Cuna de Tierra. A savory way to spend an SMA day.

Don Day used to go to beaches. Don Day used to go to big cities. Don Day used to go to castles. Don Day used to go to ski resorts. These days, Don Day has one of those been there, done that attitudes. He only goes to places where they offer something very special to eat or drink. These days, Don Day is often an oenotourist.

Oenotourism. Talk about a mouthful. Talk about a butt ugly word. Even if you drop that first “o” and spell it enotourism or use that other term vinitourism, it’s still got five syllables.

Oenotourism is basically a holiday that focuses on wine. However life’s a holiday for Don Day and all of Don Day’s holidays focus somewhat on wine so I guess I have to be a little more specific. If I include that oenotourism involves visiting vineyards, that should do it.

Oenotourism has been a big deal in Europe for decades. In the mid seventies, it also started to be a big deal in California. In Mexico it’s taken a little longer to catch on. But that’s mostly because Mexican wine has taken a little longer to catch on. I took a look today at the latest edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and of the 300 plus pages there’s still only one devoted to Mexican wine. And that’s about right when you figure that Mexico only represents about .36% of the world’s output.

The Valle de Guadelupe was the first part of Mexico to get into the wine tourism business. But then it was also the first region in Mexico to get recognition for decent Mexican wine. About five years ago, organized tours, mostly originating out of Ensenada, the fishing port on the west coast that, if you drive like Don Day’s Wife, is only about two hours south of San Diego, started exploring the wineries that were springing up in the Northern Baja.

Now there’s a new wine region. At least if you believe the Wine Route signs that have been put up by the government. And it’s all within an hour or two of San Miguel de Allende.

In wine regions all over France, Italy and Spain you can sometimes hit five different wineries in just ten kilometers of driving. In Mexico, it’s a little different. Bodega Dos Buhos, Vinicola Toyan, Freixenet, Rancho Santa Gloria, La Redonda and Los Rosales are all wineries an easy day trip from San Miguel de Allende but combining more than two in a tour can make it a very long day. And as that day involves the consumption of wine, it can be a dangerous day. Don Day has been known to end up in a ditch on his most sober of days.

The good thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The good thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. Don Day’s advice: Get a DD, hire a driver, or splurge a little on a taxi and spend the day at the winery that Don Day thinks is simply one of the best ways to spend any of your days if you live in or are visiting San Miguel de Allende.

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I met Ricardo Vega in Los Cuatro Milpas, a San Miguel restaurant. We were both sat at a table with a glass of red in front of us. Which is more than enough reason to talk to any stranger. Ricardo is an owner of Cuna de Tierra, a winery located about 40 km away from San Miguel in Dolores Hidalgo. I told Ricardo I hadn’t had any Cuna de Tierra wine for a few years. He said I should. He was right. He asked if I’d ever been to the Cuna de Tierra winery. I said I hadn’t. He said I should. He was right.

miguel hidalgo

Wine was being produced by the Roman Catholic church around Dolores Hidalgo almost three hundred years ago. About a hundred years after that, the priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, one of the heroes of the Mexican revolution, was one of the celebrated growers. In 1810, the Spanish government sent in soldiers to destroy the vineyards and prevent them from competing with Spanish imports. It was an act that helped lead to El Grito, the cry by Father Hidalgo to launch the revolution. Ricardo Vega’s family bought the land forty years ago. When Cuna de Tierra was started about 16 years ago, the founders were confident that the soil conditions and climate would be ideal for growing outstanding grapes.

It’s only about a 35 minute drive to Cuna de Tierra from San Miguel. At this time of year, much of Mexico is emerald green and the wild flowering grasses look good enough to pick and arrange into bouquets. The housing estates along the road to Dolores have the tallest of walls, grandest of gates and most pretentious of names but still resemble empty parking lots. Antique shops, some of them with antiques younger than Don Day’s grandchildren, beckon with the best distressed surfaces you’ll ever see. And the hole in the wall restaurants you pass all specialize in a dish that includes the adjective rico.

cuna logo sculpture vines

The entrance to Cuna de Tierra is quite subtle with only a grapevine sculpture of the winery’s artistic (but somewhat obscure) logo symbolizing the cradle of the earth visible when you enter. There are about 40 acres of vines planted at the winery and it’s a welcoming sight to drive through some of them before you reach the first evidence of commercialization.

cuna sharon ovservation tower

That evidence is a lookout tower, about ten metres tall, very mid-century modern in its natural concrete form, nestled amongst the distinctively shaped leaves of cabernet sauvignon vines. It wasn’t difficult for Don Day to stand up there (and Don Day’s Wife to sit down up there) and imagine the pride a farmer must have when he looks out over his almost-ready-to-harvest crop.

cuna table in tower

In the base of the tower, a handsome table is the centrepiece of a room occasionally used for dinners and tastings. I was sad that we weren’t going to use the room during our visit. Sad until we reached the prime building where all of the steps in the winemaking operation take place and I saw what was planned for there.

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It’s another midcentury modern structure with tall, windswept grasses giving it a zenlike appearance. Pea gravel scrunched beneath our feet as we walked on to the paved courtyard and passed the bicycles used for touring the vineyards.

cuna bicycles exterior

Back in the seventies, when Don Day first experienced oenotourism and visited wineries in France, most of them were dark, dank dungeons that smelled of mold, mildew and malt vinegar. The only art on the walls was created by spiders and one expected Bela Lugosi to emerge from behind a barrel at any moment. It always seemed that you were taking the proprietor away from something far more important than making money by selling you wine.

cuna making notes with tanks

Oh how times have changed. Cuna de Tierra‘s winery is so clean I could hear my shoes squeaking as we inspected the stainless steel cold settling tanks. The lights were bright enough when we paraded past the barrels to read where in France, the United States or Hungary they came from.

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Cuna de Tierra is currently marketing five wines commercially but before we tasted them, Ricardo Vega wanted an opinion on a wine that was yet to be bottled.

Now when Don Day hears the words Nebbiolo grapes it’s like hearing the words naked women. It gets Don Day very excited. Because Don Day thinks that Nebbiolo is one of the world’s great red wines.

About five years ago, Don Day tasted some Mexican Nebbiolo that was being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe and Don Day still has very fond and very vivid memories of that evening. Though it didn’t rival the great Barolos that are made from the finicky Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont, Italy, it could stand tall against the mid range Italian wines made from the grape in Northwestern Italy.

For Cuna de Tierra‘s first experience with Nebbiolo, the winery isn’t growing the grapes.

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“If we planted vines now, it would be six years before there would be grapes ready to harvest so, as an experiment, we had them shipped in from the coast”, Ricardo Vega told me.

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“Unlike other wineries that are blending Nebbiolo with Cabernet Franc or Syrah, we’re including some Tempranillo in the blend.”

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Don Day (and Don Day’s Wife) certainly liked the result. The wine had the typical Nebbiolo nuances of violets, roses, mushrooms and prunes and I think Nebbiolo may have a better future than any other grape in Mexico.

The first wine we sampled from Cuna de Tierra‘s current commercial offering was Torre de Tierra white. It was the first time Don Day had even seen Cuna de Tierra`s Semillon since I first sampled it in the restaurant El Tomate on Mesones three or four years ago.

When Day Day used to spend a little time in the southwest of France, Don Day drank considerable amounts of Semillon though most often in a blend with Sauvignon Blanc and/or Muscadelle. Semillon is a favorite white grape but, if it’s not in a blend, it`s not one I usually choose. I would have liked more fruit and acidity in the Torre de Tierra but it was fine and as it`s rare to ever see any Mexican Semillon it was a pleasant surprise.

cuna ricardo sampling semillon

“We’re finding it challenging to grow white in this climate”, said Ricardo Vega, “but we’re continuing to experiment. We now have some Sauvignon Blanc planted but it will be a while before we’re ready to include it in a blend.”

cuna cheese and meat plate

Accompanying the Torre de Tierra white was a magnificent plate of meats and cheeses sourced from Luna de Queso on Salida a Celaya in San Miguel and prepared by the winery’s private (and handsome according to Don Day’s Wife) chef Julian Goldstone.

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It was followed by a plate of ruby red smoked trout and the first of Cuna de Tierra‘s red wines.

cuna smoked trout plate

Cuna de Tierra 2012 red is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc. It spends 9 months in a mix of new and one year old oak barrels and another 6 months in the bottle.

“I prefer my wines to be less oaky”, Ricardo Vega told me. “I prefer to let the grapes win not the wood.”

The influences from the oak are quite subtle in the Cuna de Tierra red and there are nice fruity flavors of cherries and black currants.

The second red we sampled, Pago de Vega 2011 is Cuna de Tierra‘s premium offering and spends 15 months in new oak barrels and 12 months in the bottle before it goes to market. The current blend is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc.

cuna ricardo holding pago bottle

“The tendency is to low alcohol and that’s where we’re going with our wines. I want to keep Pago de Vega at no more than 13%”, Ricardo Vega told me.

“It’s not hard to make wine but it’s hard to make good wine. The secret is in the blending…how to put different grapes together to end with something that is much more than the sum of its parts.”

cuna cab sauv grapes on vine

Pago de Vega has similarities to a Bordeaux and the grapes used in the blend are four of the six allowed in a Bordeaux. It had a more refined taste than the first red with similar berry fruit on the nose but this time with more earthy and graphite aromas. Don Day has had Pago de Vega a few times in his life but only when other people are paying and likes just about everything about it except its price tag. It sells at retail for over $500 pesos a bottle which is even beyond Don Day’s splurge budget.

cuna juan manchon

A fine risotto with shrimp had now arrived at the table as had Juan Manchon, Cuna de Tierra‘s winemaker. Juan grew up next door to Cuna de Tierra and, after earning a degree in oenology in Spain, returned to Mexico to take over the winemaking operation.

cuna mistela bottle

Our last wine was Mistela, a sweet white that bears Juan Manchon’s name and Ricardo Vega teased Don Day for a while with what grape it was made from. I failed the quiz miserably but I had a reason. The grape was one that the workers in the vineyard take home for their families. It’s a no name that is simply known as table grapes.

cuna grapes and nino

In San Miguel de Allende there is an absolute dearth of good sweet wines. Lately, the only thing Don Day has found at La Europea, our largest wine store is a Chilean late harvest Reisling that just doesn’t do it. I decided then and there to buy a case of Vino Generoso Mistela. Especially when I heard that a 500 ml bottle goes for $90 pesos.

