The excitement is palpable outside the doors of Pujol. A crowd of diners, mostly foreigners, are patiently waiting the first dinner seating at 6:30 pm. Most have probably seen the profile of Chef Enrique Olvera on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and are undoubtedly excited to experience his cooking in the flesh, thus subjecting themselves to an ungodly early hour for dinner by Mexican standards. These are the things you have to put up with for a seat at a restaurant that is ranked No. 25 on the Top 50 San Pellegrino list.
The doors open promptly at 6:30 and guests are led to a dark and clubby dining room. You feel like you are at one of those sceney Miami restaurants or one of those Tao/Buddakan/Hakkasan types, but clearly this is a more cerebral type of place. You’re here to see Mexican food in a way you’ve never seen before, as all that footage from Chef’s Table promises.
So far the restaurant is delivering on that promise. The six-course meal begins with an arrangement of Mexican street snacks you can’t find on any food truck or cart. There is an aspect that is vaguely familiar, like cornmeal or chiles, but it is faint. The most technically impressive is the baby corn that emerges from a deep gourd like a prop from a Tim Burton movie. It’s a befitting way to stage this, as it seems mad to season what is essentially corn on the cob with ant powder of all the things, but the end result is pure magic.
My personal favorite of the early dishes was a more straightforward scallop crudo, which was effectively marinated in a creamy tomatillo sauce, accented with a perfect dose of acid and spice. It’s a little deceptive how simple this dish appears. All you need is really good seafood and you’re 90% there, right? The pros make it look so easy.
But there were other parts of the meal that were uneven. Perhaps it’s hard to keep an empire together when it grows too quickly. Olvera now has his hands in many different projects, including Cosme and another new casual eatery in New York City. I wasn’t a big fan of the beef tongue soup, whose broth lacked depth and whose meat pieces were too large and clunky. The suckling pork in the taco seemed overcooked, and it didn’t help that it was in a dry sauce of chickpea paste. I was grabbing a lot of water during that one. And the chicken adobo was simply baffling. The chicken appeared to have been marinated in some eucalyptus. I don’t like to mix my protein with my sunblock lotion, and last time I checked, no one else does either.
But the moment we were all waiting for–holy mole! The mole “madre”, to be precise, a mole that had been cooking for more than 1,205 days, was a real showstopper of a closing dish. The mole had absorbed so much deep flavor and color like a strata of ancient earth rock, and peering at it felt like history passing right before your eyes. As a contrast, a dollop of freshly made mole “nuevo” was served in the center of the mole madre, looking like a spring chicken in the middle earth. It’s intentionally served without any protein, and who can blame them? No one would be talking about the chicken or beef when they were done.
It was a Happy Ending indeed, with the selection of desserts, which were a mix of traditional sweets like churros and cajeta, a cinnamon-laced goat milk drink, and some more new fangled ones like avocado ice cream. You felt like you were ending the meal with an old friend, the one who became quite famous and perhaps outgrew you, but who can also pick things up from where you left off.