Monday, May 30, 2016

Lunch at Pujol


When I started planning for Mexico City, I was thrilled to read I could get a decent meal for $2-3 USD. I love food, but I don't have the type of budget that allows me to splurge on fancy multi-course meals or tasting menus on the regular. After a bit of reading, however, Mexico proved to be an exception. There are a number of high-end restaurants in Mexico City - Biko, Quintonil, Contramar - but one name keeps coming up again and again as you read articles about the dining scene. Pujol has been ranked one of the top 50 restaurants in the world for the past few years, currently sitting at #16. The tasting menu cost $1,650 - a little under $100 USD. It's a price that seems ridiculous in Mexico, but when compared with other top restaurants around the world, it starts to look like a bargain. I was curious.


I made a reservation several weeks in advance. The only spot left was at 2:00 PM on a Tuesday. I took it. I looked at previous reviews and pictures and studied the seven-course tasting menu, which changes every so often.

Day of, I tore myself away from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and headed toward Polanco, the tony neighborhood where Pujol is located. Google maps walking directions said it would take 30 minutes, but Google doesn't recognize jaywalking, so it ended up being more like 10. Luckily, the street down from Pujol had benches where I sat and people-watched for the remaining 20 minutes. Once it was time, I got up... and walked right past the restaurant. I'd read it was "unassuming" - there was literally no signage, just a doorman.


I was one of the first people seated as the restaurant opened. There are only 13 tables. To my right was an American couple. He seemed to scoff at the local offerings from the wine list; I inwardly rolled my eyes. I ordered the cheapest Chardonnay (still on the pricey side at $10 USD a glass) - it was good! From Baja California, it was surprisingly sweet - almost like a Riesling - but smooth and mellow.


I spent some time studying the menu, which they'd brought for me in English. Dining alone is probably my least favorite part of solo travel, as it's almost always a little awkward, but I filled the time between courses with my phone and camera, as well as just sitting and enjoying the moment. I don't know if the post in the middle of the restaurant is supposed to echo the look of the paraguas from the Anthropology Museum, but that's what it brought to mind.


The first course arrived. It was made up of street snacks - Bocol Huasteco, which was like the most pleasant tamale ever, an asparagus-lime soup shot with a flavorful but mild dried pepper in it, and a chia tostada, crispy and topped with drops of guacamole, chile, and tiny purple flowers. The showiest, however, was the skewered baby corn, in a chile-coffee-ant dust mayo, served in a dried gourd full of smoke. The smell of the smoke reminded me of the incense at Teotihuacan, and I enjoyed smelling it again as other diners got their first course - a note of divinity added to the dining experience.


Next, I embarrassed myself by not realizing a tuna crudo ended the first course - I thought they'd brought me a different second course than the one I'd chosen. Basically, it was ceviche, and delicious enough that I got over my blunder quickly.

 

On to the second course - I'm not big on liver unless it's pate... which is typically what - duck? Pork? I mainly ordered this chicken liver dish so that I could try the cuitlacoche - corn fungus. It tasted slightly mushroomy, but more mild. This dish was an adventure, trying to get the perfect mouthful of liver, cuitlacoche, and avocado - the flavors were really good together.


Course III was the one I'd waffled over (can I try them all, please?), but the server who took my three "choice" orders had recommended the octopus over the lamb. I'm glad he did - it may have been my favorite. It arrived with a black, toasted tortilla on top - dyed with ink, olives, and red wine, the waitress said. (I loved how the waitress explained not only what was in each dish, but how to eat it, removing the potential for embarrassment.) I used the spoon to tap the tortilla till it broke, then mixed it in with the octopus. Perfect little tentacle rounds sat in a light oregano-habenero-onion sauce - a really marvelous combination.


The fourth course was the rabbit. It didn't taste like the rabbit I've had in the past, European-style and braised till it falls off the bone. This was boneless, chewier, and carefully rolled in on itself in a small puck. It was covered in a red sauce (pepian) and tiny minced bits of potato, almost pickled carrots, and chorizo. (I worried about the chorizo - it hadn't been listed as an ingredient, and sausage is one of a handful of things my stomach can't deal with on occasion - but it was fine.)


Course V was the mole madre. I don't know if I've ever had mole before... this was incredible. Dark mole aged 919 days with a center of red "mole nuevo". The mole madre was smooth, subtle, chocolatish, with raisin being the key note. (Seriously, the intricacy of the flavors was like wine tasting.) The nuevo was spicier, with cinnamon as its note. The mole was served with three tortillas - a leafy one, one with chia seeds, and one with some delicious fat slathered on the bottom. The only downside were that there were only three - I resorted to eating the rest of the mole with a spoon. Sooo good.


Once the dishes for my second-to-last course had been cleared away, I made a last-second decision to order the cheapest glass of Port. It was a good decision for the seventh course, the "happy ending". First came a palate cleanser, which was the one thing I could've done without - lychee on rice soaked in coconut milk. While all these ingredients exist in Mexican cuisine, to my palate, the combination tasted very Asian, which was a kick out of the moment - an intellectual exercise in the middle of a grand, sensory one.


But then came the desserts... Avocado ice cream with chocolate mousse, lightly spiced; a crispy, creamy confection topped with a dab of sweetness; and finally, churros and chocolate. The chocolate was so good - rich but not overpowering, much thinner than El Morro, and with a more primal kick to it. Perfect with port, though drinking a glass of higher-proof wine in the span of a single course would have left me "happy ended" no matter what the course had been called.


Basking in the glow of everything I'd just eaten, I finished off my drink. After five or ten minutes, I had to ask the waitress for the check - a cultural difference I hoped she would read, but didn't. After using the lovely restroom and paying my ~$150 USD bill, I pranced back to the museum.

The only thing I can compare my meal at Pujol with is a dinner I had in Quebec City, at Le Patriarche - both restaurants take local ingredients and traditional dishes and challenge your conceptions by presenting and pairing them in new and exciting ways. It was an experience indeed, and one I probably won't find at that price point again.

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