During the planning stages for my first journey to one of the world’s most daunting urban wildernesses, my traveling companion and I decided that a lunch at Quintonil, regarded almost universally as one of Mexico City’s best restaurants, just hours before our return flight back to Guadalajara would be a fitting way to end the trip, a gilded cherry atop our otherwise (fairly) fiscally cautious five-day blitz into the beating heart of Mexico.
But while far from a loss by conventional standards, our meal there wasn’t the goose-bump-raising, lower-lip-gnawing experience we had hoped it would be. Instead, it offered the teasing potential for the inspired and unforeseen, while not quite arriving at either.
The question to ask yourself when confronted by disappointment in any walk of life is whether culpability aught to be assigned to inflated expectations or at the feet of whatever entity has, from your point of view, fallen short of the mark. A further question to ask yourself, if said walk of life happens to be restaurant-related, is which – or how many – of today’s many P.R. circus clowns were manning the helium tank where said expectations were ballooned out of proportion, and which belong to the restaurant itself?
That brings up a whole other predicament: how to tell where a dining establishment’s own P.R. trickery ends and the food media’s begins? It’s like trying to distinguish oil from egg in the bulbous dollop of creme fraiche quivering atop a small prominence of dehydrated tuna heart shavings.
All this diner knows is, if Quintonil hadn’t appeared several years in a row on Pellegrino’s vaunted Top 50 lists (both in the Latin America and World categories), or been touted as the city’s best restaurant by some (Pujol be damned), or cost a small fortune, my companion and I wouldn’t have walked away hours later feeling somewhat hoodwinked.
But now that I’ve lambasted Quintonil’s overall failure to delivery on an exaggerated promise, I’ll attempt to keep things balances and mention the highlights of the meal, which were like glints of light in a vast, dark cave suggesting the imminence of the surface … which prove to be on further inspection the illusory emanations of a cluster of spiteful glow worms.
Come to think of it, the bulk of the dishes brought out by a well-oiled-and-informed team of grave, tastefully dressed waiters and runners were along the lines of interesting failures, such as a small bowl of nopal cactus, the Jenga-like pile of moist, dark-green spongy tiles lapped on all sides by its own juice. It was an attempt at flavor concentration, an intentional redundancy designed to magnify the flavor of the staple succulent. And a successful attempt at that. The only problem is, the taste of nopal itself isn’t overly remarkable, so bringing it into sharper focus seems an exercise in futility, like hoping an eight-year-old’s recorder recital will be improved by moving the microphone closer to to the young player’s fumbling, sweaty fingers.
Then there were courses whose constituent ingredients promised far more than the resultant product, such as one early in the afternoon that paired pata de mula clam with huitlacoche, a delectable fungus that sprouts from ears of corn which occupies an almost holy place in the field of Mexican gastronomy. The marriage between these two comely elements - one earthbound, the other practically embodying the sea in all its glorious brininess – proved awkwardly arranged, one whose wedding night congress resulted in coitus interruptus.
The two desserts capping off the tasting, on the other hand, achieved to a greater extent the delight in the unusual and unpredictable attempted to little avail by the savory courses.
Dessert number one was a visually modest brown and blonde-colored pile of what looked like clods of earth, which in actuality were “stones” of guanabana, pink peppercorn gel and caramelized white chocolate.
The second dessert – and final course – was an ice cream made from ejotes amarillos (a long yellow bean) accompanied by a corn custard and crystalized squash blossoms — weird but strangely addicting, and, like it’s predecessor, a study in contrasting but complimentary textures.
In retrospect, one of the most notable progressions concerned our evolving attitudes towards the food, rather than the food itself. All during the meal, such were our expectations for the meal’s transcendent quality that we both found ourselves complimenting dishes that on later reflection we realized were limp and underwhelming. We had somehow become apologists for a fine-dining experience whose shrug-inducing nature we couldn’t quite cop to until we had paid our wince-inducing bill and arrived after a short subway ride in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, out of the reach of that insular spell that places like Quintonil cast over its guests, one which seems to whisper, “Something is wrong with you if you don’t enjoy this, an unforgettable oasis in the desert of your miserable plebeian life.”
Quintonil, while no slouch in this game of high echelon knosh, is far from being what it thinks it is. Admittedly, I’ve come to this harsh assessment after just one visit, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel like rolling the dice a second time and betting my time and money on what would most likely end up being another alluring come-on ending in little more than frustrated dry humping. I’d opt instead for a taco stand – whose name escapes me – on Calle Londres, just west of Calle Nizza in the Zona Rosa of Mexico City. Their al pastor huaraches are off the hook.