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Mexico City's new wave of chefs generates heat

February 23, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — Margaritas made with volcanic ash. Braised oysters with chipotle bearnaise. Foie gras with habanero-spiked guava. There's a revolution afoot in this city's restaurants.

The eyebrow reflexively shoots up. The first thought is globalization, that creeping sameness that threatens cultural individuality when tradition fades in favor of pop sensibilities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican chef -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about chefs in Mexico City spelled the name of Enrique Olvera, the chef at Pujol restaurant, as Olver.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican chef -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about chefs in Mexico City spelled the name of Enrique Olvera, the chef at Pujol restaurant, as Olver.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexico City chef -- In an article in last week's section about chefs in Mexico City, the name of the chef at Pujol restaurant, Enrique Olvera, was misspelled as Olver.

But to understand what's happening with cutting-edge Mexico City cooking, it is important first to understand what's happening in the Condesa-Roma district, side-by-side Mexico City neighborhoods built at the turn of the last century. Located on the southern side of Chapultepec Park, the city's expansive green space just west of the old downtown, Condesa and Roma were all but abandoned after the 1985 earthquake sent wealthy Mexicans racing for the suburbs. The slide into decay was rapid in this crime-ridden city of about 19 million people.

Twenty years later, Condesa and Roma are among the city's most exciting neighborhoods as under-40 professionals embrace the city anew. These upper-class young Mexicans, better educated and more worldly than their parents, are tearing down rickety midcentury buildings to make room for edgy, modern architecture; they're diligently restoring historic homes and hotels. Bookstores and art galleries share the tree-lined streets with sidewalk cafes serving cuisines from around the globe -- and Mexican food that doesn't remind them of their mother's.

These professionals have a serious restaurant habit, says Guillermo Osorno, the editorial director of dF, the capital's city magazine. The restaurant scene is booming, with three times as many top-tier restaurants doing a brisk business today compared with five years ago.

Going out for serious Mexican food is in itself a change in the culture. "In Mexico City, we feel that the best Mexican food is what we have in our homes. Mexican food in restaurants has always been a step down," says Osorno. "Now we have a kind of Mexican food that you can only find in restaurants. That's new."

This generation also has been eager to redefine what it means to be Mexican, says Gabriela Camara, a 29-year-old entrepreneur whose Contramar seafood restaurant is one of the most vibrant spots in Condesa-Roma. "These days, Mexico is hot in the art world. We have our own fashion designers, architects, musicians. Our actors are hot in Hollywood. Everything Latin has enormous possibilities," she says.

And it doesn't have the old limitations. When Camara and a group of friends fresh from university couldn't find a place they wanted to eat at, they opened Contramar, the city's first "beach food" restaurant. And from that moment seven years ago, business-suited professionals have lined up outside its door waiting to snag tables.

"Traditionally, good food in Mexico City was expensive French or Italian or Spanish, and then there were taco stands," says Camara, who now has seven restaurants, including two tapas bars, an Italian trattoria and an American-style diner. "My generation is willing to be Mexican without being traditional."

Camara's attitude is reflected in her food. Tuna sashimi tostadas with chipotle sauce and sauteed leeks are her signature dish: It's a simple combination that brings Japanese and French sensibilities to a Mexican standard.

A handful of women, including Camara, are making waves by treating traditional Mexican cuisine with less reverence. At Aguila y Sol, Martha Ortiz, 38, turns heads with her flamboyant presentations and unexpected combinations of common ingredients. And Monica Patino, 50, is redefining Pan-Asian dishes with the zip of Mexican chiles and herbs like epazote at MP Bistro Cafe.

Even Patricia Quintana, whose 1986 "The Taste of Mexico" is the featured cookbook for sale at the National Museum of Anthropology, is throwing hibiscus flowers into her mole and wrapping up masa-less tamales at her restaurant, Izote.

'Absurd' for some

Not everyone is charmed by the new Mexican cuisine. Diana Kennedy, the British-born author of the seminal "The Art of Mexican Cooking," characterized it as "barbaric" in an issue last May of Mexico City's dF magazine. "Ridiculous," she called Ortiz's dishes. "Absurd."

Kennedy, who has spent the past five decades chronicling the history of Mexican cooking and compiling the recipes universally respected as "authentic," was no kinder to Quintana, calling her new ideas "a horrible distortion" of Mexican cuisine. However, she wasn't universally dismissive of the movement: She proclaimed Camara's tuna sashimi tostadas to be "very good." Kennedy was not available for comment.

"It's quite a challenge for these chefs," says dF magazine's Osorno. He predicts that not all of this first wave of chefs will survive. Still, the popularity of culinary experimentation appears to be growing. "These new chefs have a public persona, like authors and artists. Their cookbooks sell well. The most powerful people in the country are always in their restaurants," Osorno says.

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