Monthly Archives: August 2016

Olmsted 

When I tucked into the beautiful carrot crepe at the new critical sensation Olmsted, I thought of my Grandma Lily, me eating her overcooked, but delicious, plain carrot coins when I was a child, and how they likely cemented carrots as my favourite vegetable. I could write a warm fuzzy post about her and be a good granddaughter. But I’m not going to.

Carrot crepe, little neck clams, sunflower; Paired with Boundary Breaks Finger Lakes No 239 2014

It was while I was enjoying an early dinner at Olmsted’s sunny bar (forgive the difficult light of the pictures, please) the other night, that I came to notice how with all of the three couples that would sit next to me, the boy ordered and mostly ate the food that came for “them.” The plates ultimately sat in front of these XY chromosomes, with the XXs curling in beside them, reaching in occasionally, their alcoholic drinks appearing much more the night’s sustenance than the creative calories coming out of the kitchen of chef-owner Greg Baxtrom.

As my courses came, I had moments of being conscious that what I ordered was the amount being shared by two people next to me, and I had moments of exhilaration at having my own plate and no need to reach my arm across someone else’s to take a bite. All the plump clams that lied beneath the day-glo crepe were mine. All the sunflower seeds that added more depth than the carrot and butter sauce pooled beneath weren’t divvied up. The satisfying bowl of chawanmushi that followed was only sullied by my spoon. All the shaved truffles were mine to poke around and fiddle with, and the crispy artichokes that softened in the custard’s liquor only found a final resting place within me.

Charred fennel chawanmushi, Burgundy truffle, crispy artichokes; Paired with Prelius Toscana Vermentino 2015

But noticing the curled backs and stealth arms of the girls next to me was not just about enjoying my selfishness; I was aware of my appetite and how I was able to let it be free. I can certainly eat when I want to and maybe these three girls just don’t need to eat as much.  It was early for dinner in New York. Maybe it was not about some sort of posturing in front of their gentlemen or do to with how much they think they could or should eat. They can say no to an exciting duck breast and ballotine (what essentially was like duck mortadella) pairing and just keep saying yes to light-coloured cocktails. I can’t.

After being around girls and boys for a good long while in my life, I also can’t completely buy that their behaviour was free from some sort of head game. Even in the Instagram reality of female influencers as hedonistic gluttons, it’s obvious the signifiers are often ultimately props. I’m too old and too into food at this point to be embarrassed by eating, but my self-awareness never relaxes. I know too well the difficult relationship between girls and food. That would be a reason for why I like dining solo (perhaps read: being single). No sharing. No posturing. No explaining. The only boys that notice my eating are the ones that serve me, and I get no second looks given that my tab works in their favour.

Duck breast and ballotine, fairytale eggplant, apricot, olive; Paired with (unknown) Lacryma Christi

I would accept an assessment that I’m quick to judge with shallow arguments, but I’ll counter with the observation that the next patron to sit next to me was another solo female who took a deep dive in the menu. When she asked the bartender if she was ordering too much, I silently cheered her on. As she was finishing off her second item, I was presented with a traditional chocolate mousse. All the love has been going toward Olmsted’s lavender frozen yogurt, but as someone who eats pounds of yogurt on a weekly basis, I veered left and went with (not my favourite) chocolate. Its thick richness was a welcome contrast to the garden-forward lightness of the savoury courses. As each spoonful lingered on my tongue, I wished I could have similarly stuck around for hours in the pretty room with its plant-filled wall, admiring the colourful Santimetre ceramics that dishes came out on, and watching those in the back garden anticipate getting my seat. Of course, as mostly couples, my single empty would bring them no relief, but maybe, just maybe, it would increase the hangry factor enough so that there would be fewer criss-crossed arms, less perching around plates, and less sharing. Each diner at Olmsted should be having private moments of bliss with the plate set out in front of, and only for, them.

Chocolate mousse with vanilla creme fraiche

Pujol

I’ve been very “meh” about Chef’s Table on Netflix. As someone who is passionate about food and restaurants, I feel like I’m supposed to be all over it. But I haven’t been, and I’ve had a hard time describing why. Sure, I can poke fun like everyone else does at the overuse of slow motion or question why so much importance is placed on the problematic World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But that’s not really why watching has felt a bit like homework. When I asked someone whose opinion about food I respect why they didn’t like it, her simple response was, because it’s boring. And that’s it for me, too. It’s just been too snoozy. So much of what I’d like to know about the featured chefs and their restaurants is never translated adequately or represented at all, and so the episodes become background noise to me while I check Twitter or Instagram on my phone. The tension has been limp, the emotion too shallow, and the story angles often odd or stunted. Maybe a bit too clinical? Phoney warmth? Even, I must admit, in the episode on Enrique Olvera, the chef of Cosme here in NYC and, more famously, Pujol in Mexico City, which is the restaurant I had booked months in advance of my trip and which currently sits at number 25 on The List. I say “even” because as possibly the only restaurant featured on the show I will ever have the chance of visiting, I began watching with as open a mind as possible. (It soon snapped shut.)

