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There wouldn’t be much of a revived culinary scene in Mexico City without chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. A kind of recipe detective and writer of several well-regarded Mexican cookbooks, including the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, he has been even more successful in his restaurant ventures. After his humble Café Azul y Oro at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) received rave reviews, he expanded on its concept – a menu of traditional regional Mexican cuisine based on sometimes forgotten recipes he had gathered through his field research – by opening a larger restaurant in the hip Condesa neighborhood in 2010. Two years later, he opened a third location in a beautifully restored building in the Centro Histórico, which has proven to be his most successful venture yet.

Walking through the main entrance alone offers a sight to behold. The 17th-century building, once the palatial home of colonial-era nobility, has ancient, carved wooden doors that open to a high-ceilinged hall that ends in a beautiful, open-air courtyard filled with trees. The trees have lights hanging from them, providing a warm glow over the dining tables below, while the treetops themselves are carefully manicured to provide a thick green roof for shade and to shield diners from foul weather. If that fails, there is an electric roof ready to close with the push of a button. Exposed brick and stone walls, carved stone columns surrounding the space and thick wood tables complete the look and create an inviting ambiance.

On the tables, small, hand-carved bowls, made from calabash gourds, are found beside each place setting. As our waiter explained, the bowls are the traditional containers used in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for drinking mezcal, of which the restaurant carries several different types. The menu itself is only a few pages long but contains a list of both classic and updated dishes from around Mexico (all at reasonable prices, considering the eatery’s somewhat upscale vibe).

Azul offers a diverse selection of starters, including the tasty tamalito de frijol, a small bean tamal bathed in a tomato-based salsa and sprinkled with queso fresco; the fresh ceviche verde, a white fish marinated in a cilantro, parsley and organic mint dressing; and the sopa de tortilla oaxaquena, or Oaxacan tortilla soup, made with avocado, chipotle peppers, chicken and fresh cream. From this delicious introduction, we moved on to the Especialidades. At Azul, the sauce makes the dish in many cases, and there is a nice selection of items with moles and salsas.

Our favorites included the manchamanteles con pato, a stew-like dish made with roasted duck meat and caramelized fruits; the cochinita pibil, shredded pork meat in piquant Xnipek sauce (similar to pico de gallo, made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and charred habanero peppers) from the Yucatan and served with fresh tortillas for making tacos; and the enchiladas de jamaica organica, a vegetarian dish in which a filling of hibiscus flowers and vegetables is rolled up inside corn tortillas and covered in a light tomato and chipotle chili sauce. All were as delicious as they were unique, representative of a kind of cooking that’s hard to find anywhere else in town. We washed everything down with a mango margarita, an amazingly smooth and rich mezcal-based cocktail served in a glass that had chili powder on the rim for a spicy counterpoint and with some roasted coffee beans on the side that played the role of a crunchy and funky chaser.

Azul Centro’s desserts, meanwhile, more than hold their own against the sublime main courses. We were especially taken by the pastel de tres leches al rompope, a classic cake that gets its name from the three milks used to make it: condensed, evaporated and either cow or goat’s milk. The rompope is a thick, creamy alcohol-infused custard, similar to eggnog, that was served in a shot glass alongside the cake and then drizzled on top of it tableside. It’s the kind of dish that seems emblematic of Muñoz Zurita’s cooking: unfussy yet fine-tuned, managing to be both traditional and original at the same time. Case closed.

Address: Isabel la Católica 30, Centro Histórico (ground floor)
Telephone: +52 55 5510 1316
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 9am-1:30am; Sun. 9am-6pm
(photos by Ben Herrera)
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Ben Herrera

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