Bug-eyed: Three Creative Kitchens do Insects
Just because I cruise the planet promoting street food doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a refined repast now and then. So I recently returned to a few of our houses of haute cuisine mexicaine to see what was emanating from their kitchens. Turns out eberyones gone buggy.
My favorite pleasure palace, which I've idolized since it opened its Porfiriato doors, is Rosetta, where classic Italian cuisine is lovingly reproduced by the lionized chef/owner Elena Reygadas. Chef Reygadas is a truly creative artist, with a great love for the classics--she will always be deeply immersed in them. But now she is reaching out, grabbing the delightful treasures of her own country, and incorporating them brilliantly into her cooking. She is using more hongos de temporada (seasonal mushrooms), wild greens, herbs and locally acquired meats, game, fish and produce, artfully transforming them into dishes with a home-spun theme. The most spectacular case in point is insects, now more central to her menu than ever before. Reygadas (who recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Lima to collect her S. Pellgrino 50 ‘best chef’ trophy - see my previous post - explains: “As you can see, I’m fascinated by insects, and we are very fortunate in Mexico to have such a variety of edible ones. I like to eat them because they taste of the earth, which I love, and they bring me to it. It’s a flavor both primitive and exquisite at the same time. The first memory I have of a flavor is of wet earth. I associate the taste of insects with that of the Mexican countryside. Besides, they are pure protein and easily sustainable. While they are one of the most ancient foods in the history of mankind, I think they are the food of the future as well.” A still-life of sautéed gusanos de maguey set amongst brilliant nasturtiums may not evoke a Venetian sunset, but a heady mood will be set and great pasta will follow.
Paxia is executive chef Daniel Ovadía’s flagship restaurant. Originally paying homage to southern Mexican cooking, the menu, now in the capable hands of young jefe del taller creativo Salvador Orozco, is in the vanguard of experimental Mexican cuisine. Techniques favor classic European, while ingredients are local and seasonal--and very Mexican. A salad even includes "quelites (wild greens) de la Ciudad de México”. And arthropods often appear on the menu. The chef emerged from the kitchen to greet me during a recent lunchtime lull. He enjoys working with insects, and explained that the kitchen is “reaching for higher goals, trying to push the limits.” A Tlaxcalan mole features little live jumiles, which “gave an aroma of apple and cinnamon to the sauce. I was proud of this one.” To prove the point, the chef rolled up his sleeve to reveal a larger than life tattoo of a jumil. Impressive. Even more so was the blue-plate bug special I ordered, chinacuiles. These are a reddish larva that is found in the roots of the maguey. Here they are sautéed in a light sauce of xoconostle (cactus fruit) and oil infused with the uniquely soapy/lemony herb pápalo. These little wormy creatures lost any ooze they might have in the frying pan, and were pleasingly crunchy--the flavor was faintly redolent of seafood. I had to admit that the process of eating them, as tacos in pretty little colored tortillas, was endearing: the textural sensation grew on me and I almost forgot that I was downing something I would normally step over to avoid squashing.
Paxia’s menu continues to render an intriguing mix of standards and inventive concoctions. Cochinita pibil remains from earlier days as does fish al pastor, a signature dish. New creations include duck enchiladas sauced with a light pipian verde, wisely reinforced with a reduction of duck stock. Tuétano is a carnivore’s dream. Here it's presented in the bone with a reduction of “burnt onion” and a light pico de gallo, an astutely balanced combination of umami and spryness. Duck with mole negro and an unusual short rib with guava and sweet potato are highlights of the current menu. A superb dessert, created by pastry chef David Rosas is called necuatole, and shouldn’t be overlooked. It is pumpkin swimming in dark perfumy syrup complimented by a dollop of sour cream ice. One of the desserts even incorporates insects: the sorullo which uses flying ants known as chicatanas. Paxia is one of the best options south of the Viaducto.
