Over the last few years chef Enrique Olvera has made Pujol (poo-yol) into the most celebrated restaurant in Mexico City, and one of the top in the world. His approach is to start with the sometimes centuries-old regional food traditions of Mexico, and build on, expand, reinterpret and sometimes deconstruct them into something modern, elegant, and deeply flavorful. He has said: “Our dishes carry that DNA, they carry those ingredients, techniques and ideas. The dishes at Pujol tell a complex, distinct history of flavors—you can find rural flavors, flavors from indigenous cooking: earthier, more direct flavors; but you can also experience others whose references are obviously urban and contemporary. . . . . We adapt to modern technologies that help us work in a more precise way, and we also adapt to todays customers.”
The menu at Pujol changes often, and is a six-course tasting menu with choices at two points. At roughly $85 per person, the dining experience at Pujol is an incredible bargain viewed against global comparisons. Wines by the glass are plentiful and reasonable, and we leave ourselves in the hands of the sommelier to match wine with the days offering.
The opening course of Botanos – meaning street food—includes deep-fried Kale chicharrónes, a one-bite bocol huasteco (corn dough with cheese & lard) and Elotitos Tatemados--the tiniest cobs of baby corn served in a dried gourd filled with smoke. The mini corn is served with a coffee mayonnaise and dusted in powder of dried ants. A nod to the streetside stands that serve elotes—grilled Mexican corn slathered in mayo and chile.
La Milpa, translated as “the cornfields,” is a fairly perennial dish at Pujol. Chef Olvera interprets the fields with a large plate swirled with a puree of zucchini, holding colorful local squash, eggplant, zucchini blossom, and sunchokes, all drizzled with pipicha oil – which has a flavor similar to cilantro.
At the first point of choice, we select Barbacoa tacos, a central Mexican dish of slow-roasted suckling lamb, which is enhanced at Pujol with an avocado cream, adobo of avocado leaf, and is folded onto a bright green hoja santa tortilla, which added an interesting herb flavor to the richness of the lamb. Three delicious bites and you wonder if there could be more. But lots to come.
At the second choice point: Panza de Cerdo Pelon, Yucatecan pork belly confit served with a smoked navy bean and purlsane salad. The pork was incredibly tender and fatty, crispy on the outside, with those qualities counterpointed by a piquant tamarind sauce.
After taking a photo of the dining room, I ask permission to shoot through the pass to capture the kitchen brigade. The maitre d' grabs my camera and hands it to a server, and whisks me around the corner and into the kitchen, where the chef de cuisine and entire brigade surround us for a souvenir photo op. How fun.
The final savory course is just sauce – a layer spread across the plate of the restaurant’s mole madre—a red-brown, intensely flavored ‘mother’ sauce (which has been cooking on the stove for some two years!!) dotted with toasted sesame seeds and served with a tiny warm tortilla. The depth of flavor in this long-cooked mole is just amazing.
Dessert “happy ending” brings an array of finger foods – tiny cookies, fruit gelees, a coconut-chocolate mousse, paper-wrapped sea salt caramels and I can’t remember the rest.
As a final taste Olvera sends to each diner a small crystal shot glass filled with an intensely dark chocolate mousse flavored with an anise liqueur and topped with an orange cream and grated tonka beans, a close sibling of vanilla. A shotglass of chocolate decadence, chocolate adrenaline. The perfect accompaniment is a thimble of smoky Mezcal, Tequila’s brother by another mother.
Pujol is clearly one of the top dining experiences on the globe—a culinary tour of Mexican regional cooking—and Olvera one of the leading innovative, out-of-the-box thinking chefs in the company of the likes of Rene Redzepi, Grant Achatz and Dominique Crenn. To be in Mexico City and not make a pilgrimage to Pujol would be the height of folly.