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Posts Tagged ‘Mexico City’

Last week, Ben and I traveled to Mexico City for  a 6 day vacation from San Miguel.  As one long time resident said to me the first year we wintered here:  “San Miguel is like an island:  every so often,  you have to get off!

We have both visited Mexico City a few times in our past, for business and pleasure, but never before as a couple.  Only 3 hours away by car, Mexico City, (or D.F. as it is called by residents),  has a population equivalent to our country of  Canada. It is as dynamic as New York, as cosmopolitan as Paris and as historic as London.  And in large pockets, such as Polanco, Condessa and Roma,  as liveable as any of those fine cities.

But how does one get around in such an incredibly large metropolis, where there are acknowledged threats to your body and your purse? We don’t want to exaggerate the risk,  but we are not naive either:  those security patrols and body guards are everywhere for a reason.  The Metro is cheap and navigable, but we wanted to buy things at the mercado, at the wine store, and at the art fair to bring home to SMA.

We had tried to find a service but nothing met our criteria:  a bilingual driver, available quickly, who would take us from our condo to destinations, day and night, in reasonable comfort and safety. Nothing big or ostentatious.

Our answer was Uber. A friend is an Uber driver in Toronto, and she explained to us how it worked.  I know lots of folks who use it,  but I was worried about managing with my feeble Spanish.   But bilingual navigation skills were not necessary:   it’s all done on the Uber app on your smart phone. A wifi connection is necessary, but that’s the only barrier.

The real revelation was just how polite, no, how accommodating, all of the drivers were.

We entered the car and bottles of water were immediately offered.   I sneezed, and a box of tissues was appeared. The driver was attentive to the road, not to his cell phone or a dispatcher.  Heat or cold was adjusted with just a word or gesture.  It was just like having a private driver, at prices much lower than taxis and with nicer cars.

And then there was the “Rate your Driver” survey that appeared on my cell phone after the ride.  You rate them, and as we knew from our Uber driving friend, they rate you.

It brought to mind an ancient economics lecture on how incentives can work to impact behaviour.   If you provide immediate feedback on the right behaviour with consequences for the wrong behaviour (as in, no one will answer your ping), you are more likely to get the behaviour you want. (Works with dogs too!)

Where else did we experience that immediate and effective feedback loop?  With Air BnB.  Immediately after our stay, we received a survey to rate our hosts, the location and the property itself.  That is expected on say, a Trip Advisor or VRBO rental.

 But our hosts also answered a survey on the quality of Ben and me as guests. And,  I say modestly, we were rated as “perfect”.

What would have been the consequences of discarded stained towels on the bathroom floor, leaving the fridge door open all night, or littering the counter with take out cartons?

The answer is clear:  if you cannot behave like civilized people, respecting other people’s property and basically treating it like you would want yours to be treated, you won’t get the opportunity to rent this place again, or likely any other on Air BnB.   

Ben often says that if you are not happy with something,  you simply vote with your wallet and don’t buy it again.  But in this age of instant gratification, we can go beyond simply walking away. We have the opportunity to express our dissatisfaction  almost as it happens.

But what if all of the providers did it too?  In an earlier time, all kinds of businesses would gently or not so gently discourage certain demanding, ungracious or boorish customers.  So imagine a time where we are all openly rated as customers say by our stylists, our mechanics, or by our care givers.  Imagine how civilizing that would be. (Or you could argue that it might inhibit honest feedback:  you can read “ The Circle” by David Eggers, to see how that would ultimately play out.) 

On a less serious note (thank goodness) here are some of the photos of our fabulous condo in Polanco, owned by the equally fabulous and very nice Canadian couple, Sergio and Renny:

 

We also wandered through the upmarket retail stores that an affluent neighbourhood like Polanco offers.

 

And of course, we ate!  Our most memorable meal was at a little tapas bar, where I was immediately transported back to Barcelona with one whiff of the gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlicky chilli oil). Not a coincidence that the attractive female owner was from that city! And this was the most reasonably priced meal we had during our 6 day stay.