Along with that case and a lot of fine memories of a day very well spent, I took one other thing home that afternoon, a bottle of Torre de Tierra red, the one Cuna de Tierra wine that I hadn’t tasted at the winery. It took me almost a day to open it.

torre de tierra red bottle

Cuna de Tierra‘s Torre de Tierra red combines 80% Tempranillo with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it’s the same blend as Vino de Piedra, one of the most celebrated and successful of all Mexican wines originating in the Valle de Guadelupe.

Don Day liked Torre de Tierra. If I had closed my eyes, as I often do after three or four glasses of wine, I would have thought that I was drinking a Rioja which isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world. Torre de Tierra red has done well in tastings against some tough competition, some fine Riojas right in their homeland, Spain. It’s not that available in Mexico. But it should be.

cuna dining room

Don Day doesn’t often leave San Miguel de Allende in search of food and drink. Perhaps because San Miguel has so much to offer without ever stepping beyond its borders. But I should. And so should you. A day trip to Cuna de Tierra is a way to savor very good wine accompanied by very good food in delightful surroundings. It’s not the cheapest day you’ll ever spend. But if I think I’m worth it, you most definitely are.

Cuna de Tierra is located at Carretera Dolores Hidalgo – San Luiz de la Paz, Kilometer 11, in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. There are numerous packages available that range from a simple tour through the vineyard with a glass of wine to a four course meal with four glasses of wine prepared by chef Julian Goldstone. Reservations are essential and can be made at 415 152 8205. The winery can also assist with arranging transportation.

All I am saying is give peas a chance.

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To most people Sunday is about prayer in a church. In the home I grew up in, Sunday prayer was in a kitchen. “Please tell me that the roast will be ready soon. The smell of that sizzling beef fat is driving me crazy.”

No matter what Spanky And Our Gang said, Sundays will always be the same. Last Sunday evening we had what Don Day would be quite happy to have on every Sunday evening. We had a prime rib roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, roast onions, carrots, mushrooms and peas.

Peas were Don Day`s first ever very best favorite green vegetable and not much has changed since. Don Day`s Wife will tell you it’s because he`s never grown up. He’ll tell you it’s because peas are so damn good.

In early childhood, for about six weeks a year we ate fresh peas. I was in charge of shelling and, before I reached the age of 12, I had already perfected the thumb flick into the pot. When they no longer made a ping sound when they hit the side, I knew there were enough.

For the rest of the year we ate canned peas (Clarence Bird`s Eye`s invention of frozen veg was an impossibility without a fridge) and, despite my mother’s passionate speeches about the joys of freshness and how consuming fresh peas would prevent if not cure the common cold, I actually preferred them canned. I was sure then and I’m sure now that canned peas taste better.

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The tiniest, tenderest and sweetest canned peas are Le Sueur brand (they also boast a label that’s a masterpiece of simple graphic design) and surprise, surprise, (it sure was to me) they come from the same company that brings you Green Giant. In fact, Le Sueur was the name of the town in Minnesota where that famous valley of the green giant is located (try saying that without singing Ho! Ho! Ho!).

When Don Day started spending winters in San Miguel de Allende, Le Sueur nor any other brands of canned baby peas that I was familiar with were to be found. In fact I remember going to Gigante, the old supermercado and asking for cans of guisantes and being told they didn’t have any at all. Later, when I saw them on the shelf there, I realized that guisante was not a very common word. In Mexico, peas are usually called chicharos not guisantes, the word I knew from Spain. What I did find were a couple of brands of large, almost tasteless peas that never softened quite enough no matter how long I cooked them. Fresh peas in Mexico were the same; I`ve read that it`s because it`s too sunny and warm but I`ve also read that it`s because they leave them far too long on the vine. Don Day contemplated bringing a few cans of Le Sueur down each time we came to Mexico but was laughed out of the suggestion by Don Day`s Wife (we`re not always like two in a pod). To Don Day they were just as important as the envelopes of Knorr Suisse sauces we brought, or the fresh tarragon and lemons we smuggled. To the others who traveled with me, canned peas were, obviously, just a burden on our weight allowance.

Don Day continued to eat (and suffer) those canned Mexican peas with the Sunday roast until last Sunday. Last Sunday, Don Day reached Mexican pea nirvana but before I tell you how, I need to tell you a little more about my experiences.

In Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where Don Day spent some formidable but foggy teen years, there was a shop called Dorothy Duckworth’s Meat Pies. Though it occupied a retail storefront on a busy street, it was open only one day a week and sold only two and a half things: Meat pies, peas and (if you knew to ask for it and therefore only rating the half score) gravy. On many Saturday mornings (they usually ran out and closed around two in the afternoon), my father would drive down and pick up these flaky crusted beauties with wonderfully spiced pork inside along with the peas and gravy. The peas were not, however, what I was used to. They were dried peas that were soaked overnight and then boiled for hours. Don Day was crazy about them.

In Toronto, Ontario, Canada there’s a restaurant called Ye Olde York that specializes in fish and chips. Down near the bottom of one of the pages of their menu is the category “side orders” and there you’ll find listed “mushy peas”, They’re those same dried peas that Dorothy Duckworth used to make. They still taste as good.

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When Don Day was walking through Bonanza, San Miguel`s have absolutely everything you ever need shop, on Sunday afternoon, there to pick up semillas de hojillo for Don Day`s Wife`s homemade Italian sausage, he spied two lonely piles with bags of dried peas, a green for go light amongst a sea of brown and beige, perhaps embarassed to be at the edge of the massive frijoles section. I decided the price, I think it was fourteen and a half pesos (a little more than a buck), was worth the gamble. I was going to finally try to give up the can (I started to have flashbacks of what it took to give up the three packs a day of Pall Mall plain ends).

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I brought the peas home and placed them in a pot to soak for a couple of hours along with a generous amount of salt. I then simmered them gently for a couple of hours until the water had been absorbed. Don Day`s Wife added a small handful of chopped mint leaves (one of the great kitchen pea cooking secrets) and wow! Now they were not a pretty sight (as witnessed by the photo of the serving bowl) but Don Day`s Wife, who usually only uses the p word when she’s been in a car for more than an hour pronounced them the best mushies ever (with the provisal if we absolutely have to eat peas).

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I have solved the Mexican pea problem. From now on my peas here will be bagged not canned. I bet Don Day could even taste these mushy peas through seven mattresses.

Hansen’s Pate de Pollo. Dinner for two for about five bucks.

Does anybody need a recipe for perfect chicken liver pate? Don Day has one.

hansenspateoldrecipe

It’s Don Day’s Wife’s recipe, one that started out as Poker Jim’s recipe, which was once a Joy of Cooking recipe. It’s a little beat up. There are a couple of post-its. Some additions and deletions. A few scribbles. But it has produced many very fine chicken liver pates.

Don Day’s Wife made the formal announcement last night, “Why should I go to all of the trouble of making my pate when I can go to Hansen’s and get enough to feed six people for less than ten bucks? And I won’t have to let anyone know it’s not mine unless somebody asks.”

We were sat at the bar at Hansen’s, Don Day’s favorite place for burgers and steaks and, as of last Saturday night, his favorite place for prime rib of beef (I know, what took me so long to try it).

hansenspatebootglass

We had just nipped in to rest Don Day’s Wife’s aching knee (the pain often becomes intense when we’re walking past a bar). The bartender poured Don Day’s Wife a Sauvignon Blanc and Don Day a beer (in a kitschy cowboy boot glass the style of which he’s not allowed to have at home), brought Don Day’s Wife a baggie filled with ice and wrapped in a towel for her knee, and said those unavoidable, inescapable six words, “Would you like some chicken pate?”

hansenspatesharonknee

Don Day echoed the words to Don Day’s Wife. “Would you like some chicken pate?”

“No, let’s pass. We’ll never eat dinner if we do”, she replied.

Then came another beer. And another glass of wine. And a brief discussion of the merits of Hansen’s pate. And, of course, the inevitable order.

hansenspateonplate

The plate arrived. In the center was a big, beautiful ball of chicken livers 2.63 inches in diameter. How does Don Day know that’s what it measured? Because it was the size of a tennis ball and that’s what a tennis ball measures. Surrounding the ball, like a scene from an old western, were a cavalry of garlic toasts.

hansenspatedick

At the same time, the plate arrived, the always charming Dick Weber, one of Hansen’s owners, walked over to Don Day’s Wife and asked her if she would like some bolillos with her pate. How could he have remembered? Once…and only once…and at least two years ago…Don Day’s Wife had told Dick that, as good as the garlic bread was, she didn’t like anything messing with the taste of that pate and a plain white bread would be preferable. It’s no wonder Don Day’s Wife always refers to him as “San Miguel’s consummate host”.

Though Dick spends more time out on the floor of the restaurant, he’s the one responsible for most of, if not all of, Hansen’s recipes. On the menu, the pate is described as “Pate de Pollo. Receta de la Abuela”, so perhaps Dick’s Grandmother deserves most of the credit for this one. Thank you, Grandma. Don Day is not exactly sure what goes into Hansen’s pate but he thinks there’s brandy, apple and a healthy amount…OK, I guess that should be unhealthy amount…of butter. The consistency is incredibly smooth, almost like a mousse.

“He not only can match my pate, he’s got a fancier food processor than I have”, said Don Day’s Wife.

hansensbolillobasket

We, of course, scraped the plate clean, Don Day finished all of that garlic toast, and Don Day’s Wife almost finished all of the bolillos. So there was no takeway box like almost everyone else that was leaving the restaurant. The only thing we left with was a fresh bag of ice for Don Day’s Wife’s knee from the ever thoughtful bartender. And, as always (except for when she gives directions) Don Day’s Wife was right. We didn’t need any more food later.

Which means that one serving of pate can be enough dinner for two big appetites for just 59 pesos or about five bucks. Which means that leaves a lot of pesos in Don Day’s pocket for things to wash it down with. Which means that Hansen’s pate is truly one of San Miguel’s very best bargains.

Hansen’s Bar & Grill is located at Calzada de la Aurora #12 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open Thursday from 5:00 to 10:00 pm, Friday and Saturday from 1:00 to 10:00 pm.

La Casa Olvera. Finding fabulous romesco sauce in San Miguel.

It was my third week back in San Miguel de Allende and I still hadn’t gone to La Casa Olvera. I almost went the week before when Chef Boris Olvera had one of Don Day’s favorite Mexican dishes, pescado veracruzana on the menu. But I’d had Chef Boris’ pescado veracruzana. I’d even gone to his cooking school to learn how to make it at home.

