For a long time it was only beaches and ancient pyramids that drew travellers to Mexico. But now a global audience is being seduced by its modern capital city, made up of grand boulevards, sizzling street-food stalls and passionate citizens. A visit to Mexico City can be an assault on the senses, but a city with 22 million inhabitants isn’t about subtlety or quiet. Yet, Mexico City – or D.F. (for Distrito Federal) as locals call it – remains among the country’s most stable and safest areas. The city has grown into a cultural icon where creativity and innovation thrive. It’s as inspiring as it is stupefying, and it all starts with the cuisine.
The bold flavours of Mexico are not an unknown entity. But if you’re thinking that the taco or the burrito represents the peak of the cuisine – think again. Mexico City is the ultimate playground for chefs looking to add to the long legacy of the national fare, with restaurants like Enrique Olvera’s Pujol (Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco; +52 55 5545 3507; www.pujol.com.mx) making the upper reaches of the annual World’s 50 Best rankings. Coming in at 16th place, the highest for a Mexican kitchen, securing a table in Olvera’s chic Polanco dining room is something you need to plan well in advance. But once your turn finally comes, prepare to be delighted by some of the most inventive Mexican dishes you’ll ever have the pleasure of devouring.
Pujol in Mexico City
Olvera is known for the unexpected, where modern-day ingredients are confidently paired with unusual ancient Mexican flourishes. One of his most popular dishes is the elotitos tatemados starter, which is served in a gourd-like bowl that when opened unleashes a fragrant smoke. Inside, lightly charred skewered baby corn is given a flavour punch with a coffee-and-chilli mayo, and finished with a dusting of chicatanas – flying ants from Oaxaca. Insects have always played a major role in pre-Hispanic Mexican cooking. Here, Olvera uses it to add a kick to the dish.
If you insist on eating tacos – do it at Pujol. One of Olvera’s signatures, taco de langosta features succulent lobster flavoured with beans and sausage from Valladolid, a city in Mexico’s Yucatan, and set atop a green tortilla. Olvera likens his obsession for authenticity to the passion of sushi master Jiro Ono, the owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a three-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. “Like Jiro dreams of sushi in his restaurant in Japan, we dream of having perfect tortillas to make authentic tacos here in Mexico,” he says.
Biko Mexico City
It’s not only Olvera that’s lighting up the local food scene in Mexico City. Mikel Alonso’s Biko (Presidente Masaryk 407, Polanco; +52 55 5282 2064, www.biko.com.mx), awarded the 37th spot on this year’s World’s 50 Best, is being championed for a menu that cleverly marries Basque and Mexican cuisine with dishes that are as whimsical as they are flavourful. Despite the seemingly disparate culinary combination, plates that come out of this kitchen, which Alonso shares with his partners Bruno Oteiza and Gerard Bellver, are all about subtle fusion; it turns out the culinary profiles of Mexico and the Basque Country, where Alonso and Oteiza are both from, combine beautifully. “We are looking for the best of both worlds,” Alonso explains. “Our reality is that today, we are from both sides, and we don’t want to choose between them.”
Another dish, a preparation of grilled corn with some cheese and quelite, an indigenous wild grass, is according to Alonso, inspired by Oaxaca, another food-obsessed region in southern Mexico. Others are more difficult to describe, like the whimsical foie gras candyfloss and the chiffon-like milk origami, both of which are so uniquely Biko.
For fashion, Lago DF (Emilio Castelar 209, Polanco; +52 55 6550 2059; www.lagodf.com) has only been around since February, but it’s already become a cult favourite among the city’s elite for locally crafted clothing, accessories and other design tchotkes. The small Polanco boutique packs in an inventory of tightly edited and covetable pieces. Some feature modern and streamline aesthetics while others reference the traditionally colourful Mexican style. “Contrast is often a word that describes Mexico,” explains Lago DF owner, Regina Barrios. “Folklore and modernity, richness and poverty, bright and sunny in the morning, gloomy and rainy later in the day. I guess the exposure to such extreme situations moulds our creativity and imagination.”
Shopping at Lago DF is mandatory
While Barrios’s boutique stocks a select range of international pieces, the made-in-Mexico designers tend to stand out. Take up-and-coming designer Guillermo Vargas’s womenswear line 1/8 Takamura – a reference to one of his great grandfathers who came to Mexico from Japan – that takes classic silhouettes in traditional materials like cotton and wool and transforms them with fashion-forward elements that lift each garment to the next level, whether it’s exaggerated draping or origami-like pleats. Mexican fashion may not have yet garnered a global following, but Vargas, whose atelier is based in the hipper-than-hip La Roma neighbourhood (Córdoba 67-7; +52 5535 3431), represents the next generation of the country’s tastemakers.
If there is a premier tastemaker in the greater design world in Mexico, it’s Emmanuel Picault, the France-born impresario who is involved in pretty much anything worth getting involved with in this town. Picault first put this name on the map with Chic by Accident (www.chicbyaccident.com), an appointment-only design emporium, interiors gallery and shop tucked inside a 1920s’ mansion in La Roma. Inside, you’ll find a collection of items Picault has sourced from all over the country: a velvet couch, a mid-century modern table or vintage Luis Barragán chairs.
Along with French architect Ludwig Godefroy, Picault expanded his sphere of influence when the pair started designing what would eventually become some of the city’s hottest venues. The duo retrofitted a home once occupied by Mexican communist party founder M.N. Roy into a glamorous nightclub – also named M.N. Roy (Mérida 186, La Roma; www.mnroyclub.com). Tucked inside a nondescript house, the façade remains dramatically decayed but inside, Godefroy and Picault created a tile-covered wood pyramid where revellers dance the night away. Black basalt walls and leather chairs give the space a thoroughly sexy vibe, perfect for La Roma’s pretty young things.
See the city from a 'special' angle at the St. Regis Mexico City
There are plenty of other bars and lounges in Mexico City, but travellers can also thank Godefroy and Picault for finally giving them a place to sleep in La Roma. It might be D.F.’s most happening enclave, but La Roma had a surprising lack of accommodation until 2014, when the pair launched boutique hotel La Valise. Like Picault’s other projects, there’s an opulence to bedding down for the night in La Valise. Maybe it’s the mix-and-match décor that feels at once modern and Meso-American (think oversized floral vases sharing floor space with mesh hammocks and low-lying beds).
Maybe it’s the whimsy in the form of the La Terraza suite, fitted with a king-size bed that can roll from inside the bedroom to the terrace so you can sleep under the stars. Or maybe it’s just that Picault designs with such unabashed playfulness that everything feels larger than life. Picault was born in Normandy but he insists that by the time he was nine he knew he would eventually end up in Mexico. “I can’t remember if it was a documentary or an encyclopaedia but I always knew that I belonged here,” he explains. And today, it’s hard to imagine Mexico City without him. “Being free in Mexico City means having the capacity to keep your eyes and ears truly open to whatever you see,” Picault philosophises. “And what do you see in Mexico City? Chaos, violence, earthquakes, humour, beauty, attention and human warmth, curiosity, and a bit of risk. Thanks to that, a city can start to be exciting.”
Modern elegance at the W Hotel Mexico City