Six p.m. heralds the end of another work day at Artless Craft Tea & Coffee, a boutique coffee shop in Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood. A soundtrack of chime-like tunes plays in the background as a barista clears the counter with the slow, practiced movements of a noh theater actor.
Moments later, Sergio Meza, the wisecracking Mexico-born chef who co-founded the Bogota restaurant Villanos en Bermudas, which currently stands at No. 15 on San Pellegrino’s list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, materializes behind the bar and hands me a sake glass filled to the brim with clear liquid.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Mezcal — quite a lot of it,” he replies, putting salsa music on the stereo.
With the flip of a switch, Artless has morphed into Bar Art-Stand.
Meza, 28, cuts a distinctive and slightly zany figure, crowned with a fiery nimbus of voluminous auburn curls. It’s strange to see him here in Tokyo, amid this serene space adorned with understated Japanese ceramics. The atmosphere at Villanos en Bermudas is the exact opposite — a delightfully chaotic mashup of Scandinavian furniture and day-glo posters, with strobe lights in the kitchen and funhouse mirrors in the restroom.
The mezcal is rich and smoky, with earthy notes that remind me of a campfire. As I sip my drink, Meza mashes an avocado with diced onion and a chiffonade of shiso (perilla) leaves and serves it with a homemade crunchy, fried tortilla.
Although Meza knows I have other dinner plans, he passes me a taco of raw tuna in morita (smoked dried jalapeno) chili sauce with burnt leeks. Then, he mixes a paloma cocktail, made with mezcal instead of tequila.
“Come on, it’s just a taco. Eat!” he urges, sounding very much like my college roommate’s Jewish grandmother. Like the guacamole, the taco is delicious: I do not resist.
Meza started cooking when he was 11 years old. When he wasn’t assembling parts in his mother’s trophy shop, he tinkered at the stove, later spending high school vacations working in hotel kitchens. After graduating, he opted to become a chef and moved to Barcelona to take a cooking course.
“My parents literally gave me all the money they’d saved for my college tuition and said, ‘Don’t do stupid s—-,’” he recalls.
The period following the two years he spent in Spain was nomadic and transformative, imbuing him with a worldview spanning four continents and the confidence of a much older chef. His resume includes prestigious restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen, Borago in Santiago and Empellon in New York.
After an early career in haute cuisine, in 2016 he joined fellow chef Nicolas Lopez in Bogota to open Villanos en Bermudas, where they served refined but casual dishes such as lamb tartare with fennel foam sandwiched between airy wafers, and grilled hearts of palm beneath a kimchi whip.
Although Meza and Lopez still have shares in the business, they have since bequeathed Villanos en Bermudas to their former sous chefs in order to pursue new paths, and are no longer involved in the running of the restaurant.
For the next two months, Meza will be running Bar Art-Stand — a collaboration with Mexico City-based restaurateur Edo Kobayashi — while he figures out his next step. The idea is to give Tokyoites a taste of modern, creative Mexican food.
There will be ceviche and aguachile (a Mexican version of spicy ceviche), tacos filled with vegetarian mole made with braised mushrooms in a smoky-sweet chili sauce and a take on quesadillas made with camembert cheese and blistered shishitō peppers. To wash it all down, there are cocktails and a short selection of natural wines. The menu is still evolving but, Meza says firmly, “don’t expect nachos.”
Nakame Gallery Street 85, Kamimeguro 2-45-12, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0051; bit.ly/bar-art-stand; 6 p.m.-11 p.m. (LO); closed Mon.; drinks from ¥500, food from ¥600; nearest station Nakameguro; nonsmoking; cash only; English spoken. Bar Art-Stand runs through Sept. 30.