sauced with black mole, garnished with fried chiles and queso panela and served with a spicy pasilla mole dipping sauce on the side. Mole, of course, is traditional, as is fideo; what’s unconventional is serving them together. Even more radical is serving two moles, one on top of the other. “I don’t change the recipe for the mole,” says Ortiz. “It needs to taste like smoke and earth, the taste of brutality. I change the mix of the meats and the presentation.” Sometimes she serves it with steamed and shredded duck sprinkled with black Asian sesame seeds.
Mexico has changed, says Ortiz, the author of eight cookbooks, bestsellers in Mexico but not available in English. “We’re starting to recognize that we can vote in new governments, we can make changes and we can make mistakes,” she says, referring obliquely to her disappointment with President Vicente Fox. “Maybe the experiments won’t take us to the best places, but we have to try. We’re exploring our culture.”
One of her more startling experiments was an all-black Day of the Dead meal that Ortiz created for a cooking class in Tepoztlan. Ortiz started the meal with margaritas made with volcanic ash, then served dark huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas with goat cheese and black habanero sauce, duck in smoke-scented mole and sea bass with chirmole, a mole darkened with charred chiles.
Camara’s simple seafood dishes at Contramar stand in stark contrast to Ortiz’s over-the-top creations and Patino’s Asian fusion. Camara isn’t a chef, nor has she written cookbooks. She was a history student following the footsteps of her Harvard-educated parents when she veered off that path to open Contramar in the then run-down western end of Roma. She and her friends took inexpensive industrial space, stapled straw mats to the ceiling, painted fish skeletons on the walls and opened a seafood restaurant to remind them of lazy days at the beach. One of Camara’s first creations was the tuna sashimi tostada.
Camara gives her guests fresh-made corn and flour tortillas and a dazzling assortment of seafood dishes to fill them with. Octopus and shrimp seasoned generously with five different dried chiles. Thin slices of raw scallops covered with raw red onions in lemon juice and olive oil with cracked pepper and coarse salt. Sauteed soft-shell crab, roughly chopped with onions and cilantro. The line outside Contramar forms when the restaurant opens at 1:30 p.m. and lasts until it closes at 6:30 p.m., Mexico City’s traditional lunch hours.
Most of the Nuevo Mexican chefs are women, says Camara, because women are the cooks in Mexico. But that’s changing too. Two new chefs to watch: Benito Molina, who just opened a new seafood restaurant, Manzanilla; and Enrique Olver, who is turning heads with his Spanish-Mexican experiments at Pujol.
“Each of these chefs is different,” says Magda Bogin, a New York writer who runs Cocinar Mexicano, the cooking school that featured Ortiz’s all-black menu. But as a group, they stand out in the topography of Mexican cooking. “Upper-class Mexican food was always the blandest, dumbed-down Mexican food,” she says. “These women are changing that.”