It’s always striking to think about how basic, yet profound some of the world’s most revered dishes are. A croissant isn’t a whole lot more than crescent shaped butter. Well then, you try making one at home. Sushi is fish with rice, whether it’s from a supermarket in Topeka or right next to the sea in Vancouver. However, there is a reason that every fortunate diner to emerge from the domain of a Tokyo sushi master appears with the same life-changing daze that resembles the first few hours after your first kiss.
The world unfortunately views fajitas, Margaritas, and five pound behemoth burritos as the “cuisine” of Mexico. Not once did I encounter any of those in Mexico City, except the Margaritas. Let’s just say a Margarita in the Capital crafted by the hands of a Tequila-centric expert is a different story than the frozen slushies with the same name in Pensacola. Spring Break!
I’m not going to boldly pronounce a certain dish the “official” one for Mexico. Much like pimento cheese might be the unofficial dish of the South, I was told in Mexico City that tacos al pastor are the unofficial dish for that particular city. Cochinita pibil is regarded as the Yucatan’s unofficial dish, while mole negro represents the state of Oaxaca. Consider this an evolution of Hilary Clinton’s diplomatic food corps, where dishes act as senators.
The immensely gifted chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita is little known outside of Mexico City, like most of Mexico’s “celebrity chefs.” In the U.S., the young and talented Enrique Olvera is starting to become a commonly known name within gastronomic scholar circles. Still in the U.S., the most recognizable names within Mexican cuisine today remain Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. It is incredible what impact they have had on bringing one of the world’s most exceptional and under-appreciated cuisines across the border to the north. But, it’s a completely different audience when cooking mancha manteles inside the Loop instead of for discerning locals who know their moles inside and out.A visit to any one of Muñoz’s three endlessly popular “Azul” restaurants is an all-in-one lesson on the brilliance that is Mexico’s vibrant cuisine. A table on the Azul Condesa garden terrace can be the lecture hall. Now, that’s my kind of university. Strangely enough, education is a vital component to the Azul history. Muñoz’s original restaurant, Azul y Oro, actually is located at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, way, way off in the southern reaches of Mexico City. Then in 2011 came the first sibling, Azul Condesa, much more centrally located for most residents and tourists. Condesa is a green, residential, park-filled area that seems like Mexico City’s Paris neighborhood. Hipsters mingle here with thirty-something year old artists, and young families. Like how we call certain neighborhoods in America’s major cities the popular spots for the “stroller set,” this would be that neighborhood. Condesa also boasts a staggering density of superb restaurants, bars, and cafés, all complimented by some of the city’s premier taco carts on its street corners. The bar was set high for Azul in Condesa. Since opening, Azul Condesa has only raised the neighrborhood’s bar higher.
The latest Azul arrived a year ago in the hectic Centro Histórico with Azul Histórico’s opening. While Azul y Oro resides in the University and Azul Condesa seems more like a posh Mayfair townhouse with a gorgeous secret garden patio, Azul Histórico calls a former 17th century palace home, along with the city’s leading chocolate shop, Qué Bo.
The menus at all three restaurants are virtually identical and span this vast country. There will be recognizable icons, such as guacamole or tortilla soup. You don’t need me to explain what guacamole is. You do need me to mention the addition here of the earthy crunch of chapulines (grasshoppers) to the guacamole. This isn’t your usual Super Bowl gathering dip. The same story goes for tortilla soup with aguacate and chipotle. It is not exactly the O’ Hare Wolfgang Puck Express rendition.
Profound is really the word that fits Mexico’s iconic dishes. They are not complex in that Ferran Adria created most of them. The dishes were created by and continue to be prepared by the mothers and grandmothers cooking at homes across the country, not chefs in shiny kitchens with sleek jackets and toques. This is cooking from the heart and cooking of the terroir. The ingredients are allowed to speak, like in California and Italian cuisines. Unlike in those cuisines, spices and fruits play an enormous role that enable the palate to be much more stimulated.
The dish at Azul Condesa that brings down the house, stopping rookies and weekly visitors alike in their tracks, is the pechuga de pollo con mole negro. I was fortunate enough to be joined by the extraordinary Cristina Potters, the writer of “Mexico Cooks!,” who is one of the world’s foremost voices on Mexican cooking and has collaborated with Chef Muñoz on cookbooks before. Despite having sampled the mole negro at the various Azul branches probably a few dozens of times now, the ethereal allure of the Oaxacan black mole never grows old for Cristina. I understand why.
Like the aforementioned croissants and sushi, the dish itself isn’t exactly the most challenging to comprehend. It’s a (rare to find) moist chicken breast atop a generous pond of the mole negro, garnished with a cilantro floruish, and a very ripe plantain known as platano macho (imagine eating a banana with a completely brown skin, then slightly caramelized with some brown sugar).
Simple, right? Of course not. First of all, like many home cooks, I still can’t figure out how to make a boneless, skinless chicken breast not desert dry. That’s a project for another article.
What is transcendent here is the mole negro. It is indeed so much more than a sauce. It is a heritage. It is a story. It is a stew. It is a paste. It is really its own unique, description-defying category of cooking. It cannot be labeled as much as we food writers try.
With an endless requirement of chiles, spices, chocolate, nuts, broths, and herbs involved, mole negro must come straight from the heart of a generous chef wanting to share a an integral part of their culture with you. There is a mythical factor involved. The Chicago chef and television personality Rick Bayless’ recipe for mole negro prepared in 2010 at The White House for a Mexican state dinner involves 26 ingredients for the mole. And, that’s not including the chicken later to be covered by the mole. Other moles are no four ingredients weeknight dinners either. In the Muñoz cookbook Ms. Potters so kindly gave me, the mole amarillo only boasts 14 ingredients, not counting meat or garnishes.
When I was a college student near Los Angeles, I remember talking with my dorm’s maid, originally from Oaxaca, about her region’s specialty, and how in the world can anyone make such a complicated dish? How do you even fit the ingredients in a shopping cart? She explained to me that mole negro really is a dish reserved for the most special of occasions and requires the “essentials” of a Mexican pantry. The only chile in my pantry is chipotle.
The next day I found a juice box on the desk in my room. Did somebody break in and leave some apple juice without taking my computer? No, she left a juice box base for mole negro that in theory becomes reminiscent of the mole with two dozen less ingredients. Just add chicken broth and voilà. That, she explained to me, is how most people today prepare mole negro. When I used it for chicken tacos, it actually wasn’t bad.
Mole from the juice box though, doesn’t even come close to Muñoz’s mole negro. The masterpiece sports a robust deep black color similar to that of squid ink, reaching into the most ominous of night time colors a painter might be able to blend on their palette. Seductive spices mingle with distinct almond and cinnamon notes, alongside the soulfulness of chipotles and fellow chiles, and a hair-raising smoke and ash element to the finish. Not getting ahead of ourselves, mole negro is far from the only mole in the repertoire of Mexican cooking and Chef Muñoz. All year long, the Azul restaurants feature various themes to accompany the regular menu. At the time of my February 2013 visit, that festival happened to be celebrating moles and pipiáns. Lucky me. Now, the festival celebrates rellenos of myriad fashions.
There are twelve options on the special menu, complimenting the roughly equivalent number of starters and equivalent again main courses. Just close your eyes and randomly pick. Pipián verde from Veracruz? Perhaps the aforementioned mancha manteles, a cinnamon and guajillo chile mole known as tablecloth stainer for its relentless sharpness, as persistently prickly as Mexico City’s nerve-racking traffic. It’s a mole actually that hails from Mexico City. Do give extra thought to the superb, snow white pipián blanco lifted up by abnormally large capers and abnormally juicy green olives, lending a fascinating salty dimension to the mole‘s richness. It’s the perfect foil for a soft fish, as opposed to the usual chicken breast. The pipián blanco seems like the Béchamel of moles.
Before marching into the festival of mole, start out as properly done in Mexico City with either a top tier Margarita or a Mezcal selection. Here, the Mezcal is served the traditional way in a straw woven, shell shaped jicara for sipping (no shots, this isn’t Spring Break), then to be alternated with the customary chaser of orange slices coated with worm salt known as sal de gusano. In the U.S., the smoky agave spirit is getting mixologist love today for adding a fascinating complexity to cocktails, but the only brand ever used is New Mexico’s Del Maguey “Vida.” At a restaurant such as Azul Condesa, the Mezcal list more closely resembles the wine list at Le Bernardin. Need some guidance? Don’t ask me, ask the experts. Go for the Amores Reposado, Ms. Potter’s favorite, for starters.