Then the email arrived and there it was. It wasn’t the main course on the menu. It wasn’t even the starter. It was only the amuse bouche. But it was a dish done in romesco sauce. And you just don’t see romesco sauce. Almost anywhere. Which is a shame because it’s one of the world’s great sauces.

La Casa Olvera had roots as La Cocina de Boris y Jessi, the restaurant on Ancha de San Antonio where Don Day had to hold his stomach in if there were more than eight other people in the place, where there wasn’t even room to change your mind before you ordered. The way Boris and Jessi solved the problem of working in a shoebox was by moving the restaurant to their new home, a house in Colonia Allende.

The restaurant in your home is not a new concept. Back in the seventies, Don Day’s favorite Toronto restaurant was a place called Troy’s where French chef Cecil Troy had opened the first floor of an old Victorian located in the city’s most haughty-taughty residential neighborhood without hardly raising an eyebrow from the neighbors.

These days, laws, bylaws and crylaws (crylaws are things like separate washrooms for employees) make it almost impossible to do it in Toronto or most anywhere else in the world. But it is still possible in San Miguel De Allende.

The benefits are mostly to the restaurant owners but knowing how tough it is to make a go out of owning a restaurant in this town, Don Day can only loudly applaud Boris and Jessi for their entrepreneurial innovations. It’s not all easy though.

Boris and Jessi call the concept Puerta Cerrada. Don Day thinks Puerta Abierta might be more appropriate so I asked Jessi to explain it to me.

romesco jessi

“The literal translation is Closed Door. But really it is a style of dining that became popular first in Argentina. It is the idea that a chef welcomes guests into his home and serves the best of what he has to offer. It removes all the limitations and stigmas of being a restaurant. The patrons go from being customers to guests. Boris did dining like this when he opened Napa Dinner Underground. And as far as we know we are one of the first to offer this style of dining in Mexico.”

The one tough part of serving a set menu is simply that. It’s a set menu. Now Don Day never has a problem with anything on any menu. If Don Day says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse, Don Day means it (prepared as tartare is his favorite). When Don Day sees roadkill he gets hunger pangs. But Don Day knows he is in the minority. For Don Day has a lot of friends and family who don’t eat red meat, don’t eat offal, don’t eat wheat, don’t eat shellfish. So Don Day has a lot of sympathy for Boris and Jessi when, each week, they have to prepare their set menu.

Obviously, they always have to keep it fairly simple but, so far, in the first three or so months they’ve been hosting guests in their home, the menu has still been suitably adventurous to intrigue Don Day.

romesco boris plating

I asked Jessi Olvera what she thinks is most special about their dining at home concept. She told me, “We believe that the best part about the Puerta Cerrada dinners is that the chef can really challenge himself to come up with fresh, creative menus unlike anything else that you can find in San Miguel.”  

“And the bad part?”, Don Day asked.

romesco jessi pouring

“The flip side to that”, said Jessi, “is he is equally challenging the customer to try new and unique menus that they may not see when they go out to more traditional restaurants.” 

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What Don Day likes best about Puerta Abierta…sorry, Puerta Cerrada…is a common ingredient that is in every dish they prepare. The meals are served at large communal tables. So every meal is spiced with conversation. And, despite Don Day’s mother always bringing a wooden spoon to the dinner table to smack his wrist if he said a single word other than Amen, Don Day thinks there is no better spice than words to make every meal taste better.

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“The conversation must sparkle like the rubies in the entremets wines, it must be delightfully suave with the sweetmeats of the dessert, and become very profound with the coffee.”

Now I doubt if there are many people…well not since the 19th Century anyway…that could live up to Alexandre Dumas’ conversational criteria but at La Casa Olvera Don Day has learned, Don Day has laughed, and Don Day has always left thinking what a great night we had.

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The last time at Casa Olvera was no exception and the romesco sauce was even better than anticipated.

Salsa romesco began life in Tarragona, in Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain and was originally created by local fisherman as a sauce for seafood. Though it’s not exactly like any other sauce, like a lot of other sauces, the most important ingredient is nuts. Some recipes use pine nuts and others use hazelnuts but the most common nut and the one that Chef Boris used was almonds. The other two prime ingredients are roast peppers and tomatoes.

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Though it began as an accompaniment to fish, these days, in Spain, you’ll see romesco sauce with poultry, escargots, lamb or simple vegetable dishes. Though I’ve never been to one (hint, hint, Don Day’s Wife), I’ve always wanted to host a calcotade. At these events, held in the Spring in Catalonia, onions similar to Mexico’s cebollitos are roasted on a barbecue until the outside is charred. The burned bits are then pulled off and the juicy insides are dipped into the romesco.

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Chef Boris served his romesco with something Don Day had never had them with before, very simple balls of risotto. They acted like a pasta, soaking up the sauce and complementing its taste but never fighting with it. My only complaint was I wanted more and knowing that you probably weren’t there and might want some of the sauce, Don Day asked Boris to share the recipe. The always amenable Boris did.

ROMESCO SAUCE
1 dried sweet chile・3 plum tomatoes, cored and halved lengthwise ・1/2 red bell pepper, cored and seeded ・1/2 onion・1 garlic clove・1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil・kosher salt and black pepper・canola oil・3 crustless 2-in cubes country bread・1/8 cup slivered almonds・1 tbsp. sherry vinegar・1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Remove seed and stem from the chile, place in a bowl, cover with warm water and soak for 30 minutes.
3. Put tomatoes, bell pepper, onion and garlic in a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for one hour, until well-browned with some charring. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
4. Remove skins from the tomatoes and peppers and discard outer layer of the onion. Reserve any liquid in the pan.
5. Heat some canola oil in a small pan over medium; add bread and and brown. Remove bread from pan; add nuts and toast until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate.
6. Drain chile and place in blender with tomatoes, pepper, onion, garlic, and reserved liquid. Blend until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about one cup. Refrigerate covered for up to two weeks.

romesco chef boris

Chef Boris spent a few years of his restaurant career in Northern California and, in Northern California kitchens, Thomas Keller is about as close as you get to heaven. Chef Boris’ sauce is based on a recipe by Chef Keller and Chef Keller was one of the topics of conversation at our Puerta Abierta…oops, there Don Day goes again…Puerta Cerrada dinners.

At Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Yountville, California, they also feature a set menu. There the price is $295 U.S. At La Casa Olvera, the set menu is less than one tenth of that. Now I’m not about to put Boris Olvera anywhere near the throne that Thomas Keller occupies but I will say that when it comes to value…well even someone with the mathematical aptitude of a Don Day knows who the winner is. In fact, if I remember right, the last thing I said to Jessi Olvera when I left La Casa Olvera was, “You know the problem with this place, Jessi, it’s too damn cheap.”

romesco front door

La Casa Olvera hosts Puerta Cerrada at 7:00 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at their home at Las Moras 61 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The menu is posted each week on their Facebook page at facebook.com/lacocinasma and is available by reservation only by calling 415 117 1151.

Paprika Restaurant. Put them in coach. They’re ready to play.

A couple of months ago Don Day was successful in talking Don Day’s Wife into doing something she’d never ever done before. It wasn’t of course easy. I had to use slightly devious, somewhat shady methods that people with greater moral standards than I would not find acceptable.

You see Don Day had made plans with his friend Peter to travel from Toronto to a ball game in Buffalo, New York, one of the last homes of real baseball, Triple A baseball, where we could see the faded and jaded stars of yesteryear and the bright lights of tomorrow, crossing paths, on their way down and on their way up. The problem was Peter had invited his girlfriend and therefore Don Day had to have a date and, when you’re married and when you have to have a date, your choices are but one.

My first thought was to make Don Day’s Wife think that Kevin Costner would be playing catcher but, although stretching the truth is totally permissible with your spouse, an outright lie is of course forbidden. So how do you lure a woman whose been almost everywhere, done almost everything, to an event she has zero desire to attend? There is one way with Don Day’s Wife. It’s called food.

My first attempt was to promise her one of two of the world’s greatest gourmet delights. It would be her choice: Beef on a weck. Or fried bologna on a kaiser. And there’s only one place I know that we’d be guaranteed to get both of them. Coca Cola Field in Buffalo, New York, home of baseball’s Triple A Bisons. And that way she could be the first to check out the handsome young rookies who’d soon be up in the big smoke, playing under a roof in Toronto and where she could hear pitching changes being sponsored by a funeral parlor and the seventh inning stretch sponsored by ambulance chasers…sorry, personal injury lawyers.

No, of course that didn’t work.

So I’m sure you’re wondering how did Don Day possibly achieve this ambitious goal of getting Don Day’s Wife to shuffle off to Buffalo. It was with the lunch I promised. There’s a chef in Buffalo who makes something called Anthony Bourdain’s Last Meal but normally only does it at dinner time. I described it to her (pork belly, bone marrow, foie gras) and said if I can get him to make it and serve it at midday will you go. Next thing you know we were, as Willie said, “On The Road Again” and though she never did try the beef on weck or the thick cut bologna (which is served with fried onions and peppers) at the ballpark, I actually think Don Day’s Wife almost enjoyed her first ever Triple A game.

Last weekend, Don Day went out to check out a couple of rookies in San Miguel de Allende. Though the playing fields weren’t exactly even. On Friday, Don Day went to a new San Miguel restaurant that might have cost $10,000,000 pesos just to open its doors to potential fans. On Saturday, Don Day went to a new San Miguel restaurant that probably spent less than $100,000 pesos before opening day. Don Day thinks the second one has a lot more promise of making the major leagues.

You probably know the three most important words in real estate: Location, location, location. You may, however, not know the four most important words in restaurants: Location, food, hospitality and ambience. And yes, that’s the order of importance. Location is number one. Great food in a not so great location has about as much chance of surviving as a 70 mile an hour fastball.

paprika sign

The rookie restaurant on the shoestring budget is called Paprika. It’s a few short blocks from prime central in San Miguel de Allende and it’s on a street with some of the most frequent walk-by traffic you’ll find in this town.

paprika menu del dia

I’m not sure how the owner Francine Llano and her partner found the location…it may have been not much more than karma or kismet…but Paprika is not only convenient, it is housed in one of the most beautiful courtyards in all of San Miguel. And the mismatched furniture that now decorates it simply adds to its charm.

paprika courtyard

“I found a lot of the chairs in a place in Celaya. I refinished some of the antique ones. I painted some of the others and most of the tables”, Francine told me.

