Northern Spanish cooking has been on everyone’s mind in recent years. Chefs Arzak and Adriá have become household names - well, in foodie circles, anyway. It’s amongst the world’s finest as well as simplest cuisine. Local, indigenous, sustainable ingredients are au courant and that's what it's about. Why are people just discovering Spain now? Well, during the Franco dictatorship the words Spain and gastronomy didn’t mix. The country was closed, poor and cultural regionalism frowned upon. The local populous barely had enough. So you didn’t go to Spain to eat.
My first trip to Iberia was in 1984, when Spain was rapidly emerging from the dark years. I traveled through the country for four months, eating nothing but fried meat, potatoes, and chilled house wine. I fell in love, permanently with the artists of the ‘siglo de oro’ (Velazquez, Ribera, Murillo), flamenco, toasted bread with olive oil on it (perhaps the best thing I ate) and Madrid. But I didn't eat well. Another extensive trip 15 years later turned my head around, gastronomy-wise. What had changed, it or me? A little of both. I’m much more experienced in finding what’s true and good to eat. And with the opening up of the country, a reverse trend was set in motion and now great pride is taken in local foods and dishes. Everywhere you go--and Spain is a huge place—you’ll find fine cooking, dishes prepared with pride based on local ingredients and tradition. Simple and fresh are the keywords. So, it is only natural that here in the New World, Spanish-trained chefs have a keen eye for what’s local, seasonal and in the market, adapting to old-world techniques and recipes. It’s no wonder Spanish cooking is currently trendy around the world. And Mexico City’s best restaurants these days are Iberian.
|Chef Paulina Morel|
Now there’s Maja. The word, in Castilian slang means ‘cool’ or, more specifically ‘beautiful’ as in the ‘que padre’ of Mexican parlance. Maja the restaurant is all of the above.
Set in a restored Porfiriano mansion, with a pretty patio, the grey-toned post-modern décor is innocuous but it doesn't matter: the food is the star of the show.
Young chef Paulina Morel studied for several years in San Sebastian the mecca of Basque cooking and then worked here at the esteemed Biko. Her menu is northeastern Spanish, i.e. it encompasses the Basque country, Catalonia, Asturias and Cantabria, with a couple of central and southern dishes thrown in for good measure.
Start with the iconic croquetas de jamón; a magically thin bronzed crust surrounds velvety, smoky ham-infused béchamel – textbook perfect. Pulpo a la feira, buttery grilled octopus is a delight. And patatas bravas, the paprika shmeered roast potatoes ubiquitous in Spain, and so often compromised here because of our pallid Mexican papas, are crunchy and richly flavorful.
Although neither northern nor seasonal (in Spain anyway) a gazpacho appears on the menu, and it’s not the Anglicized tomatoey version, but the real thing: olive oil thickened with bread and livened with tomato, garlic and sherry vinegar. As good as I’ve had in Sevilla.
The hot soup option, sopa de pescado Donostiarra (or Basque fish soup) is really a reduced bisque, redolent of the sea –a winner.
From the main menu, and a true test of any Spanish chef, is the deceptively simple fish of the day en salsa verde, which contains only five ingredients. This green sauce is comprised of emulsified olive oil, perfumed with sweated garlic, finely minced parsley and the juice a couple of happy clams. A perfectly sauteed filet sits in a little puddle of it. Chef Morel proves she learned a thing or two in the old country as here these lovely ingredients are precisely balanced. Brava!
The Asturian classic, solomillo en salsa de Cabrales, can hit like a bomb: a tender steak is smothered in a cream of the spiky blue cheese of the eponymous town. Here it is light and just rich enough.
A side of salteado de verduras pleasantly surprises: its perfectly cooked vegetables retain the right amount of crunch and conceal a delightful payload of Catalan romesco, the sauce of roast red peppers thickened with hazelnuts.
Top off the meal with a standout torrija caramelizada a typical dessert that falls somewhere between French toast and bread pudding.
The wine list is not long but varied enough in its offerings and price range to satisfy, although on several visits, staff was not knowledgeable as to its contents.
Dinner for two will be around $1000-1200 (pesos) with a bottle of low end wine.
Restaurante de Comida Española de Autor
Restaurante de Comida Española de Autor
Durango 279, near Av. Sonora, Roma/Condesa
Monday - Wednesday: 1:30 - 11p.m.
Thursday to Saturday: 1:30p.m. - 1:30a.m.
Sunday until 1:30- 6p.m.
Tel. 5211-7972 / 5211-4964
See my previous post on Spanish food in the city: http://goodfoodmexicocity.blogspot.mx/2009/03/old-country-eating-spanish-in-city.html