Mezcal fortified, the appetizers await after a session of bread (yes bread, not tortilla chips) with two types of salsa. Muñoz creates a fascinating marinated venison meat starter to be spread on those tortilla chips you expected earlier. The soy, scallion, and onion marinade penetrates every dimension of the deer meat almost to the point of saturation. The textures, the juices, and the tastes between the slight gaminess of the meat and the umami of the sauce is like nothing else I’ve found before. It’s an experience.
I’ve had tamals before, but few as moist and satisfying as a version here with the “spinach tree” Mayan super green chaya interwoven into the corn masa base, then filled with queso fresco and vegetables. Chaya could easily be the official food of yoga cuisine. The tamal is then steamed in plantain leaves and finished in the “Tabasco style” with a tomato sauce. No, “Tabasco style” doesn’t mean a hefty a spritz of Tabasco sauce.
You can get your ceviche verde here or the classic glorified tostadas from the Yucatan, panuchos, filled with that other Yucatan stalwart Cochinita pibil. There is even a pear and Roquefort salad with arugula, though surely this isn’t just another run of the mill edition of greens with fruits, cheese, and nuts.
Transition at this point to one of the intriguing Mexican wines, possibly the excellent, raspberry forward Merlot from Mexico’s first winery, Casa Madero. Or, calm down with one of the excellent, zero percent ABV agua frescas. The version made of guanabana juice is a refreshing treat, as if a mixologist combined the juices of cantaloupe and mango, with a teaspoon of banana purée. You may actually have to stay awake in some meetings in the afternoon. Then again, the prime lunch hour in Mexico City is 4 pm, so it’s hard to guess what meetings can really be held after lunch. If that’s the main lunch hour, when is happy hour?
Outside of moles and pipiáns, main plates can involve large filets of beef grilled a la plancha, enchiladas, or rellenos. Muñoz prepares the two classics of the Yucatan: pescado Tikin Xic (fish) and Cochinita pibil (pork confit), both involving similar labor intensive achiote paste and orange juice marinades.
Dessert is not an afterthought. After earlier in the week indulging in numerous mole y platanos desserts in Guatemala (that country’s staple dessert with plantains coated by a sweeter mole negro version, I half expected some form of dessert mole to continue the festival. The adventuresome must always seek the chocolate cake with a gorgonzola ice cream. A guanabana mousse certainly tempts, as does a coffee cake with coffee buttercream and dark chocolate. Unfortunately, the most enticing sounding postre turned out to be Azul Condesa’s one stumble. A chocolate tamale sounds like a genius concept. How has nobody thought of it before? The tamal turned out to be vaguely chocolate stained with a sad, crumbly consistency, lacking any hint of moistness. The trio of sauces (crème anglaise, dark chocolate, and mixed berry) added visual pleasure and attempted to hide the dry tamal, but couldn’t save the dish.
Muñoz more than redeemed himself with a magnificent, ornate in appearance and taste, re-interpretation of the usually banal pastel de très leches. The consistently dry “three milks” cakes I encounter in the U.S. usually force me to ask, where is even one of those milks? That’s far from the case here. The cake’s moistness rivaled that of the venison at the meal’s begininning. The secret is the addition of rompope, better known as Mexican egg nog. Skip the drinking egg nog in the holiday season and have this for Christmas dinner dessert. The sumptuous tres leches would be right at home in Pierre Hermé Left Bank boutique, except it has that additional jazz factor lacking in most pastries to jolt diners, similar to the jolt of a bracing mole negro.
With consummate, crisp service and the stunning patio that makes all of us beautiful diners look even more like Hollywood stars and starlets, Azul Condesa is now one of the gold standards for Mexico City dining. As you stroll back into the Condesa streets, with brief visions of tamales and tres leches sparkling in mind, you’ll immediately fall into a whimsical, mole negro induced, dreamy state of joy. How can cooking achieve such intense depth? 26 ingredients for starters. The rest is the enduring story of one of the world’s most astounding dishes.
Nuevo León #68
Colonia La Condesa
5286-6380 or 5286-6268
Monday through Saturday: 1:30 PM to 1:30 AM, Sundays 1:30 PM to 6:30 PM