The courtyard is a magnificent oasis. And though it’s on a street that’s best known for its choking dust, honking car horns and suffocating exhaust fumes, Ancha de San Antonio seems a million miles away from Paprika. The stonework floor and walls seem too good to be true. There’s symbolic religious statuary, studded mesquite doors that look like they’re too heavy to open, medieval inspired ironwork, Venetian brick terraces, a gate that you suspect leads to a secret chapel, and ficus benjamina stretching their arms to show what happens to them when they’re not imprisoned in offices with eight foot ceilings.

paprika interior

And that’s not the end of the charm. In addition to the seating for about twenty in the courtyard, there’s almost as pleasant seating for another thirty inside a dining room naturally lit by enormous leaded and arched windows.

paprika francine

Francine Llano is from Mexico City and though this is her first ever restaurant, there is some family tradition. Years ago, she worked with her sister, a chef in the capital. Don Day asked her who is the chef here, you or your partner?

“Neither of us are chefs”, said Francine. “We both just like to cook.”

“For the last six years in San Miguel, I’ve been operating a halfway house for drug and alcohol addicted people. I have a background as a counsellor”, continued Francine. “I think I needed a new kind of stress. I think I’ve found it.”

The menu at Paprika is extensive and would be a challenge for a chef with years of experience.

paprika olive oil dip

A basket of bread and separate bowls of a herbed olive oil and butter were welcome arrivals at the table. Don Day is not sure about the percentage split between people who prefer olive oil and those who prefer butter on their bread but there’s one sure way to please all of the people all of the time.

paprika bobby waters soup

Deciding that any dish that’s named after someone has to be good, I started with Bobby Waters Soup. Francine told me that the recipe came from a longtime San Miguel resident. Don Day thought that if Bobby Waters has other recipes like this, he should be composing a cookbook. Bobby Waters soup went instantly to Don Day’s “best of San Miguel” list. It’s a chilled avocado and almond that also includes orange, lime, cardamom, coconut milk and yogurt.

“Dip your spoon deep into this,” I said to Don Day’s Wife.

Don Day’s Wife said, “This is too good. Too rich. Nobody deserves all of this goodness all at once. You could serve this for dessert. I’d recommend they bring it down to cup size instead of a bowl. Or maybe offer it in two sizes.”

paprika onion soup

Don Day’s Wife chose the French onion soup as a starter. It wasn’t one of those old fashioned onion soups with beef bones braised for hours, with fat sliced onions slowly caramelized and cheese so thick it requires scissors to cut. Paprika‘s version is lighter. Perfect for an al fresco lunch on a hot summer day.

“The one thing I dislike about French onion soup is it’s a meal in itself”, said Don Day’s Wife. This is lighter, less filling but still very pleasant. It’s nice to have room for more.”

paprika drakos beverage

Paprika had yet to receive its alcohol licence when we were there (but by the time you read this it should have). So we ordered our go-to sodas, Coca Lites, until Francine suggested she had something we might like a lot more. It’s a soft drink that sounds like it’s named after the Greek god of duck hunting but is actually Mexican. It’s called Drakos. The first one we ordered was lime and lavender flavor. The second one we tried (yes, it was that good) was orange and rosemary.

We were challenged again to choose our second courses. The menu includes five different salads, all of them with make you want to order descriptions. Plus there are some imaginative sounding sandwiches, a traditional burger with bacon and jack cheese and a not so traditional burger with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and zucchini. The mains include dishes that will have a carnivore sharpening his toothpick including lamb loin chops, an Angus ribeye and a 600 gram cowboy steak. There’s nothing particularly original on the menu but they say that originality is like paprika, better in small doses and Don Day has no problem with the restaurant sticking with the tried and true.

paprika francine two

“I know the menu is a little too long”, said Francine, “but it is a good way to find out what people want…and what they don’t want. I know I’m going to have to shorten it. I also want to try some more casual, less expensive dishes.”

We had just come from the Rosewood Market where the plan was to pick up clams from La Isla for dinner. We were too late. The clams had already swum upstream into other people’s bags. Once we’d decided on pastas, it was therefore easy for Don Day to choose the spaghetti with shrimp and those sought after clams. The pasta was perfectly cooked which isn’t too tough a task. The generous quantity of medium sized shrimp were also perfectly cooked, also a not particularly difficult thing to do. And last…and Don Day must say it was a surprise from such an inexperienced kitchen…the clams were also perfectly done. I’ve had dry, shrivelled up little creatures from the world’s most highly esteemed chefs. To get moist, tender bivalves from a rookie kitchen was a wow.

paprika seafood pasta

Now Don Day doesn’t know exactly who he was but the chef who popularized the practice should be hung upside down until his toque falls off. I’m talking about that stigma that seafood and cheese can’t be served together. Don Day’s seafood pasta came with a bowl of parmesan on the side. Thank you, Paprika.

Thank you, Paprika, also, for putting salt and pepper shakers on the table. I don’t care if a restaurant is working on its third Michelin star, you should let the customer decide if a dish needs more salt.

Paprika included parmesan with Don Day’s Wife’s pasta as well. She chose what is probably her favorite sauce, puttanesca. It’s a word that the mischievous little boy still somewhere inside Don Day can’t write about without telling you that it translates as whore’s sauce.

Don Day’s Wife thought it should have come with a bowl not only of cheese on the side but also dried chili flakes so the heat level could be taken up a few degrees.

“I would have also gone a little heavier on the olives, anchovies and capers,” said Don Day’s Wife. “But it was still a nicely prepared puttanesca with a good balance between the other ingredients and the tomatoes.”

paprika salad bowls

Now maybe this is a little thing to other people but this is a big thing to Don Day. Except for soup, very little comes in bowls in restaurants any more. Except at Paprika. I think it’s because chefs are now all expected to play Picasso and plates are a better canvas to work on. I think pastas are always better in bowls. As are salads which I noticed were also being served that way at the next table over.

We were down to the last decision. Dessert. It’s never a decision about if with Don Day, only a decision about what. Key lime pie and creme brulee were the finalists. They’re both on Don Day’s top ten list of sweet inspirations.

“You should have the creme brulee if you really want to put the kitchen to the test,” said Don Day’s Wife. Don Day did.

“I knew I was in trouble when I was carrying it from the fridge”, said Francine. “I could tell the consistency wasn’t quite there.”

Francine was right. It was more of a pudding than a custard.

paprika creme brulee

Creme brulee is difficult to get right. If Don Day’s Wife wasn’t my editor and going to read this, I’d tell you that she hasn’t been exempt from screwing up the dish. Maybe that’s why she had some very complimentary things to say about Paprika‘s creme brulee.

“It definitely wasn’t scrambled eggs which is the worst thing that can happen. And you’re never sure how it’s going to set until it’s spent some time in the fridge. I think the dessert’s only problem was it was called creme brulee. By any other name it would have passed. It was still very tasty.”

Don Day liked the fact that Francine didn’t try to defend the dessert. She knows what’s good and what’s not so good. And people who know that, know how to make things better.

When a rookie comes up to the big show, they don’t get a hit every time they come to bat. But Don Day thought Paprika still got wood on the bat with the dessert. And when you pair that with a home run already to their credit for the avocado and almond soup, you’ve definitely got a rookie that looks like they’re ready for the major leagues.

paprika courtyard above

As I thought home run, I couldn’t help but look up again at the walls of the elegant courtyard and marvel at just how beautiful the setting for the restaurant is. Location: Yes. Ambience: A very big yes. Food: Already very close. Service: Both efficient and attentive.

paprika menu

We’re still in the first couple of innings but I think we’ve got a career .300 hitter in Paprika. I’d recommend you get to the yard soon.

Paprika is located on Ancha de San Antonio #7 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open Tuesday to Saturday from 1:00 to 10:00 pm, Sunday from 1:00 to 6:00 pm.

There’s a fungus among us. In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Don Day thinks it’s definitely time to give the Mexican truffle its place in the sun.

Mexican truffle? You’ve never heard of it? Well, neither had Don Day until about ten years ago. Mexican truffle is one of the names it’s known by. To North American corn growers who are afraid of it infecting their plants, it’s mostly known as smut. And to Mexicans, who appreciate it’s delightful flavor, it’s a delicacy known as huitlacoche.

huitlacochesunbathing

Now Don Day has always enjoyed smut. Especially in those formative, boys will be boys, adolescent years. I remember I would dream of the day I’d be able to leave home and could get a subscription to Modern Sunbathing and Hygiene. And be able to leave it on the bedside table instead of under the mattress. And never have to rehearse the because I love volleyball excuse to explain it to my parents.

Because I’ve always enjoyed smut, Don Day should have known he would be very fond of huitlacoche.

huitlacocheoncob

Huitlacoche, pronounced weet-lah-koh-chay, is not really a truffle, though, like the truffle, it is a member of the fungus family. It infects corn plants and replaces the kernels with distorted tumors that make the cobs look like creatures from low budget fifties sci-fi flicks. After a little pruning and primping, with their abstract shapes and black, brown, grey and white colors, huitlacoche definitely resembles our most familiar fungus, mushrooms. The taste is a little like a mild version of European truffles. Let’s say it’s like a woodsy, earthy, nutty, smoky mushroom.

huitlacocheinhand

Like many words that have entered Mexican Spanish, huitlacoche derives from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. There are a few possible origins of the word in Nahuatl but Don Day’s favorite is definitely raven’s excrement. And you thought the words corn smut were a turn-off!

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In San Miguel de Allende, you can buy fresh huitlacoche at Mercado San Juan de Dios, at Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, at many of the fruit and veg tiendas around town or occasionally (including this week), at Mega or Soriano, Mexico’s bow to north of the border supermarket shopping. I bought mine this week at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market. Don Day’s huitlacoche came from one of my favorite little stalls located close to the far east end of the market after you’ve passed most of the food stalls. That’s the owner of the stand in the photo, the guy with a smile a mile wide, handing me my 10 peso bag. I would compare huitlacoche favorably with chanterelles, morels, cepes or any of the other of the world’s most precious mushrooms, so a decent size bag for less than a buck is one of the world’s culinary bargains.

So now, how to prepare huitlacoche? In Mexico, it’s most often found in quesadillas or one of the many other forms of stuffed tortillas that are served in this country but then so many things are most often found on or between tortillas in Mexico. I think the uses of huitlacoche are almost endless and my recommendation is to start by treating them as a mushroom. When you make a mushroom omelette, replace the mushrooms with huitlacoche. When you put sauteed mushrooms on your steak, replace them with huitlacoche. For lunch today, I had huitlacoche sprinkled over a green salad in the same way you’d use raw mushrooms. 

Don Day’s Wife combines huitlacoche with fresh creminis and poblano peppers to make a wonderful soup which I’ve asked her to share the recipe for. You’ll recognize her handwriting because it’s much bolder than Don Day’s.

huitlacochesoup

Huitlacoche Poblano Soup (serves 6)

1 large leek, washed and chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
225 grams (1/2 pound) huitlacoche
225 grams (1/2 pound) cremini mushrooms, chopped (you can substitute with white)
2-3 poblano peppers, cleaned and chopped with seeds and veins removed (the quantity depends on how much heat you want – I use three unless I’ve got some spice sensitive guests)
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1/2 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg

Sweat the leeks in the olive oil over low heat (put olive oil and chopped leeks in pan, cover with a layer of parchment paper or tin foil, then with the pot lid). You want the leeks to become tender, but not brown.

Add the huitlacoche and the creminis. Saute until tender. Add chicken stock and poblano peppers. Cook over medium heat until peppers are tender.

Puree with immersion blender (or cool and blend in blender in batches) until smooth.

Add heavy cream and reheat. Salt to taste.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream (crema aciete) and a grate of fresh nutmeg.

huitlacochesunday

Not that Don Day gives a tinker’s damn about much other than how something tastes, I do know that other people do. As far as nutritional value is concerned, huitlacoche has most of the same good things that corn has plus one very large extra. Huitlacoche contains lycine, one of those essential amino acids (don’t ask me tricky questions like why they’re essential). I do know that lycine is like candy to bodybuilders and, just once in my life, I would like someone to use the word buff in the same sentence as Don Day.

lascuatrofourthsope

If you’d like to try huitlacoche in a San Miguel restaurant, the recently opened Las Quatro Milpas occasionally has a wonderful sope topped with huitlacoche, portabello and epazote.

For the two or perhaps three readers Don Day might have outside of Mexico, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen fresh huitlacoche for sale but you can find it in restaurants; it’s on the menu at Tu y Yo in Boston and at La Casita Mexicana in Bell, outside Los Angeles. You can buy it in a can in Kensington Market in Toronto but after first trying tinned huitlacoche (“How could anything this good become so bad just because somebody put it in a can.”), Don Day’s Wife refused to ever eat the canned variety again, so forget that. Don Day believes it’s the slimy texture (imagine a can of garden slugs) that’s a by-product of the canning process, that causes it to be so maligned. To Don Day, who’s often been served the canned variety in restaurants, it tastes just as good.

Like Don Day, you may just have to get on a plane to get your fresh smut. And in San Miguel de Allende, there’s always fabulous fungus among us.

Patio Tres. A special place to enjoy special wines at very special prices.

patiotresrainbow

Maybe it was the rainbow that had me thinking. How not much has changed (thankfully) since Don Day made one of the best decisions of his life and started to spend a few months each year in San Miguel de Allende. Except, perhaps for one thing. Eleven years ago when Don Day’s Wife and I first began living la buena vida, people came to San Miguel for maybe a month, sometimes a winter or perhaps a lifetime. These days most of them come for probably a weekend or possibly a week. Eleven years ago, most visitors came from the United States and they rented or purchased a home. These days they come from other parts of Mexico and they stay in hotels.

I don’t know how many hotel rooms there were in 2003 but I’d guess that number has since doubled. When you build a hotel you give people a place to sleep but you also must almost always give them a place to eat and, though a restaurant is seldom a profit maker for most luxury hotels, you might as well do your best to make money from it.

Most of the hotels that have opened in San Miguel, particularly in the last five years, are what Don Day would call luxury hotels and what the owners call boutique hotels. And because most of them are luxury hotels they have upscale restaurants.

Now if you’ve been a regular reader of Don Day over the last five years, you’ll know that, unlike most restaurant critics, Don Day rarely writes about upscale restaurants. There are a few reasons why but one very obvious one. Most restaurant critics have expense accounts. Don Day only has expenses.

Don Day has no aversion to Andanza, 1826, Dos Casas or Moxi. None of them even require Don Day to wear a jacket or even socks when he dines. Don Day would love to eat at all of them. And do it quite frequently. But Don Day can’t afford to eat at these restaurants. At least, not very often.

There is one exception though. It’s a place that Don Day occasionally goes to for a drink. But only once before had we ever gone to eat.

What convinced me to have dinner there was running into someone at another bar, a place that Don Day quite often goes to for a drink, La Sirena Gorda. Sitting at one my favorite of all San Miguel’s watering holes (it’s hard for Don Day not to like any horseshoe shaped bar), I saw German Ortega. I’d first met German, a tattooed local from neighboring Celaya, the kind of guy women call “lean and mean”, back when he was with the food and wine shop, Carnevino. German had helped orchestrate one of the best launches San Miguel had ever seen when the shop first opened its doors.

I asked him if he was still at Patio Tres and he said he still was. And, like any good restaurant manager, he said I should come and check out some of the changes to the menu. Like any responsible food writer, last week, Don Day’s Wife and I did.

Patio Tres is perhaps the most confusing restaurant/bar in all of San Miguel. It’s in a great location, in El Meson Hotel next to the Opera House on Mesones. But as easy a place as it is to get to it’s a very difficult place to get into.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind

patiotresfrontdoor

It starts with the signage. To the left of the main entrance, there used to be four signs but now there are two. The one on top is divided into five and, reading clockwise advertises ENVINARTE/ALEGRIA RESTAURANTE/MARTINEZ BAR/PATIO 3/EL MESON HOTEL. Below it is the second sign and the only one that makes total sense. It simply says EL MESON HOTEL.

patiotressigns

To the right of the main entrance there are four signs. Again reading clockwise, the first says LENCINA GOURMET; the second reads MARTINEZ BAR; the third says ALEGRIA RESTAURANTE; and the last ENVINARTE TIENDA DE VINOS. From those four signs, I would have guessed that inside El Meson Hotel are a gourmet food shop, a bar, a restaurant and a wine store. I would be quite wrong. If, as you read this, you are confused as to whether I’m in Martinez Bar, Alegria Restaurante or, what I usually call the place, Patio Tres, it’s because I’m more confused than you are.

patiotresrestaurantinterior

After the signs, one enters a very pleasant courtyard restaurant where, unless you go when residents of El Meson Hotel are eating their breakfast will probably be totally empty. Now, as you may know, human beings being human beings, they will stand in line for an hour to get inside a sardine can but they will never take one baby step into a place that’s empty. Which Don Day thinks is the reason why all of those different places mentioned on those signs are almost always as empty as a cobbler’s curse (no Don Day has no idea what that means either; I just like the expression).

patiotresbartwo

If you do not go straight into the empty restaurant but instead make a quick right and a quicker left, you’ll soon see what Don Day knows as Martinez Bar, one of the best looking drinking places in San Miguel de Allende. In fact, though I’d probably rank Matilda the hotel as a little better looking overall than El Meson the hotel I’d rank Martinez Bar as better looking than the bar at Matilda.

patiotrescomfyarea

When we arrived, German Ortega and bartender Carlos Vallin gave us their usual very warm greeting. Despite their cordiality, I couldn’t help myself. I had to bitch one more time about those signs, about every little corner of the place having a different name. The place needs to visit a shrink. It suffers from schizophrenia.

“I like the concept because I understand it perfectly and it really helps to sort things out internally”, said German, “but I agree, it is very hard to communicate it to our customers.”

As you might have guessed, Martinez Bar is a play on martinis bar and that’s what almost everyone goes there for. Martinis and other mixed drinks. There are probably enough bottles on the bar’s shelves to paint Don Day’s face with a perpetual smile for the rest of his life. Don Day, however, rarely drinks mixed drinks because mixed drinks often make Don Day fall off his stool. Don Day goes to Martinez Bar for Mexican wine for there’s not a better place in San Miguel to get a good sampling of the best Mexican wines.

There are about 50 wines on the list, at least 80% of them red and every single one of them Mexican. There are other bars/restaurants in town with a very deep bow to Mexico as a wine producer but Martinez is the only one that’s exclusively Mexican.

“We get the odd complaint about no other countries being represented. There are a lot of people who like their Chilean or Argentinean so it hasn’t exactly been easy. But I wouldn’t even think about changing the list”, said German. “We’re Mexican. We’re proud. We have great wines and we want more people to experience them.”

I told German we’d like to eat at the bar and I asked him to select three courses from the new menu for us and pair them with three wines he was particularly proud of. And, of course, there was a budget that made the wine choices a lot tougher for him.

The price of wine at Patio Tres may be a small problem but not the price of food. For a fancy, high end restaurant, the dishes are quite casual and the prices very low end, almost ridiculous when you think of what you’d pay for some entrees outside of Mexico in such deluxe surroundings. The most expensive main is 200 pesos or about $17.

patiotresbisque

The starter that German chose for us was the bisque de camaron. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife had been missing bisque and it’s especially welcomed when you’re in a town where it’s seldom seen. Patio Tres shrimp bisque uses roast tomatoes and onions in the stock to add a smoky, toasty hint to the intense taste that’s extracted from the shells. There’s no cream, as there shouldn’t be in a bisque, but there’s a little cream cheese to give it a tiny tang. There’s also some heat from a pepper and, speaking about another kind of heat, Don Day’s Wife said, “It’s so nice that the soup arrived at the table piping hot. That’s rare these days.”

German told us, “I’m going to match the bisque with a red if that’s OK with you. I think you’ll agree it really, really works.”

“Pour on”, said Don Day’s Wife.

patiotresfirstwine

The wine was Parteaguas and, if there’s any wine at Patio Tres that’s their house wine, this would be it. Now Don Day said that Patio Tres’ list was exclusively Mexican, well this one is Mexican with an asterisk.

Parteaguas is made by the most celebrated of all Mexican winermakers, Hugo d’Acosta. The wine though is not made with Mexican grapes. D’Acosta imports the juice in barrels, a combination of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah, from the Cotes de Rousillon in the south of France and then adds his magic at his winery in the Baja. The wine is quite complex for a wine at this price (it sells for $390 pesos or a little over $30 for a bottle at the restaurant) and is reminiscent of a Chateaneuf-de-Pape. There are interesting nuances of dried fruit such as prunes or apricots as well as almonds. As German Ortega promised it would, it worked very well with the shrimp bisque.

