review: telescope… (pujol)

– It’s a revisionist’s world these days, especially in the kitchen. To he (or she) who can retell the past anew, all glory and honor. Spain, of course, has not only updated its own culinary culture, but inspired a refacing of cuisines around the world. In the Distrito Federal, Enrique Olvera is leading the way […]


It’s a revisionist’s world these days, especially in the kitchen.

To he (or she) who can retell the past anew, all glory and honor.

Spain, of course, has not only updated its own culinary culture, but inspired a refacing of cuisines around the world.

In the Distrito Federal, Enrique Olvera is leading the way at his restaurant Pujol, where he telescopes centuries of Mexican cuisine, refining its rusticity and reinterpreting it for a modern audience. I ate there in October of 2011, and it was thrilling.

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As a foreigner, I arrived at Pujol unusually prepared.

Since my friends, Adam and la Mala Mexicana, knew what was on the menu (they had been to the restaurant a few times before), they gave me a crash course on Mexican cuisine, priming me for Pujol in the days leading up to our dinner. We visited markets, food stalls, tacquerias, roadside stands, and mésons, all with Pujol’s menu in mind, so that I could see, taste, and feel the local flavors and textures unedited, unscripted, first-hand.

We had mole, thick and thin, dark and light – the variety was astounding. So was the variety of agua frescas, a rainbow of juices and drinks – tamarind, watermelon, guava, and horchata, just to name a few.

We had fresh corn tortillas, the masa pressed to order, and ones made from flour too, served warm, just off the griddle. These ruined me forever; I won’t want packaged ones ever again.

I learned the difference between a quesadilla and a queca (the latter is slang for the former). We had them stuffed with squash blossoms, huitlacoche (known, unappetizingly, in the United States as “corn smut”), chicharrones, and cheese – lots of stretchy, white cheese.

I ate grasshoppers covered with chile powder. They were crunchy.

From a street vendor, we bought elote, ears of boiled corn that have unusually large kernels. They’re smeared with mayonnaise, rolled in grated cotija cheese, and dusted with chile powder and a dash of lime.

And at a taqueria, late at night, I saw how the meat was stacked on a spit with a pineapple impaled on top, roasting as it rotated. The meat was shaved, thinly, off the cone, along with a sliver of pineapple. The two, served together on a tortilla, is known as taco al pastor. I’ve had them before, of course, but never in Mexico.

All of these experiences, and many more, I would relive at Pujol, where Olvera would gather them together in a magnificent mosaic of Mexican culinary history, a vibrant and charming story thoughtfully told.

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Menú de Tierra 3rd Course: Tamal de Cuitlacoche

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In addition to the regular, à la carte menu, Pujol offers two tasting menus. One was inspired by the sea (Menú de Mar; 895 MXP), the other by the land (Menú de Tierra; 1050 MXP). Adam ordered the Menú de Tierra, and la Mala Mexicana and I ordered the Menú de Mar, although we both made a few minor adjustments to each, filling the gaps with a couple of courses from the regular menu. Thankfully, the kitchen was flexible and accommodated our requests.

Here is what we had:

Aguas Frescas

Tuna Cactus
Cucumber & Lime

Amuse Bouche

Elotitos Tatemados
Mayonesa de café y polvo de chicatana (hormiga).

1st Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Ensalada Frita de Quintonil y Queso de Cabra
Te de tomate. Dip de cebolla. Polva de chile seco.

(Menú de Mar)
Taco de Jicama y Cebiche de Pescado Marinado en Jugo de Coco y Limón Real

2nd Course

(Menú de Tierra)
La Milpa
Jitomate y calabacita. Dip de frijole. Queso fresco. Aceite de pipicha, Jumiles tostados.

(Menú de Mar)
Flautas de Aguacate Rellenas de Camarón Cristal
Mayonese de chipotle rallado, emulsión de cilantro.

3rd Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Tamal de Cuitlacoche
Nata montada. Salsa de tomate verde tatemado.

Huevo Escondido
En infladita rellena de frijol bayo y salsa de chapulín

4th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Chilacayotes Curados en Limon y Sal
Papitas tiernas. Bolitas de yuca frita. Epazote.

(Menú de Mar)
Erizo de Mar
Jitomate ahumado, chile poblano, y aguacate.

5th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Taco de Pechuga de Guajolote y Plantano Macho
Chichilo negro. Puré de zanahoria blanca.

(Menú de Mar)
Taco de Tataki de Robalo al Pastor
Guarnición tradicional.

6th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Taco de Cordero Lechal
Pure de chícharo y aguacate. Salsa de tomate y hoja de aguacate.

(Menú de Mar)
Taco de Pescado del Dia en Ceniza de Cebolia
Mole verde. Hongas de Iluvia.

