We thought we were lost. Perhaps had the wrong address. There was this little cafe on the corner. No tablecloths, no gleaming silverware, no Riedel crystal, no linen napkins. This couldn’t be it, could it? This sure didn’t look like the best restaurant in Mexico.

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But there, there on the awning, there is the logo. Maximo Bistrot. This must be it.

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The woman who seats us is dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and Converse sneakers. She is Gabriela Lopez Cruz, the co-owner with her husband and chef Eduardo Garcia. The chairs she sits us on are mesquite. The grain of the wood is great on the eyes but not so great, after a few minutes, under a bony behind.

The plates that arrive are mismatched. They look like the ones that came out of my parents’ china cabinet a couple of times a year. Only the patterns of pink roses and intertwined ivy have been mostly dishwashed away and there’s a large chip out of one.

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We order a couple of glasses of Cremant de Loire and have our first realization that luxury at Maximo Bistrot Local comes not so much from your surroundings but from what is placed in glasses, on plates and in bowls.

The menu can best be described as international. There are strong influences from France, perhaps from the chef’s early days working at Le Bernardin under Eric Ripert in New York. In an interview in Time Out Mexico, chef Garcia said, “That’s where I saw the magic of the kitchen is not just a stew, a protein or a vegetable, but the soul and heart of someone, combined with ingredients and technique.”

As well as the French influences, there are touches of Spain in the gazpacho, bacalao, grilled sardines and Iberico ham. There’s a bow to Italy with beef carpaccio and a mushroom risotto. And there are slight nods to Mexican cuisine throughout the menu.

We decide to start by ordering both of the soups with the usual planned barter and trade about halfway through.

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The gazpacho brings thoughts of a summer garden after a rain with one mouthful delivering tastes of cucumber and tomato, the next of celery and garlic. At the bottom of the bowl is buried treasure, a goose egg of burrata cheese thats flavor explodes into the broth when pierced by the side of the spoon. A hint of sherry gives the soup that extra little kick.

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Maximo is very much into seasonal and morels are very much in season. Some of the world’s best grow in Puebla and I’m guessing that was the home of the abundant quantity in the sopa de morillas. There were tastes of green onion in the broth and dime sized dots of truffle oil floated on top.

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Long ago when my waist was thin and my expense account was fat and I first dined at fancy French restaurants, the roast artichoke was on almost every menu and almost always on my plate. I was constantly fascinated how something that looked so ugly on the plate could look so sensuous going into a woman’s mouth. In those days it was usually served with a butter and sometimes a cheese sauce. At Maximo, the artichoke was served with a very garlicky and very good mayonnaise. Memories are made of food like this.

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Our other starter choice was something that’s so simple, something that fits into the “but I could make it so easily at home” category. But we felt it was important to try as it’s one of Maximo’s signature dishes. It combines asparagus, a poached egg, hollandaise and a few sprinkles of parmesan.

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When something is this simple it must be perfectly cooked…the asparagus softened but not soggy, the egg at the point where it has just changed from translucent to white, the sauce showing no signs of separation. The dish was perfectly cooked.

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There were a lot of enticements on the mains menu. The lobster poached in butter, the rare white sea bass in bouillabaise sauce, the free range wagyu steak, the pig’s head with mustard and apple, but, knowing that Maximo receives as many plaudits for its postres as its main courses, and having already been teased and taunted by the descriptions at the bottom of the menu, we decided to simply split a mushroom risotto.

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Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word simply. For the flavors were extraordinary. Fresh huitlacoche, provoleta (Argentina’s contribution to great cheeses), summer truffle and parmesan all intertwined through the creamiest long grain rice.

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We had no problem with the restaurant saving money using flea market find dishes but we did have problems with them hiring inexperienced waiters. I thought it might have been better to have our waiter open the first bottle of wine in his life at the bar, on a wine that was going to be sold by the glass, not at our table. Despite having two other waiters there to instruct him, the foil was a long struggle and the wine still splashed over the table with the splashes remaining there throughout the meal.

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The imaginatively selected wine list puts France at the top of the list with other contributions from Spain, Italy, Argentina, Chile and the United States. I wondered why Mexico was noticeably absent but our waiter couldn’t come up with an explanation.

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For the first time in Mexico, I saw a Fitou from the Southwest of France. The Château des Erles – Cuvée des Abrigans had lots of red fruit and a freshness to the flavor.

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After the risotto, we decided there was room for only one dessert. Which is very difficult when there are seven on the list. We spent a long time eying a plate at the table next to us that included chocolate mousse, maracuya ice cream and an almond tostada. I settled for a picture of it.

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When in doubt, choose the creme brulee is a Don Day rule. The menu described it as having white chocolate and mint but the fruit…grapes, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries…dominated the taste. The cream base and sugar crust were, like everything that day at Maximo, perfectly prepared.

Now, way back before I described the superb food at Maximo Bistrot Local, I referred to it as Mexico’s best restaurant. That opinion came from a little poll I did of San Miguel foodies before I left for Mexico City. I thought they’d choose one of the more trendy spots…Quintonil, Biko, Pujol or Contramara…but Maximo was the consensus winner.

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So is Maximo the best restaurant I’ve been to in Mexico City. Well, to be the best in my opinion involves a few things. Service is important and, to a lesser degree, so is ambience. Maximo isn’t the best looking restaurant I’ve visited in Mexico City. And the service was far from the best that I’ve experienced.

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The food, however, was extraordinarily good and the price ridiculously low. I’m not sure you could find a restaurant as good in any other world class city where two can eat for just over 1500 pesos, not including alcohol. So when that factor is included, Maximo Bistrot Local is very close to the best I’ve been to but not quite. And which restaurant do I think is Mexico City’s best? That will have to wait for another blog post.

Maximo Bistrot Local is located at Tonala 133 in Colonia Roma in Mexico City. They are open from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm.

A POSTSCRIPT

Someone told me recently that it takes at least three bribes to open a restaurant in Mexico City and three more to keep it open. So, even though this story about Maximo Bistrot and corruption is well known, particularly to foodies, I thought it was worth sharing for no other reason than it’s rare that the good guy wins. It is a translation of the original reports that appeared in the newspapers Milenio and El Pais.

On April 27, 2013, Andrea Benítez, the daughter of the head of Mexico’s Office of the Federal Prosecutor for the Consumer (PROFECO), Humberto Benítez Treviño, was involved in a scandal about abuse of power. Andrea arrived at Máximo Bistrot without a reservation and got into an argument with Gabriela García, demanding to be seated. Gabriela refused, stating that there was a list of people with reservations and she would have to wait. Andrea threw a tantrum, filmed by witnesses and widely circulated in Mexico, and the public gave her the nickname “Lady PROFECO”.

Andrea threatened Gabriela to close the restaurant, a power that PROFECO has. And indeed, later the same day, PROFECO inspectors closed the restaurant on what were widely seen as trumped-up reasons. The viral video exposed the abuse of power and there were wide calls for her father to step down. The head of the PRD political party asked for his resignation shortly thereafter.

On May 15, 2013, the Secretary of the Interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, dismissed Benítez by order of President Enrique Peña Nieto, considering that the scandal damaged the image of government authority. The scandal and its aftermath represented a small but significant milestone in the fight for transparency in Mexico’s political system.

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