Octopus is making a welcome appearance on more and more menus these days and just the fact that it’s there is causing Don Day to eat more and more octopus.

Don Day’s Wife is deathly afraid of octopus. Not of the tentacles wrapping around her throat in the middle of the night and squeezing the last dying breath out of her. But of serving it at home and having our guests doing what we used to call the Goodyear chew as they stare at you in a fixed, wide-eyed glare. It can be tough, very tough to get the toughness out of octopus and though we’ve tried a lot of ways to tenderize it…yes, even the buttermilk…you never quite know.

patiotresoctopus

Patio Tres has no reason to worry: their octopus was almost melt in the mouth. It was served with an excellent guacamole, verdolaga (Don Day’s favorite raw green), cherry tomatoes and guajillo peppers.

Patio Tres calls their octopus dish, carnitas de pulpo and German encouraged us to eat them like carnitas, in the tortillas he’d brought to the bar. We did and left a plate that could have been put on the shelf without washing we’d cleaned it so well.

Accompanying the pulpo, German suggested a wine that he thinks is about as good as it gets when it comes to Mexican wine. It needed a bit of insistence as it’s well over Don Day’s daily budget but Don Day’s Wife was over Don Day’s budget when he met her.

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The wine is called Contraste Continental and, again, it’s Mexican with an asterisk. It combines grapes from Mexico’s best wine region, the Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja with grapes from the very well respected Wente Estate in Livermore in California. German told me the mix is about 60% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot. It was obvious that Contraste Continental had spent a lot of time in oak. Closing my eyes, I thought I was drinking a well aged Rioja, which is good. Was it worth the $800 peso price? No, not quite. Would I ever order it again? No, I wouldn’t, because I’ll rarely buy any $800 peso wine ever again. But it was a delight simply for the experience of tasting one of Mexico’s best. Like paying for box seats to see Aretha Franklin is worth it once or twice in a lifetime. And yes, Don Day still wants to see Aretha one last time.

patiotreskitchenstaff

German Ortega has put together a crew of young, enthusiastic chefs in the kitchen.

“Alejandra Ventura leads the team but I want everyone to be ambitious, everyone to want to go beyond their present positions” said German. “It’s a team effort but I want everyone to bring their own ideas to the kitchen. And never forget the importance of service.”

I couldn’t help thinking about the film “Kings of Pastry” (a must for foodies if you haven’t seen it) when dessert arrived. In the movie there’s ribbon after ribbon of artistically spun sugar as there was on the Patio Tres dessert. Don Day can’t even spin Don Day’s Wife on a dance floor so he’s very impressed with spun sugar especially when it’s on a dessert where the sugar usually just floats on top. The dessert was a pumpkin creme brulee.

patiotresdessert

“I would take this over pumpkin pie any day”, said Don Day’s Wife. “You know I’m not a big pumpkin fan but this is a great dessert.”

Even the accompanying cookie was special. It was an elderflower biscuit with a hint of anise in the taste.

The wine to accompany dessert came not from the collection of Mexican wines but from the cocktails section of Patio Tres. German Ortega calls himself a mixologist and when he’s got a shaker in his hand he’s a lot like the octopus that was on the plate of our main.

I was talking to Jessi Olvera, a partner in San Miguel’s excellent Casa Olvera, the day after our dinner at Patio Tres. She said, “You always know when German is going to make a cocktail. Everyone else in the bar evacuates the area.”

patiotresasti

The wine was a sparkler, an Italian Asti.

“We use it in some of the cocktails”, said German. “I’ve yet to find a sweet Mexican white that works as well.”

Don Day just reread this blog, and though there are a lot of…OK, maybe too many…words, I realized I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to in talking about Patio Tres. I wanted to talk about German Ortega, I wanted to talk about the imaginative food and its very affordable prices but most of all I wanted to talk about that Mexican wine list. And I hadn’t given it anywhere near the attention it deserves.

If I was to say Mexican wine is expensive, I don’t think I’d get any naysayers (except perhaps people in the Mexican wine business…and probably not all of them). Due mostly to some misdirection by the federal government, Mexican wine is, without doubt, too expensive. And that’s why Patio Tres is such a special place. And what Don Day originally intended this blog to be most about.

Restaurants and bars traditionally mark their wines up somewhere between 100 and 250% of what they pay for them. Patio Tres mark-ups are ridiculously low. The prices are often less than what Don Day can buy them for at retail. Look at these examples.

Parteagas is $390 pesos at Patio Tres. At La Europea, it’s $350 pesos.
Contraste Continental is $800 pesos at Patio Tres. It’s $700 pesos at La Europea. At another upscale restaurant it’s $1400 pesos.
Cuna de Tierra, the red from close by Dolores Hidalgo is $400 pesos at La Europea. It’s less than that at Patio Tres, just $395 pesos.
Luz de Noche is $390 pesos at Patio Tres. At another San Miguel restaurant, it’s $690 pesos.
Vino de Piedra, perhaps the best Mexican red you’ll ever taste is 920 pesos at Patio Tres. It’s $814 pesos at La Europea.
Entretanto is $200 pesos at La Europea. For $260 pesos at Patio Tres, you can sip it in beautiful surroundings accompanied by delightful food.

Patio Tres is different from the other upscale hotel restaurants in San Miguel de Allende. The others have good food…some perhaps even better food…but not at the prices you’ll pay at Patio Tres. The others have good selections of Mexican wine but none at the prices you’ll pay at Patio Tres.

I shared my impressions about Patio Tres wines and those low prices with German Ortega before I left.

“That’s why I love my job”, he told me, with a beam on his face like a kid with a straight A report card. “This is what makes me so excited. This is what I live for.”

Patio Tres is located inside at the Hotel El Meson, Mesones #80 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Cent’Anni or Chiquita for wood oven, thin crust pizza? Decisions. Decisions.

Don Day and Don Day’s Wife were in Cent’Anni‘s wine bar early on Thursday night. It was 7:30 pm and there were a grand total of two of us in a San Miguel restaurant that probably holds well over a hundred. The decor dangerously uses white and beige as their primary colors so it was especially cold and lonely…no, make that icy and bleak.

Despite Cent’Anni‘s superb pizza accompanied by superb service, right then and there I decided to take the advice of superb food blogger Susan York (you’ll find her at cupcakesandcrablegs.com but don’t you dare go there until you’ve finished reading this) and check out her recommendation for another thin crust pizza in San Miguel.

It took less than 24 hours to make it happen.

“Ready to try out a new pizza joint for lunch?”, I said to Don Day’s Wife.

“Is the Pope Italian?”, said Don Day’s Wife.

chiquita sign

I liked the place as soon as I got there. It was in Socialite‘s old home, a good Italian restaurant that didn’t quite understand how to be great.

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There was nothing Don Day remembered from the old days. But Don Day liked everything that he saw. A well-designed logo. A classic wood-fired brick oven. Primitive, handmade furniture. A mural, in soft pastels, that I wanted on my own kitchen wall. Creative postcards on the counter that showed they understood you’ve got to build it if you want them to come. The place is also a small hotel. And I especially liked their line “bed and pizza”.

chiquitamural

With apologies for the fact that Don Day often still lives in the seventies, the place was very funky, and Don Day liked where we were. The place is called Casa Chiquita Pizza and it’s the very antithesis of Cent’Anni. Cent’Anni is big. Chiquita is small. Cent’Anni is cold. Chiquita is warm. Cent’Anni‘s decor looks like the work of an interior designer. Chiquita‘s decor looks like the work of an artist.

Christian, our server, suggested we sit at one of the four seats in the front window and watch the world go by on Calle Correo. Don Day’s Wife, who recognized how close we’d be to the wood-fired oven and who knows what to do when you can’t stand the heat, suggested otherwise. Don Day who remembered that Socialite had a pleasant roof deck asked if it still existed. After 36 steps and a few stepping stones added to Don Day’s Wife’s daily FitBit count we were there.

chiquitasteps

It was like the previous night at Cent’Anni. There were just the two of us. We were the only folks on the roof. But it was very different. We weren’t alone, we were together. In a setting like this, we didn’t need anyone else around to create that buzz, that bustle, that is almost essential in a restaurant.

chiquitaview

The roof of Chiquita is an oasis. Where Cent’Anni‘s roof is one of the best in town, it only has 90 degree views, Chiquita has almost 360 degree views. I could count a dozen different domes and steeples. Where Cent’Anni has a roof that’s slick and stylish, Chiquita has a roof that’s homey and…oops, here comes that word again…funky. There’s a succulent garden, a gravel path, a little pool, dining seating for twelve and almost impossible dining seating for four on distressed, handmade Adirondack or Muskoka chairs (Adirondacks just nip rocking chairs for their degree of dining difficulty).

chiquitaoasis

But what about the food? Chiquita wasn’t going to try and sell us a banana pizza were they? And sooner or later for Don Day it’s pretty much all about the food.

At Chiquita, there’s a choice of pizza or pizza. Don Day likes that he doesn’t have to make a lot of decisions. Because Don Day is not very good at making decisions. But the choices here were still difficult at first.

chiquitamenu

There’s one pizza that’s got four different meats and Don Day loves any number of different meats. There’s another with five different cheeses and Don Day loves every number of different cheeses. But man cannot live on meat or cheese alone…or, then again, maybe he could. If the meat was on one side of the scales and the cheese on the other, wouldn’t that be a balanced diet?

From the eleven different choices we settled on two (with a Robinson Crusoe promise to share and share alike). The Cipriani had pomodoro sauce, mozzarella, something called aderezo Harris (which neither Don Day nor Google have a clue about), beef carpaccio, parmesan, black olives and sundried tomatoes. The Napolitana had pomodoro sauce, a selection of cheeses, salami, spinach and raw onions.

chiquitaotherpizza

The pizzas arrived in handmade wooden boxes with jars of melted cheese dressing and olive oil and chili flakes. The serving plates were also wooden boxes. The bare wood is everywhere in Chiquita and it makes a nice visual theme. Having often tried to get red sauce out of white shirts, I couldn’t imagine how you get it out of unfinished wood boxes.

chiquitacarpacciopizza

The pizzas were very generously piled with toppings and Chiquita is smart enough to know that certain ingredients like carpaccio and arugula go on after the pizza comes out of the oven.

