Nicholas Gilman is a renowned journalist and food writer based in Mexico City.

Nicholas Gilman es un renombrado periodista gastronómico basado en la Ciudad de México.

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El Puntal del Norte Brings the Old World Home

El Puntal del Norte Brings the Old World Home

Northern Spanish cooking has been making news in recent years. Chefs Arzak and Adriá have become household names--in gastronomically oriented households, anyway. It’s arguably the world’s finest yet simplest cuisine. Local, sustainable ingredients are what it's about, and has been since before those words were freely bandied about. The rediscovery of Spanish cuisine has a political element: during the Franco dictatorship the words 'Spain' and 'gastronomy' didn’t mix. The country was closed, poor and cultural regionalism was frowned upon. The local populous barely had enough to eat. Spanish cooking was promoted for tourism sake– but paella, gazpacho, flan and sangría were just about all anyone outside the country knew.

My first trip to Iberia was in 1984, when Spain was rapidly emerging from the dark years. I'd worked in the curatorial department of the Hispanic Society of America in New York and was looking forward to exploring the country. I traveled for four months, during which I fell in love with the artists of the siglo de oro (Velazquez, Ribera, Murillo), flamenco, toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, and the fabulous capital, Madrid.

But I didn't eat well. Most meals consisted of dull fried meat, potatoes, and acrid house wine. Another extensive trip 15 years later turned my head around, gastronomy-wise. What had changed, it or me? Perhaps a little of both. I’m much more experienced in finding what’s good to eat. And with the opening up of the country, a reverse trend was set in motion. Now great pride is taken in local dishes.

Everywhere one travels--and Spain is a huge place—there’s fine cooking, food prepared with pride based on local tradition. Very often a dish will consist of five or six components, combined and balanced with cunning finesse. A pescado en salsa verde I ordered in a port side Santander bar a few years back proves this point: a filet of glisteningly fresh pargo, fruity green olive oil, a little young garlic, parsley, and tiny clams which provided oceanic umami, were so perfectly combined that to date it remains one of the most sublime dishes I’ve eaten.

 perfect croquetas

perfect croquetas

So, it is only natural that here in the New World, Spanish-trained chefs have a keen eye for what’s in the market at any given time, adapting to old-world techniques and recipes. That’s where Pablo San Román comes in. He’s from San Sebastian, in País Vasco, where gastronomic high notes are taken for granted. A resident of our capital for over 20 years, San Román has developed a following for his fine multi-regional kitchen at Denominación de Origen in Polanco.

His latest venture, El Puntal del Norte, concentrates on the regions of northern Spain, where seafood is king. It is by far the finest Spanish restaurant in Mexico City. San Román has designed an unpretentious menu that embraces dishes that may be comfort food to many of the diners, 80% of whom are from the old country, according to host Julián Goenetxea. The best embutidos – ham, chorizo, morcilla etc.--are brought in from Spain; everything else is culled from the best Mexican sources.

A good starter is an order of croquetas, ubiquitous in Spanish tabernas. They are, at their best, crunchy balls of crust that, when bitten into, reveal a melting liquid center of béchamel, perfumed with bits of jamón, bacalao or whatever the chef decides shoud be there. Puntal’s version doesn’t stray from the classic ham, and is textbook perfect, setting the stage for good things to come.

 An exemplary tarta de Santiago

An exemplary tarta de Santiago

While I would ordinarily say that pasta should be left to the Italians, Puntal’s fidua negra, a dish of Catalán origin, is an exception. The short pasta here retains its requisite bite, and is aromatic with that raven nectar from the sea, squid ink. Its presentation in the traditional paella (the name of the metal pan as well as the dish) dotted with rosy shrimps and crabs is unpretentious yet elegant.

An entire section is devoted to huevos rotos, a comfort dish of poached eggs which are prodded so as to ‘break’, and served over potatoes fried in olive oil. Here, three variations are offered. I like the version with txistorra, a Basque sausage which gives the whole thing a smoky edge. Extraviado a la sidra, a standard from Asturias where apples reign, is brought to the table in a little clay cazuela. Spain’s cider is not very sweet; the sauce captures the essence of apple, it's not cloying, and it compliments the flaky white fish perfectly.

A more creative option, recently on the ‘specials of the day’ menu, was a filet of lubina, a lightly oily and highly flavorful fish set on a pool of roast fennel puree, which in turn rests in a puddle of fruity olive oil infused with garlic and paprika. This dish was a winner in every way but one: the portion size was mini but the price was not. Not to be overly kvetchy - it was marvelously balanced. As was a divine arroz negro con pulpo a la parilla. This chewy Valencian rice, again blackened with squid ink, was complemented by little dollops of ali-oli, Spain's version of garlic mayonnaise; the buttery slices of octopus, redolent of the smoky flavor of the grill, sat atop. For dessert I would order the tarta Santiago an almond cake, because it's the iconic dessert of Galicia. This was one of the best I've had--light yet rich, almondy, eggy, not too sweet. Spain isn't the dessert capital of the world but this one takes the cake.

The wine list is, naturally, extensive and well chosen – there are many offerings from the old world and the new.

El Puntal is located in a modern office building; its décor is slick and generic but airy and light – pleasant enough. Price to quality ratio is fare: around $600 pesos per person, with a glass of wine.

I’m very happy to be able to experience a gastronomic trip to one of my favorite areas in the world right here in my hometown. El Puntal is a fine addition to the international dining scene in Mexico City.

El Puntal del Norte
Cerrada Palomas, 22 Colonia Reforma Social (Lomas/Tecamachalco) Tel. 5202-3489
Open Monday - Saturday 9 a.m. - 12 p.m., Sunday until 6
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