|Pujol is one of Mexico City’s finest restaurants, and with its remarkable expression of Mexican flavors combined with cutting-edge technique and expert presentation, it's possibly unique in the world. Chef Enrique Olvera graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has worked with chefs around the world. His influence can be seen in many other Mexico-area restaurants, and his style of "nueva cocina" exerts a strong gravitational pull on foodies and "stagistes" (young cooks) alike. His sleek restaurant Pujol is located on a quiet street in the swank Polanco district. Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec resemble Beverly Hills except for all the security. The dining room is small and sleek with warm gray walls, and cream and wood accents. The restaurant opened 10 years ago, an event Olvera celebrated by self-publishing a remarkable book called "UNO" in a limited edition that I wish I’d bought. Well, next time.
We caught the chef smoking on the sidewalk, and he gave us a tour of his soon-to-open bakery on the corner and his smallish kitchen, which was dark but pretty sexy (for a kitchen) with a steeply angled white ceiling, dark blue tiles and pin spotlights on the stations. Chef's note: a small Rational combi for holding and a sous-vide machine for meats were placed on the neat little expo station.
“We don’t cook in the sous-vide,” the chef said. “Just reheat. It’s great.”
During our meal, the service was excellent and warm. The floor staff has a more-or-less firm grip on English and know the food inside out. Both sommeliers were female and well educated. We need more women in wine, don’t we?
With no further ado, here are words and pictures of Pujol.
ONE: Multiple amuse, presented at once
• Mezcal Margarita de "Xoconostle" with Worm Salt: "Xoconostle" are green cactus pears, and their juice is lightly sweet. There was likely a hint of agave and lime, but the small drink was likely mostly mezcal – oily, immensely potent and delicious. The glass was rimmed very lightly with dried "gusanos" (maguey worms) ground into a powder with dry chiles, salt and possibly dry salted plums or chile-limon powder.
• "Aquachiles" of vegetable: "Aguachiles" are usually raw shrimp mixed with cucumber, raw chiles, onion and lime, served in a rock "molcajete." Olvera’s version came in a small black china "molcajete" shape: fresh lime juice with tiny dice of something crunchy and yellow, cubed avocado, teensy sea beans and sliced chile serrano. If there was protein or onion, I ate it too fast to note.
• A raw "flor de calabasa" flower was filled with cold black bean puree and served in a glass globe with a hole in the side.
• A lovely gourd with a lid sat on the table smoking madly. Inside was a skewer of a single grilled baby corn with coffee mayonnaise; it picked up a little smoky taste from the smoldering corn husks, so it tasted almost chipotle-ish.
• Bread service: This arrived on a white plate that held a piece of heated marble, a tiny "bolito" of white bread and later, a little wheat roll. There were three dishes: "quenelles" of goat butter (like melting creamy goat cheese), regular butter and a red chile salsa, which was mildly spicy, and made of dried chiles and roasted tomatoes.
TWO: Celeste Blanc 2009, Mariatinto, Valle de Guadalupe. Winemaker: Humberto Falcon
This Baja wine (a blend) worked perfectly with a ceviche of gently curled strips of exquisite white fish set on a little swirl of fresh coconut and lime juices, accompanied by a slice of avocado "criollo" (small local avocado), paper-thin slices of red onion and chile "guero," and a few cilantro microgreens. Even in Mexico City, they use microgreens.
THREE: Tempus Dorado artisanal ale, made by familia Andreu
This ale – light but full of flavor – was an inspired choice with the salad.
Salads are generally ordinary, but not Olvera’s composed seasonal "ensalada de milpa" (field salad). On an olivewood platter he placed a streak of smoothly pureed black beans, a layer of fresh-tasting "queso fresco," slim slices of serrano, a charred wedge of "calabacita," zucchini flower petals and some other kind of orange waxy-crisp leaf or petal, a wedge of green heirloom tomato and a black "chochoyote," or little dumpling, made from blue corn masa. Some chefs include insect garnishes in their "milpa" presentations. If there was a bug, I ate it. When a chef is this good, you go with it.
FOUR: Catrina red ale, Hacienda de San Juan Puelilla, Hidalgo
It's a more powerful beer, much darker with a distinct red color. Since this dish tasted mostly of cheese and mushroom, the beer was a perfect complement.
A small tamal of "huitlacoche" (corn fungus) was found under a layer of "quesillo" (Oaxacan cheese) foam with a streak of pureed tomatillo salsa. When served, the waiter shook a small cloth bag over the tamal, sifting a light dust of ground dried chile and ground dried "huitlacoche" over the dish. There was a black streak of sauce made of tomatillos. Fresh-made little corn tortillas were served warm in an envelope of hand-woven fabric lined with satin. Elegant and practical, this is the kind of detail you expect in a restaurant of this caliber.
FIVE: Tinto de Mogorcito 2007, Valle de Guadalupe, Vinos de Garza. Winemakers: Ana & Amado Garza
These Guadalupe blends of cabernet and merlot are common, and bring out the best of both wines. This one started out well balanced, but I found that the salt in the dish made the wine flat toward the end.
A filet of Mexican "escolar" (oilfish) was topped with "adobo oaxaqueno" (a paste of dried chiles). The fish was buttery and firm, almost stringy, and perfectly cooked. Three dots of sauce around the plate were a puree of poblanos topped with kernels of "huitlacoche."
SIX: Canada de los Encinos 2008, Valle de Guadalupe, 33 Encincos (Agrifolia)
This selection is a gorgeous blend of zinfandel and petit "verdad" that perfectly exemplifies the style of the Valle – it is potent with minerals, with the sun at its heart, and tastes of coffee and berries. It held its own nicely with the strong favors of the mole and parsnips.
Turkey breast was served pink-medium, topped with shards of crisp turkey skin and set on a puree of parsnips. Our waiter brought a little pot to the table and spooned a dark mole of Oaxacan "chihuacle" chiles onto the plate. It was perfectly smooth, rich and had the subtlest edge of something sweet and chocolatey? I don’t know but this was certainly the most elegant mole ever. I could eat it daily.
Passion fruit water was served with a small amount of tequila – no ice, but cold and slightly effervescent.
SEVEN: Drama! Quenelle of berry sorbet with crushed salted plums
At the table, the waiter lit a pitcher of mezcal on fire and poured it over the dish. Visuals aside, the sorbet disappeared and seemed to make the mezcal bitter. But what a fantastic presentation.
EIGHT: More drama, lest you be in danger of napping.
A bowl arrived with a towering Mylar sleeve containing something layered – Olvera’s brilliant piña colada. The captain lifted off the sleeve, and the bowl filled with bubbles of fresh pineapple juice, completely covering a subtle, fresh coconut ice cream, which in turn sat on diced pineapple compote and pineapple syrup. There were also a few cubes of pineapple panna cotta.
MIGNARDISE: This was a totally cool little wooden dish shaped like a miniature tajine (white outside with rings of color; signed by the artist), with crumbled white paper, and on it were some small squares of homemade halvah, fruit jellies and two tiny balls of Oaxacan chocolate.