The good thing was that watching had no impact on my anticipation for dining at Pujol. My excitement was tempered, though: It’s considered one of the best places to eat in Mexico City, yet I found in my research that the Olvera star no longer seems to shine as bright as before (Chef’s Table, then, might serve as a nice boost); it was my birthday, but Mondays are quiet in the capital city; it’s a highly sought-after reservation, but I knew I would likely be dining almost wholly with other tourists; and while I’ve wanted to go back to Cosme, I wasn’t in love with my experience there last year. What comes to the fore is that it was my birthday, and with the intention of treating myself however I saw fit, relishing being on vacation, and appreciating that I was about to eat a place where many others would like to switch places with me, it would have been hard for me to have a bad time. And if you’ve seen his episode, regardless of everything else, I was very excited to get to that three-year-old mole.

The good time came easy as did the enjoyment of the food. Like at Cosme, the room is dark and dramatic, flipping expectations or merely modernizing the bright/white fine dining model. English was the language of the room, but the hospitality had the local warmth. Despite the unfamiliar guises and creative plating, it was impossible to make a menu choice from the six-course tasting that was not firmly rooted in Mexican flavours. From the familiar to the rare—ant eggs, corn smut, grasshoppers—the ingredients came together in exciting and satisfying ways, and the comforting backbones of corn, braised meats, and chiles  were always present.

I was taken with the shrimp tostada, where I was instructed to crumble the crisp tortilla in the dish, mix, and eat the concoction with a spoon. But the new and aged mole presentation did not disappoint as the savoury finale. Eating both, whether together or separately with the soft, fresh blue corn tortillas will never be forgotten, but the special moment was eating them with the tortilla fused with a hoja santa leaf. It was beautiful to look at, but the herbal quality added to the corn was outstanding with the newer, bright mole and the aged, rich one.

A perfect coil of warm churro is much better than traditional birthday cake as one of the happy endings, but a simple piece of mango can steal its thunder.

If I could have a do-over, I would have watched the episode after my visit. Not because I think it ruined any surprise, but because I would have had more context to appreciate what stories were told. It would have added the warmth I wanted more of. Perhaps more pointedly, the spicy heat needed to command my attention.

Chicken chicharron with escamoles (ant eggs)

Shrimp tostada, guajilio, recado blanco, chipotle mayonnaise

 

Happy Ending

 

 

 

Blue corn antojitos at Mercado de Medellín

I didn’t need to go to Mexico City to try a tlacoyo. I know that I can find them in NYC from both street vendors and restaurants. But the tlacoyo was the Mexican antojito that I did want to try for the first time while in Mexico, for whatever reason. Instagram and word-of-mouth recommendations would lead me to the Mercado de Medellín in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood. Just outside the market, on the street corner, a mother and daughter supply passersby  with the little oval-shaped snack, in addition to quesadillas and gorditas. The hot comal sits between the two of them. The mother does all the work with the raw masa, while the daughter handles the transactions, finishes, plates, and packs up the snacks.

Around the comal are a few overturned buckets. One became my place of lunch, but the others were mostly used for people waiting for their to-go orders.  A few teenagers walked away with fat stacks, the “con todos” toppings of cheese, cilantro, and nopales (cactus) seaparately packaged in neat little bags. The choice of salsa is the standard rojo or verde, and you choose based on what flavour profile you prefer. The difference in heat level changes with every maker. It’s a roll of the dice if you’re sensitive.

As I’ve never had a Latin American snack with mashed fava beans, that was the filling I chose for my tlacoyo. The hot oval gets slashed and then stuffed with the toppings. Left alone they would be on the dry side, so the mix of all the toppings against the crisped, warm masa cake is what makes the experience. Inhaling the aroma of the cooked corn, tasting the brightness of the cilantro, chewing the cactus, feeling the slight burn of the salsa. Two minutes of eating I will never forget.

The tlacoyos were smaller than I was expecting, and so I also ordered a simple cheese quesadilla. Whatever the cheese was, it was exactly the kind you want melted. It was near molten when it was first served to me, and then as it cooled it got soft and stringy without being rubbery. I would want it on a pizza. With my appetite now revving, I couldn’t walk away without ordering a gordita con chicharron. Based on my eating experience, I can only say that a gordita is a cousin to the Salvadorean pupusa. It, too, gets split and stuffed with toppings and salsa. It was not the reason I came, but it was definitely my favourite. Because, pork fat.

