To say that Alejandro Fuentes eats, drinks and sleeps gastronomy is not an exaggeration.
The 37-year-old Mexican-born and French-trained chef literally lives in his tiny office atop his newly opened Cedrón restaurant in Condesa, where he has shoved his desk to the center of the room to make way for a cot and a stand-up suitcase that serve as his bedroom.
“I want to be here to make sure that every aspect of the restaurant is topnotch.” Fuentes told The News during a recent interview.
“Besides, I go the Central de Abasto market every morning at the crack of dawn so that I can personally choose the freshest and best fish and produce for the day’s offerings.”
That attention to detail is what makes Cedrón stand out as what may be the best and most affordable French cuisine restaurants in Mexico City today.
The little brasserie, with barely enough tables and chairs to accommodate about 50 people at any given time (including outdoor seating, a bar and private dining room upstairs), has been Fuentes’ dream since he first began studying gastronomy in Cuernavaca nearly two decades ago.
“I didn’t want Cedrón to be a large, mass production restaurant,” he said.
“I wanted it to be elegant with personalized service, a place where my guests will feel at home and where they will want to come back over and over again.”
And come back they do.
In just four short months, Cedrón has developed a faithful clientele of return customers that make up nearly 90 percent of its diners.
Housed inside an early 20th century home along Avenida Mazatlán that once served as a nunnery, the stately but understated restaurant has an airy and inviting atmosphere, with unclothed tables topped with vases of fresh-cut flowers and linen serviettes wrapped around immaculately polished silverware and adorned with a twig of rosemary.
All the flowers and a large share of the spices used in the restaurant are grown in a roof garden atop the building with organic farming practices.
“I want everything in my restaurant to be fresh, so I try to grow some of my own vegetables and fruits,” Fuentes said.
The service at Cedrón is stellar.
From the moment you walk in, you are personally escorted to your table, where a waiter pours you a glass of ice water with a slice of strawberry floating at the top.
Another server presents a tray with a lemongrass-scented washcloth (hot or cold, depending on the season) to freshen your hands.
Next, guests are offered the courtesy amuse bouche of the day, which when I went was a delightfully delicious watermelon and baby tomato gazpacho with a slice of dehydrated beet on top.
Complementary fresh baked bread — at least four different varieties — is served on a stone platter, along with the house’s signature portobello butter and a creamy tomato and peanut sauce.
The menu at Cedrón is relatively small, but nearly every item is a temptation, so it is better not to have too many options to have to choose from.
“To me, gastronomy is a way of telling stories,” Fuentes said.
“I cook to be able to recount my personal experiences. Cedrón was born out of the inspiration of the various landscapes and flavors of my life. They are a reflection of the Mediterranean, the ports, the culinary capitals and the open markets around the world.”
Fuentes has plenty of culinary tales to tell, having spent seven years as the chef on a private yacht traveling the open seas and later having studied and worked in Paris at the Ritz Hotel.
He also spent eight years as a sous chef at the esteemed Au Pied de Cochon restaurant inside the Presidente InterContinental Hotel in Polanco before finally branching out on his own with Cedrón.
The starters’ selection of the menu is eclectic in its diversity, with choices such as Vietnamese-style eggrolls filled with marinated tuna and cashew nuts; snow crab tarts with sliced celery, radish, avocado and artichoke hearts bathed in a white wine vinaigrette; and USDA Choice ribeye tacos with caramelized onion confetti and guacamole.
There is also a house salad composed of roasted beet and yam strips intermingled with fresh goat cheese and pecans and a Mediterranean bouillabaisse with crab, shrimp, clams and mussels simmered in a fish broth perfumed with star anise, curry powder and turmeric.
This dish is generous enough to constitute a main course if you aren’t too hungry.
But I strongly advice going for an entrée.
The fresh catch of the day is the house special, and is usually a deboned fillet of grouper broiled with black olives and parsley, accompanied by grilled vegetables and pea and cauliflower purée, but it can vary depending on what Fuentes found at the market.
“Most restaurants in Mexico serve red snapper and bass, but I prefer to invest in better fish, even if it is a little more expensive,” Fuentes said.
Another of Fuentes’ specialties is a mussels and morilla mushroom risotto fragranced with a touch of sage and a crisp sauvignon blanc.
If meat is your thing, Cedrón’s duo de cordero is a combination of baked lamb chops with grilled mutton ribs bathed in their own juices and served with peas, green beans and couscous, a French interpretation of a Moroccan favorite.
And the seared duck breast with fig sauce and polenta with roasted vegetables is definitely a winner.
All the portions are large and most plates come gracefully decorated with flowers and sauces, but if you are particularly hungry, you might want to add a side of sautéed spinach or Parisian potatoes.
To accompany your meal, Cedrón has a 100-label cellar with an impressive selection of French, Spanish and Mexican wines.
Desserts at Cedrón are not to be missed (forget that diet and count calories some other day).
I fell in love with the Grand Marnier soufflé, but Fuentes insisted I also try his five-dessert medley of chocolate fondant, crème brûlée, baked apple, sherried fruit cocktail and a cream-filled profiterole.
The truth is that, by the time I got to this plate, I was extremely stuffed, but the sweets were so good, I somehow managed to sample them all.
I can be a snippety diner, looking to find fault with service, food and presentation, but I can honestly say that I could find nothing to criticize about Cedrón, including its very affordable prices (my entire meal with a glass of wine cost less than 750 pesos).
Clearly, Fuentes’ hands-on approach to management is one of the reasons that Cedrón is such a success, but also his unflinching commitment to perfection shines through at every stage.
“I love what I do and I want my guests to love what I produce, so I don’t cut corners,” he said.
“My dream is that one day Cedrón will be named as a Michelin star restaurant.”
Judging from the quality of his food, the realization of that dream may not be that far away.
Cedrón is located at Avenida Mazatlán 24 in Colonia Condesa (tel: 2155-6403).
It is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday, and 7:30 a.m. to 12 midnight Thursday through Saturday.
There is a life jazz band performance in the evenings starting at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursday, Friday and Saturdays.
All major credit cards are accepted and valet parking is available in front.
Reservations are highly advised, especially on weekends.