Águila y Sol
Águila y Sol, by some accounts, is currently the best restaurant in Mexico City. I can see why that’s been said but since my repertoire only encompasses a fraction of the metropolis’s offerings I can’t personally concur. Like Pujol, this modern eatery plays with classic Mexican flavors and ingredients but is more grounded in tradition. Even the cavernous room felt a bit more staid, like an upscale hotel. The restaurant just moved to this location in the last few months so I wonder how it compares to the original spot.
You enter on the ground floor and take an elevator upstairs where your arrival is announced from podium to podium by staff donning earpieces. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that just didn’t seem very NYC. I have no idea if hosts and hostesses in L.A. walk around with wireless communication devices attached to their ears but I like to imagine that they do.
To lean on a recent discussion, Águila y Sol is more “mama” where Pujol is more “show-off.” And yes, chef Martha Ortiz Chapa is a woman. Also in light of the recent McNally/Bruni ladies manning kitchens flare up, it’s worth noting that many top restaurants in D.F. are female run. Mark Bittman wrote about another two just last month.
When the female half of the the youngish American couple seated next to us asked her boyfriend/husband how he’d heard about Águila y Sol he mentioned The New York Times. James was more irritated by this twosome than I was (usually I’m the one irked by little nothings) and swore he heard the words “Carroll Gardens” come from their mouths. If true, there is something grotesque about foodie Brooklynites (reluctantly lumping myself into that demo) clogging up the same restaurants miles from home. But at least I don’t gaze into my partner’s eyes all meal long while saying “I love you.” Thankfully, inoffensive, unromantic Canadians were seated on our other side.
Locals don’t show up until after 9pm. Part way through our evening, the chain-smoking twentysomethings started piling in. Tall skinny blonde Mexican girls with preppie Anglo-looking boyfriends who were probably Mexican too. They mostly drink and eat salads. I think this genre is called fresas, akin to American yuppies (a dated word I never use but whatever. Isn’t NYC completely teeming with wealthy under-30s? It must be a Gen Y fancying themselves as soulful and creative thing because I don’t sense the same disdain for these types that existed in the ‘80s). The staff was all shorter and browner (in the U.S. they just keep these guys in the back) and this seemed to be the case anywhere with $20+ entrees. I don’t want to be a class crusader, especially on vacation; it was particularly noticeable that’s all.
I was scared about taking photos after reading this missive from a stranger, but there wasn’t any trauma. I’m a super quick snapper (and it shows). Attempting to capture a dish with minimal blur is my only aim. Compensating for color distorting candlelight is beyond my grasp.
But the food; it’s quite good. Neither James nor I could decide if we preferred Águila y Sol or Pujol. The style is enticing in the sense that it’s food food. No tasting menus, crazy plating or avant-garde techniques. More like updated classics that would score higher on a Top Chef challenge.
I will say that we chose a wretched wine and I’m snob-free on the subject. Luckily, my cocktail made of jamaica (hibiscus—like Red Zinger Celestial Seasonings tea) and dusted with chile power was dazzling. I really wanted to try something Mexican and I suppose that’s what sommeliers are for. I kind of randomly picked a red on the lower end of the mid-range, just taking a chance. I want to say that the region was Jala but I’m finding no evidence of that on the internet and since the restaurant has no website I’m without a crutch. A full month has nearly passed since this dinner so details are cloudy.
We both ordered ceviches for starters. James had one of the specials and I didn’t want to copy so I chose another version from the regular menu. His was spicier and more exciting. Mine was fresh with clean flavors enhanced by cubes of cucumber and plantain chips. I don’t know what the black seeds sprinkled over top were. Where’s Mexican Menupages when I need it?
This was the man’s meal (except I ordered it). As I eventually learned arranchera is charcoal grilled meat and is wildly popular in Mexico City. There’s even a chain called Arranchera that serves sandwiches on hefty wooden boards. This was a Lincoln Log approach to steak that my intentionally bald, bespectacled, beige-suited dining neighbor (and possible real life neighbor) also ordered and said looked like the woody toys.
On the far left is a salsa that was unbelievably hot; I really hadn’t anticipated such fire from an upscale restaurant so after my first blob my mouth was a little shocked. It seems like chefs here tend to tone down strong flavors in proportion to the price. There’s also a pile of pickled onions, jalapeños and shredded dried chiles that I want to say are guajillo. I’m always swayed by sides and one of the main reasons I ordered this dish was because I wanted to know what frijoles chino (Chinese refried beans) were. They’re hidden in the little tortilla cup and covered with wild streams of fried potato. They just tasted like refried beans. I thought maybe they were going to mash black beans or edamame (yes, Japonés not Chino but you never know). I’m not complaining.
Ok, I nearly lost my mind when our meal ended with a freaking molten cake. As you may or may not know, these gooey clichés are the bane of my culinary existence. I truly wish I had a menu to jog my memory but I swear even with my mediocre Spanish comprehension, there was no mention warmth or baked or hot, any clues. The words chocolate, caramel and hibiscus caught my attention. I knew it was going to be a cake; perhaps I should’ve just assumed the worst. For the record, it tasted wonderful and chocolaty but I wanted something more inventive.
These were our post-dessert treats. James thought the waiter said the wrapped goodies were ensconced in rice paper. After no tasty dissolving on the tongue, we discovered it was merely tissue paper. All I can remember is that the brown nubs in the back were crazy salty and sour and might’ve been tamarind paste coated in salt. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a nice parting gift or not.
Águila y Sol * 127 Emilio Castelar, Mexico City, Mexico