A Second Act for Pujol, Mexico’s World-Class Restaurant
But as central as Pujol is for Mr. Olvera, this new version has been shaped in part by lessons he learned at another restaurant: Cosme, which he opened in 2014 in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. (“Cosme is cool, but isn’t trend-chasing,” the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote a few months later. “It’s crowded and lively, but isn’t painfully loud. It’s comfortable, but isn’t coddling.”)
Mr. Olvera said his experience in New York made him realize that the constrained formality of Pujol, with its white tablecloths and sober lighting, no longer fit with what he enjoyed in a restaurant.
“I realized with Cosme that I like restaurants that are fun,” he said. “I like restaurants that are not special occasion restaurants, and where people can just come in and relax and have a beautiful time.”
The new Pujol seeks to balance a casual, neighborhood spirit with the former’s intimacy. Gone are the noisy dining room (a dark shoe box), the two kitchens on separate floors and the waiting area big enough for only two customers.
The new restaurant takes its inspiration from midcentury modern architecture. The dining rooms are filled with light, and the materials evoke a Japanese sort of simplicity. The restrained lines would not be out of place on the set of “Mad Men.”
The challenge, said Javier Sánchez, the architect, was to open up the space but divide it visually. After removing walls, the team put in a small rock garden reminiscent of a Mexican courtyard, built a long bar to connect one end to the other, and installed a low window the entire length of the main dining room. There’s also a side room, with a collection of vinyl records, that can be curtained off for privacy.
As one of Mexico’s most visible cultural ambassadors, Mr. Olvera also wanted to offer a restaurant more reflective of the country. “I wanted a restaurant that you could feel like you’re in Mexico,” he said.
The materials, like the steel work and the terrazzo and parquet floors, subtly reflect local building traditions. And with the exception of the silverware and wine glasses, every object chosen by the interior designer, Micaela de Bernardi, was made or designed in Mexico, including the chairs she adapted from ones by the Cuban-Mexican designer Clara Porset.
The cooking will be more Mexican, too. For the first time in his career Mr. Olvera was able to design a menu and then build the kitchen to execute it. Constrained in the past, even at Cosme, by French-style layouts, he finally has a Mexican kitchen.
Organized around a large central island, it has no burners or sauté pans. Everything will be seared on a wood grill and finished in the oven. There’s a comal for tortillas and a brick oven pit outside for more time-consuming preparations like barbacoa. Smoke will be an important addition to the food.
“When you travel extensively in Mexico, you realize that is the flavor,” he said. “Most people are cooking with wood.”
The cuisine follows the simplifying trajectory that Mr. Olvera has taken in recent years, as he played with preparations that comfort yet surprise. He says he is seeking out the best Mexican ingredients, with the bulk arriving in three shipments a week from Oaxaca. There’s an herb garden in the backyard, and Mr. Olvera has rented two and a half acres of farmland in the suburb of Xochimilco, where he’ll grow lettuces and herbs.
The six-course tasting menu will have holdovers from the current Pujol, like the mole madre (aged for more than three years), but will also explore new expressions of Mexican techniques, like raw fish in a nixtamalized corn sauce. The bar will have a separate menu of tacos.
For now, the new Pujol is still a restaurant in concept. Mr. Olvera said things could change, as they did at Cosme, once the space opens.
For the restaurant critic Nicholas Gilman, who has chronicled Mexico City’s food culture for the past decade, the city’s most interesting cooking has migrated to the new wave of restaurants that Pujol helped start. “Whether it will continue to be influential and whether it is, I question that,” he said. “I think it’s a little past its peak and has become an institution, but a good institution.”
Despite the intense attention from around the world, Mr. Olvera said he was tranquil. The project, in many ways, is a return to the dreams he had as a 24-year-old opening Pujol in 2000.
“We want to be the favorite restaurant of people, not the best restaurant,” he said. “To me, now, it’s more important to be part of our customers’ regular lives.”
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