Nicos

Established in 1957, Nicos is one of the oldest restaurants in Mexico. It is an amazing restaurant nestled between the once working class neighborhoods of San Bernabe, Naval, San Alvaro and Cobre de Mexico. By Mexican standards it is an expensive place and the presentations are certainly of fine dining level but the atmosphere is cozy and very family-style, so none of the uptight pretentiousness that usually come with fine dining experiences.

It is also a family run operation: the mom (Maria Elena Lugo Zermeño) is still around chatting with patrons and greeting guests and the son (Gerardo Vazquez Lugo) is the Chef and took over for his dad, the founder and Chef who died a few years ago. The best time to eat there is lunch (in fact it closes at 7pm every day). According to Google Maps it opens at 1.30 but at 1pm 2-3 tables were already taken and by 2pm it was completely full. So get there early or reserve ahead of time.

Among other distinguishing factors, the Nicos’ family pride themselves on employing and supporting local farmers and families. For example, their Mole is specifically made for them by a family who does just that and when the Chef says that something is “from” a certain region he actually means that he gets that ingredient from that particular region and not that it is originally from there but then produced somewhere else.

I don’t know if anyone who goes there gets the whole “spiel” and gets the attention we received from the Chef. I was in very good company on this day as we went there with the founder of “Gastromotiva” David Hertz and his Mexico City team. If you don’t know Gastromotiva you should check them out online at gastromotiva.org: they are a great non-profit based in Brazil and Mexico who give scholarships to kids from poor families and teaches them to cook and then assists them with job placements in the best restaurants of these cities. …Changing the lives of people through food… We were also joined by David’s friend and professional food journalist Gabriela Renteria (who writes about food for “National Geographic”, “Food and Wine” and other publications) who is incredibly passionate about food in a way that is inspiring to me and who’s been writing about food in a professional way for 20 years, way before food blogs and “schmucks” like me did so 😉 Gabriela was a friend of the Chef and knows all the best restaurants and is very involved in sustainability projects so we definitely got special attention and treatment I must admit.

The first thing you are greeted with is the most amazing salsa making operation. Having guacamole made for you by the side of the table is no novelty, but having salsa made by hand for you is a new level of customization and experience. Our waiter explained all the ingredients and asked us whether we wanted certain ingredients (like onions) and how spicy we wanted it. We had two salsas made, a green and a red one.

Another one of the side dishes is the “Cecina” which looks like chicharron (roasted pig skin) but isn’t. It’s actually salted and air dried beef cut super thin, so it becomes crispy like a paper bag.

And of course there is guacamole also made by the side of the table with the freshest avocados.

To start the meal and cleanse the palate there is a jicama lollipop with spices (jicama is a starchy Mexican root vegetable). It’s like eating a type of radish and it’s refreshing and crunchy.

The first appetizer consisted of these huge blue corn husks that were covered by a fungus that only grows during the rainy season. These husks are grilled and cooked over fire and then cut into small pieces and served with blue corn tortillas so you can make your own little tacos with the ingredients you like.

We proceeded to receive a white fish roll (dorado I believe). The presentation is like a Japanese maki roll but instead of rice there were slices of avocado.

The next dish consisted in a tortilla and a ball of paste made of mole and other ingredients. It is slightly spicy and has the consistency of peanut butter or squashed chestnut pâté. You spread it on your tortilla with the butter knife and eat it with those molasses-like drops you see on the side.

The next dish consisted in an off the menu item that the Chef tested on us. It was sustainably caught shrimp that was specifically trapped with the old school fishing cages, rather than by scraping the bottom of the ocean. It was grilled and served with a green vegetable leaf and a slice of a radish-type vegetable. It was good but nothing to write home about. What’s nice is that the head of the shrimp was also cooked to crispy perfection and served on the side with some habanero mayonese, which means that no part of the shrimp is discarded, something I appreciated very much.

The next course consisted of a sunny side egg served on top of a bed of vegetables and mole.

Since we had asked for a tasting of moles, the next dish consisted of the green mole made out of pumpkin seeds and served with an avocado slice, several other nuts and some greens. It was nice and delicate but not the best mole I’ve ever had.

When we got to the chocolate mole things got elevated! This is the experience I had been waiting for. I’m no mole expert but I would say that along with the one from Casa Merlos this is one of the best I’ve had. It was served with a ring of onion, some queso fresco and some greens. Very good!

At this point we were all very very full and asked for mercy… so we didn’t even look at the dessert menu (something I now regret 😉

The Chef however brought out some palate sweetening treats under a glass bell: one kind that was like a coconut meringue and the other that was like a soft jelly of the same kind that is sold on the street by many ladies.

Being Italian and being an Italian espresso lover, connoisseur and snob, it has been strangely very hard (in fact impossible) to get a good espresso in Mexico but I thought I’d give it a try here and hope for the best. I could tell you it was the best I had in Mexico but it failed the test regardless. The texture was more like Turkish coffee (very grainy) and somewhat bitter in spite of the splash of milk.

I should mention that we’ve been eating for over 3 hours and this whole time the mezcal had been coming and flowing at the table in same or larger quantities than the water. I don’t drink but people seem to really appreciate the quality of the mezcal and allegedly this restaurant is known for their excellent selection of Mezcal.

After lunch the waiter brought out some hot tea with lime and added a splash of rum. He explained that this is called “teporocho” (also the word used to describe a drunk) and that in the old days people would order tea for 8 pesos and ask for a splash of this alcohol for an extra 2 pesos and that this is where the name comes from.

Pictured is the Chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo himself standing to the right of the food journalist Gabriela Renteria.

This was definitely a remarkable meal, and one that lasted 4 hours!!! It’s no wonder the Chef is a keen supporter of the Slow Food movement. So keep that in mind if you plan to visit 🙂

One thing I should mention is that when you walk out of the restaurant, to the right, across the street is the food store “La Nicolasa” which is owned and operated by the restaurant and offers some of the foods and ingredients used to make the dishes for sale. Think of it as a fair trade store with locally sourced ingredients.

On a side note, the fanciest part of the whole restaurant are the bathrooms and this slightly S/M leather and fur chair suspended by chains guarding their entrance corridor seemed so out of context. Not that it matters, we all found it amusing 😉

Check out and book at nicosmexico.mx

Officine Degli Apuli

Great restaurant of Apulian specialties in the heart of Bologna.

Often times restaurants that offer meat, fish and pizza in the same place are not that great or not that great at all three of them. Not the case here.

I’ve been going back to this place almost every year and the quality is consistent. I’ve been there with just a few people and with large groups of 15-20 people on a busy night and service can sometimes be a bit slow but the food is amazing.

On my last visit we’ve had a mixture of seafood and pizza.

The cold and hot seafood appetizer was beautifully presented and a great balance of flavors and textures. The cold part includes tuna tartare, caramelized red onions, squid with zucchini, baby shrimps in tomatoes:

You can order a real burrata cheese appetizer separately. It comes from Andria (where the best burrata is from) and this was one of the best burratas I’ve had outside of Puglia.

The hot appetizers includes “pepata di cozze” (which are mussels baked with bread crumbs and lemon) and are a specialty of Taranto.

Jumbo shrimps in warm tomatoes sauce:

Squid ink pasta:

Linguine with clams:

Paccheri pasta with Ricciola (yellowtail) and cherry tomatoes:

Octopus on a bed of fava beans purée and chicory:

Pizza “Martinese” with stracciatella cheese and capocollo meat:

Almond Semifreddo dessert:

Pistachio Semifreddo restaurant:

Amaya

Amaya is one of the new restaurants in Mexico City and it’s in one of these neighborhoods that used to be sketchy but are becoming more popular and, shall we say, hipsterish. In fact it’s right across the street from the Parker Lenox jazz club / night club.

Their menu changes daily and they have a large wine list that includes wines from the no-sulphate movement and they also sell wine in case you try something you like.

On my visit our party tried 5-6 different things and everything was delicious.

Tostada de Ceviche. Delicious.

Salad with eggplant hummus. Very delicate.

Aguachile. Like a ceviche in small cold soup. Delicious.

Grilled octopus on a bed of artichoke purée. Super tender.

Chirimoya pannacotta with mandarin sorbet and persimmon. Exquisite.

El Califa

When famous Pujol chef Enrique Olvera craves some tacos he goes to Taqueria El Califa! That says it all! This is my tacos place of choice, in Mexico City and in the world! I come here every time I am in Mexico! There are 10 locations across the city, they deliver until 4am and they are open until 4am so you really have no excuses to miss it. This is the perfect late night joint (I’ve been there for lunch at noon and was the only one and I’ve been there for dinner at 2am and it was packed!) and on top of it all it is super affordable like most things in Mexico!

The presentation is often underwhelming but the flavors are all there!

