Birth of the Cool: Blue Monk Jazz Bistro

Besides my passions for food and art, I have always been a jazz buff. As a teen growing up in New York, I would stalk the clubs, listening from the street, sneaking into festival concerts during intermission, going to every free performance I could manage. I saw so many ‘greats:’ Diz, Basie, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Ella. You name ‘em, I saw ‘em. That  golden era is a memory, but “the melody lingers on”.

Here in our capital loca there is a small but healthy jazz scene, and I like to go and listen to live music. So it was a tuneful pleasure to discover Blue Monk Jazz Bistro, located just north of Polanco. This room, open since early 2011, was the rebirth of Papabetos, a club that lost its bearings to the wrecking ball. The club is run by Yuko Fujino, an affable Japanese ex-pat and music lover. Yuko-san hangs out and schmoozes with musicians and customers like a good club-owner should. The airy, rectangular space is just right for music, neither too big nor too cramped to listen. The sound system is pro, and thankfully, set at a perfect volume for hearing the subtle details of this, America’s classical music.

What’s more, the food is good. The reasonably priced menu (a full dinner should run about $200) offers a mélange of Asian standards such as won ton soup, fried pork in oriental spices, shrimp tempura, chicken in curry, katsudon (a Japanese rice bowl). The light salads are homey and satisfying. And there are a couple of Italian pastas for those who want to stay western. Interesting, unpretentious specials are offered as well: a recent example was a nicely seared tuna with a ginger-lemon sauce. Dinner with a show makes for a groovy evening on the town.

The club is open for lunch daily; check the schedule for live shows, which usually take place Friday and Saturday at 10. Cover fees vary, usually hovering around $150. If you want to be sure what kind of music you are going to see, simply do a search on Youtube – most musicians can be sampled. There is ample parking on the street and/or valet service.
Blue Monk Jazz Bistro
Bahía de San Hipólito 51, Colonia Anáhuac
Tel. 5525-0755, 4432-4425
Open Monday - Saturday from 1:30 PM

In the centro, visit:
Zinco Jazz Club
Motolinia 20 (basement)
Tel: 5512-3369 , Open Wednesday-Sunday, from 9pm
The best jazz club in the city is in the basement of an Aztec-Deco office building and will remind aficionados of the Village Vanguard in New York. Local groups headline; check their webpage for schedule.

For those who read Spanish, see this interesting interview with the author:

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Fine dining in the centro: Azul Histórico & Padrinos

Arriving in Mexico City in 1987, I was lured by the sordid, thrilling cauldron of mysterious activity. The past lingered over a decrepit, crumbling centro histórico, which had been brought to its knees by the recent earthquake. The centro intrigued me: I observed dusty alleys and hallways into which scurried enigmatic characters who disappeared into their anachronistic places of business.

Food decidedly caught my attention. Alluring aromas emanated from ancient taquerías, whose aquamarine walls were blackened by decades of greasy smoke. Bow-tie clad waiters served now extinct beverages and midnight breakfasts at the timeworn Café Cinco de Mayo. Old-timers imbibed at century-old pulquerías and cantinas, downing the free botanas and reminiscing about better times. But the centro was in a slow and sure decline. It was quiet at night. The hotels around the Alameda area, once vibrant and aglow, were gone. Agustin Lara no longer sung at the Hotel Regis, Revelers didn't dress up for a glamorous evening out. And there certainly was no ‘nice’ place to have dinner downtown.

It took decades for the centro to come back. Deco gems sat forlornly waiting to be brought back to life by developers with good taste. Opera-lovers drove their vehicles straight into the Palacio de Bellas Artes’ parking lot and back out after the show. No one thought of the centro as a cool place to spend an evening.

Things have changed. Carlos Slim invested. Artists rented and bought. Pioneers pioneered. And now, clubs, restaurants, bars and music venues abound. It’s like the old days, when San Juan de Letrán was abuzz with show-biz and glitz. Well almost. Just stroll down groovy Calle Regina, a pedestrianized street full of nice bars with outdoor seating, just like in Madrid. Catch a set of jazz at Zinco, buried, Village Vanguard-like, in a Deco palace. Or take in the decidedly Mexican gay scene on República de Cuba. Once abandoned streets throng into the wee hours.

Until recently, however, there was still no nice place to have dinner. That has changed. A forgotten colonial building has been renovated (tastefully, I might add) by the Hábita group, who brought you the Condesa DF. And two new restaurants, branches but not clones, have installed themselves. It's a good thing.

