When I was a child, I liked Mexican food. Or so I thought.
Tacos were one of my favourite meals. You got a salty, crunchy shell, then got to build it yourself. Seasoned mince meat, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, the mildly spiced salsa, then shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream on top. It’s was a child’s delight, messy and ridiculous. The real trick was to take a bite without everything exploding. Although really, it was just as fun when it did explode.
And it was a wonderful thing. There’s no surprise that it was one of my go to choices when I got to choose what was for dinner. It was interactive, had a great mix of textures, and a little bit of spice, all very likeable things.
But it’s not Mexican.
All of Australia has been growing up in recent years, putting away the crunch of the Old El Paso and starting to learn what this cuisine really is. Lead by restaurants like Mamasita we’ve moved towards soft tacos actually made of corn, mole sauces, Baja style fish tostadas, and lots of chipotle. Exciting flavours, lots of different textures, food made to be eaten alongside a glass of decent tequila.
We’ve been dining on this stuff, and it felt like we’d grown up. We thought we were mature, able to take care of ourselves.
But like so many adolescence, a visit from someone wiser showed that we’re not quite adults yet.
Here this adult influence came from Enrique Olvera, chef of the increasingly celebrated Pujol in Mexico city. As with many of the chefs doing the festival rounds at the moment, this is someone who adores the food of their home, and who aims to both celebrate and rejuvenate it. During the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival he cooked a meal at Pei Modern, and showed us what Mexican food can be.
And what it can be is surprising. When the waiters brought out large gourds with smoke wafting out, it got everybody’s attention. Inside were long, tender baby corn, their husk still attached, spread with ash mayonnaise. Sweet, smokey and fun, it opened the meal with some excitement, especially alongside the powerful Mezcal Buen Viaje from chef Olvera’s personal stash.
Ceviches have been one of the major restaurant trends of recent years in Australia, seen on a ridiculous number of menus. The method of using lime juice to “cook” fish is a useful one, and though results can vary, is often very pleasant. But I’ve never had a ceviche quite like this one.
A sizeable fillet of firm but flakey white fish was just cooked by the acid, making it soft but not falling apart. The real trick, though, was the balance. Sweet fish, sharp lime juice, smokey heat from a Tabasco or similar sauce, and peppery freshness from beautiful slices of watermelon radishes all came together in harmony. Like an operatic quartet, each part remained distinct but played off the others to create something greater than the sum of the parts. To top it off, a crisp disc of a bean tostada, bringing both an earthy bass note and a textural contrast that harked back to those tacos of our youth. A sublime dish.
The following dish came close to the same levels of brilliance. Billed as a green tomato salad, this used both under-ripe tomatoes and tomatillos, a staple of Mexican cuisine, to create a dish both sweet and tart. Coupled with a smooth piece of avocado and some caramelised baby leeks, this was again the picture of balance.
Another of the Pujol savoury courses was a little more muted. A squash blossom tamal was warm, dense and nutty, flavoured with a Mexican herb called epazote. With it, xikil-pak sauce, a creamy paste made of pumpkin seeds, which added another layer of nuttiness. While a very pleasing and interesting dish, it just wasn’t as memorable as the earlier courses.
Mark Best and his team from Pei Modern and Marque also provided some dishes to the menu. Most notable was a deft steak tartare, with a rich egg jam to bind it, and some impressive long, smoked strips of beetroot. Deep and earthy, it fitted well into the meal.
Finally, for dessert, an absurdly light avocado mousse, given crunch by macadamia crumbs, was paired with coconut ice cream. While the flavours were fairly subtle, it was a light, refreshing way to finish a meal. The final glass of Casa Noble tequila certainly didn’t hurt either.
With flawless service, headed by the always excellent Ainslie Lubbock, and a solid selection of matching wines, the night ran beautifully smoothly. Which was good. This food didn’t deserve distraction.
I still like crunchy, Old El Paso style Mexican. I still love the many great, somewhat traditional soft tacos that are everywhere in Melbourne. But Enrique Olvera’s food was the next step up.
Pujol is now on my list of places that I am dying to visit, because I want to try more of this revitalised Mexican cuisine. Though by judging by the vast number of chefs in the room, there is a good chance that we’ll be seeing hints of it in the restaurants of Melbourne in coming months.
And a little bit more maturity is always a good thing.