Don Day’s Wife took one bite and looked at Don Day. When Don Day’s Wife gives Don Day a look he rarely knows what she’s thinking. But this time he did.

“It’s the sauce isn’t it?”, I said to her.

“It’s the sauce,” Don Day’s Wife said.

In days of old (when Don Day was a teenager), chefs would put a couple of cans of tomato paste in their pomodoro sauce. In the middle ages (when Don Day was in his forties), chefs cut back to one can of tomato paste. These days, many chefs have done away with the bitter tasting paste altogether.

Not only did the salsa pomodoro have too much tomato paste, there was too much of the pomodoro sauce on the pie.

Don Day’s Wife liked the crust a lot. Don Day didn’t like it enough. Don Day likes his thin crust to be almost charred, very thin, very crispy, like a cracker with air pockets which Chiquita‘s wasn’t.

Don Day was also a little puzzled by the choice of two sizes that Chiquita offers, medium and large. Despite how good we thought the pizzas were, from the original 16 slices that we’d started with, there were five left on the plate. Despite how much Don Day likes cold pizza for breakfast, that’s at least three too many. If we’d ordered only one medium, there wouldn’t, of course, have been enough for lunch. The large on the other hand is big enough for about three people but probably not quite enough for four. A slight alteration might make customers happier and, perhaps, make the restaurant more money. Though all of those wooden serving boxes might be obsolete.

It was time to check the scoreboard. Cent’Anni was the reigning champion as our favorite wood-fired, thin crust pizza. Had it been dethroned by Chiquita?

We hummed and we hawed (despite Don Day being unsure about how to haw). Don Day preferred the crust at Cent’Anni. Don Day and Don Day’s Wife both preferred the toppings at Chiquita. There are some imaginative toppings at both places but we also gave that vote to Chiquita (looking forward to trying the roast beef with gruyere and the marinara with mussels, shrimp and octopus). The pomodoro sauce that’s on almost every Chiquita pizza needs work so Cent’Anni got that checkmark. And despite the fact that we liked the coziness of Chiquita there are only 12 practical seats on the roof; we wondered what might happen if eight of us showed up on a Friday or Saturday night which has never been a problem at Cent’Anni.

There was only one thing we could do. We would settle it the same way we settle all life-altering decisions in our life. We would toss a coin.

It bounced once, bounced twice, went for a little roll and ended up heads.

Casa Chiquita Pizza is located at Correo #45 at the corner of Chiquitos in San Miguel de Allende. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.

Tannat, the wine. Tannat, the restaurant. Tasty stuff.

Don Day only lived in France for a short time. But it was enough time for a long romance. The object of Don Day’s deep affection was called Madiran.

Every Sunday, Don Day and the rest of the escapees from the asylum (what the locals called the expats) would host a picnic and every Sunday we would have Madiran over for the feast. Unlike the rest of the guests, though, Madiran would never make it home.

Madiran was one of the local red wines, the cheapest of all the local red wines. And the taste? That was of little importance. All that we wanted from the wine was an alcohol delivery system that would be acceptable to the sophisticated belles femmes we would invite and who, occasionally, would actually show up.

In the last few years, Don Day and Don Day’s Wife spent a little holiday time in the Dordogne, not too many kilometres from the place in southwest France where Madiran is made. It was there, 40 years after his original dalliance, that Don Day tried to rekindle his romance with Madiran. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out.

Don Day had changed. Forty years of washing wine over his palate had adjusted it substantially. Don Day found Madiran to be a little too sharp, a touch rough, what Don Day’s Wife appropriately called puckery.

The reason was obvious. Madiran is made from a grape called Tannat, traditionally the wine is about 70% Tannat blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. Tannat, as the name suggests, has a very tannic taste that, despite a number of bold attempts, Don Day has never been able to become accustomed to.

tannatmadiranbottle

The last time we tried a Madiran was about three weeks ago, in Toronto. It had a lot of fruit but it wasn’t sweet fruit. The blackcurrant was a little tart. The cherry was a little sour. Those tannins still needed softening even though this Madiran had over three years in the bottle.

So what has this got to do with San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, you’re probably asking. Well a few weeks ago a new restaurant opened in San Miguel. And for it’s name, they chose the word Tannat. Don Day, the wannabe investigative reporter had to find out why.

tannatsign

There is one other part of the world that Tannat is popular. In that country, it is considered the “national grape”. That country is Uruguay. In the late 1800s, a guy named Pascual Harriague and a number of other Basque settlers brought the grape from the southwest of France to the south of Uruguay and, slowly but very surely, it became the country’s most consumed wine.

Jose Manuel Garcia, the owner of the restaurant Tannat, is not from Uruguay but he has a passion for things Uruguayan. His wife and partner Monica is from Uruguay and, in his opinion, “Monica is the world’s best woman and Tannat is the world’s best wine”.

We went to Tannat on Saturday night and were welcomed at the door like long lost friends by Jose and Monica. Using the when in Rome philosophy, we of course ordered Tannat, wondering all the while if we could get over our anti-Madiran influences. There are two Tannats available by the glass, both from winemaker Juan Carrau, one of them a reserva.

tannatmonicapouring

“The reserva spends about seven months in oak and had an extra year in the bottle’, Jose told us and, when Monica suggested a glass of each so we could more easily experience the differences, it was an easy answer. Two wines are always better than one to Don Day.

There was no difference in the nose and there wasn’t a lot of difference in taste, not as much as you might get between a Rioja crianza and a Rioja reserva. The entry level Tannat and the reserva both had a deep, dark color but the reserva was a little more of a warm brick red if you held it up to the light. It was also slightly more mellow but, without sampling one right after the other, with my eyes closed, Don Day wasn’t able to pass Don Day’s Wife’s taste test (she of course predicted I wouldn’t) by drinking just one and identifying which one it was.

There was another difference, a difference with both Tannat wines. With Don Day of course finding it unavoidable to make reference to a certain Uruguayan soccer player, the Uruguayan Tannat had less bite than Madiran. Though still robust, it was smoother than Madiran. The fruit was more of a blackberry than blackcurrant. And the cherry was more sweet than sour.

As we tasted those first two glasses and before we even had our first mouthfuls of food, I realized there was something special about Tannat, the grape. And Tannat, the restaurant.

tannatinterior

Tannat the restaurant is located on Salida a Celaya/Ancha de San Antonio, the street that is as close as San Miguel has to a restaurant row. There’s a classy sign and an attractive entry but the entryway isn’t quite big enough to be a bar or for anything but a little storage and to show off a few of the bottles on Tannat‘s small but interesting list of wines. The next set of doors open into a bowling alley of a back yard where, closest to the entrance, wooden tables and iron chairs seat about 20 people. There’s a bamboo roof that looks like it may need a couple of prayers to stop a rain. A wall of twigs partially hides the restrooms. But no, it’s not the location, it’s not the decor, it’s not the the washrooms that makes Tannat, the restaurant, special. It’s the hospitality. Immediately, Don Day liked Monica and Jose. The way they shared their enthusiasm for their new venture. The way they shared their knowledge about wine and food.

tannatwashrooms

Monica and Jose call Tannat, the restaurant, a cocina con caracter and have divided the creative menu into three sections, caracter inicial, caracter intermedio and caracter fuerte.

With what we picked from the second and third sections and knowing that, when there’s a Don Day, there’s inevitably going to be a caracter finale, a dessert, we decided to skip the caracter inicial.

tannatsharonsoup

We were almost successful. Monica brought tiny bowls of one of the five appetizers, a complimentary amuse bouche of cream of fresh pea soup enhanced with a little onion and white wine. It was a nice little tease for the delights to come. Don Day was liking the soup, liking Monica and liking Tannat even more.

tannatsteaktartare

On the second section of the menu, we had found a dish that we couldn’t remember ever seeing on a San Miguel restaurant before. It was a favorite dish. A foodie dish. A dish that we knew would go well with the second glasses of Tannat that we’d ordered. It was steak tartare.

Filet of beef had been hand chopped into larger than usual and very tender pieces. The raw meat was nicely seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and lay on a bed of the rarely seen (even though Don Day thinks it’s one of the world’s best greens) verdolaga. Topping the tartare was asparagus, green onions and both shavings and a wedge of parmesan.

“I would have shaved all of the parmesan”, said Don Day’s Wife, “but I still give it a five out of five. If it had a couple more pieces of that toast on the side, I’d give it a six.”

There was a good reason the food was good. Jose Manuel Garcia had spent four years at San Miguel’s The Restaurant. Monica had spent two. From the standpoint of serving imaginative, flavorful but still reasonably simple food, there’s probably no better exposure than The Restaurant. Haniel Cruz and Cecilia Alvarez, the couple manning (or should that be man and womaning) the back of the restaurant, had a similarly excellent training ground in the kitchen of San Miguel’s MiVida.

tannatpastatwo

The Italian influence from MiVida showed in our selection of main courses. Don Day’s Wife chose a pasta with cherry tomatoes, anchovies, cubes of mozzarella, torn lettuce and green olives.

Don Day chose a pasta with veal in a sage butter sauce colorfully decorated with carrot shavings. Both pastas used fresh, not dried fettucine. Both were fine but could have been spiced up a little for our tastes (but perhaps not for everyone’s tastes). The sage butter would have been helped by a little more sage in Don Day’s opinion and he also would have liked the chance to sprinkle some dried chiles and add a little heat. Don Day’s Wife thought some capers or more anchovies to add salt would have helped hers. Along with perhaps a sprinkle of dried oregano. A request for parmesan was granted instantly and a “would you like more cheese” inquiry came from Jose before we were half finished.

tannatjoseothertable

Though it deserved to be full to the brim. No, make that overflowing. Tannat, the restaurant, was not busy. Especially for a Saturday when there were a lot of Mexican tourists in town. There was only one other table for four occupied so it wasn’t difficult for Jose to take time out from hand towelling the tall stemmed glasses (he’s one of those finicky people who even sticks his nose inside the glass before any wine is allowed to enter it) and join us to talk wine in general and Tannat in particular.

tannatjosebottles

It was immediately obvious that Jose Manuel Garcia lives and breathes…no makes that breathes heavily and deeply…wine. To the table, he brought with him a selection of Tannats, most of them well aged, for our viewing pleasure. One of them, from 2000, he planned to open next week when he celebrates a fortyish birthday. Another of them, we decided to open immediately.

tannatbottleselections

We were now tasting an older, much more mellow Tannat. I was beginning to understand Jose’s passion; it was beginning to rub off. Jose told me he collects Tannats. He knew, exactly, how many different he had, 72 in total. He told me how there are only about 120,000 bottles of Tannat produced each year in Uruguay (in comparison, the annual production of Madiran in France is about 10,000,000 bottles and Madiran is far from what you’d call a popular French wine). He bought out a bottle of Bouza, a Uruguayan Tannat that includes Merlot and Tempranillo in a blend to mellow the tannins and showed me how production is so limited each number is bottled.

tannatnumberedbottle

“I can’t find another woman as good as mine…but I can find an awful lot of good Tannats,” Jose said.

