The woman who built the best restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.

Josefina Quintera and Don Day don’t have a lot in common. But there are two things. Both of them came to San Miguel de Allende about ten years ago. And they both fell in love.

The object of their affection was not someone they wanted to hold or caress. But their love affair was with someone they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. They fell head over heels over San Miguel de Allende.

Josefina Quintera was living in Mexico City in those days. Working in sales for the Fairmont Hotel. But she knew, sooner or later, she wanted out of the big taco and to find new footing in a provincial town.

It was 2003. Josefina was a tourist in San Miguel, having breakfast with her mother, when her husband told her that he’d made an appointment to see a property that housed a Chinese restaurant. She grudgingly accompanied him. Two months later, along with their two young children, they were living here.

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Chatting with Josefina, at her rooftop restaurant, she told me, “I realized that in my mind and in my heart, I’d always wanted to live in San Miguel. It’s everything that’s good about Mexico. The people. The history. The handicrafts. The architecture. The traditions.”

“We changed everything about the restaurant. So much so that people who’d been there before no longer realized they were in the same place.”

“When we were tourists in San Miguel, we’d never found a restaurant that we thought was perfect for people like us. A place that served the kind of Mexican cuisine we enjoyed. A place that Mexicans who lived in San Miguel would come to.”

Josefina referred to her initial concept as a Cenaduria. Don Day has seen the word before (La Alborada, the restaurant that serves some of San Miguel de Allende’s best pozole, calls itself a Cenaduria) but I’ve never quite understood what the word meant. I’m guessing it suggests a casual eating place.

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“We started with five dishes. I guess they were our favorite dishes. At least the favorites that we knew how to make. There was pozole, cochinita pibil, tinga tostadas, green enchiladas and pambazos,” Josefina told me. “We wanted the locals to come and maybe the odd Mexican tourist. They didn’t. But someone else did. Gringos came. Both residents and tourists. They loved the main courses but they wanted salads. They wanted wine. They asked for bread. They expected cloth napkins. We realized we had to rethink the concept.”

“We closed for two weeks. When we reopened as a restaurant, we were pretty much what we are today. We were La Posadita.”

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Cut now to ten years later. Don Day is at the SMARTs, an awards program held earlier in 2014 to recognize the best restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, La Posadita is voted the number one restaurant in town.

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You can be a regular at La Posadita and have never met Josefina Quintera, perhaps never even seen her. She stays…perhaps hides…in the background most of the time. That’s a shame because she’s a very warm, charming and…yes, of course Don Day noticed…attractive woman. On the day Don Day interviewed Josefina she was dressed in the most traditional of Mexican tops over the most trendy of distressed jeans with calf high cuffs. Josefina’s style is the restaurant’s style. Old world tradition with a modern twist.

As Don Day can sometimes be a little forgetful, he had gone to La Posadita to interview Josefina Quintera with a list of questions in his notebook. It was a list of why people who’d filled in ballots for the SMARTs had thought La Posadita was the town’s best restaurant. I wanted Josefina’s opinions.

La Posadita‘s location is one of the very best in town. Just steps from the jardin and the parroquia, dead center…no make that live center…of everything that happens in San Miguel. But it’s still a restaurant that’s very hard to walk into.

If you know the three most important rules of real estate then you know the three most important rules of restaurants: Location. Location. Location. Directly after the restaurant rule about the importance of location could be the stairs rule. If your customers have to climb up (or down) stairs to get to your restaurant, they probably won’t.

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Right after I interviewed Josefina, I actually watched it happen. I was on the other side of Cuna de Allende taking a picture of the front of the restaurant when a woman arrived. She looked at the signs. She looked at the stairs. Then she looked to the right at the other door. She peeked inside the door. Then she looked at the stairs again. Then she climbed the stairs to the first landing. Then she came down the stairs and looked at the signs again. Then she took a note from her purse. Then she climbed the stairs once more and, when I never saw her again, I presume she finally took the pleasures of La Posadita.

It’s not just the uncertainty of whether or not you’re going to the right place. The stairs are well worn, rickety and narrow and when you get to the top of the first flight, your first sight is what looks like a cashier’s window. It’s no wonder that people think they may be in the wrong place.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do about the stairs. And the sign is all we’re allowed because San Miguel is a heritage site,” Josefina told me. “I know that if people like us, they’ll tell other people. And if they really want to, they’ll climb up and find us.”

The second thing on my list to discuss was the view. Tourists are suckers for views. And so is Don Day.

Going to La Posadita is like going to the theater and, as in a theater, some seats are much better than others but, as in a good theater, there are really no bad seats.

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Arrive at the right time of the evening and you can watch three different acts in the theater. The first act is on the eastern stage. It’s the parroquia, the church that Don Day thinks has the most beautiful exterior in the world, bathed in natural light. Then comes act two, the sunset over the blue gray western hills which, with San Miguel weather, is almost guaranteed to be spectacular. The final act is back to the east, the parroquia washed with electric highlights.

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Though there are few walls to separate them, La Posadita is actually four or five rooms. With a wall of water, lights hidden in the walls, strategically placed greenery and pieces of statuary all doing their part to separate those rooms. The front room, furthest east in the restaurant is like the orchestra, the place for the closest view of the parroquia. And the further east you can sit, the closer to the stage you’re going to be.

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At the far western end of the restaurant is the royal box. A single table and two chairs that Don Day believes is the very best place to sit in any San Miguel de Allende restaurant. The time to arrive is about half an hour before sunset. You’ll gaze at the rooftops of San Miguel, marvel at the colors as you count the moments to the sun’s final descent, watch the lights go on with a backdrop of the smoky blue Sierras, and finally spot the first twinkle in the sky.

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“There are a few people who phone for reservations and ask for that one table for two. I wish I could give it to everyone,” said Josefina. “It’s where I’d sit if I was a customer.”

The music that you’ll often hear in La Posadita enhances the theatre reference. The last time I was there, I recognized the voice of Pedro Vargas, San Miguel’s most celebrated vocalist singing his passionate version of “Obsesion”. There couldn’t have been anything more appropriate. And, just as importantly, it was at the right volume to be heard but still allow conversation.

That last night we were there was a Tuesday night, a night usually as empty as a bottle of Victoria in Don Day’s hand on a July afternoon. But La Posadita was SRO. The mix was interesting as well. The crowd is always younger than most places in San Miguel. I think it’s where old folks like Don Day traditionally bring their younger guests. I’m always guessing at relationships in La Posadita. Grandma and grandpa are the expats who live in San Miguel; daughter, son-in-law and the grandkids are visiting for a week. And the mix of about 70% foreign tourists and expats and 30% Mexican is unusual for restaurants this close to the jardin.

Don Day is not exactly a stickler for service. I’ll suffer some ugly attitudes for extraordinary food. But when I was counting the ballots for the SMARTs awards to determine San Miguel’s best restaurant, I realized just how important it was to other people and just how much they appreciated the attention they received at La Posadita.

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I remember the first time I climbed the stairs to La Posadita many years ago and the waiter walked over to our table. He looked sophisticated. Like the Greek waiters in their tuxedos that used to serve me in the sixties and seventies. And just because Don Day never read “Dress for Success”, he likes restaurant owners who did. Josefina Quintera obviously spends some lot of money to outfit her servers and, if you ever steal a peek in the kitchen, you’ll see the workers there always dressed in whites.

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The thing Don Day really likes about La Posadita‘s servers is their attitude. They don’t want to be my best friend. And they don’t have their noses in the air as if someone just farted and they don’t know who it is. They’re right where a waiter should be. Right at the midpoint between serious and sociable when it comes to relating to guests.

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“I don’t look for experience when I choose employees. I look for attitude,” said Josefina. “I look for people who smile at the interview. Who look happy in their life. Everything else they can learn if they have the right attitude.”

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“I prefer to hire people when they’re young, around seventeen years old. Then I like to watch them grow. Both at work and in their personal lives. Get married. Have babies.”

Don Day ran into his friend Joe Erickson that last time we were at La Posadita. He told me, “I think they’re some of the best servers in San Miguel. I think the management just gets it. They understand how important good service is.”

