After centuries of mimicking traditional European technique, flavors, and dishes, Mexican chefs today are embracing their own cultural heritage. They are staging with abuelas in Yucatán to learn the secrets of pre-Hispanic cooks, and applying both Eastern and Western techniques and templates to corn, beans, and squash. Tacos may beckon from almost every street corner, but it’s worth pausing — in a comfortable chair, with a glass of of wine — to appreciate the artistry of Mexican cuisine.
Thanks to the strong dollar and euro, travelers from many countries will find high-end tasting menus that would cost USD $200 or more can be had for half that amount. The only tragedy of dining well in DF is that this kind of luxurious, multi-course meal is rarely how locals eat. At some of these hot spots, you may spot a well-heeled politician making a deal, but overall you’ll hear more English, French, and Japanese drifting over from nearby tables than Spanish. Those familiar with Mexico City's fine dining options may see some well-known addresses left off this list, but after eating our way through over a dozen white tablecloth establishments, these are the ones we recommend as truly worth it.
Photo courtesy Pujol
Everyone is going to tell you to go here, and you should go here: It’s important if only because chef Enrique Olvera’s elegant interpretations of traditional, regional Mexican cooking kick-started a new ideology about what the cuisine means nationally and globally. By putting indigenous cuisine on a fine white tablecloth and paying attention to its nuances, Olvera opened the eyes of both locals and tourists to the fact that fine dining in Mexico does not have to mean French or Italian food. Squeamish about trying insects? This is where to go to taste escamoles (ant eggs) for the first time. The mole madre — a plate that looks like target practice, with a dollop of dark, over-400-day-old mole negro surrounded by a younger, redder mole — is transformative. Pujol is an essential stop on any itinerary, though locals tend to think Olvera is overcharging gullible tourists for what essentially boils down to elevated street food and mole any abuela can make.
About $93 USD for the seven-course menu for either lunch or dinner; à la carte options are also available.
Calle Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco
Colonia Roma is full of grand old colonial stone mansions that were damaged in the 1985 earthquake. Inside one in the heart of Roma Norte is Rosetta, a Mexican restaurant from chef Elena Reygadas that draws heavily on Italian influences. Frescoes decorate the double-height dining room; look up to see a hanging garden. Wonders on the menu include fish baked in a crust made from bread dough and cracked open at the table, yielding a puff of herbaceous steam. Appetizers, pastas, and salads are garnished with Mexican herbs like chipilín as well as basil and nasturtium. Reygadas' take on veal sweetbreads is among the most popular items on the menu, but it’s her mastery of pastry that makes each visit feel special: Her roasted figs with hoja santa ice cream are a revelation.
Entrees start at $20 USD.
Calle Colima 166, Roma Norte
Photo courtesy Viernes Media Lab
Food obsessives across Latin America know that while the things Enrique Olvera is doing at Pujol are important, he’s not serving the most enlightened tasting menu in DF. That honor goes to Quintonil, a restaurant from the baby-faced chef Jorge Vallejo, an Olvera protégé. Where Pujol can seem overly confident, Quintonil (the word refers to the greens of the amaranth plant) is quiet, reserved, and restrained. The dining room, overseen by Vallejo’s wife, Alejandra Flores, is lit in soft golden hues, and wood and clay vessels add grounding elements to the decor. The food can be warm and cozy or breathtakingly explosive. The menu changes often, but there’s almost always a catch of the day (from Ensenada or elsewhere in Baja) served with a sauce made from pureed guajillo chiles, which produces a gentle, fruity, almost fermented heat that lingers. The best part might be dessert: A single buñuelo de viento, a crisp fritter dusted in cinnamon sugar, is served with a mug of spiced Mexican hot chocolate.
10 courses (lunch or dinner) for about $65 USD; à la carte dishes start at $7 USD.
Newton 55, Polanco
This place is a carnival. A bit mad and a bit brilliant, chef Martha Ortiz is a force on Mexico City’s dining scene and her restaurant — the name translates literally as "sweet homeland" — is part political statement, part feminist revolt, and part artistic expression. The daughter of celebrated Mexican artist Martha Chapa, Ortiz is particularly fond of floral fragrances and fresh herbs. Her guacamole comes sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, orchids float atop cocktails, and tender cuts of meat need no knife to coax them into a tortilla. At dessert, the tricks come out: Coconut flan is dressed in a sugar sculpture, and petits fours are served inside a tabletop-sized working toy carousel or Ferris wheel. Don’t miss the candied tamarind.
Entrees start around $25 USD.
Anatole France 100, Polanco
Photo courtesy Viernes Media Lab
Chef Israel Montero grew up in Venezuela, studied in France, and then opened a Mayan restaurant in Mexico City. A few years ago, Montero and the Mexico-born chef Alfredo Chavez opened Kaah Siis — the name means "cool" in Mayan — a rock-and-roll sort of place where molecular gastronomy and farm-to-table cooking meet in the middle. It would all be too much swagger if the food wasn’t actually very good. The dish you have to get: grilled octopus with chile mayonnaise. Before Kaah Siis did it, virtually no one in Mexico City was grilling octopus and serving it on a plate, sans a tostada. It wasn’t long before everyone copied their style.
The tasting menu starts at $40 USD for 6 courses; à la carte entrees start around $15 USD.Calle Schiller 331, Polanco
Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita is one of a few people — along with Patricia Quintana, Josefina Velazquez de Leon, and Diana Kennedy — credited with documenting and categorizing Mexican cuisine from within Mexico. Zurita owns several restaurants in DF, and he has written over a dozen books on Mexican cuisine. At Azul, Zurita’s extensive research into regional Mexican cooking informs dishes like sopa de tortilla, cochinita pibil, guacamole with grasshoppers, and mole negro; Zurita’s mole is some of the best in the city. On warm nights, snag a seat on the terrace and wind down with a shot or two of mezcal.
Entrees are $10 to $25 USD.
Calle Nuevo León 68, Cuauhtémoc
Top image from Quintonil, courtesy Viernes Media Lab