We also ventured to a few cultural icons:  The Cathedral in the Zocola, Belles Artes, The Grand Hotel, and the Museo Soumaya (named for Carlos Slim’s late wife).  This Museo, which is free to all, has been criticized by some for being the questionable product of too little taste and too much money. Most of the paintings still have the Sotheby’s sticker with the estimated hammer price on the back, so yes, that critique may be valid. But as I read later, many private collections are simply amassed over time,(“Ohh look Carlos, another Rodin,  I simply must have it!”) and so have that quality of being  unfocused, not “curated” as the critics would say, no doubt with a dismissing sniff.

And as you can see from the photos below, I have an affection for  Salvador Dali’s  bronzes, even if some of those same critics judge them to be whimsical trifles created at the turn of the century for those of bourgeois taste. Piffle, I say.

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IMG_5762How does one attempt to describe this wonderful and amazing city in a few words or even a few photos? Perhaps the attempt should not be made, except by exception.  Here is what I discovered this time, my fourth, in this urban playground.

The art of Michael Landy:  this extraordinary (there’s that word again) artist believes that art should not be static, that it should be changed with each viewer that it interacts with.  Thus there is a huge roulette wheel of fortune that when spun, gives you prophecies like  “You will burn forever in extreme agony while splayed on a rock“ and a large head of Saint Michael hanging from a chain that begs you to throw a paper mache stone at it, and my personal favourite, a tortured saint that when you press on footpad, drives a knife into his heart with a great booming sound.  Astounding!

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Pliers heading towards the Madonna’’s mouth, controlled by a foot pedal. Bizarre yet fascinating.

 

The restaurant of Maximo Bistro:   Chef Eduardo Garcia surprised even Michael Coon, whom he has known for some time, when Chef revealed many personal details from his past.  It is well-known that he worked his way up for 6 years in the kitchen of celebrity chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin.  But less well-known is that he was underage by 2 years when he started in that kitchen!  And that he had already toiled in the agricultural fields of California for 5 and that is how he came to appreciate the farmers and all of their hard work.   And that he was illiterate until he was 21.  This must be what Chef Ripert saw in him:  energy and talent forged with an uncompromising work ethic.

I observed a young man doing prep in the Maximo kitchen:  with his rapid fire chopping, concentration on his task, moving around the board with a physicality that plainly eclipsed his workmates, there was no doubt that if he has the creative chops too, here was the next Eduardo.

 

Chef Garcia with that hyper sous in the background

Chef Garcia with that hyper commi in the background

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Tender octopus in just made tomato salsa

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A fortune in truffle slivers sprinkled over hand made ravioli

The Mercado Roma market:  like Eataly in New York City, this gourmet food hall has brought together all the cuisines from across Latin America (and beyond) and put them under one upmarket roof.  Everything you need to pull together a picnic to be enjoyed on your own or at the communal table beside the living wall. (Yes, walls with plants are all the rage in DF too! )

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Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Justo Sierra 14, Centro Historico, 5702 2991

Maximo Bistro, Tonala 133, Roma, Mexico DF, 5264 4291  (Call way ahead for reservations:  friends of mine got left out in the cold, literally, when they were seated on the terrace during February)

Mercado Roma, Calle Quertero #225, Roma Norte, Hours Open  9:00 am to 6:00 pm

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My  first experience of Broadway was the musical Grease, starring an as yet undiscovered John Travolta.  At the intermission,  I confessed to being taken aback by his suggestive and enthusiastic pelvic gyrations.  Vulgar I think was the word I used.   An elegant lady  of a certain age (ironically, likely my age now) looked down her well powdered nose at me and remarked with that distinctive New York  disdain:   “my dear, you are either very young, or  you’re not from New York!”.

