Battle of the Best Restaurants

I’ve commented on this before – the food in Mexico is evolving. Tacos and elotes are no longer relegated to the realm of street carts and markets, they’re getting their rightful respect in kitchens and from diners.

Mexico has a unique and complex history, and Mexican food reflects it. Ingredients and recipes as old as the Aztecs are still in use today, alongside the more modern influences of the Spanish. Even the less conspicuous Arab migrations made strong and lasting impacts on the food in Mexico – spit roasted al pastor, anyone? As delicious as it is, the food is still changing, and The Sheikh and I were fortunate to be able to tour three of the best fine dining establishments that are shaping food culture all over Mexico. Here, I’ll compare them for you – Pujol vs. Quintonil vs. Maximo Bistrot.

We planned our first dinner in Mexico City at Maximo Bistrot, a coveted and cozy restaurant in the Condesa neighborhood. We arrived at 7:30 to a partially empty, mostly quiet dining room. Plenty of tourists were dining, but unlike other restaurants, the city’s young and affluent were also present. Reservations have to be made well in advance. The dining room is a candle lit, rustic, space, with a few tables scattered inside as well as on the patio. There was a formal vibe, following the trend in Mexico City – definitely a place to wear cocktail casual, as were all of the restaurants we visited.

We opted for the tasting menu. Once we ordered, dishes started to arrive quickly – everything was delectable. No dishes were overly adventurous, but there were classic French and Mexican preparations and flavors intertwining throughout the meal, making an excellent study of the new, polished style of Mexican cuisine emerging in Mexico City. Global influences played harmoniously against traditional dishes, like miso glazed white fish collar followed by a sorbet palate cleanser made with xoconostle, a gelatinous and intensely flavorful fruit eaten by the Aztecs.  The menu had a rise and fall, and the desserts were a fruit heavy, not-too-sweet denouement.

By the time we left, the restaurant was full inside and out, and the noise level was at a steady hum punctuated by occasional laughter that rose above the din. The meal was incredibly satisfying from beginning to end, the entire experience was a perfect introduction to what we could expect for our next few meals.

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The next meal we planned was at Quintonil, a restaurant on the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, where the kitchen is run by Jorge Vallejo, a protegee of celebrity chef, Enrique Olvera.

Quintonil was an amazing experience – from the moment we walked in until we got into our taxi, the service was impeccable. And of course, the food was wonderful.

We arrived at 1pm. The dining room was small, and brightly lit and sparely decorated in a mid-century style. Again, the restaurant was partially empty and very quiet, and cocktail casual seemed to be the attire of choice for patrons. We sat down. While we perused the menu, we were served a starter of blue corn tortillas with beans and salsa. We opted for the tasting menu once more, and the food was a surprise after flavor explosion after surprise. This tasting menu was all rise – where every dish was more impressive than the last. Each plate was a combination of flavors that worked amazingly well, like lemon and beef tongue, or traditional Mexican ingredients like humble escamole and avocado, elevated and manipulated into haute cuisine. The chef came out of the kitchen several times to plate and discuss his dishes with us, and that personal touch made this experience so special for me.  Although the food was adventurous and not always “tasty” in the traditional sense, it definitely narrated a journey through Mexico’s emerging gastronomy culture, and it was artistic. I cannot wait to return here to see what new innovations they are making in Mexican cuisine.

We left the restaurant at about 4pm – this was the longest experience we had, and worth it, but visitors should plan accordingly. During the course of our meal, the dining room had filled, but the atmosphere remained very intimate, and the caliber of service never waivered. This restaurant was easily my favorite of the three we visited.

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Our next food adventure was at Pujol. The Sheikh and I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix, so we were hyped to eat here, and secretly hoped to catch a glimpse of Enrique Olvera. The restaurant has recently relocated, and the new building is beautiful. Behind the stone wall enclosing the restaurant grounds, there’s a wild garden that partially obscures the very modern building. Inside, there is lots of glass, open doors, and plants incorporated into the décor, so that even though you eat inside, everything feels al fresco. We were seated under a skylight, and watched the sunset transform the vibe in the restaurant. When I washed my hands at the communal sinks, I was able to peek out of the back door to see the brick oven and clay jugs in the yard. The building is impressive in size and stunning. It definitely sets the tone for the experience.

The menu is set up differently than anything I’ve seen – There are defined courses, and for each course you choose between 4-5 different plates.  If you like two dishes under one course, and no dishes under another, you just have to choose. Two of the chef’s most famous dishes were courses on their own – We started with baby corn dipped in smoky mayonnaise and dusted with chicatana ants, and one of the last courses was the mole, two sauces, one aged and the other fresh. The other courses were good, but there was nothing inventive or surprising. The flavors were comparable to home cooking, and presented beautifully. My favorite thing throughout the whole dinner was a dessert that was made with corn – in the states we tend to think of corn as savory, but it was turned into a deliciously sweet cake with a bruleed pudding. Aside from that dessert, what was supposed to be the highlight of our trip fell a little flat for me. However, this restaurant was the Sheikh’s favorite – an opinion shared by many, as evidenced by the dining room that was as full when we arrived as when we left.

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Our short tour through Mexico City’s best restaurants was amazing, and given the opportunity to eat at any one of these restaurants again, I absolutely would. The food in Mexico is evolving, and these establishments are driving that change.  Mexicans are changing the way they and the rest of the world think of their food, and it’s worth tasting.

Which of these restaurants would you visit?


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