Things not to miss are the tacos al pastor (with pineapple of course), the queso fundido (with Rajas or with mushrooms), the Chicarrón de queso (to be eaten with the onions and cilantro side you get), the Gaona taco, the Rib-Eye taco and so much more. They also have very good Horchata drinks and fresh juices like orange with chia seeds…

Here’s what I had for my lonesome noon lunch today:

Cosme

I started taking pictures for this food blog idea years ago and the first restaurant I did it at was Pujol, in Mexico City.

The same famed Pujol chef Enrique Olvera then opened Cosme in New York and so I had to try it and in doing so I feel like I have almost come full circle, in a way 😉

Cosme is a much more lively, sceney place than Pujol (which is classier, quieter, more dimly lit, more elegant and with an older crowd, at least the night I visited). It’s in the Flatiron District and you can sit at the tables in the back, at the bar in the front or in the lounge chairs of the entrance/foyer area, the menu is the same, the attitude and surrounding company changes a lot.

We tried mostly seafood appetizers. The scallops were good but the radish, but the giant jicama (yam bean root) shavings it came with were a bit overwhelming, especially visually, as they covered everything. The Uni tostada with bone marrow salsa was really good and, most notably, the Fluke with ants and sesame were the absolute winner!

The octopus memela with black beans, salsa verde and queso fresco was great as a dish but would have not been as remarkable without the bed or flavors around the tentacles.

Considering this should be THE Mexican spot in NY I expected a lot more from the herb guacamole, which was underwhelming and a bit bland.

The corn tempura softshell crab with shishito mole and tomatoes was probably the best entrée (and by that I mean main course… another misappropriated and misused word of the new English language).

Eins Unter Null

What sounds like Rammstein song title is instead the name of an exquisite new restaurant in Berlin, in fact, probably one of the best new restaurants in Berlin. Smack down in the middle of Berlin's Mitte, EinsUnterNull already received their first Michelin star so I'd recommend going while you still can get in.

Given the city's affordability one can still enjoy an inventive, adventurous, multi-course luxurious lunch or dinner for half of what this meal would cost in NYC, for example.

The 5 course lunch menu was only 45 Euros and there is also a 3 course option for 29 and a 4 course for 37.
Dinner is much more expensive and starts at 82 Euros.

Eins Unter Null means "One Below Zero", and that's because their main dining hall is in the basement. However I went for lunch and the downstairs was closed so I was seated on the ground floor with sunlight and a view of the street.

The style of the restaurant and the kitchen is very modern and minimalistic, lots of wood (tables, chairs and even some utensils) almost Dutch or Nordic I would say.

The kitchen is in full view but behind a wall of glass so you can observe without being bothered by the noise. The place is actually very quiet. The staff is obviously very nice but very knowledgeable. Ask for the Italian hostess/waitress Martina who is also an accomplished musician and works here because when she ate there "the place blew her mind", she said!

The food was incredible indeed and the menu is so interesting.

The absolute winner for me was the so called "Mushroom Bread with onion blossoms and linseed oil", basically a layer of super thinly sliced mushrooms that smell so fresh you can imagine the moss and the trees. But the rest of the menu was as imaginative as it was delicate as it was tasty.

Even the desserts were delicious, from the crumbly one to the beet root chocolate cookies.

This place will be the first restaurant I go to when I return to Berlin.

Mr Taka Ramen

I’m always a seeker of good pizza, good espresso and good ramen, although I am not nearly as experienced or picky about the latter as I am about the former two.

Opened a little over a year ago by a Japanese owner, Mr Taka (admittedly not a great name) is the NY outpost of a Tokyo establishment of the same owner(s) which bears a different name, thankfully. The NY location is sunny, bright, open and feels pretty spacious even though it only has 4-6 tables and two counters (whole restaurant probably seats 25-30 people max). 

Ever since discovering Mr Taka, in NYC’s Lower EastSide, I’ve been taking all my japanese friends and clients there to see and hear their reactions and everyone seems to love it, which makes me feel good about my approval and love for this place.
Today I took a Tokyo rock band of 6 native japanese musicians here, so it was a great opportunity to take pictures of a few different bowls as well as hear their opinions, which were all very positive (although one of them said “special”, which sounds a bit like a lost-in-translation translation of when Americans say “interesting”… hmm).

Rafael

As I’ve stated before in other posts, one of the many great things about travelling to foreign countries with weak currencies is that you can have amazing meals at a fraction of what they would cost in the US or Europe.

In Bogotá Colombia one such meal was at Rafael, a Peruvian restaurant with Lima-inspired meat and fish dishes as well as pasta and desserts. The bill came in at little under $50/person, but that’s including cocktails, wine, coffees and digestives, so really without drinking this could have easily been an incredible $30 meal!