The 15 minutes I spent on that corner was wholly not extraordinary. It was a quiet Monday at the market. The ladies’ business was steady but slow enough at that moment that I could grab a bucket and only had to wait for my snacks to be cooked. My outsider status brought no extra attention. There was little chit chat as most of the other people eating or waiting were also alone. Street and construction noise was the soundtrack. Although recommended to me and easy to find, this stall would have contemporaries across the city and across the country. All delicious, all worthy of an Instagram. For me, these ladies become special and burned into Internet memory because they cooked me lunch on my 37th birthday. And they did so for only $2. In my mind, it was a gift.

Tlacoyo con haba

Quesadilla con queso

Gordita con chicharron

Tacos El Vilsito

As comfortable as I am dining solo now, I still experience a couple of minutes of unease before every approach to the host stand. Nerves, self-consciousness, and insecurities manifest as pinpricks on my skin and slight shakes in my hands. It all dissipates quickly once I’m seated and the experience has begun, but I can’t deny that I still allow the stigma of solo dining to affect me. A foreign country can increase a couple to a few, as can dining at a place where I won’t be seated at a table and have its support to steady myself.

The only salve I would have for my nerves in visiting Tacos El Vilsito* in the Narvarte neighbourhood of Mexico City was the calmness of the Uber ride over. Once I had confirmed with the driver, that yes, this was my destination, I was on my own to navigate the space that is an auto body repair shop by day, and a lauded taqueria by night.

Tacos al pastor are not the only type of taco they offer, but as their specialty, and as Mexico City’s most famous local style, that’s why I came. There were at least three trompos of the marinated pork being manned when I arrived around 9:30 pm on a Friday. For a place that stays open into the wee hours of the morning, I essentially arrived almost with what would be a stroller crowd. But it was plenty busy. I think there was a counter for placing orders, but I chose to do like the others milling about out front and caught one of the aproned boys darting through the crowd writing down and serving orders. That’s when the anxiety set back in. A language barrier, ignorance regarding the ordering system, and the self-consciousness of being the only pasty-skinned gringa meant I needed a few extra minutes of courage. I’m hoping I fooled people with my fake menu reading.

Having had a substantial lunch at Contramar, I was a little conservative in my ordering. Two tacos al pastor, a gringa (how could I not?) al pastor, and an order of the cebollitas. While there are some stools and a counter, most people just stand out front and eat.  Food comes out as it’s ready, which is fine until you’re holding a plate with two tacos and another with the gringa. I swear my little server couldn’t have been more than 13 years old, but his deftness at getting my meal onto one plate demonstrated experience incongruous with his cherubic complexion. But then came the onions. He quickly guided me through the crowd to a stool where I could manage my two plates and finally tuck in. Everyone was watching the Euro 2016 match blasting from the TVs, so, as always, my self-consciousness was not justified.

The tacos come loaded with pork shaved from the trompo, pineapple, and onions and cilantro when ordered “con todos.” A gringa is the same filling but on a slightly larger flour tortilla and with a layer of melted cheese. There is no way even the most experienced taco eater would be able to eat an El Vilsito taco without losing a good portion of the filling. While I was waiting for my food, I observed a tactic I’d never seen before. Instead of attacking the full taco and eating what’s lost after, many people were picking at the filling with their fingers prior to picking up the taco. This was especially easy with the thin slices of pork and pineapple. Al pastor is a fundamental sweet and salty combo that all must try, especially if you’re a fan of its distant cousin, the Hawaiian pizza.

I have nostalgia for flour tortillas from the Tex-Mex homemade and restaurant dinners of my childhood, but the a gringa al pastor was not the right move. The flavour of the cheese was outshone by the marinade, as was the mildness of the flour tortilla. I should have maybe tried a gringa with one of their beef offerings. The cheese did, however, hold the filling more in place. Points for structural integrity.

And those cebollitas. I had read that they were a side item not to be missed. When I was ordering, my served asked, “con Maggi?” and the “si” fell from my lips without much thought. But what an umami bomb I had agreed to. I only really think of Maggi sauce as a banh mi condiment, and I had no idea it was used as one in Mexican cooking. The small, sweet grilled onions doused in the salty liquid was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Hashtag I love salt.

 

Tacos al pastor con todos

Gringa al pastor con todos

 

Cebollitas con Maggi

*The link takes you to the El Vilsito Foursquare page. I learned that Mexicans use Foursquare for information and reviews far more often than Yelp.

