Mix Masters

Three trend-setting Mexico City restaurants defy tradition by blending native and European cuisines.

June 1991By Comments

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 French, Spanish, Italian, or perhaps Chinese. Chefs came from Europe, and they idolized Escoffier; none of them would be caught dead making an enchilada.

Over the next generation, a few restaurateurs with clout began to challenge the norm. Rosa Margarita Martin—an upper-crust type with Lauren Bacall classy-broad looks—began serving sopa de fideo (noodle soup) to homesick patrons at Estoril. Arnulfo Luengas, the chef of the lavish corporate dining rooms at the Banco Nacional de México, devised fashionable but familiar dishes such as chile poblano stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts. By the eighties, the stage was set for the emergence of international crossover cuisine. Carmen Ortuño opened her trend-setting restaurant in 1985. Five years later, Mónica Patiño opened La Galvia.

In her long, white chef’s apron, jeans, and rolled terry cloth headband, Patiño looks very much the modern, casual, professional woman. A youthful 35, with delicate features and a mane of chestnut hair, she is one of a handful of female restaurateurs or chefs in the city. “I was twenty-two when I opened La Taberna del León,” she said shyly, referring to her first restaurant (now closed) in a resort at Valle de Bravo, outside Mexico City. Last December, she and her husband, Alberto Miguel Musi, opened La Galvia.

The restaurant, a month old when we visited, was going like gangbusters. It took a good ten minutes of pleading with the maître d’ to scrounge up an empty table at opening time on Saturday night, and at one in the morning, the dining room was still a quarter full of dalliers having a last cup of cappuccino. The modern decor—with terra-cotta walls, stout turquoise pillars, contemporary art—was part of the appeal, but Patiño’s cutting-edge menu was the drawing card. “I don’t have a name for my cuisine,” she admitted, “but it is French and Mexican and a little oriental. I cook the way I like. My style is without borders.”

On our first visit, Patiño’s menu included two noteworthy ethnically inspired dishes. The first, puntas de filete en caldillo, translated into beef tips in broth, with homey strips of chile poblano, kernels of sweet corn, and herbal epazote; it came off as a kind of Mexican boeuf bourguignon. The real knockout, though, was Patiño’s fried snapper taco—huachinanguito frito. Served whole, the marinated fish arrived in the company of thin, crêpelike tortillas, assorted greens (including a breath of mint), and pineapple sauce spiked with merciless chile de árbol. Picture perfect, the dish was almost too pretty to eat—but not quite.

Compared to Isadora, La Galvia lacks a certain poetic spirit, but it excels in modernity. The menu is, if anything, even more influenced by the tradition-busting tenets of nouvelle cuisine and new American cuisine. For another, the vegetables and herbs are grown organically by the restaurant, a practice unheard of in Mexico City. But the real key to the restaurant’s success is Patiño herself, a media-genic young woman who would clearly be a star in the United States.

The difference is that in Mexico, chefs are employees, not celebrities. They may have studied in France, and they may make good to excellent money ($1,000 a month in a nice Mexico City restaurant, $3,000 a month as an executive chef in a big hotel). But their names do not appear in gossip columns like those of young turks in the U.S. Nor do they turn out upon inspection to be former lawyers and dentists who switched to the glamorous job mid-career. Patiño is different. Not only has she studied in France at La Varenne and Le Nôtre as well as at three-star restaurants, but also she is well-educated (she speaks three languages) and articulate. Plus, she’s attractive, young, owns her own place, and she’s a woman. In the U.S., she would be hailed as a new Alice Waters, the well-publicized owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. In Mexico, she just might be the first person to bring a dash of charisma to a workaday profession.

If Isadora is the most poetic and La Galvia the most modern of the Mexico City restaurants dabbling in cross-cultural cuisine, Los Naranjos is the most intellectual. Its chef and director, Alicia Gironella—a pretty woman of perhaps sixty with a regal bearing and extravagantly penciled eyebrows—is a founding member of the Círculo Mexicano de Arte Culinario, a group of eight socially prominent women who have taken it upon themselves to get Mexican cuisine the respect it deserves. Her mustachioed and bearded husband, Jorge De’Angeli, is a writer and professor of gastronomic history at the Iberoamerican University. Together they have collaborated on everything from cookbooks to restaurant criticism. At Los Naranjos, food is both a sensual pleasure and a field of inquiry.

Leaning conspiratorily over a magdalena (a tequila sunrise in the States) in her cozy restaurant in a commercial part of Mexico City, Gironella ordered us a sampler from what she calls her modern Mexican cuisine. Plates came steaming from the kitchen.

Of a score of dishes, three stood out. The chicken—rolled and sliced sushi-style, with a filling of ricotta cheese and the austere green called hoja santa (holy leaf)—was a gem that looked Japanese but tasted Mexican. The cabuches were a revelation. Tasting like a cross between artichoke, asparagus, and hearts of palm, the plump little cactus-flower buds came nouvelle style in dual sauces—cheese and tomato—with chopped epazote sprinkled on top. The marvel of Gironella’s sampler, though, was dessert: a trio of homemade tropical-fruit ice creams so exotic that they took our breath away. The guanábana and pumpkin were excellent, and the mamey was simply incredible. Imagine the juiciest, most heavenly peach you’ve ever eaten, then add to that the barest hint of mango. Once you’ve eaten mamey ice cream at Los Naranjos, your life will never be the same.

As remarkable as Gironella’s best dishes are, she has done more in the three years that Los Naranjos has been open than just achieve personal success. She has also bridged the chasm that exists in Mexico between men and women in the cooking profession. Female cooks in Mexico City are called mayoras (elders) and are, by and large, women of the lower class, frequently unlettered, who learned the art of cooking as girls. They run the kitchens of modest restaurants, and their food is invariably Mexican. Men make up the ranks of chefs, and they prevail in fancy restaurants, most having started out as pot scrubbers or busboys and worked their way up. The more ambitious go on to study in France or Italy (Mexico has no cooking schools that compare with Paris’ Cordon Bleu or New York’s Culinary Institute of America). Thanks to Gironella’s social class, writing, teaching, and association with the culinary circle, she had achieved the professional standing normally reserved for men. As De’Angeli observed, gazing admiringly at his wife, she is one of a kind.

Doors are opening in the world of Mexican cuisine, and these three restaurants—soon to be joined by the Villa Reforma, a famous old name going modern—are leading the way. Where as “European” was once equivalent to haute cuisine and “Mexican” to home cooking, today there is a common ground and a defiant mood that the gap can and must be bridged. A whiff of liaisons dangereuses pervades the experimentation—five years ago, who would have dared put chipotle in a classic French hollandaise?—but as the successes mount, timidity is changing to confidence. For much of its history, Mexico has thought that it must humbly learn at the knee of other cuisines; now it is discovering that it can teach as well.

Isadora, Moliére 50, Polanco district (520-7901 or 202-0604). Lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday.

La Galvia, Campos Elíseos 247, Polanco (203-4556 or 203-4419). Lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday.

Los Naranjos, Ejército Nacional 340, Polanco (254-7877 or 203-8250). Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Closed Monday evening, Saturday, and Sunday.

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