Well, she was right on both counts:  I was 15 when I first visited the city of dreams and  it was love at first sight.    Noisy, crowded, polluted, even dangerous, whatever the downsides to this urban environment, New York offered a world of possibilities, experiences, and potential.  Born and raised in small Northern Ontario towns,  I embraced the city, in concept and reality:  years later, when I read that Bangkok was the “the Mount Everest of Cities”,  to be attempted by only the most intrepid of urban adventurers, I extended my stay from 2 days to a week!

So I had spent a week in  Mexico City almost exactly 4 years ago (on my way to San Miguel de Allende and beyond) , but given that I did not speak Spanish, the boutique hotel staff spoke no English to aid me and I had read recent reports about personal crimes (kidnapping & robbery), I scuttled back to the confines of my hotel room every night as the sun was setting. Cowardly I suppose, but considered prudent.   During the day, I went to outstanding museums, enjoyed fabulous lunches, rambled through the parks, took the tourist bus  and vowed to come back to explore this fascinating and vibrant city when I was better prepared or in company.

And so when my friend Raven emailed with the good news that Michael and Valarie Coon, also friends and proprietors of The Inside Route and Casa de Cocinas, were leading one of their well-regarded culinary tours to Mexico City, I was among the first to hit the “yes” button.  The 3 day itinerary hit all of my urban appreciation buttons:  markets, museums and a hi/low mix of restaurants that would give us an overview of the food scene in D.F. (District Federale).  My fellow travellers were an affable, eclectic mix but united in our love of all things food:  conversation during the journey went back and forth between discussing their most recent visit to the famed French Laundry in Napa California to the joys of digging clams out of the beach in Maine. My kind of people.

Our 3 day trip could realistically only be an overview:  would you presume to know all the culinary and cultural  landscape of New York or London or Paris in just a few days, or even in a few visits?  Mexico City is the biggest city in the world, but as you stroll from café to boutique shop to museum in the desirable residential neighbourhoods of Polanco, Condessa, or Zona Rosa, it feels approachable and surprisingly human scale.  There are over 160 museums, one for every niche, including the new Mucho Mundo Chocolate Museum which naturally was on our agenda! And from taco stand to trendy bistro, the food is spectacular:

If anywhere could make the Paris and New York food scenes look stagnant, it’s Mexico City.  The nation’s cuisine has even been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – a global first.  July 13 BA High Life 

Here are a few of my  highlights.

MeroTero  Amsterdam 204. Colonia Condessa.  It ranked #26 out of  Latin America’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, and is one of only 5 Mexico City restaurants on that list.   The braised pork cheek with lentils was succulent and full of deep Unami flavour:  the warm almond cake was the best of three excellent desserts and will live in my gustatory memory for a long time.

Gabriela Cámara, the star restaurateur behind Mexico’s impossibly hip seafood shack Contramar, is tackling a new protein. Its name derived from the Spanish words for fish and bull, MeroToro is the Slow Food queen’s take on surf and turf. Still, expect a similar combination of refined food in an informal  setting. Cámara’s executive chef, Jair Téllez, combines the flavours of Baja with the best possible ingredients—admirer José Manuel describes the restaurant’s short seasonal menu as “Mexican cuisine in a Mediterranean style” (entrée, $15-$26)  Conde Nast Traveler

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El Huequito.  Bolivar 58

On an episode of “No Reservations”,  Anthony Bourdain  judged them “shockingly good” and “head & shoulders” above other tacos al pastor he has tasted.  Now all of us in the group, having read  at least “Kitchen Confidential”, conceded that while his arrogance is  palpable, his palate cannot be doubted.  The shaved pork was tender and succulent not greasy at all, the sauces were smartly tangy  and I pretty much ate everything on my plate. Yes, that entire plate.

