Beggar’s Opera: Limosneros hands out fine Mexican fare

The continuing transformation of Mexico City’s centro histórico into a happening glamor spot is astounding.

It was quite by accident that we noticed the latest venue for chic Mexi-dining. A very old building, which for years sat waiting to be restored to its colonial splendor, has at last been reincarnated as Limosneros, the newest entry in the centro’s list of top-notch restaurants.

The story goes that the building was home to the local artisan’s guild, whose members collected funds (limosnas i.e. “donations”) to build various public buildings. Fast-forward to the 21st century, whose post-modern style is in evidence here. Juan Pablo Ballesteros, son of the family that owns the venerable Café Tacuba just around the corner, took it upon himself to acquire and restore this two-story Spanish colonial edifice, exposing volcanic stone walls, brick ceilings and cantera doorways. The effect is tradition gone mod. Tones of black, brown and beige abound. Some wood gives warmth. Lighting is low. Music is patron-friendly  - that is, it stays in the background where it belongs.

But the best news of all is that the kitchen puts out some of the most refined Mexican food in the city. An intriguing menu has been designed by gastronomic scholar José Luís Curiel and chef Lula Martín del Campo. It updates classics in a hip, modern but unpretentious way. Unlike at other high-falutin´alta cocina Polanco palaces, this food aims to please without ostentation or dubious re-invention. Presentation is pretty, almost Japanese. But recipes generally stick to the contents of grandma’s larder or gently introduce a new but familiar element--always straight from the market, not from the lab.

I love the antojitos offered as entradas, and could make a meal of them. Flautas de flor de Jamaica are golden crunchy tortillas, stuffed with a sweet-sour mix of fragrant purple hibiscus flowers and topped with cream. Elegantly served on a slab of dark grey slate, this dish is illustrative of the attention paid to detail, respect given to marketplace comfort food; not a cliché is in evidence.

Likewise, the tamal de camarón crocante is another twist on the ordinary, a corn tamal served in a banana leaf, crowned by a quick/deep-fried shrimp, which is to be devoured head, shell and all—a smart texture-fest.

Cazuela de cuitlacoche
A little cazuela de cuitlacoche presents this oh-so-delicate black corn mushroom, lightly sauteed and gratinéed, to be eaten on mini white wheat tortillas that have been pre-shmeered with a spikey ‘chipotle varnish’. It’s a perfectly balanced yin/yang experience and goes to show what a cunning Mexican kitchen can do.

A comforting sopa de quelites is, as the delighted Miss L exclaimed, “Mexican matzoh ball soup.” The wild greens swim in a sea of rich chicken stock, the matzoh-like corn masa balls bobbing about like beach balls in a Frankie Avalon picture.

Even better is a refined sopa de tortilla, one of the best I’ve sampled. An old-style recipe is barely tampered with: the brick-red broth is enriched with two kinds of chilies and topped with the usual assortment of avocado, chicharrón and fresh cheese. Deep.

Tamal de camarón
The main dish menu is divided into meat and fish; the kitchen excels at the former. A standout is filete al limón, a buttery-tender cut of beef swathed in a subtle, quiet, red chili sauce perfumed with lime. The sauce doesn’t over-whelm, as a good French sauce wouldn’t. It’s Aztec-Gallic fusion at its best.

Costillas en salsa de morita y mezcal are falling-apart tender, and recall those crowd-pleasing red ribs that old-style Chinese restaurants used to offer. But a more complex smoky aroma from the mezcal marinade reminds you that this is Mexico not Chinatown.

Recommended for the non-carnivorous are the huazontles capeados, the stuffed amaranth greens in their tomato caldo given pizzazz by a fresh goat cheese. It almost goes without saying that products are local and even organic when possible.

The dessert menu follows current DF trends and doesn’t stray much; included is the ubiquitous but well realized crème brûlée de mamey and a heady volcán de chocolate, a melting chocolate dessert with a ‘blackberry mole’.

Featured on the drink menu are fine artisanal beers and mezcals. Tequila, as is the current fashion, is played down and pricey as well - 90 pesos a shot – ouch! There’s an astutely chosen wine list featuring Mexican vintners, but prices are high; it would be nice to see a couple of purse-friendly house reds, as none offered are under $550.  

The caveat vis a vis drink prices is only to say that food is reasonable – a meal with a drink should cost $350-500 per. Well worth it for the quality.

Small details of service add a level of delight here, e.g. the small handmade tortillas that are served in a little embroidered pouch, the amuse-bouche of esquites (a corn dish mostly known as a street food), or the excellent trio of salsas that appear at the table seconds after being seated.

Juan Carlos photo: Peter Norman
Breakfast is served on weekends and features a divine birria, that rich goat stew and broth from Jalisco as well as a curious omelette of beef "ceviche". There are also more familiar Mexican egg dishes and a children's menu that includes house-made catsup!
Limosneros has not been open long and I have no doubt that it will just get better. And it’s already very good – it trumps all other ‘high-end’ options in the centro and most in the city. Palms up. 

Allende 3 (near Tacuba), Centro
Tel. 5521 5576
Open Monday-Friday, 1:30 -11 p.m.
Saturday 9 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sunday 9a.m. - 7p.m.


The Maja Clothed: Spanish cooking at its best

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.

Maja is a fine and welcome addition to the growing list of superior venues for Iberian cuisine. Boinas off to the chef!

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