The time was nine-thirty in the evening, just the beginning of the chic hour for dinner in Mexico City. In the quiet residential street outside Isadora restaurant, drivers circled for parking places like vultures, while taxi doors slammed behind couples and foursomes: leggy blondes swathed in silk and square-jawed young men who could have stepped out of an Armani ad. Streaming in with these designer people were a sprinkling of dignified older couples, open-collared junior executives, birthday celebrants, and gaga tourists.
No doubt most of these devotees had come of Carmen Ortuño’s sleek, art deco restaurant for French cuisine. But to a small number of adventurers, the dishes listed on a small card attached to the big glossy menu were by far more interesting. “ Especialidades Mexicanas,” the card read—Mexican Specialties. What was revolutionary in this seemingly mundane declaration was that Mexican food was here, jostling for space in one of the most la-di-da restaurants in Mexico City. Mexico has always been passionate about its native cuisine, but it has never quite believed that anyone else shared the conviction—at least, not anyone who counted. That attitude is now under siege. A small but dedicated cadre of reformers is fashioning a credo that says Mexican cooking is not just a peasant, stay-at-home cooking style but an international one. Dress up a mole oaxaqueño with silver and chine and it is in no way inferior to a sauce bordelaise or a pesto. In fact, there’s no reason that dishes from the different cuisines should not coexist. Suddenly, the dinner table is being transformed into a forum at which Mexico is coming to terms with who it is.
A friend and I perused Isadora’s specialties while our cat-footed waiter dispensed bread and chunks of dewy butter. Then he whipped out his order book and raised his eyebrows. What would it be, señoritas? Cream of cilantro soup with clams? Ravioli filled with cuitlachoche? Crab salad tostada? Filet mignon with a cheese sauce and epazote? We had never seen such dishes before. Complex forces were obviously astir here: French sauces were getting it on with chiles. Italian pasta was sidling up to south-of-the-border fillings. Gallic soups were intermingling with native greens. The menu was an international free-for-all in which taste held equal status with tradition. What to order, indeed.
Isadora is the most visible of three prominent restaurants in Mexico City that are pushing the capital’s cuisine to its logical limits and beyond. In much the same way that French restaurants embraced nouvelle cuisine and certain American trend-setters adopted Southwestern cuisine, this trio—Isadora, La Galvia, and Los Naranjos—has tossed the traditions of Mexico into the cooking pot along with those of other countries and is dishing up the results to a circle of eager admirers. The pioneers are, moreover, part of a tiny but resolute movement of well-placed Mexican cooking teachers, caterers, writers, and merchants who have taken as their goal a daunting task: to raise Mexico’s rich culinary heritage to its rightful place among the loftiest cuisines of the world. Fewer than two dozen people are involved in this mannerly revolution, but they have arrived at the common belief that thought Mexico’s regional cuisine must be preserved, it must also evolve. Their efforts offer a look at the traditions of Mexican cooking and a glimpse of where it might be headed.
In the light reflected from Isadora’s stark white walls and smart black chairs, all of the Mexican specialties sounded exotic. Some dishes were thoroughly ethnic, like cochinita pibil, the pit-roasted pork of the Yucatán, while others were more international, such as fish in hollandaise sauce with a whiff of searing chile chipotle. But of all of them, the ravioli seemed to offer the greatest opportunities for cultural exploration. Sparingly arranged on the plate, the neat pasta packages came lightly filled with cuitlacoche, the bulbous gray-skinned fungus that grows on ears of corn and melts into a liquid, inky blackness when cooked. The surprising thing was not the fungus; it has been eaten in Mexico since prehistoric times. What was unusual was finding it as a stuffing for ravioli instead of for the traditional crêpes (Mexico, remember, was once ruled by France). And the sauce—a light French-style cream sauce with a touch of chile poblano—was a revelation as well.
More amazing, however, was the fact that the Mexicans were eating it up. And the credit for that goes in large part to Isadora’s owner, Carmen Ortuño, a businesswoman with movie-star looks and the soul of a poet. “I don’t consider mine a new cuisine but a new way of seeing,” she mused over tea at a small granite-topped table in the restaurant’s starkly stylish downstairs bar. Five years ago, Ortuño opened the restaurant, something she had dreamed of since she was thirteen. Soon, she said, “I began to see in my head this different kind of food. I wanted to do a mixture of cultures—pre-Hispanic, French, Italian, and others. I would have new recipes but with the ancient aromas of the marketplace.”
In doing so, Ortuño was continuing and expanding the change that had begun some two decades earlier in Mexico City, when native food first began to move out of its natural habitat in little fondas, mercados, and street vendors’ stands and into middle- and upper-class restaurants. The transition was gradual because the Mexican people are fundamentally conservative, but it was also hampered by an abiding belief that the proper place for tortillas, frijoles, and caldos (soups) was in the home, or at least not far from it.
A profound schism typified the thinking of that day: Mexican food—delicious, marvelously varied, endlessly inventive Mexican food—was peasant food. Everyone ate it, of course, even rich people, because it was what their maids and cooks prepared. But 25 years ago, no Mexico City restaurant of note would have considered putting a regional sauce like a mole or a pipián on the menu. To be worthy of the name “restaurant,” an establishment had to be