Of course we started with pisco sours for the table, quickly followed by maracuya and lulo juices for me (the designated driver) and Argentinian Malbec wine for my friends and co-workers.


And for food of course we started with two different ceviche appetizers (of which the traditional version ruled over the other warm type), some pulpo alla gallega and fish cakes (which the waiter brought two orders of without us having asked for that).

For my main course I had a fluffy white fish  (the menu was only in Spanish so I wasn’t sure of the name) prepared in a typical Peruvian way (although the bed of rice in a green sauce didn’t convince me, but the baby scallops made up for). 

Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the main courses of my fellow diners but I can assure you the presentations were impeccable and the food was delicious according to everyone’s account (and I should mention that on this night two of my fellow diners were accomplished french chefs).

For dessert we ordered the typical Peruvian dessert called Sospiro, which came in an amazing spring-looking mousse/sauce over slices of the squishy-textured local guanabana fruit and a bed of dulche de leche emulsion. The second dessert are caramelized pears with a caramel praline slice and a vanilla-based fruity sauce. Both desserts came with small leaves of basil and berries.

Stay away from the coffee! Colombia has unfortunately never had good espresso (even though they produce great beans) but this place is definitely the proof of that. We ordered espressos and got what in Italy would have been a below par bad, bitter, way too watery and way too long coffee so we sent them back and asked for espresso ristretto and got the right amount of coffee but still way below par bad, bitter, watery coffee without the foam that comes from the right water pressure. Avoid coffee here at all costs if your standards are as high as mine for espresso.

Other than a couple of small hiccups with the service (like bringing two appetizers and charging us for it, charging us for a drink we didn’t order etc) this was a great meal at an affordable price that’s definitely worth a visit. 

Sauvage

On the south side of the river, Sauvage is a great spot where for less than €50/person you can have a meal in a casual setting that would cost twice that in a more formal setting. Great wine list too!

If you go to the bathroom in this place you have to walk through the kitchen and you’ll be left wondering how they can make this amazing food in what is possibly the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen (smaller than an East Village apartment kitchen!!!)

The menu changes daily but I highly recommend the fois gras appetizer and the bonito appetizer. The place is famous for its sweet bread entre but the lamb is very good too!

One of the most generous portions of Fois Gras I’ve ever been served.

Bonito is basically a japanese tuna tartare. And this is as good as they come. Served in onions, coriander and in a sweet sauce made with some kind of black currant berries. Amazing!

Cochon (Pork) was very hearthy and well cooked.

Sweet bread, the place’s specialty, is cooked to perfection. Simple but better than anywhere else I’ve ever had sweet bread.

Their Faisselle cheese dessert is also very good. Strained raw milk cheese with citrus slices and sauce.

Menu changes daily.

The tiny tiny kitchen, unbelievable!

Saturne

Possibly one of the best 9-course dinners I’ve had in Paris.
Reservations are a must and expect to be there for 3 hours.
Carte Blanche menu (you don’t need to pick anything, just tell them if you have any dietary restrictions) and set price of €85 without wine and €150 with wine (cheese and water are extra). If you are into wine they have a wine menu to die for with some of the best (hardest to find and most expensive bottles). You can do the wine pairing menu where every course comes with a pairing or you can get a bottle from their menu.

The highlights were the raw tuna with oven-dried blood oranges (one of the best raw tuna renditions ever!) and a dessert consisting of mandarin sorbet sitting atop some meringue crumbles, a cloud of a frozen solid mousse made with the inside of a squash seeds, some sugar glazed squash seeds underneath and a bed of squash mousse at the very bottom: something of a superior originality and taste!

Mini brioche with cheese mousse (sorry about the lines in the picture, some weird artifact of the lighting of this restaurant).

Asparagus in a leaf.

A clam and an an oyster hide underneath a mouse of vegetables.

The superior raw tuna with blood oranges that had to be desiccated in the oven.

Cod with clams and white asparagus.

Masterfully cooked juicy duck on a bed of spinach, peas and avocado mousse.

Unexpectedly hard goat cheese and a salad.

That’s the mandarin sorbet sitting atop some meringue crumbles, a cloud of a frozen solid mousse made with the inside of a squash seeds, some sugar glazed squash seeds underneath (that’s the dark/black stuff you see in the picture) and a bed of squash mousse at the very bottom: something of a superior originality and taste!

Warm chocolate mousse and cold hazelnut ice cream under a layer of crumbled oven roasted berries and chocolate.