Rather than order a glass of dessert wine, we decided that Tannat would be a perfect partner for the molten chocolate cake that we’d ordered.

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Delivering the dessert to the table were Haniel and Cecy. Don Day thinks going to a restaurant without meeting the chef is like going to a gallery opening without meeting the artist. Seventies soul was playing in the background and Don Day couldn’t help imagining the next song being Marvin Gaye doing “Pride and Joy” to describe the glow on the chefs’ faces.

tannatdessert

Though it would never stop Don Day from ordering it and ordering it often, molten chocolate cake is a bit of a been there/done that dessert that doesn’t take much more than timing to perfect. What makes the difference is what might keep it company on the plate. There were two white slabs on the side of Tannat’s molten chocolate cake that looked a little like nougat. They had a melt-in-the-mouth creamy, cheesy, fruity taste that was a perfect partner to the chocolate. The flavor was passion fruit, Cecy told us, and the name for the two white slabs was donata panciera.

Jose had now brought two books to the table. The first one was an obvious choice. It was “Wine Grapes”, the Encyclopedia Brittanica of wine that details almost 1400 grapes in almost as many pages. It’s a book Don Day once considered buying until he realized he could buy ten bottles of wine for the same amount of money.

The other book that Jose had placed on the table was one Don Day was very surprised to see. Though written by a restaurateur, it’s a book that’s relevant to almost any business. It’s a book about the importance of hospitality in virtually every aspect of life. I think Donny Masterton, chef/owner of The Restaurant had recommended or given it to Jose.

tannatbook

The book is called “Setting The Table”. The author is Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, a chain (though he wouldn’t like that word) of New York area restaurants whose chefs have won an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards.

In “Setting The Table”, Danny Meyer says, “Within moments of being born, most babies find themselves receiving the first four gifts of life: eye contact, a smile, a hug and some food. We receive many other gifts in a lifetime, but few can ever surpass those first four.”

tannatjosetalking

During our first visit to Tannat, Jose and Monica Garcia gave us frequent eye contact, piles of smiles and fed us very well. As we left the restaurant, they gave us a hug.

When Don Day’s Wife and I are charmed by a restaurant, as we were on Saturday night by Tannat, we have a line. It’s only three words. Those three words are, “They get it.” Surprisingly, very few restaurants “get it”. Those that do are usually around for a long time. And they almost always keep getting better.

tannatwinelist

Tannat, the wine, is not easily available at retail in San Miguel de Allende. La Europea lists five Tannats or Tannat blends but doesn’t stock any of them in their San Miguel shop. Some of them may be available in one of their two Queretaro stores. Tannat, the restaurant, is obviously your best bet for finding the wine locally. They have two available by the glass (or bottle) plus a premium Tannat available only by the bottle. There’s also the possibility of enticing Juan to sell you something from his “private” stock. Tannat is located at Ancha de San Antonio #67 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday.

The very best ice cream in San Miguel de Allende.

When Don Day was still growing up…or perhaps more sideways than up…the biggest treat in the world was a trip to The Stoney Creek Dairy, the Hamilton, Ontario, Canada version of butterfat nirvana. It required a birthday, a couple of A’s on a report card, or, if Don Day was really lucky, just a sticky, sweaty July night for Don Day’s Dad to say, “OK, everybody in the Olds, we’re going for triple scoops.”

When kids are still growing up in Fraccionamiento La Luz, a residential neighborhood just outside San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the biggest treat in the world is a trip to Jimmy, their local version of ice cream nirvana. It doesn’t require a Nissan or any other wheels, for usually, it’s only a hop, skip and jump over a couple of cobblestoned blocks.

jimmymarket

On a lot of Saturdays in San Miguel de Allende, Don Day goes to the market. Not the Rosewood Organic Market but the La Luz not even close to organic Market. If you’ve ever wondered where your favorite fruit and veg stalls or that juicy carnitas stand goes when they’re not at the Tuesday market, you just might find them here. After the market, Don Day walks two blocks to see his favorite butcher, Alberto at Carniceria Nuevo Aurora which is also in La Luz. And then, perhaps because he never quite grew up, he walks two more blocks to Super Neveria y Paleteria La Luz for what Don Day considers ice cream far better than he ever remembered as a kid and as good as he’s ever remembered having in his life.

jimmyexterior

Jimmy’s, as Don Day calls it, is located just off the main square of La Luz and just steps from La Luz’ most notable and almost magnificent Parroquia of Our Lady of The Light. Don Day calls the place Jimmy’s because the Super Neveria is only half of what are two restaurants in one with the other half called Super Tortas y Hamburguesas Jimmy. Jimmy, the owner, darts and dances between the two, as chimes ring out when someone enters either of the two doors.

On the left is a somewhat typical hamburger joint serving somewhat typical fare such as sandwiches, quesadillas and chicken nuggets. On the right is a somewhat typical ice cream parlor that won’t get anyone excited about the atmosphere. Don Day spends none of his time on the savory side on the left and all of his time on the sweet side on the right trying to make one of the world’s most difficult decisions.

jimmyzarzamoras

There are four backbreaking freezers (is it impossible to make the ledges inside one foot taller?) each holding eight tubs of ice cream. For those who didn’t get an A in arithmetic and didn’t get taken out for triple decker chocolate chunk cones by their father, that’s 32 different flavors to choose from and at least 320 seconds you’ll waste before you even come close to a decision. And as you probably know, life is like ice cream. You must enjoy it before it melts.

jimmyfreshproducts

There are the old classics…vanilla, chocolate (but only white, natural chocolate), strawberry and neopolitan…but despite the fact that Don Day himself might be considered an old classic, he goes for something a little more exotic. Not as exotic as the guanabana, chongo zamorano or beso de angel, particularly when he’s not sure exactly what they are. But either capuccino, key lime pie, strawberries and cream, pistachio, mango and cream, or, best of all, blackberries and cheese or as Jimmy’s calls it zarzamora con queso. Now I know zarzamora con queso sounds a little weird but didn’t a New York style cheesecake covered with cherries in syrup once sound weird as well.

jimmyplating

How about if I describe each of the components of queso con zarzamora. You have the creamiest of all creams, overstuffed with hail-sized chunks of Philly’s finest, streaked with whole ripe berries that are oozing sweet juice. What’s not there is important as well. In none of Jimmy’s ice creams do you ever get the cloying, teeth jarring taste of too much refined sugar.

jimmyportrait

Jaime Aguila Nieves (the more formal handle for Jimmy) is not the only person in central Mexico to make ice cream but his operation is quite primitive compared to the glistening chrome machines resembling Star Wars sets that Don Day has seen. Maybe there’s some credence to those copywriters who use that “made the old fashioned way” line in their ads. Jimmy’s fabrica is located around the corner from his tienda and is about 6 feet long by 48 feet deep, exactly the size of a horseshoe pit for those who know the other meaning to the words let’s toss a few.

In the factory, the first thing you see are chest freezers filled with carefully measured bags of the fresh picked fruits that Jimmy uses. Then there’s a walk-in fridge with those tubs of that richest of rich cream. I asked Jimmy what the butterfat content of the cream was but he didn’t know the number. And the packaging gave no clue either. I’m guessing about 15% but it may be a very stupid guess.

jimmyfactoryone

On the shelves along the wall are bags and boxes and bottles and jugs and jars with almonds and walnuts and chunks of chocolate. And more jugs and jars with those apparently essential to the process ingredients like emusifiers and gums with great names like guar, locust bean and xanthan that apparently improve the texture and prevent ice crystals forming.

jimmyfactorychicle

Finally at the end of the fabrica are enormous tanks with electric motors and things that twisted and twirled and swum and swirled in order to make that fluorescent blue chicle flavored ice cream that was in production when Jimmy gave me my personal tour.

jimmyinfreezer

I bought three half litres of three favorite flavors to go last Saturday at Jimmy’s and arrived home around Noon. I sampled a single spoonful of pistachio before I put it in the freezer drawer. Around 2:00 pm, I was pulling out the drawer again for a couple of spoonfuls of the mango con crema. About 5:00 pm, I went back to the kitchen to crack open a bottle of wine and there was that drawer again…well, you know what happened. Jimmy’s ice cream is Don Day’s heroin.

Now Don Day made a very bold…some might say arrogant…statement when he titled this piece. He called Jimmy’s the “very best ice cream in San Miguel”. So Don Day obviously must attempt to prove his statement.

There’s a lot of very good ice cream in Mexico. There are a lot of passionate people who have their favorites. So why does Don Day have his neck stuck out so far, calling Jimmy’s “the very best”. Well, it’s back to fairly simple arithmetic again. Though it was rare that Don Day’s marks in math ever got him a trip to the dairy with his parents, he did learn enough about fractions to come up with a formula for ranking the things he likes most in this world.

On the top of the fraction, what Don Day’s math teacher called the numerator, the number represents the amount of pleasure Don Day gets from the experience. On the bottom, the denominator represents the cost of that pleasure.

Now Don Day has more than one favorite source for ice cream in San Miguel (most addicts do). In fact, Don Day has three. And he’d be quite happy to exist exclusively on the ice cream from just one of those sources. So there isn’t much difference between the numerators.

jimmyexotics

But oh the denominators! A scoop of Jimmy’s ice cream costs 12 pesos. Two scoops costs 20 pesos. A half litre of Jimmy’s ice cream costs 35 pesos. A litre costs 60. At Don Day’s other two favorite ice cream makers, the prices for each of those amounts of joy are around twice as much. Which in simple arithmetic makes Jimmy’s about twice as good. Or as Don Day said right up front, “the very best ice cream in San Miguel de Allende”.

Super Neveria y Paleteria La Luz and Super Tortas y Hamburguesas Jimmy is located at Plaza Comercial Itzquinapan Local #1, at Calle Francisco Jose de Landeta #9, in Fraccionamente La Luz, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.