On my first trip to Mexico City, probably close to 10 years ago, I fell in love with the country, mezcal, and Tacos Al Pastor. Then on a follow up trip to Oaxaca I feel in love with Oaxacan food, from mole to chapulines. Then close to two years ago on another trip to Mexico City I fell in love all over again with Mexican Food after going to Pujol. It was a completely different experience. It was clearly Mexican food, but Enrique Olvera brought out flavors of Mexican food and made them stand by themselves — his mole is probably the clearest of those examples where he serves it by itself rather than as a stew. It was a bit of a Steve Jobs experience — a focus on the essentials and a focus on the core. Going back to Pujol this year was still an amazing experience, but I felt that the food at Pujol while still outstanding is falling behind, it was less adventurous and it was less Mexican, it was more global. The reason might be that Olvera after having expanded the restaurant in a new location is trying to appeal to a broader audience — though I hope that he goes back to the Mexican roots that made Pujol in my view.
Until then, I found that Quintonil, a restaurant just a couple of blocks away from Pujol, and led by chef Jorge Vallejo is easily filling the gap that Pujol has left (interesting, and maybe not surprising Vallejo used to work at Pujol). Vallejo creates an experience that clearly rooted in Mexican ingredients and tradition, but with each course he pushes the envelop further. At no point during the 10 course tasting menu did you wonder what food you ate, it was clearly Mexican, starting with the nopales (ceviche), to the clams (that were served with beef tongue that would have any taco proud), to avocado tartar with escamoles, to the first of two deserts which was a frothy cuitlacoche ice cream cake. It was an absolutely amazing tour the force across the Mexican food spectrum, in each course showcasing the flavors of the country, while still surprising the guest. It is no surprise at all to me that Quintonil topped Pujol in the 2016 list of the World’s best Restaurants, it is surprising to me that in the 2017 list Pujol was ranked higher again, because while Pujol’s new location and restaurant is absolutely stunning, the staff and service are outstanding, Quintonil provides right now a more exciting food experience in my view.
One last point in comparing the two restaurants is that while Quintonil’s tasting menu consists of ten courses, Pujol’s consists of six, but at the end of the meal you will be absolutely full at Pujol while Quintonil does an outstanding job in pacing the dinner and the amount, leaving you full but not stuffed at the end of the dinner.
Writing this down was hard, both of the restaurants are world class and are among my favorite restaurants in the world. I love what Olvera did at Pujol. I can’t count how many times I have watched the Chef’s Table episode about him, and I have used the recipes from his excellent cookbook numerous times and learned a lot about Mexican food from it, I was bummed after trying and failing to get tickets for when he was cooking at Trois Mec in Los Angeles, but I feel that the excitement about Mexican food I experienced when I ate at Pujol for the first time, that very excitement I feel is now at display at Quintonil. I hope that this local competition will raise the standard at both places, and I am aware Mexico City has more to offer than just these two restaurants and the competition in broader but I think what these two restaurants have done and are doing for Mexican cuisine is amazing and should be celebrated.