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Maximo Bistrot Local. Tonala 133, Colonia Roma,  http://maximobistrot.cm.mx

The chef is Eduardo Garcia, formerly of the esteemed Pujol, and  he spent a stage at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin.  I have been to Le Bernardin for lunch and it was one of the finest meals that I have ever enjoyed anywhere.  I can still remember swooning over the personal box of macaroons. A very popular and busy bistro, Maximo experienced some infamy as a result of the spoiled daughter of a very senior bureaucrat  throwing a tantrum when denied her desired table. Her threats to have “my daddy close you down for health violations” were recorded on the smartphones of  disapproving dinners, and the aforementioned bureaucrat lost his job. Class tinged scandals aside, the food is sublime:   the asparagus with hollandaise, a poached egg and truffle was textbook in execution and exquisite in taste.  It is a classic bistro that really delivers on the promise of fresh food, sourced from the markets daily and prepared simply and carefully and perfectly.  Of all the places we dined at, this one is on “my must return to” list.

Aqua y Sal Cebicheria:  Compos Eliseos, 199-A Polanco.

So much of what passes for ceviche in Mexico is just cooked seafood in a sweet tomato sauce, which very likely started life as ketchup.   This popular restaurant offered a dizzying array of ceviche choices, from the Pacific coast to the Veracruz to the Yucatan, all with distinct and sophisticated flavours.  Ok, I’ll go back to this one too.

Cebiche Brunch

Cebiche Brunch

Markets:

We strolled throughout the Mercado San Juan, the so called “Chef’s Market” where we oohed and ahhed over the fresh earthy morels, caressed the baby vegetables (before we were gently told not to), and happily grazed on  plentiful free samples of aged manchego and Iberico ham.

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Our last 2 markets were my favourites:  first up, the fabulous Jamaica de Mercado  where I bought an armful of fragrant Casablanca lilies, 20 lavender tinged  roses and 2 bunches of astalomeria, all  for less than 20$. We marvelled at the range and quantity of flowers, the imaginative and massive arrangements, and wondered where they were going, who was buying them, and how did they move all of this product every day so it was fresh and fabulous every morning?  I could have stayed for another hour but I was filling up the back of the bus already. Flowers, like food, a personal weakness.

Our last stop was the  sprawling Nueva Viga Fish Market, the second largest in the world after Tokyo.  The variety was  overwhelming but on Michael’s advice, we stayed in one long aisle and went down to the end, taking note of products and prices before making our purchases on the way back.  For me,  2 kilos of fresh  head-on gigantic shrimp and 2 dozen small clams found their way into the ice packed coolers that the Coons thoughtfully provided.  3 hours later back in San Miguel, the clams were sweet and briny in a delicious  pasta al vongole.    The next day, the shrimps were marinated in a bath of olive oil, a little anise liquor, white wine, lots of garlic, lemon juice, coarse salt and a pinch each of sweet smoked Spanish paprika and red chilli flakes.  A couple of minutes on the plancha on each side and these beauties were bronzed and on the plate. I would have taken a photo but by the time we looked up from eating,  there was nothing but shells left 😉

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Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

My ability to take photos with my iPhone is pretty limited, so I enclose a photo gallery taken by my talented new friend Nancy Gardner.  Enjoy! And book a trip to DF!

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Fifteen years ago, I traveled to Mexico City as a jumping off point for my first genuine “on location” television commercial shoot.  I vividly recall our night-time flight into Mexico City:  it is  one of the most populous cities in the world, and  it seemed to go on forever, hills undulating with sparkling lights,  like an endless golden lame gown,.  We only stayed long enough to get the crew together, so I did not see anything more than the inside of a hotel room. (A business travel tale that many of you will recognize). 

Over the years, there never seemed to be reason enough to go back, and reports of random violence, swathes of slums and seriously poor air quality did not entice. But since I was on my way to the very pretty colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, it seemed  a good opportunity to spend a few days exploring the capital of Mexico.  

I was there for four days in February, and am  here today on my way back to Toronto. I can say in all sincerity, that it has been a delightful experience. Even if my expectations were much higher, I would still be pleased. No trace of the dreaded smog:  the skies are uniformly blue, the temperature a comfortable 20 during the day. The traffic is very heavy, but the cars respect pedestrians and as long as you observe the same care that you would in any major city, say New York or Paris, you are very secure. 

