Gabriela Cámara’s rooftop terrace in Mexico City sits like a treehouse overlooking the green canopy of the tony Condesa neighborhood. At its center is a massive hand-hewn dining table loaded with Casablanca lilies whose intense perfume mixes with smoldering mesquite from the nearby barrel grills. It’s an intoxicating ambience even before the mezcal palomas start flowing.
Cámara preparing a grilled feast on her terrace.
The opportunity to cook for friends and family doesn’t come around much these days for the 40-year-old chef and restaurateur, who splits her time between the perpetually packed Contramar, which opened in 1998, and her second restaurant, Cala, which was an instant success when it debuted in San Francisco last fall. It’s an empire that started with a simple grilled fish: Cámara and her friends loved eating pescado a la talla on the beach while vacationing in Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast. “I wanted to bring that feeling of leisure from a beach shack to an unpretentious, fresh, urban setting,” she says. Indeed, Contramar (which translates to “against the sea”) manages to reflect that breezy nature while also being a see-and-be-seen power lunch scene. It also launched the raw-tuna tostada craze in the city, which shows no signs of abating. Up north at Cala, though the menu sings of Mexico’s endless coastline—mussel tamales, opah salpicón, and black cod mixiote with greens and red chile adobo—she’s not trying to replicate Contramar. (Even if it has that restaurant’s same spirit of quality, generosity, and hospitality.)
Guests enjoying the Condesa rooftop.
Much of Cámara’s food is grilled, and that casual outdoor vibe suits her personality: She’s convivial, spontaneous, magnanimous—a wildly successful workaholic who barely breaks a sweat even standing over coals under the hot midday sun. “Grilling reminds me of a beach cookout, which is about gathering a special group of friends,” she says. Today, almost everything is prepared over fire, starting with vegetables and chiles for salsas and marinades (charred flavors are intrinsic to Mexican grilled foods, Cámara notes). As friends and family trickle in, simple quesadillas of quelites (tender greens) and Toma (similar to a strained ricotta) go comal-to-mouth from the large clay disk placed directly on the grill.
Befitting the party’s low-key communal style, everything is brought to the table as it’s done; this is not a coursed meal. The spectacular centerpieces—pork tenderloin with a charred-chile crust; toasts piled with seared squid; and Contramar’s iconic fish, recalling the Mexican flag with its red and green salsas against the snapper’s white flesh—quickly disappear into tortillas; in the end, everything becomes a taco. Aside from a vibrant bean salad, there are no side dishes per se, just the obligatory tortilla trimmings of guacamole, refried black beans, red and green salsas, and limes picked from the trees that ring the terrace.
The party drifts into the sobremesa, the post-meal period of lingering over drinks and conversation (and the reason that Friday lunch at Contramar can easily stretch into the early evening). A guest mentions that while Cámara was cooking for us, Keith Richards came into Contramar with a party of 15. “I hope he liked the food,” Cámara says nonchalantly while scooping fish into a tortilla and refilling everyone’s mezcal glass.