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Notes from Mexico City

By   /   November 2, 2014  /   No Comments

Most of my favorite Mexico City restaurants serve late lunch, the main meal of the day, and not dinner but Maximo in Colonia Roma, within walking distance of The Red Tree House, is the exception for a blow out meal in a bistrot that has been called the Chez Panisse of Mexico City.  It’s a small place on a quiet corner, with one row of tables outside (under an awning and heat lamps) in addition to a small indoor dining room.  The $75 six-course prix fixe dinner actually adds up to eight courses. Maximo doesn’t count the two dessert courses. I can’t imagine how anyone could get through the supposed eight but really ten course menu. Each small, but not small enough portion is so voluptuously tasty, you can’t help cleaning your plate.

The opposite of fussy, precious, tweezered or hyper-arranged, Maximo’s cooking is contemporary and radiant because of superb ingredients.  My meal began with a delicate mixed seafood ceviche scattered with nasturtium petals and served with toasted purple corn tortillas, the most Mexican course on that night’s menu. The rest of the dishes explored fall bounty, especially wild mushrooms which are everywhere in the markets now, the result of an unusually long and heavy rainy season.  A buttery, soupy risotto, perfumed with shavings of fresh white truffle (from Italy), mysteriously hinted of chiles as well. Mushroom-infused foam– or was it the huitlacoche, corn fungus– blanketed a succulent filet of white sea bass. Wild mushrooms and leaves of hoja santa, a peppery, anise-y Meso-American herb, dressed up a slice of velvety chicken breast. Some of the best pork I have ever tasted came with cauliflower puree and piney trumpet mushrooms; while tiny slices of rare steak got an embarrassment of whole, cooking-juice-saturated morels. I had to eat them, but I simply couldn’t finish the last bites of beef.  This killed me. The meal ended with a reviving berry sorbet followed by a thin slice of creamy banana tart.

Chef/owner Eduardo Garcia, formerly the chef de cuisine at Enrique Olvera’s  breakthrough restaurant, Pujol, and an alum of Le Bernardin in New York, proved that he knows his way around rustic French and Italian kitchens. Yet he depends on ingredients that are barely 24 hours from harvest, foraged daily from Mexico City’s markets. Garcia’s cooking reflects their breathtaking diversity.

Oaky chardonnay and a gentle cabernet/grenache blend, both from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, somehow tasted like Mexico, and very good with the food. Remember to bring a wrap because you may be seated outside. It gets cold at night at 7000 feet.

You should not miss Fonda las Margaritas for breakfast (open 5:30 a.m. to noon) but it helps to have sharp vision (to read the daily posted menu) and to speak some Spanish ( so you can learn the ropes from unfailingly helpful communal table mates). When your table’s serving lady comes around, you have to shout out your order immediately or she might rush off.  Then you’d have to wait patiently, not knowing when she might return.

The one daily constant is refried black beans mashed with scrambled eggs,  an addictive, chile-and-lard infused paste you spread on hot, fresh corn tortillas.  Drizzle on an herby red salsa from big bowls on the table, roll it up and dip it into the guisados (stews) of the day.  On Thursdays look forward to chicharron, rendered and crisped pork skin braised in tart tomatillo  salsa; and fried cakes of shredded beef and egg in a red chile broth, one of the finest Mexican dishes ever. This is comfort food at its most powerful.

Finish with cafe de olla, black coffee boiled with Mexican cinnamon and piloncillo, unrefined brown cane sugar, which goes with a campechano, a many-layered flaky cookie sweetened only with the glaze on top, bought from the cookie lady outside the door. Afterwards, take a stroll in the pretty park across the street surrounding a simple, unadorned Catholic church.

For seafood lovers, Contramar is one of the best restaurants in the world, period. I’ve written about it before, but this place deserves revisiting.  Just approaching its expansive, windowed front on Calle Durango, a wide boulevard with a walking path in the middle in Colonia Roma, excites me.  With a single row of sidewalk tables  under an awning and one airy, light-filled dining room with perpetually occupied blond wood tables and chairs, Contramar somehow evokes the Baja coast, from which it gets most of its incomparable seafood. Only open for Mexico’s main mid-day meal,  Contramar is a social crossroads for the city, a grand cafe with the spirit of the old La Coupole in Paris or the dear, departed Stars in San Francisco. Contramar is at its height now. Everyone–chefs, politicians, business people, couples, travelers–comes.  The place is irresistable.

Old-school waiters in white jackets bring out samplers of the raw seafood. The stars, chocolate clams ($2 each), have a heavy brown shell and an abstract expressionist interior of red coral, white adductor, tan mantle and ivory clam body, all of which adds up to one delicate and juicy live bite.
Huge whole shrimp in their shells, poached and chilled, call out for the vibrant fresh tomatillo and avocado salsa aromatic with parsley.  Noteworthy from the daily list of specials:  little tostadas thickly covered with Ensenada sea urchin roe (erizo ) and a couple of slices of avocado; tender empanadas filled with a mixture of baby shark (which I was assured was legally caught); fish albondigas (meatballs) seasoned with epazote in a red chile broth. Pacific skate wing in brown butter is stronger in flavor than the New England skate we get in San Francisco. Grilled octopus, sold by the tentacle, arrives on a wooden board, with fried potato cubes, each curly tip charred to crunchiness.

Domino chenin blanc ($38) turned out to be the most successful white so far from the Valle de Guadalupe.  And from the tray of mostly traditional desserts, the must-have is a tall molded cake of strawberries and whipped cream covered in crunchy meringue bits, the whole thing unbelievably refreshing and barely sweet.

Ruth Alegria, a food pal and Mexico City resident, insisted I stay at the Red Tree House in Colonia Condesa; she lives a block away. I ended up at its annex across the street, Rama del Arbol.  Though it calls itself a B&B, The Red Tree House and its annex feel like a boutique hotel that lavishes its guests with personal service  The smartly decorated rooms are more like small suites. Many have outdoor patios.  Both the neighborhood and hotel are quiet.  A huge Day of the Dead altar greeted us in the foyer, aglow with candles and crowded with photos of deceased loved ones, marigolds, memorabilia and skulls made of sugar. At $125, with cooked-to- order Mexican breakfast and strong, aromatic coffee set out early,  the Red Tree House surpasses the other Mexico City hotels where I have stayed, such as  Condesa DF at twice the price. There I had to stash my clothes on the floor because the pared-down, designy rooms have nary a table, counter or drawer. Give yourself over to the boys at The Red Tree House. Their care and advice will enrich your stay.

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