Contramar

My recent absence has been due to spending most of July dealing with a pesky GI infection. It’s not that I’ve been too sick to write. Far from it. Working from home while recovering gave me more free time because I didn’t have a commute.  I had no motivation to catch up on sharing Mexico City meals with you because looking at the photos was too difficult. Pre- and post-diagnosis involved wading heavily into the BRAT diet, and I just couldn’t bear to think about all the food I was unable to enjoy. Fingers crossed for no relapse so that I can relive all the glories of these meals.

***

I was tentative about Contramar. It’s talked about as a CDMX Must, and you can’t escape pictures of the tuna tostadas once you start your dining research. I can be turned off by popularity, so I wavered a long time (this trip was in the works for approximately seven months). What tipped me to yes was reading this article in Lucky Peach about chef-owner Gabriela Camara staffing her new San Francisco restaurant with ex-convicts. Her social justice values motivated me to take the well-travelled path to Contramar.

It was not what I expected when I arrived. The bustle of sidewalk diners and waiting drivers indicated a busy place, but it did not declare itself ostentatiously. When you enter, all that you notice is the crush of diners and tables. The room is unremarkable. All I can picture in my mind are white tablecloths and beige everything else. Maybe some blue to indicate the sea? You’re soon swept up in the energy of the quick servers, loud conversations, and street noise, so being stimulated by décor or layout is irrelevant.

There was lots of wine being poured, but for my first meal on my first trip to Mexico (rare for an Albertan in her late 30s), only mezcal would do. My broken Spanish combined with my server’s almost complete lack of English resulted in an enjoyable glass that I assumed was on the young and smooth side.

Before you have time to order, you’re presented with an array of carbs, pickles, a loose avocado sauce, and fiery onions. English menus are nice, but only the Spanish one contained the day’s specials. As a restaurant that specializes in fish, there were many to consider. On that point, despite CDMX being landlocked, I learned that as the capital and commercial center, the best of everything comes straight to CDMX, including daily catches.

Rare and appreciated as a solo diner was the ability to order half portions and not get penalized with a surcharge. Half portion, half the price. How refreshing.

Tostadas de atun

The popularity factor had me questioning again whether I should order the famous tostadas, but they are on every table for a reason: They’re perfect. Forget for a moment about the fresh, rich tuna, because while any funk would deem these a fail, the fish’s excellence is merely a strong foundation. The tostada itself breaks with your bite to remove any fear of a cascade of crumbs. The avocado echoes the buttery taste and texture of the tuna, but the mildness doesn’t cause any competition. The fried leeks added texture, but their ability to be both sweet and bitter added the complexity that makes this a signature dish. Oh wait. Then there’s the slightly spicy mayo that holds the tuna in place. Another clutch move. I regret not just ordering a full portion.

Taco de charal

When trying to ask my server for recommendations, I inquired about the tacos de charal, as I’m a fan of crispy little fish. His facial expression screamed “meh,” so I passed. He ended up bringing me one taco gratis, however, and I couldn’t disagree with him. It was pleasant enough, but the little guys weren’t very flavourful. It was mostly a few bites of spine-cracking texture.

Ceviche de almejas chocolatas

Chocolate clams (I think named for a brown shell) appeared a number of times on the specials list. I went with the ceviche on my server’s recommendation. I preferred eating it as is instead of on chips, as I found the salty chip easily overpowered the delicacy of the clams. Bright, a little spicy, a little chewy. As I looked around the room at the business men, pretty people, and tourists with a forkful in my mouth, I had my “I’m on vacation, finally,” moment.

Tacos de esmedregal al pastor

Regular al pastor tacos were on deck for dinner, but my server pushed hard for me to get this special. I had no reason to protest, and he proved himself trustworthy once again when I tucked into these. The cobia was meaty enough to handle the spice and its place as a pork substitute. The (preserved? pickled?) pineapple was more intense than fresh slices and strongly countered the fish even with the few chunks. I will not comment on Mexican tortillas because I never ran across a dud, but I will say that the aroma of a fresh masa product adds a layer of depth so often missed with that which is packaged/premade. Apologies for stating the obvious.

Flan de queso

Ordering dessert is done in the wayback fashion of bringing every dessert to your table on a giant platter so that it is impossible to say no to the visual evidence of eventual sweet delight. The dessert on everyone’s table is the fresh fig tart, which I ordered, but then discovered was on a nut crust. The strawberry meringue cake makes for good Instagram, but I thought I would go for the Mexican classic of flan. I thought I heard “flan de casero,” when it was described and only learned when I saw the bill that it was a cheese flan. I couldn’t tell you what cheese would have been used because I didn’t taste any that would make itself readily known. Perhaps a fresh cheese, like ricotta? Rich and creamy cooked custard is the draw for me with flan, and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t usually order it, though, because I can’t stand a pool of sickly sweet caramel. As you can see, no pool. So there was just enough burnt sugar sweetness seeping down to liven up the custard.

Mas, por favor.