A Bouquet of Blues: Azul Histórico
Azul y Oro is on every Mexi-foodie’s ‘must try’ list. It serves up well-researched and expertly prepared regional Mexican fare. The baby of chef/culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and named after the eponymous college colors, it’s located in the cultural heart of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource (hard to find, but soon to be re-published in a new edition), as well as other attractive cookbooks. Last year, a much-anticipated branch, Azul Condesa, opened to much fanfare. I was not impressed. The quality of the food seemed neglected in favor of fancy décor and pomp.
Service was perfunctory. The new venue is better. The colonial patio, brought up to date with simple modernist touches is covered. It’s shady by day, dreamy at night and is a delightful place to sit. The menu is the same as at the Condesa branch and is similar, although slightly more expensive than the original university location. Mexican standards as well as rarely seen specialties are offered. Start with a tamalito de acelgas (a tamal stuffed with swiss chard and fresh cheese), or the soothing and savory crema de cilantro. Standard ‘international’ salads are available for those who want something light. I like the house specialties, my favorite being the ravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark chocolaty Oaxacan mole. And the cochinita is top-notch.
An unusual vegetarian option is the enchiladas de jamaica orgánica, fragrant tortillas filled with tart, fruity hibiscus flowers and augmented by a mildly picante tomato/chipotle sauce. As at the other venues, regional ‘festivals’ are presented, such as a recent celebration of Oaxacan cooking. A couple of unusual moles and pipianes I sampled (one white, the other green) were somewhat bland: intriguing conceptually but not so well realized. The food here sometimes seems toned down to a banal level; it can lack punch. Service is attentive and the wine/tequila/mezcal list is comprehensive. Expect to spend from $200-400 pp. I do not hesitate to recommend this much needed high-level and lovingly Mexican dining option. It’s a great place to take your out of town guests or stop for a relaxing lunch before shopping at the original Nouveau Palacio de Hierro.

All in the family: Padrinos
Located in the same complex, Padrinos is an offshoot of the ever-popular see-and-be-seen Condesa/Roma venues Primos and Sobrinos. Their menus are similar although here prices seem to be steeper. While the name may conger up a Greek diner or a local mafia hangout, the food is mostly Mexican –nicely presented, satisfying, and, perhaps, even better here than at the other branches. The subtitle “cocina del barrio” implies informality, a menu for sharing with friends. An intriguing and changing menu is divided into surf and turf, the bill of fare consisting of classic Mexican antojitos such as tacos, tostadas, and seafood cocktails as well as heartier international dishes such as steak frites and house made pastas. The burger, one of the best in the city according to J, is very good, but quite pricey at $190 - ¿Vale la pena?
The pretty interior is done retro/bistro style, old-fashioned mosaic floors and all. But best of all is the lovely patio. A huge ‘green wall’ provides oxygen and peace of mind.

Be sure to visit the shops upstairs, on the mezzanine level. I will report on the them down the line when construction is done. But meanwhile, you can pick up a copy of the newly revised Good Food in Mexico City at Culinaria Mexicana.

Azul Histórico
Isabel la Católica 30
Tel.: 5521-3295 / 5510-1316
Open Monday-Saturday 9AM to 1:30AM, Sunday until 6PM

Isabel la Católica 30
Tel.: 5510-2394 / 5510-2409
Open: Monday,Tuesday 8AM - 11:30PM, Wednseday - Saturday until midnight, Sunday until 6


Holy Cow! What's open in D.F. Semana Santa

Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, is my favorite time of year in Mexico City. Why? Because so many people leave. God help those who decide to join the masses heading for Acapulco, Cancun or San Miguel de Allende!

During this week, our bulging metropolis, usually ruled by automobiles and their murderous drivers, turns into a peaceful, laid-back hinterland. The former 'Paris of the new world' c. 1960 returns. Empty streets, clean air--at least in the neighborhoods of those who can afford to escape (the Centro Histórico retains its usual mad-cap bee-hive activity).

So I often choose to stay put and enjoy what becomes 'my' city. While some people are lucky enought to have the whole week off, most depart starting on Wednesday, and things get quieter and quieter, grinding to a halt on Easter Sunday. You'll find no parades bonnets or bunnies here, just church.

One problem facing us remaining residents and visiting food-ivores is where to eat. I checked up on some of the high-end houses as well as my favorite joints. I was not surprised to find that no information is offered on any of the restaurant's websites (save that of Pujol) vis a vis holiday hours. So I called as many as I could. Much to my consternation several venues didn't even know yet; I was told to call later in the week, when they may have decided whether to stay open or not. There seem to be no rules: some places close for an extended period, some not at all. With that in mind, I present my findings; take them with a grain of salt, and be sure to call before you go. Semana Santa this year starts Monday, April 2nd, and ends Sunday, April 8.

Asian Bay - open through Sunday from 1PM on

Astrid & Gaston – open through Easter Sunday

Azul (Condesa & Histórico) - open through Easter Sunday

El Bajio - Closed Thursday - Sunday

Biko -open as usual

El Cardenal - open as usual

D.O. - open as usual

Dulce Patria – closed from Monday to Sunday

Izote –Thursday to Saturday closed, Sunday possibly open, to be confirmed

Jaso - Closed all week

Maximo Bistro - Closed for two weeks

Mero Toro - Open as usual

Oca - Undecided - call ahead

Osteria 8 – Open Tuesday, Wednesday, closed Thursday-Sunday

Paxia - Open as usual

Pujol - Open as usual

La Rauxa d'en Quim Jardí - open as usual

Rosetta - Closed Thursday, Friday Saturday, Sunday

Sobrinos, Padrinos, Primos- Open as usual

Taberna de Leon – Open, but only for comida

El Tajin - Open all week

Tezka- Undecided; call ahead