Millesime 2016: It's a Party
Millesime, the food fair put forth in Mexico for the past six Septembers, is a grand homage to gastronomic fanciness. The point of the shindig is to tempt, tease and induce mouths to water with the best Mexico has to offer, in the hope that customers will be seduced into a love affair with the represented restaurants, wines, spirits and other goodies. Booths manned by chefs both stellar and less so represent the country’s best-known dining venues. They offer copious amounts of bijou-like delicacies to cocktail and wine equipped, well-heeled visitors. It is set in the generically modern Banamex center, a corporate edifice designed to house promotional events of all sorts. The panoramic views of the neighboring race track are only to be imagined as nary a horse is in sight from the window-less ground floor space utilized for this event.
The entryway funnels patrons into an increasingly shadowy yet smartly contrived set of spaces where they wander about, glass in hand, willing victims drawn into a vortex of high-end boozing and feasting. This is a gourmet Vegas casino where Black Jack dealers are replaced by eager vendors of good wine and spirits, oysters and caviar, cheeses and chocolates and teeny tapas-like dishes. Cooks are enticed into leaving their kitchens for three days while they mingle with potential Big Spenders and exchange ideas with each other. It is not a pretentious event, as it does not pretend to aim for populism. It reaches for the unashamedly high falutin’ and does so very well indeed. The 2016 edition, whose theme was “tropical”, was thoughtfully designed to evince equatorial Latin America while avoiding clichés – banana trees and shrieking colors were absent. The inevitable potted palms were discreetly set against black walls and ceilings lit by bamboo lamps meant to recall but not reproduce starry jungle skies.
While the restaurants represented tended toward the posh and modish, a handful of newcomers were also on hand. A well meaning but lean bone was tossed to a few humble but meritorious ‘cocineras tradicionales’ brought in from the Mexican hinterlands and Peru and Venezuela. This was the first year that these deserving hard workers were recognized. Juana Bravo, from the currently narco-infested state of Michoacán offered curundas, the fluffy, corny tamales typical of the region and a heady, mildly picante mole ‘purepecha’.
Young, fresh-faced José Meza, of Carolina restaurant in Nayarit near Puerto Vallarta, is a sure-bet star of the future. He produced a stellar mini plate comprised of a poached then smoked quail egg, minty avocado leaf, mayo of chile guero, onion ashes, all set atop a pile of julienned and fried sweet potatoes. This madcap omnibus of flavors and textures meant, according to the chef, to be downed in one bite, came together just as the best Basque pintxo can.
The ever-trendy Mercado Roma occupied a large stand representing its best proprietors on a revolving basis. A standout was Ummo Pizza whose tiny short rib pizzette, umami-packed if visually non-compelling were the sleeper of the show, inducing invited chef Mitsuharu Tsunumi of Lima’s Maido to return for seconds and then thirds. A leitmotif was Asian fusion; Daniel Ovadia´s duck potstickers hit all the marks. Pretty blue chicharrón and calamari ‘buns’ presented by the usually do-no-wrong Nexo team were full of complex flavor but leaned towards the gummy. Bamboo steamers just don’t function well in an improvised setting. The young Nexo chefs did, however, garner a well-deserved award as ‘Jóvenes talento’ as well as best opening of the year. Their sope of Wagyu Chamorro with a lightly sweetish apple chutney as well as a chunk of tuna-like jurel in an aromatic green sauce epitomized their uncanny ability to unify seemingly immoderate quantities of ingredients, and Mexican and European flavors and traditions all with precise timing.
Local and/or sustainable products were celebrated. The gregarious Federico López, king chef of the Riviera Maya, touted pez león, a predator fish introduced to the gulf from overseas. López explained that this fish has no enemies, with the exception of chef López himself who transforms the unseemly beast into a delicious ceviche.
Several collaborative multi-course lunches were offered each day, held in provisional dining rooms housed within false walls like a Hollywood set. In one romantically lit room, Gerardo Vázquez Lugo of Nicos concocted a rich, transparent seafood bisque served in a split coconut and a ‘manchamanteles de pato’, both very good ideas, while his Brazilian partners Carlos García and Rafael Costa e Silva did an interesting “ceviche” of plátano and a chunk of lobster on a bed of sweet potato, respectively. Concurrently, three star chefs vied for attention, each outdoing the other. While Oaxacan Alejandro Ruiz calmly prepared chunks of sea bass in a refreshing, aromatic green mole, Bolivia’s Kamilla Seidler, only the day
before awarded ‘best female chef in Latin America’ at the S. Pellegrino 50 Best ceremony, anxiously laid out dozens of plates of an intriguing faux risotto made with amaranth. It was nutty and rich though the seeds stuck in ones teeth. Lima’s Mitsuharu, familiarly known to his fans as Micha, labored studiously, brow-knitted, over his picture perfect mackerel ceviche whose Peruvian ‘leche de tigre’ was softened by a bit of green olive oil and lay on a gentle bed of white bean puree. These dishes were, naturally, accompanied by appropriately paired wines.
Various workshops, which leaned toward the entertaining rather than the seriously didactic, drew crowds of curious, increasingly sloshed attendees. Guadalajara’s Paul Bently did a sous vide short rib in lots of butter, as Julia Child would have liked it. Beer maven Guillermo Ysusi paired artisan beers.By day three, the faithful full time attendees and press corps were learning to live with permanent hangovers and increasingly waist constraining suits. Vivian, a journalist had decided to forgo decorum, and exclaimed proudly that “I wore FLATS today.”
The event was, by all accounts, smashingly successful. Invited chefs fondly lauded the affair for giving them the opportunity to promote and schmooze, exchange and educate. The ambience may have invoked Park Avenue rather than Havana, the mambo suggested not realized. But it WAS a party.