Category Archives: Eating Out: Elsewhere

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.

Restaurant August

In theory, I love OpenTable and online reservations. I love making plans, thus I love making reservations. I loathe talking on the phone, thus I’m happy to use a website to book a table. But time after time, OpenTable in particular has proven to me that making an old fashioned reservation over the phone is the best bet (when possible). I’ve been seated at clearly the worst table in the restaurant, more than once, using the system. At this point, if I use the system, I specifically write in the Notes that I don’t want a table near the door or the restroom. I’ve logged on the moment reservations are available to only see tables at 5:15 or 10:45 or to see that there are no tables available—it’s possible but highly suspect for everything to be gone immediately. Restaurants don’t seem to respect the service all that much either if they’re giving users the worst seats or not making all tables available. A necessary tool in the industry perhaps, but not one I like to use when reservations are essential or hard-to-get. I try to only use it for booking a work lunch at a generic place or at old standbys that people tend to forget about.

But I get lazy. And when I’m doing my travel research in front of the computer, it’s easy just to click on the Reservations button instead of picking up the phone. So, I made my two NOLA reservations via OpenTable and hoped for the best in terms of seating. One was for lunch on my last day at John Besh’s Restaurant August. Despite my fondness for knowing that my Grandma Ruby used to love watching “Emeril Live!” late at night, I was not going to make him a priority on this NOLA journey. John Besh, however,  that lovable, floppy-haired, blue-eyed gentleman who shows up as a symbol of NOLA dining and cuisine as often as Mr. Lagasse, is a celebrity chef whose food I was interested in trying. I can sometimes be a sucker for someone who always seems to wear a genuine smile. August appears to be the flagship restaurant within the group he oversees. It only offers lunch on Fridays, and a Friday lunch is exactly when I had the time to visit. Leisurely Friday lunches are celebrated in NOLA—it is considered the best time to visit historic Galatoire’s—so, I was excited to take part in this local pastime. Until I learned that I would have to leave much earlier for the airport than anticipated, meaning my reservation was going to be too late. When I called August (three days in advance) to see if I could come at an earlier time, there was no record of my OpenTable reservation.

WTF.

I had a confirmation number, but the girl on the other end of the phone could find nothing with my name. My anxious nature meant that I got short with her quite quickly. What was her solution? What would have happened if I had just shown up at my reserved time? Shown up after having made a reservation well in advance because I wanted to dine at Mr. Besh’s revered restaurant? (I like to be dramatic when the opportunity arises.) She curtly told me she would phone me back in 10 minutes. An hour later, I had to call her back to get the solution: After much Tetris-ing (her words) of the tables, they could accommodate me at an earlier time and would “take good care of me.” Easily flattered, all dramatic thoughts dissipated, and OpenTable became the enemy again.

 

Parmesan and egg custard amuse

 

 

Lobster salad amuse

 

Fried green tomatoes with crab, shrimp, and chow chow relish

 

Crispy pompano with shrimp, chard, and brown butter

I’m not sure if I was taken care of better than anyone else in the restaurant that afternoon, but I was taken good care of. If only by the fact that I got to sit in the beautiful day lit-front room of the historic French-Creole building and not tucked away in a corner like solo diners often are. The captain who took care of me presided over the room and discussed the menu as if everything was his, reminding me of the existence of a genuine hospitality and pride that is often overshadowed by snobbish indifference in NYC.

The food overall was good, and I had started early enough to have a leisurely meal before the hassle and hustle of an airport. The custard amuse was smooth and creamy; the lobster one, unfortunately, tasted only of sea salt. The fried green tomatoes were the headliner of my appetizer, but the ample amount of accompanying tender shrimp and sweet crab made me wonder if the dish should be retitled. Same with the “crispy pompano,” which was well-cooked and delicious in its pool of brown butter, but I was presented with fish skin that was more like, chewy. My dessert, a deconstructed banana pudding, was perfect. The colour of real bananas may suggest pablum, but the flavour beats anything that comes out yellow. And the inclusion of the bruleed bananas with cold ice cream also seems reminiscent of the local favourite Bananas Foster. I could see myself wanting to visit the bar late at night just for that plate.

Banana pudding with peanut butter, marshmallow and ‘nilla wafer ice cream

 

I wish I had learned something about why my reservation went missing to prevent it from happening again. Right, I didn’t learn anything. I was reminded of something: Picking up the phone is always best. (Kisses to all my faraway friends who never hear my voice!)

 

MIgnardises – praline and truffle