Mexico City is one of the world’s great food towns.
Home to nearly 9 million residents, Mexico City has a number of great restaurants. What is amazing is the quality of the food served, at almost any price point.
From the tacos al pastor served in the neighborhood taquerias, to the simple huevos revueltos con machaca (scrambled eggs with dried beef) served in hotel restaurants, to the tasting menus available at many of the city’s fine dining establishments, Mexico City is a food lover’s paradise.
Last week, I had the privilege of sampling just such a tasting menu at Raiz, Chef Israel Montero’s restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood. You get a sense of the restaurant from the photo of its entrance: it looks both warm and inviting. The dining area is extremely comfortable, with large tables, and very comfortable chairs. One wall is made almost entirely of shelving, which houses bottles, plates, plants, and other items. The black paint actually makes the room seem a bit larger, creating negative space around the room’s edges. It has a bit of a feel of dining in someone’s living room, and I mean that in the very best way. You feel you are a guest in their home.
After being seated, I spent a moment looking at the menu, which is what had initially drawn me to the restaurant.
I was intrigued by the bottom of the menu, where the mysterious “Degustacion” appeared. Described as eight courses of the Chef’s suggestion, that seemed the best way to experience what Raiz could offer.
What followed was one of the best meals ever, including one of the best dishes ever.
The first presentation was a single oyster, minimally dressed. Served atop a bed of crushed ice, the oyster was incredibly fresh. The mignonette added a dash of acid to the salty meat of the oyster, and piqued the appetite for what would follow.
As soon as the oyster disappeared, one of the waiters pushed over a cart.
The top of the cart was a study in mis en place, covered in small cups of ingredients, surrounding a central vessel, the molcajete. This stone bowl would be used to make our salsa.
Tomatillos, onions, cilantro, and other ingredients were added to the molcajete, and the waiter crushed them into paste with the stone pestle, grinding them into the rough sides and bottom of the bowl. After confirming the level of heat desired (“Medio caliente?” “No, muy caliente!”), the various peppers were ground into the mix.
Once the salsa was nearly complete, the waiter approached with the final two cups. He showed the ingredients, asking if they should be added to the salsa.
The first cup contained fried grasshoppers, or chapulines. The second, fried ants, or chicatanas. Both are traditional pre-Hispanic dishes in Oaxaca, one of the 31 states in Mexico. How could I refuse?
I nodded, and the insects were added to the salsa.
As the salsa was completed, another waiter presented the guacamole and chips to accompany the salsa.
The waiter had taken the request of “muy caliente” to heart. The salsa was verdant, with a lush tang from the tomatillos, but with a heat signature that continued to increase after eating. As with most “hot” dishes in Mexico, the heat is a secondary element. Of first importance is the taste, then the heat amps up, providing an exclamation point to the dish. In this instance, that exclamation point was in bold type!
The guacamole was a welcome cooling element, allowing a break from the heat.
And the insects?
A welcome textural crunch in the salsa. Eaten separately, the grasshoppers had little taste, like a potato chip–a crunch, a bit of salt.
The ants had the same crunch, but also had an earthy taste. Kind of what I imagine dirt would taste like. A bit of terroir, if you will.
Next came a trio of dishes, neatly presented by a trio of waiters.
It was about this time I noticed two things about Raiz – first, the service is impeccable. Even with my middle school Spanish, the waiters were able to communicate the ingredients of the dishes, and were incredibly efficient in beverage service. Second, the plating and presentation is first-class. Every dish was presented on a different plate, one suited for that particular dish.
In this case, there were three small dishes, each just a bite or two, but representative of the traditional tastes of Mexico: a tamale, a taquito, and an edible bowl of cuitlacoche, the corn fungus considered a delicacy in Mexico. That dish was topped with a frico, a fried cheese crisp common in the taquerias.
Each of these dishes were flavorful, with colorful and tasty accents. The taquito was napped with Pipian mole, a mole comprised mainly of pepitas (pumpkin or squash seeds). The tamale was topped with a dressed micro green salad, topped with a fried grasshopper. The cuitlacoche’s funky taste was enriched by the fatty crisp of the frico.
Next up was one of the most beautiful dishes I’ve seen, and this picture really doesn’t do it justice (but click on it with your cursor, to see it full-screen).
This is one of Raiz’s signature dishes, a beautifully prepared beet salad.
There are three types of beets: red, golden, and candy cane, and they are each prepared in a different manner.
They’re presented on a pristine white bowl, and the contrast between the stark white and the ruby red of the salad is visually striking.
The tortilla is topped with a mayonnaise flavored with fermented beets, and it has a very forward musky taste. It offsets the acidic salad well. I did notice the green apples mixed into the dish. This dish was tart, light, and refreshing, a contrast to the previous trio’s earthy flavors. It was also a brilliant contrast of old and new Mexican cuisine.
