If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s convincing myself that I need things. Once a seed has been planted, my brain instinctively showers it with water and sunlight until I can’t fathom it not blossoming into fruition. It’s no surprise then, that upon discovering Restaurant Magazine’s 17th “Best Restaurant in the World” (sitting pretty between Per Se and Le Bernardin) was located in Mexico City, dining there became not a desire but a necessity. Throwing our backpacker budget to the wind we called to book an incredibly last minute table at Mexico’s finest and after 45 minutes of searches and transfers and “imposible”-s, we were in. Pujol (Catalan for “pork”), here we come.
It was our first night in Mexico City and we were ecstatic to be there. Intoxicated by the sights, smells and sounds of the dizzying metropolis, in addition to the nice tequila buzz we had going, the prospect of our first dinner made us downright giddy.
Upon entering Pujol we were greeted by several smiling faces and escorted through the main dining room to a private table for two tucked in a windowed alcove. We had definitely snagged a last minute cancellation, our server informed us with a wink – these tables were booked at least two weeks in advance, even for a Thursday. The interior of Pujol was like a nice suit – dark, sleek, simple and just plain sexy to be inside. I scanned the room, noticing we were the only white people in the restaurant; an assuring sight in any foreign eatery.
Our server greeted us with cucumber-mint infused water while warmly introducing us to the 9 course tasting menu (all in Spanish, much to Nick’s confusion). After making several selections and popping a Cab Franc blend from Baja, we were fully equipped to feast.
After igniting our palates with an ice of juniper, fennel and lime, we were presented with what was arguably the highlight of the meal. A hollow, aged gourd was placed at the center of our table and as the lid was removed, a fragrant smoke pillowed out. We peered in to find two skewered baby ears of corn sitting atop a bed of charred husks, slathered in a mayonnaise of ground chicatana ant, coffee and chili. Delicious is not the right word to describe it; “moving” does it better justice. My eyes instinctively shut as I was transported away – the unique blend of flavors evoking memories that laid just beyond my grasp. It defied classification. At once wholly Mexican and strangely personal, after three bites it was gone. My eyes reopened to see Nick across the table with a similar expression of wonder on his face. Whoa.
Next followed a vibrantly fresh broccoli mole topped with cauliflower, romanesco and cabbage curls that sang with green color and playfully delivered my vegetables for the meal. I squirmed with anticipation for the taco course to come.
What arrived in front of us were unlike any tacos we had ever seen. Snapper ceviche laid artfully across a blue corn tortilla pressed with “hoja santa”, topped with a micro-herb salad then finished with fish skin “chicharrones” and dollops of black bean emulsion. Paired with a custom smoked salsa, it was a celebration of both earth and sea complemented by acid, salt and that essential “crunch” factor. The brother taco was equally handsome. Cacao rubbed pork loin slow-cooked to perfection sidled by avocado purée, wrapped in a poblano tortilla and paired with salsa verde. The flavors were classic Mexican and yet eating this taco transcended time and place. It was tender beyond belief, it was creamy and ripe, it was spicy in all the right ways and it sang with a modern timelessness many cooks strive for and few achieve. This was the type of taco that will haunt your dreams. I yearned for, needed, more but it was gone. That first bite of taco would cross my mind multiple times a day, every day for the next week.
At this point the red wine had fully enveloped me in a fuzzy blanket of warmth and my level of satisfaction was through the roof. The server could sense how much we were enjoying ourselves as he delivered our next course and immediately befriended us – wanting to know everything about who we were, where we were from and how we happened to find ourselves at his table. I loved him – not only was he incredibly personable but he was also changing my life for the better every time he delivered our next course.
I excitedly examined my entrée of pan fried pork belly on salsa verde with leafy purslane and potato confited in egg yolk – the kitchen’s play on ham and eggs. It’s sister entree – the “pesca del día” – was lime-infused, seared yellowfin tuna paired with purée of eggplant and a smooth habanero sauce; an unexpected combination of flavors that delighted us with their compatibility. We couldn’t decided which we liked better – it almost seemed irrelevant – at this point we were just surfing the wave of gastro-fun that had been so carefully generated by the platoon of 26 chefs out back.
After more wine was poured we were presented with a traditional mole that had been aged for ten months and topped with crispy chicken skin, accompanied by hand-made tortillas. Complex and interesting as any good mole should be – my only complaint was that it wasn’t slathered over a delicious slab of meat.
After a small course of guayaba and sweet potato spheres to assist our transition from savory to sweet, we had arrived at dessert. Preserved papaya on a yogurt foam with crystallized lemon and a scoop of honey ice cream delighted. The toasted brioche with tropical fruits, crumbled cheese and a tomatillo-mint marmalade reminded me of the breakfast I should eat more often.
Unable to take another bite, our last course was thankfully in liquid form. A soothing cup of corn tea brewed with star anise and lime peel was the final salute to the culinary heritage of a country who truly knows how to feast.
It was an unforgettable experience; a trifecta of impeccable service, unbeatable company and a truly outstanding meal served with a twist of modern whimsy. I wobbled from my table drunk on wine, food and life, nearly hugging everyone in my path on the way out. A tray of truffles appeared out of nowhere and after a profusion of thanks and compliments we cruised into the warm night air. We had made it almost two blocks when I heard feet pounding behind me. I turned to find an out-of-breath employee with an outstretched arm handing me the moleskin in which I had taken notes from the meal and left behind. Shaking away the tip Nick tried to offer him and wishing us a good evening, we continued on our way knowing that we had found a friend in Mexico City.