12th : World’s 50 Best Restaurants
6th : Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants
1st Visit: Dinner 14 March 2017
(18/20) A safe haven for foodies in busy Mexico City that left me stunned by both food and service
20 million citizens, over 150 museums, at least one taco stand on every street, and traffic, traffic, everywhere. Such is the scale and cultural variety in Mexico City, one of the largest metropolises in the western hemisphere, that its diverse neighbourhoods can sometimes feel almost schizophrenic. The Centro Histórico offers beautiful historic sights and museums, La Roma transfers you to hipster Berlin, whilst Polanco feels as modern, polished, and posh as Barcelona or Milan. And it is in Polanco where you can also find some of the best restaurants in the world.
In a small street next to the beautiful boulevard Masaryk, sits Quintonil; Last year voted 12th best restaurant on the planet. Owned and run by Jorge Vallejo, who opened his now world-renowned restaurant in 2012 having previously had stints both for René Redzepi at NOMA and Enrique Olivera (who has himself just reopened his Mexican fine dining temple Pujol right around the corner).
9:45am – 5:30pm Being a chef as a non-chef
On this occassion, in addition to having a dinner reservation to eat at Quintonil, I also had the rare opportunity to actually work in the kitchen for a day. Just thinking about going to work at the 12th best restaurant in the world prior to experiencing a 10-course tasting menu, left me with the biggest goosebumps of my life; This might well be a perfect day for a foodie.
So at quarter to ten, with sweaty hands and shaky knees, I arrived at Quintoniland somewhat unsure of what to expect. Happily, I was warmly welcomed by everyone, introduced into the daily staff meeting, and was immediately made to feel like a real member of the kitchen crew. After putting on my chef jacket, apron, and hat, I dived right into work, preparing various items for lunch. Albert Mayr, the Sous Chef, and Eliana took care of me and provided me with guidance on the tasks ahead. First, I prepared Nopales (leaves of cactus that are a typical ingredient in Mexican cuisine) for the Nopales Ceviche in the tasting menu. Further, I produced a puree of Cuitlacoche to compliment a dish of crispy seared trout. Cuitlacoche is an ingredient unique to Mexico – an edible bluey-black mushroom that infests corn, imparting an earthy, nutty, but still sweet flavour.
Besides working with these new ingredients, I was later allowed to help plate the 2nd course of the tasting menu; A zucchini “flauta” with shrimps, agua chile and squash blossom.
I felt absolutely honored to be able plate alongside Jorge Vallejo and his crew. And seeing all those great ingredients, and the dedication and attention to detail that is put into the menu lifted my level of excitement for dinner immeasurably.
7:30pm – 11:00pm Dinner Time
While sitting in my Uber to Quintonil, driving through la Roma, la Condesa, passing the vast Chapultepec park, my smile grew steadily as I pondered how wonderfully the day had started and how awesome it would surely end. So, at the risk of spoiling the ending, I have to confirm; It was indeed awesome. But let’s start from the beginning…
When entering Quintonil, you are invited into a modern, but welcoming atmosphere. Half of the covers are housed outside on a sundeck, the adjoining wall of which can be opened to create an open-air feeling throughout the entire dining room, itself pleasantly quiet even when full. The staff welcomed me back warmly and seemed glad to see me again only a short time since I had left the busy kitchen to go and get changed for dinner.
Eder and Esmeralda did an outstanding job to take care of me that evening even though, like in many other restaurants in Mexico City, waiting staff’s ability to communicate in English is generally quite limited. It was as such sometimes difficult to ask the detailed questions about the food I had wished, but in truth it hardly lessened the whole experience.
The dinner starts as typically as it could for a Mexican restaurant, with blue corn tortillas, a Salsa Roja, Habanero Salsa and Frijoles – a black bean puree. Surprisingly though, this is the only amuse that is served before the tasting menu begins. In other restaurants, comparable to Quintonil, I am used to receiving a variety of different small bites to get a first taste of the cuisine and raise the excitement for the food that will follow. It didn’t bother me at the time, but looking back on it now, I am a little disappointed that there weren’t further appetisers prior to the menu proper.
First up was a Cactus Ceviche with a juice of beetroot and mandarin. Paired with an outstanding Chenin Blanc from Baja California in Mexico, the slightly sweet juice perfectly balanced out the wonderful natural acidity from the cactus leaves, which would be almost too sour if it would be served alone.
At a fast pace, the Shrimp Flauta with a Squash Blossom Aguachile follows. A typical expression of Mexican Flauta, which means flute, would be a filled, rolled and fried tortilla. Refining this idea, Vallejo serves a roll of raw zucchini filled with Shrimp puree, a perfectly spiced Aguachile with slight flavors of squash blossom, and a shrimp broth on the side. The star of the plate was … actually not on the plate; The deeply savoury broth, which packed a mouth-filling umami with a strong punch of shrimp. It played well together with the spicy aguachile and the crunchy zucchini, but did somewhat threaten to over power the fine flavors of the shrimp puree.
Still savouring the lingering shrimp broth, a creamy corn custard with scallops and vanilla is served. Unfortunately the first course which left me with mixed feelings. Taste and texture was on point, but the eggy aftertaste of the custard was for me rather unpleasant.