Next up was a more traditional dish.
At first, I thought this was a serving of al pastor, the succulent marinated pork served in every taqueria in town. Or the Yucatan’s cochinita pibil, a Mexican barbecue made orange with the achiote paste marinade.
But in this case, the marinated meat was a combination of octopus and shrimp, topped with a swirl cut of avocado, and pickled red onions, served on a crispy corn tortilla.
Again, a nod to the past and the present, with a traditional dish prepared in the present. The octopus was cooked correctly, tender bites of flavor. The marinade was flavorful, but I did enhance it with a bit of the tomatillo salsa that remained on the table. The build-up of heat was welcomed.
The next dish was the star of the meal, and one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. Served on a broken plate, we were presented with a small black pyramid, sitting atop a pile of . . . soil?
The waiter’s explanation only served to further the confusion. He spoke of foie gras, and chocolate, and mole.
After his explanation, I began exploring the plate. Cutting open the pyramid, I saw the beige of the foie gras.
I smeared that on the toast, and sprinkled a healthy portion of the dirt on top.
And bit into an amazing taste!
The foie was cold, but with the rich succulence you would expect. However, it was countered with the dark, dark bitter chocolate (the outside of the pyramid), and the seeds and spices that were the deconstructed mole. The rich fatty foie, and the bitter chocolate tastes combined to make a party. This is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten, and it went from hesitant first bite, to empty plate in about as long as it takes to write it.
Later, when speaking to Chef Israel, I asked about the dish, and its inspiration. He told me he wanted to combine French and Mexican cuisine, and this was the dish he created. You can see that inspiration in the dish, and it makes sense as a successful combination of flavors.
A soup course was next, with a cleverly plated bowl presented for inspection.
Inside, beans, cheese, chicharonnes, and a couple other items awaited their role.
Two small pitchers were presented, and simultaneously poured into the bowl.
The result was an earthy, almost purple bean soup, and a deeply orange tomato soup, bringing a ying/yang to the bowl.
This dish was a fitting next course from the rich fatty foie, bringing your taste buds back to normal expectations. The bean soup was simple, plain. The tomato soup a bit more complex, but reminiscent of the broth in a good tortilla soup.
The fish course was intriguing.
The fish had a very crispy skin, and was a fatty fish, almost too oily by itself.
The green broth had a very aggressive acidity.
Either separately would be a less-than-stellar dish.
The aggressive acidity cut right through the fatty fish, complementing the taste, smoothing out the overall taste into a lovely balanced dish. While the foie may have been Chef Israel’s ode to his French training, this plate was the demonstration of his classical techniques. Flawless cooking, a supreme sauce, and an overall balance of flavors complementing each other.
The final plate was presented and plated table side.
A beautiful tangine was brought to the table.
The lid was removed, showing a bundle wrapped in parchment paper.
The packet was a double wrapping of parchment, and as the second layer was opened, a fragrant cloud of steam arose. The scent was a bit heavier – barbecue? Er, barbacoa?
As best I can tell, this was a beef short rib, cooked until it was literally falling apart. The waiter pulled the meat apart, and plated the dish, with a curl of carrot, and a bit of green.
The meat’s flavors had melded into a sweet note of richness that was miles from the fish’s acidic punch.
This was comfort food, and the tortillas provided allowed the chance to make tacos.
While a heavy dish, the portion size was smaller, about two tacos, topped with the last of the salsa. Heat, sweet, and meat. What more could you want on your taco?
There were two dessert courses, and while they make look somewhat similar, the flavors couldn’t have been more different.
First was a take on apple pie a la mode, an apple tart served with a sweet cream ice cream. As far as I could tell, the ice cream was unflavored–it tasted simply of sweet cream. And after the short rib, the simple clean taste of this was a bit of a palate cleanser, moving completely away from dinner, and into the coda.
The second dish was a tribute to guava. Guava ice cream, a spice cake in a guava sauce, and a small half of the fruit. If you like guava, this is your dish, as the tartness of the fruit was present in each iteration.
The double espresso I ordered cut neatly through this taste, putting an end to an amazing meal.
It was a culinary tour of Mexico, highlighting techniques and flavors from many regions.
Raiz hits every note, while showcasing the roots of Mexican cuisine.
While I don’t normally discuss pricing, unless it swings to one or the other extreme, I do feel compelled to discuss it here.
For this feast, this culinary tour of Mexico, accented with superb French technique, and classical cooking skills?
About $65 US, half of what it would be in most cities, a third of what it would be in New York, Vegas, or Chicago.
A bargain for the experience.
Raiz has my highest recommendation.
Raiz is located at Schiller 331, in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.
You can find them on the Web here: http://www.restauranteraiz.com/index.html
Raiz serves lunch and dinner, and its hours are Monday – Saturday 1:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sundays 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Reservations are available through OpenTable.