It’s a far cry from those lunchroom hairnet ladies of my youth. And the food’s a whole lot better. It’s Zéfiro, a new lunchtime spot inside the culinary school at Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. The UCSJ is a non-mainstream school (similar to New York’s New School for Social Research) offering interesting courses in a plethora of subjects including gastronomy, and Zéfiro is part of the training—all the workers here are students. The name means zephyr, a gentle breeze—and indeed, this new restaurant is a breath of fresh air in the Centro Historico.
There seems so be a trend in new, upscale Mexican restaurants: regional cuisine featuring unpretentious but aesthetically pleasing presentation. Young chefs are now choosing less common dishes from the Mexican lexicon, and that’s a good thing. Sophisticated diners in search of the authentic are looking beyond the same old plato Tampiqueño or enchiladas de mole. Nor are any foams or Asian ingredients in sight. Phew… The recently opened Casa México (see my previous review) is an outstanding example of this ‘alta-baja cocina’ trend, which continues here.
The setting is a large open room facing the interior courtyard of a renovated neo-classical building. Elegant and airy, the wood floors and exposed stone walls provide a warm but rustic elegance. The young staff is eager and attentive. The carta has been honed down to a few offerings in each category: a couple of soups, a simple arrachera or filete de pescado or a standard caldo de pollo or fideo seco. The inventive prix fixe menus featuring regional cuisine, and which change weekly, are what I recommend.
On a recent visit we were served a complementary naranjadaand free (!) water – no added costs and no plastic bottles to toss. I chose the $180 peso menú del día, which includes three courses plus wine, dessert and coffee – a great deal as there are no sneaky extras to pad the bill. I started with vuelve a la vida (mixed seafood cocktail), which was one of the best I’ve had. The young chef gets out of the way and lets the ingredients do the work – tender octopus and shrimp are complimented by a light tomato and lime dressing. The second course, sopa de lima (a tradition of the Yucatan) was fragrant and hearty but could have used an extra tweak of limón. My main dish, something called ‘pacholas’ turned out to be very thin ground meat patties flavored with fragrant spices.
The flavor was reminiscent of Middle Eastern kefta. They were formed into quirky triangles and accompanied by the best black beans I’ve had since Cuba. The dessert, called nido de abeja (bee’s nest), was a beautifully balanced torte of crumbly crust, chocolate mousse and light pastry cream served with a little dollop of good vanilla ice cream – an exercise in harmony.
The filete de pescado al mojo de ajo, a comida classic we sampled from the regular menu, however, was only B+ although the fish itself was fresh and mercifully not overcooked. Better was an ensalada de nopales nicely dressed with a vinaigrette which would have made Julia Child proud.
I could nit-pick all day: too little seasoning here, an under-garnished plate there. But, considering the constantly changing menu and reasonable prices, I will refrain. I give these noble students an ‘A’ for effort, ‘A-minus‘ for food, and my best wishes for a smooth road to diploma-dom.
Zéfiro is an excellent choice for those who want a civilized, tranquil and reasonably priced Mexican lunch in the centro.