Thankfully the next course of a charred avocado tartar with escamoles, let me forget the custard instantly. This last of the cold dishes was bold, extravagant, and the perfect ending of a provacative journey of flavors throughout the first half of the menu. The escamoles, which are edible larvae of ants, had a pleasantly creamy, almost burrata-like taste whose texture balanced out the smoky flavor of the avocado. I loved the fried kale, adding a nice counterpart to the buttery texture of the tartar. The pairing of Barbadillo Solear Manzinalla complimented with a fine creamy texture, subtle tones of salinity that perfectly connected with the tartar and fully enhanced the eating experience as a whole.
The first half of the menu was shaped by well placed Mexican flavors and ingredients, despite my feelings about the custard. Moreover, I was impressed how Vallejo has created a “menu within a menu”, by first serving 4 cold dishes that displayed a clear story throughout whilst also setting the stage for the journey of the second act.
This journey starts off with an outrageous artichoke Tamal with pine nuts and a pipian sauce, also known as green mole, made from pumpkin seeds. Nutty, earthy, herbal, spicy, and crunchy – a mouth-watering combination of flavors and textures that could not be more representative of Mexican cuisine. It was perfectly accompanied by a local blonde ale from the microbrewery La Patrona in Mexico City.
As cooking is my biggest passion, I love to go to markets to buy items from local producers and find seasonal products. I visited a couple of markets during my stay in Mexico and I was impressed by the variety and the outstanding quality of vegetables and fruits. The next course of peas in clarified tomato broth with smoked lard, coming in a little crystal glass did not look spectacular, but represented the high quality and availability of ingredients in Mexico. A tomato pulp was hidden inside the dish, which had the deepest and truest tomato flavour I have ever tried in my life. The crunchy fresh amaranth, sugary pea puree, popping peas, and an umami rich tomato broth provided at the same time a taste explosion and perfection of texture. I was stunned.
Still enjoying the taste of the last dish, the first main course of seared trout with a super crispy skin, the cuitlacoche puree I helped to prepare, grilled cuitlacoche and a spicy potato sauce with smoked trout roe appeared. A subtle albeit sophisticated flavor profile. The unique taste of the cuitlacoche is nicely bound by the potato sauce and the exquisite trout. I was excited by this dish, since cuitlacoche had quickly risen to become my favorite vegetable in Mexico; Before visiting Quintonil, I already tried it in a variety of street food like quesadillas, tacos or molotes.
The last dish before the patisserie crew takes over came out on a gorgeous blue and white plate that reminded me of the typical talavera pottery from Puebla in Mexico. An uber tender braised duck in a recardo rojo sauce. Perfectly balanced sweet and sourness with tons of umami. The charred, but still crispy onion added a nice crunchy texture as well as its naturally sweet and sour onion flavor. Meanwhile the creamy, bitter, and slightly spicy almond puree rounded out what was an outstanding dish that still lingers in my head. Once again I had to congratulate the sommelier for a perfect wine pairing. The Cabernet Sauvignon from the Valle de Guadalupe at the Baja California showed flavors of raspberries, blackberries, dried figs and complex tannins that melded with the dish impeccably.
After realizing that the dinner is slowly, but steadily coming to an end, while refreshing my taste buds with a Nopales Sorbet that I would order any day at my favorite ice cream shop, the first dessert arrives. Two different ages of a Mexican Ramonetti Cheese, named after the country’s founder Marcelo Castro Ramonetti, served with mandarin, honey and pumpkin seeds. Honestly, I was not expecting much of this dish, but I was proven wrong: The 6 month old cheese comes as a crumble, the 12 month old cheese is incorporated in a sponge cake together with mandarin sorbet and fresh mandarin slices. I was easily able to distinguish between the different ages of this fabulous cheese. Who thought that Mexico would offer cheese that can easily compete with great cheeses from Europe? The sweetness of the sorbet and the acidity of the mandarin slices worked perfectly against the cheese flavors. A Vino Santo del Chianti Classico which was paired felt like syrup with strong tastes of caramel, hazelnut and reminded me almost of a Marsalla.
The menu ended with a frozen mousse of roasted banana, cajeta and basil. Thinking about a banana cream, the first impression was of the artificial tasting banana yoghurt I ate as a child, but not here; The frozen cream looks like a piece of cake and has the structure of a fluffy cake crust, which melts to a cream in your mouth. Subtle, but precise flavors of banana combined perfectly with a breathtaking cajeta – a kind of dulce de leche. The basil gives the dish the needed fresh twist, and what would be a better wine pairing to end such an amazing dinner than a glass of Louis Roederer Champagne?
Jorge Vallejo and his crew had created a perfect ending for a journey which had led through the ingredients, spices, traditions and flavors of the Mexican cuisine. It started with fresh, acidic, sometimes spicy flavors, combined with typical ingredients like Nopales, Avocado and Escamoles. The Tamal with Pipian sauce takes you immediately to the street and the small Fonda’s, the typical Mexican restaurants you find throughout the city. A firework display of Mexican flavors. He walks you through the market and shows off the incomparable quality of Mexican ingredients, before two insanely good dishes introduce you to the “Mexican truffle” and an umami bomb in the form of braised duck. The end of the journey contains gorgeous Mexican cheese and a phenomenal creamy, sweet, and herbal dessert. Not everything was perfect, and the taste may jar if you compare it to Michelin-starred Restaurants in Europe. But for me it was authentic, representing Mexico and an incredible food experience including the best wine pairing I have had. It was truly the best food day of my life, but I am sure there are more to come.