In fact you may even be safer than in other major cities:   there appears to be 5 or 6 armed private security guards on every block, and police and private security cars dominate the streets. Outside every fine restaurant, serious men in dark suits congregate, waiting for their patrons to exit.  It actually becomes a little difficult to navigate the sidewalks, with all the bulky SUV’s with black out glass parked close by. Private drivers and body guards abound, and I think it is a bit of a status symbol (not unlike in LA) to have a security entourage. 

The city began to charm me when I watched a lovely young women carefully make my café con leche and present it with a delicate flower stenciled on the cream.  Mexico City is not as elegant or as self-conscious as Barcelona, another outstanding Latin city.  But it does have that wonderful mix of ancient, old and modern that appeals to the urban explorer. 

The architecture is an eclectic mixture of nineteenth century interpretations of Spanish colonial, mid-century modern and truly outstanding leading edge design. It feels warm, edgy, exciting and familiar all at the same time. The city is constantly rebuilding itself, and in the process, it continues to discover major pieces of Aztec construction, razed by the conquistadors’ centuries ago. The atmosphere is vibrant, energetic, positive and modern.

For my first stop in February, I was situated in Polanco,  the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, or Rodeo Drive;  lots of Gucci and Armani to be found. Many beautiful women wander around, expensively dressed. Or is that expensive women ,  beautifully dressed? I guess it depends on who is paying the black American Express Card bill. American Express is well accepted here;  another sign that this is not your stereotypical cheap Mexican holiday destination. 

The city is really all about business, with a Latin accent. Every coffee shop is filled with groups of earnest men and women, congregating around lap tops, reviewing plans and negotiating deals. Business lunches are long drawn out affairs, usually ending way past four pm. Given that dinner is rarely before 9, this makes perfect sense.   Mexican business people  here seem to be less addicted to their cell phones and blackberries. They appear to prefer to talk to each other in person, over coffee, wine or just walking down the street. 

My one regret is that I have had mostly mediocre meals here, which is a shame in a city so food obsessed. Unfortunately, when you are eating alone, you don’t want a formal experience every day, nor are you willing to risk   your health at a roadside stand.  So I seek casual resto-bars which serve small tapas style portions,  allowing me to sample a broader variety of food.   Sadly many of the restaurants nearby my trendy hotel are really just up market bars, frequented by chain-smoking, elegantly thin women (a coincidence, I think not) So the food is not the main event.

 However, I did have one outstanding lunch at a local hangout. One of the city’s favourite dishes is “pastor”;  slightly spicy marinated pork that is slowly grilled much like a gyro, and served with small maize tortillas and five different and delicious salsas. The flavours were clear, bright and sharp.  If I could, I would leave all of my clothes and stuff the suitcases with jars of these incredible salsas and moles!  

Since few gringos tourists actually do come to Mexico City,  I am afraid that the infrastructure is not as well-developed as in most Western or even Eastern cities. There is one tour bus, that gives you a three-hour orientation to the city, but that’s about it.  I could not find a walking tour, or a cooking class, or casual Spanish lessons. The hotels can arrange tours of course, but I found most of them wanted to get you out of the city, not deeper into it.   

But since this is the capital of the country, there are many wonderful museums and galleries to explore. The Museum of Anthropology is truly one of the best in the world, offering an exhaustive history of early man, and of course,  of the diverse, rich civilizations that contribute to current Mexican culture. You could easily spend 3 hours there. Afterwards, you can continue your immersion in Mexico culture at the Museum of Contemporary Art which is just down the paseo.   

As I sit in my lovely hotel room (The Four Seasons proudly hangs a huge Canadian flag outside its grand entrance:  how can you not love that?), I am contemplating the stunning Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Washington DC in spring is famous for the glorious pink cherry blossoms that ring the Jefferson Memorial.  Mexico City in spring is awash in purple flowers on a canopy of huge trees that bloom up and down the major avenues and then carpet the city in mauve petals.  It is a lovely memory to keep of a city that has been so much more than I expected, and definitely not at all what I may have thought.

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