Colonia Roma was Mexico City’s first “modern” neighborhood, designed on the Haussmann ideal of mixed-class housing. Now the center of the Mexican capital’s restaurant renaissance, La Roma emerged at the turn of the 20th century with tree-lined boulevards of single-family homes and elegant mansions, reflecting the popular French Belle Époque style. The fashionable residences were equipped with running water, city sewer, electric and even telephone lines.
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Until the 1940s, La Roma was the place to live for famous artists, politicians and even bullfighters. Noir movie star Andrea Palma occupied a large mansion. William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife there in a game of William Tell gone awry; the muralist David Siqueiros and legendary reclusive painter Leonora Carrington worked there.
The cooking going on in these homes would have been a fine-tuned blend of traditional Mexican and French-Spanish, a typical repast might have started with a vichyssoise followed by a filet of sole in caper sauce topped by Mexican manchamanteles served with homemade tortillas.
The fall and rise of Roma
After World War II, the wealthy moved west to Polanco and Lomas, and La Roma began its slow decline. The 1985 earthquake hit this area hard.
As residents fled, many old homes became auto repair shops, offices or schools, or were simply left to decay. Other buildings were demolished to make way for mirrored glass behemoths and parking lots.
But Roma has been rising from its ashes in recent years, coming to life with a speed not often seen in Mexico. A renewed appreciation for the architecture and the area’s proximity to the center of the city and to its pricier neighbor Condesa has made Roma appealing to artists and yuppies alike. Their presence has created a market for upscale dining and nightlife options. New restaurants and bars open every week. And some of the most creative cooking, from high to low, can be found in the area.
Always a hotbed for the culturally eclectic, Roma has recently been a crucible for a new generation of Mexican chefs who are well aware of what’s going on in Spain, California and New York, but whose feet stay firmly planted on native turf.
Rosetta is set in a turn-of-the-century French-style mansion that has been lovingly renovated. It is hands down the best Italian restaurant this side of the Rio Grande. Cunning chef Elena Reygadas works with surprising and exotic seasonal material prima from the Mexican countryside such as duraznillo mushrooms (aka chanterelles) or the rarely seen pavón, a homely freshwater fish encased in Acapulco sea salt and herbs. While her menu is classic regional Italian, everything from the period decoration of the space to the adroit combination of familiar and uncommon market ingredients points to a new, global — but very local — sensibility.
Mexico City dining: A Roma venture without capital
Since Máximo Bistrot Local opened its doors on a shoestring at the beginning of 2012, it has become one of the most talked about restaurants in Mexico City.
This low-key, unpretentious corner place replaced a dowdy medical supply store, where wheelchairs and artificial limbs were once sold. It is emblematic of the new, sophisticated-but-casual small restaurants appearing in the area: There’s no place else in the city where rents are low enough, and the clientele savvy enough, to carry off such a venture.
While Mexican-born chef and owner Eduardo García, who worked at New York’s star-strewn Le Bernardin, likes classic French bourgeois cooking, Mexican ingredients typically appear in his dishes with regularity.
A light sole meunière that would make Julia Child happy is pepped up with a drizzle of guajillo chile emulsion. Or a tender slab of octopus only hours away from its Pacific home, is shrewdly paired with sautéed huitlacoche, the subtlety flavored corn fungus sometimes called “Mexican truffle.” The food coming out of García’s kitchen is worthy of hyperbole.
A hip deli
Chef/TV diva and neighborhood resident Monica Patiño owns the New York/Paris-style deli, Delirio. She celebrates the recent surge of artisanal foods with her own brand of products, all hecho en México (made in Mexico). Olives and olive oil from Baja California are green and fruity. A small, but well-chosen stock of national wines is worth sampling — many are unavailable elsewhere. There are European-style raw milk cheeses and preserved meats, all made in central Mexico.
An advocate of “slow” and local foods, Patiño explains that she decided to put her money where her mouth is. “Almost all of what we offer is Mexican-made and organic as well,” she proudly proclaims. Her refreshingly modern sensibility is something new in a culture that until recently looked to the U.S. and Europe for inspiration and denigrated local products as inferior.
A new kind of market
In Mexico, land of vendors, one could misquote Shakespeare: “all the world’s a market.” Happily, old-time markets continue to thrive despite the proliferation of chain supermarkets. Roma’s excellent Mercado Medellín is a fine example of a traditional neighborhood covered market. And in 2011 a new type of mercado was inaugurated: the Mercado el 100. This weekly tianguis (open-air market) recalls Paris’ wildly successful marchés biologiques or New York’s see-and-be-seen Union Square market — all products sold are produced within 100 kilometers, hence the name. The market provides a venue for small local producers of organic and artisanal products to strut their stuff. It all takes place in Roma’s picturesque Plaza Río de Janeiro, in the shadow of a 20th-century copy of Michelangelo’s “David” (sans fig leaf) and attracts people from all walks of life for its fresh-from-the-farm produce.
Old Colonia Roma continues to bubble with creative energy, and new venues seem to open every day. Chef García (of Máximo) predicts that Mexico City will soon be one of the top dining capitals in the world. Perhaps it already is.
Photo: Walkway next to Rosetta restaurant in the reborn La Roma neighborhood in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman