A Night at the 49th Best Restaurant in the World, Pujol

Imagine for a minute, Pujol without the food. White linen tablecloths, dark walls, gleaming wine glasses, men in suits with gray hair, men in suits with their wives, mirrors, leather booths. I’m a serious and refined place, in case you dared to think differently, says the serif font on the awning. In all senses of ambiance and environment, we could be in New York. Maybe Paris. Most likely not airy San Francisco. Jenny is squirming at the other side of the table because she’s never been anywhere this “nice”. But she probably has. We’ve just never been anywhere like this in Mexico. It’s so serious. There’s no folklore or bright colors on the walls. Three weeks of decoding menus and we are barely getting through this one. We’re told we can’t share the tasting menu that’s $100 USD. The waiter is very pretty, but he’s hovering in a way that makes us think we’re doing something wrong.

Then a burnt orange dried gourd, so shiny and flawless it looks like sculpted clay, comes floating out of the kitchen. “A gift from the chef,” says our server as he opens the top of the gourd and the smell of smoking corn husks comes wafting out. Inside corn husks are indeed smoking, a bed of them underneath a cacao and paprika mayonnaise poured over two baby corns on sticks dusted with crushed ants. We put our hands around the gourd, lift it to our noses and inhale. It smells like campo we say to each other. It’s a take on the corn we buy on the street, the kind that comes covered in layers of mayonnaise, cream, cheese, lemon, sometimes chile. The squash blossoms we got used to seeing in our quesadillas are now stuffed with refried black beans and protruding from glass vases. Balls actually, glass balls. An open blossom is protruding from a ball and suddenly we like this chef’s sense of humor. This is the point when our insecurities about how to bite into this meal disappear. This is when we realize that on this table everything we’ve been in eating this trip is going to be appear as we have never seen it. Mexico’s most treasured dishes reconstructed by a chef bent on playing with your expectations.

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We’re a little bit hopeful that we were indeed specially chosen to receive a gift from the chef, but almost sure we’ll see it appear on every table tonight. The chef of Pujol, Enrique Olvera, was just awarded 49th place in the S. Pellegrino list of the fifty best restaurants in the world, the first time a Mexican restaurant has received such prestigious recognition. It’s a big deal, not just because a Mexican chef has joined the ranks of notable chefs from around the world, but because the world has finally turned its eye to a food experience that is uniquely Mexican and universally cutting edge. Bout time.

We decide to get a few dishes á la carte (to our pretty waiter’s disappointment). Our favorite entrée is the robalo fish marinated in guajillo chile and garlic, with pure of pineapple, cambray onion, and chile serrano. It has all the flavors of al pastor tacos, the grilled onions and pineapple, the tiny bits of chile and cilantro, but this is a fish and it’s delicious. They bring us tortillas and we’re not sure what makes them so amazingly flavorful, but we think they have a secret stash of the best corn on the planet. The ceviche marinated in coconut juice is an architect’s ceviche: a layer of sky-reaching hierbabuena, over avocado, over pale pink fish, over a coconut marinade. Nothing tastes dainty or delicate, despite appearances. The dessert makes our craving for caramel popcorn at Cinepolis look pathetic (but you’d empathize if you’ve ever had warm caramel popcorn at a movie). It’s a chocolate bizcocho with a ganache of honey and popcorn ice cream. On the side they bring you an agua de cacao to wash it down, which you could call overly indulgent (okay, it is entirely overly indulgent) but it works.

The front of the Pujol menu is covered by a photograph of chapulines (grasshopper) farmers in a field. On the front of the mezcal menu a tiny photograph of an agave plant smiles at you. Looking in from the outside, at this fancy restaurant in the middle of Mexico City’s posh Polanco neighborhood, you should feel distant from the fields of chapulines and agave. But from inside Pujol’s walls, where being faithful to Mexico’s ingredients means enjoying their possibilities, you somehow don’t feel to far at all.

Pujol:
Francisco Petrarca 254
Polanco, Mexico City, 11570
Prices:
Tasting menus run about $100 USD
A la carte entrees run about $20-$40
Make a reservation!

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