7th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Puré de Cacahuatzintle
Careta de cerdo, jugo de limón, orégano, piquín, lechugas.

Pulpo á la Mexicana

8th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Nieve de Zarzamora
Sal de gusano. Mezcal flameado.

(Menú de Mar)
Granizado de Margarita
Merengue de cointreau y limón.

9th Course

(Menú de Tierra)
Taco de Chocolate

(Menú de Mar)
Tamal y Compota de Guanabana
Granizado de coco, sorbet de pina, caramelo de pimienta rosa.

Petits Fours

Hibiscus Chocolate Truffles
Tamarind Jellies
Coconut Truffles
Caramel with Peanuts

To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.

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Menú de Mar 3rd Course: Taco de Tataki de Robalo al Pastor

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There were far too many courses and far too much meaning woven into this meal for me to give it a thorough rundown. So, I’ll skim.

Olvera’s cooking doesn’t just give Mexican cuisine a cosmetic upgrade. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing about this meal. Rather, it represents a fundamental shift in thinking: top shelf ingredients, a lighter touch, and refinement in presentation.

Three dishes were particularly representative of Olvera’s revisionist cooking:

When our server brought us baby ears of corn in a hollowed gourd full of smoke, I immediately knew which card to pull from my file. This was elote. We grabbed them by their husks, dredged them around in the mayonnaise inside the gourd, and ate them whole. A far cry from the fibrous, unusually swollen kernels of the elote we had on the streets, these shoots were tender and delicate, the mayonnaise thicker, more luscious, spiked with ground coffee and powdered ants (that’s not a typo).

Also lighter and more refined was a flauta. Normally, it’s a rolled tortilla filled with meat, often deep-fried. Olvera’s version was a beautiful, green cigarette of thinly sliced avocado, rolled around shrimp, and dressed with chipotle mayonnaise and a dollop of cilantro emulsion. It wasn’t crunchy, of course. His was a creamy length of sunshine, a complete departure from the expected, nontraditional in almost ever way. And yet, at Pujol it was a flauta, recognizable even to a foreigner like me.*

So too, a miniature taco al pastor, complete with pineapple brunoise, came not with sliced pork, but “tataki” of robalo, a coastal fish also known as snook. Like the flauta, this dish upended traditional expectations, appearing on the menú de mar, not the menú de tierra. There were quite a few of these two-bite tacos throughout our dinner, all of them reference points for Mexican cuisine, like one with pechuga de guajolote (turkey breast) sauced at the table with chichilo negro, a dark, ashy mole, a tribute to what some may consider to be Mexico’s national dish, mole poblano con pechuga de pollo (chicken breast with mole poblano).

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Supplement: Huevo Escondido

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Among my favorite dishes was a warm fritter stuffed with queso de cabra and quintonil, an herb of the amaranthus family. I loved how the cheese oozed out of the fried casing, mixing with the onion “dip” beneath. It was tremendously comforting.

I also loved Olvera’s huitlacoche tamal, which wore a fluffy turban of whipped cream and was ringed by a smear of black bean purée. Visually, it was stunning. And it was incredibly delicious too.

So was “huevo escondido,” a “hidden egg” rising out of an inflated tortilla filled with beans and grasshopper salsa.

And I can’t fail to mention the blackberry sorbet at the very end, dusted with worm salt and set alight with mezcal, burning an electrifying shade of blue. I didn’t think I’d like it. But I did, tremendously so; a tart, boozy shot to clear the corners of my mind.

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Petits Fours

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In much the same way that a restaurant like Husk manifests the soul of Southern American cuisine, Mexico is reincarnated at the tables of Pujol every night, refreshed, reinvigorated, new.

Aguas frescas, those colorful juices we had ladled out of gigantic glass jars at the market in Cholula, greeted us at the start in stemware, glowing and iced, cocktail slushies to chase away the heat of day. At the end, those beloved discs of mazipan that I bought from newsstands on the street, powdery packets of pulverized nuts and sugar, appeared in a colorful ceramic bowl of petits fours.

From beginning to end, Pujol has only one master. And you will know her well when you leave.

This is Mexico: beautiful, delicious, confident, steeped in tradition, principled in progress. Thank you, Enrique Olvera, for sharing her with me.

Francisco Petrarca 254
Polanco, México, Distrito Federal 11570

* As early as 2008, I saw a similar plating at Eleven Madison Park. The concept was the same – using thinly sliced avocado as a rolled wrapper for seafood. But, I suspect the source of Daniel Humm’s inspiration was different. Whereas Olvera was inspired by the flauta, I think Humm modeled his after the sushi roll.

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* Daniel Humm’s thinly sliced avocado was most likely inspired by El Bulli. You can see Ferran use that technique in his El Bulli book 1998-2002.