Ricardo Munoz and Azul y Oro in Mexico City

The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is blessed with one of the best restaurants in the city, if not the country.
Azul y Oro, a 200-seat restaurant housed in the Centro Cultural Universitario serves an elevated take on the foods of Mexico and is an absolute must for any Mexican culinary aficionado visiting Mexico City.
Voted in the Top 23 Restaurants in the Country by Travel and Leisure Magazine, the cafe is visited not only by the university staff, but visitors from around the world.

Chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita is the brains and talent behind the cafe, celebrating its 8th year of business. A trained chef and serious Mexican culinary researcher for the last 25 years – with six cookbooks under his belt – the menu is a celebration of regional dishes and ingredients but “with a touch of the chef,” he says.

Ricardo’s journey began some 40 years ago. “I grew up in Veracruz, but my family was from Tabasco,” he says. “We ate both cuisines at home and I was very interested in the two styles of cooking traditional foods,” he adds. He cites two examples: Huachinango a la Veracruzana from the Veracruz camp, and Tortuga en su sangre, a Tabascan dish of turtle prepared in its blood with achiote.

Ricardo continues to travel extensively to research and experience the regional, indigenous and obscure, often travelling with his cooks in tow.
While his father wanted him to be a lawyer or an architect, Ricardo followed his passion and I’m glad he did.

And what better way to understand his vision than to start eating? We were lucky to sample some of the dishes celebrating Veracruz cuisine this day, beginning with the Empanaditas con Picadillo de Res.

These lovely fresh corn masa turnovers gave way to a juicy coarsely-chopped filling of beef made tangy with lime juice and topped with salsa roja, coleslaw and cilantro.

Next came a Tamal Ranchero. This smooth silky masa combined with pork and chile ancho sauce was steamed in a banana leaf. The topping of the hoja santa leaf on the masa lent a delicate anise-y hit. The overall flavour combination was heavenly.
I would have been happy ending right here but there was more to come.
Another Yucatan specialty is salpicon. At Azul y Oro it was presented with venison. Shredded meat marinated in Seville oranges, red onion, and cilantro. The venison flavours came through balanced with sweet acidity, onion for texture and cilantro for a grassy note. Full marks.
The Squash Blossom Soup came presented with a puff pastry crown.

Pureed squash blossoms with chicken stock and cream was revealed inside, again a delicate balance of flavours.
Next, came Ti n Kin Xik. A fiesta on a plate, the Yucateco dish of catfish marinated in annatto paste, stuffed with black bean puree, presented on top of roasted plantain, with tortillas strips and topped with salsa Ix ne Pec of chile habanero.
This dish takes its inspiration from the various ways it is prepared in the Yucatan. Some with beans, some use avocado, others plantain. Chef Munoz’s preparation combines them all to great success.

Another plato fuerte we enjoyed was Venado Almendrado. The smooth – and rich – almond mole with chile ancho heat, provided earthy counterpoint to rare venison with a sweet note provided by sweet potato puree. Outstanding.
Desserts were breathtaking.
On the left, an Espuma de guanabana, a small seasonal acidic fruit pureed and set with gelatin and cream. On the right, an elevated take on a Oaxacan specialty, Nicuatole. You would find this served as a hot beverage in Oaxaca, especially at breakfast: masa blended with milk, sugar and cinnamon. Here it is served as a pate.
The black sauce is not chocolate as one might expect, but the sauce of the zapote negro, another indigenous Mexican fruit with the consistency of chocolate pudding. It is used to great effect on the plates and provides extra flavour, delicately sweetened with sugar and rum.
To keep things Oaxacan, hot chocolate – made traditionally with water – was presented in a gourd to drink.
And to finish us off – in a good way! – was the Tamal de Chocolate. Oaxacan chocolate blended with corn masa and stuffed with pineapple, raisins and almonds. Steamed in a banana leaf, it was presented in a pool of creme anglaise.

Ricardo’s research later this month will take him to a small village near Chichen Itza where he will stay with the Mayan Ya xu nah people. There he will learn how to cook a regional dish that uses pecare, a type of wild pig, prepared pibil-style (cooked in a pit).
Fans of Ricardo Munoz will be pleased to know his tome on Chilies Rellenos will be re-issued in January 2010 – in English for the first time – and he is already planning a future cookbook, to focus on the foods of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Thank you Ricardo and thank you Azul y Oro for an inspiring and delicious day!

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