Mexico City's fine dining scene

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Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman checks in with her latest report from her culinary adventures around the world. Today: Mexico City

The pace, crowds and cultural splendors of Mexico City, a world capital of 25 million people, make it feel more like Manhattan than Oaxaca, though starting the trip in the provinces allowed me to work up to the intensity, and the 7,500-foot elevation, of the capital.

Since my last visit more than 20 years ago, the air has become clearer, due in part to driving laws that prohibit one-seventh of all cars from entering the center on any given day. Staying in the Soho-like Condesa neighborhood, with its narrow tree-lined streets dotted with galleries, cafes and restaurants, within walking distance of the superb Anthropological Museum in Chapultepec Park, made the city seem manageable.

In addition to being the national center for art, from ancient to modern, Mexico City has become a world culinary destination as well, with wonderful restaurants that reflect the very soul of the country. There are three — two run by women — that you should not miss if you care about food.

Local food expert and guide Ruth Alegria (www.mexicosoulandessence.com) dragged me to Pujol (Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco, tel. 5545-4111) kicking and screaming. She wouldn’t let me leave Mexico City without trying it.

Though even Rick Bayless of Chicago’s impeccable Frontera Grill told me that he thought Pujol’s chef Enrique Olvera is one of the most talented in the world, I was scared that it would be too international and foamy. Indeed, Pujol’s small, white, modern box of a dining room, cadre of suited waiters and menu format spoke more of swank Manhattan restaurants than anything I associated with Mexico.

But Olvera’s passionate, intelligent cooking proved my fears about inauthenticity wrong. Pujol could only be in Mexico City.

A $70 tasting meal was choreographed like a Christopher Wheeldon ballet — seamless, complex, lyrical. Cactus salad here looks like a stacked pile of green sticks in a snow fall of oregano-scented lime and cactus sorbet. Miraculously tender snails enlivened by cilantro pesto nested in a potato puree. The elusive flavor of zucchini flowers was somehow captured in a fresh coconut milk broth served like a cappuccino.

Juicy huachinango, red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, is served clean and pure on a bed of buttery spinach with delicately vinegared scalloped tiny potatoes; and an elegant, melting square of braised short rib gets an expressive mole de olla of dried chiles, spices and cactus fruit with an intriguing sweet and sour edge.

Three artisanal Mexican cheeses, including a firm goat from Jalisco, a creamy cow’s milk from Ensenada and a gruyere-ish aged cow from Puebla, were paired with different fruit marmalades. A horchata creme brulee, a quivering almond-milk flan with burnt sugar top followed.

Mexican wines — crisp Chasselas del Mogor; a fresh chardonnay, Piedra de Sol and a velvety red blend Mariatinta Ensenada — all possessed European balance and restraint.

Olvera works very much within the Mexican pantry but employs cutting-edge techniques to capture local essence. Pujol is worth every penny. A meal at this level, here or in New York, would cost twice as much if you could find it.

The packed, Baja-style restaurant Contramar (Calle Durango 200, Roma, 5514-3169) is open only for comida, from 1:30 to 6 p.m. It serves fish and seafood in a breezy, white room with aqua blue trim. Started by Gabriela Camara 10 years ago when she was only 22, it has become THE place to be in Mexico City.

Every table orders delectable raw tuna tostadas topped with crispy fried onion bits that reprise the crunchiness of the toasted mini-tortilla below. Patrons pile pan-fried soft shell crabs, cut up, onto warm tortillas and drizzle them with oregano scented green-chile salsa.

The white clothed tables are set with bowls of pickled vegetables — cactus, carrots, jalapenos, onions, zucchini and cauliflower — as well as bright salsas into which you dip ethereal salt cod fritters.

The star dish of this simple and compelling restaurant is a perfectly grilled whole pargo, a juicy, white-fleshed fish from the Gulf, splayed open with head on, and coated with a tart green salsa on one side and a dusky dried red chile salsa on the other.

Just when you think a meal can’t get better than this, out comes the dessert tray full of fig tarts, banana cream tarts, coconut flan and bowls of what look like black tar but turn out to be refreshing orange scented sapote puree, a prune-flavored tropical fruit. I could have eaten at Contramar every day. A meal costs about $25 without wine.

Dinner at the Polanco branch of El Bajio (Alejandro Dumas 7, tel. 5281-8245) proved consolation enough. Started by venerable chef and cookbook writer Carmen Titita in 1972, El Bajio serves Nueva Cucina, light, bright, traditional dishes with enormous depth and spirit in a colorful modern dining room. Antojitos such as signature garnachas, a fresh taco topped with shredded beef, tiny cubes of creamy potato and a tart green salsa, all blend lovingly together in each bite. Empanadas filled with black bean puree are made with delicate plantain dough.

A green ceviche of Gulf fish with tomatillos, avocado, lime, cilantro, jalapenos and onions dances on your tongue. Dewy, marigold-tinted chicken breast is bathed in a cream sauce infused with toasted pine nuts. Only David Rosales at our own Mexico DF makes carnitas as tender and luscious as El Bajio’s.

Many of the recipes, especially the moles, come from Carmen Titita’s maternal family from Puebla, though she was born in Papantla near Veracruz. Though her dishes have regional influences, all are united by beautiful ingredients and her exquisite touch. Prices are very moderate, about $25. Her long tenure as queen of the traditional Mexico City cooking scene made me realize that I’d missed something really great when I was last there.

Ruth Alegria took us on a day trip to the Xochimilco market with a manageable pueblo-like size and demeanor. We had cups of a hot, chile-spiked green drink thickened by masa and delicious soft tacos piled with gelatinous pig’s tongue and snout topped with cilantro, green chiles and onions.

Nearby — but a world apart — are the manicured grounds and converted private house of the Dolores Olmedo Museum, with its room of Frieda Kahlo paintings and gardens filled with peacocks and hairless, bark-less, pre-hispanic dogs called xoloiyzcuintzles. It’s worth the effort to hire a car to get there.

Before a foray into the historic center and the Zocalo, have breakfast at Cafe Tacuba (Tacuba 28, 5518-4950), a Mexico City institution that opened in 1912. Go not so much for the food but for the atmosphere: talavera tiles, colonial furniture, strolling guitarists and singers, and lots of families. The chilaquiles are fine, but the coffee made with a cruet of reduced coffee on the table and a pitcher of hot milk poured by the waiters is one more reason to hang out in Mexico City.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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