Limosneros, one of the historic center’s few upscale options, has slowly but surely become one of the city's best options for creative Mexican cooking since its opening in 2012. Chefs Marco Fulcheri and Carlo Melendez create refined but unpretentious Mexican food. An intriguing and constantly morphing menu updates classics in a hip, modern but sensible way. This food aims to please without ostentation or dubious re-invention. Lovingly presented dishes are artfully pretty, and ingredients are straight from the market, not from the lab.
A sopa de quelites might contain as many as four local wild greens. The once popular ceviche trio is now pared down to one, taking advantage of whatever fish is freshest, and served in an iced glass bauble topped with a foam. I realize chefs are shying away from the once novel and now mundane foam, but this cumulus cloud of lemony perfume really works here – this ceviche is both hardy and subtle, full of fishy umami and it's the best I've sampled since I was in Peru. Costillas de cerdo, done in agave honey and mezcal are a house signature dish and have always been a favorite: they’re like Texas BBQ, falling apart tender, but with a subtler south-of-the-border inflection – the mezcal adds a smoky je-ne-sais-quoi that elevates the dish to a higher plane.
And, of course, those bugs. On a recent visit, a beautiful and terrifying plate of poblano beetles called cocopaches was served. The appearance of these jewel-like creatures waivers between a fine lady’s bejeweled broach and something that might hide under your kitchen sink. My heart fell, but I was compelled to taste. Turns out the creatures were thankfully hollow, lightly crunchy, with a pleasant, grassy flavor. Little dabs of salsas and a “ravioli” of squash blossom flower round the dish out. Juan Pablo Ballesteros, who directs the proceedings explains that “We offer them because in Mexican cities we’ve become detached from one of our true gastronomical contributions to the worlds cuisine: bugs. We think its time to dig into our precious inventory of pre-Hispanic ingredients with new techniques and creativity.” When queried as to how his clients have reacted, he responded, “Its a daring task when you're in this kind of restaurant, but their reaction has been positive.” Mine was too.
While most insects are now offered as costly “gourmet” novelties, I don't doubt that we’re going to see more such alternative foodstuffs entering the mainstream. Ballesteros of Limosneros says it best: “There’s this strange feeling that you’re eating something unknown, healthy, scary, but quite beautiful at the same time. That’s what I like about it.”
Colima #166 (just east of Orizaba) Open Monday - Saturday from 2 - 11 p.m.
Av. de la Paz 47, San Ángel
Open Monday - Saturday 1p.m. - 12 a.m., SUnday 1-6 p.m.
Tel. 5550-8355 / 5616-6964
Allende 3, Centro
Open Monday 1:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday 1:30 - 11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.
A long time ago I wrote a piece - with Jeff Weinstien as accidental co-conspirator -- he was in town and accompanied me to a demonstration/lecture at LA's Museum of Natural History) that I called Insects Inside. These are the jokes, folks! Wish I could link to the piece -- it was one of my favorites. I remember what one kid at the museum said when I offered him the rest of my crickets-and-orzo, since there obviously wasn't enough to go around: "What do you SAY," prompted his mother. "I don't WANT it!", he wailed!
When I dined alone at Rosetta, the special freebie sent out to me by the kitchen -- thanks to you, Nick! -- was the bug plate! Which I thought was very daring of them.
-Meredith Brody, food and film writer
Por Siempre Tacos Veganos (corner Chiapas & Manzanillo, Roma, open m-sat 6:30 p.m. to midnight) delivers what it promises, that is, vegan tacos. They're just like the "real thing" only made with tofu, soy cheese and other non-carny foodstuffs. The faux chorizo is outstanding.
Conde Sandwich, at the corner of Alvaro Obregón and Córdoba in the Roma, is a cute American style nuevo sandwich shop run by the owners of the adorable nearby Fournier Rousseau. The Rueben, done with house-made corned beef and sauerkraut vales la pena of which there is little.
Pozolería de Moctezuma at (c/ Moctezuma 12, Col. Guerrero, near metro Garibaldi, closed Sunday) is in a funky old apartment building and has been hidden away there for 65 years. Ring the buzzer and enter for the best bowl of white or on Tues.,Thurs, & Sat., green. The tacos of lengua are phenomenal.
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