During the time we spent together, Josefina Quintera only began talking with her hands once.

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“My people are the restaurant. I want you to photograph them, not just me. They’re what the restaurant is all about,” she said, most emphatically.

Sooner or later it gets to food. And that was the next thing Josefina and I discussed.

La Posadita‘s menu has come a long way from those five entrees that they opened their doors with. It might be the biggest menu in town. It certainly has the most pages. It includes almost every dish on the Mexican hit parade. And it definitely makes it tough for Don Day to make a decision.

I’ve never been quite sure who’s in charge of La Posadita‘s kitchen. I’ve certainly never seen anyone emerge in a chef’s toque ready to receive the accolades of the evening.

I asked Josefina, “Who’s el jefe at La Posadita?”

Her answer came very quickly and abruptly. “I am”, she said, but then it was softened with, “but everyone who works in my kitchen is, in some ways, a chef.”

“If a plate comes back into the kitchen with food left on it I'm the one who wants to know why.”

“So many people have made contributions to the recipes over the years. I've been making the enchiladas verde for my brothers since I was fourteen years old. The lime soup I learned to make in the kitchen of the Hyatt in Merida. The mole is an ancient recipe from the grandmother of my husband. The cochinita was a secret recipe of my mother's. The chiles en nogata combines the recipes of my mother and my mother-in-law. The ideas have come from relatives, friends, employees. Almost everything on the menu has a little history.

“I want to never stop learning about Mexican cuisine. We travel to the Yucatan, Guerrero, Merida with our eyes open for ways to improve our current recipes or add new ones.”

Don Day's favorites from the long list of traditional Mexican entrees are the chamorro adobado, the mixiote de carnero and the cochinita pibil. I asked Josefina what she thought was the best main course on the menu.

“I'm most proud of our chiles en nogata”, she said. “We make them with love.”

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Don Day does know that Don Day’s Wife favorite appetizer in San Miguel de Allende is La Posadita‘s bacon wrapped asparagus. And Don Day’s grandson Anderson’s favorite dessert is La Posadita‘s chocolate cake.

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Wine is a very important part of a restaurant experience for Don Day. Because a dinner without wine is like (insert your own cliched simile here). I’m not a particularly sophisticated wine drinker but I am a somewhat fussy wine drinker and, I admit it, a bit of a cheapie when it comes to alcoholic beverages.

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When you master the first flight of stairs to La Posadita, you’ll see a very impressive, glassed-in wine cellar. You’ll know right away that this place cares about wines.

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The wine list at La Posadita could have been custom crafted for Don Day. For Don Day is not a wine connoisseur. Don Day is basically just a wine drinker. There are about 80 wines on the list. More than half of them fall into Don Day’s world of wine. They’re under 500 pesos a bottle. Not only that but Don Day can find many of his favorites, particularly his Mexican favorites. Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard at 300 pesos a bottle. LA Cetto Nebbiolo at 310 pesos. Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon for less than 400 pesos.

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And the house red at La Posadita? is Montevina. The label that won “the best inexpensive wine” award at the 2014 SMARTs.

“Our cellar is the creation of my partner Javier, wine lover and avid promoter of our Mexican wines. 70% of our labels are produced in Mexico”, said Josefina.

Javier runs El Alcazar, the hotel that occupies the ground floor beneath La Posadita. Don Day is impressed by the list because it is one of the least pretentious I’ve ever seen and doesn’t make Don Day feel like he’s a stingy old codger who isn’t willing to let the moths fly out of his wallet.

Don Day congratulated Josefina on her SMARTs awards win and began climbing the long hill home up Calle Correo. As I walked I tried to think of a very specific reason why San Miguelenses like La Posadita more than any other San Miguel restaurant. And I think I may have got it. La Posadita is upscale in ambience and cuisine but downscale in prices. It’s a place that’s both classy and casual. It’s a place where people who play cellos and people who play Fender Telecasters could meet for lunch.

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Josefina Quintera has created a perfect balance between upscale and downscale. Between luxury and comfort. Between classy and cheerful. If you’re fortunate enough to eat at La Posadita and she happens to step out of the shadows, Don Day suggests you congratulate her.

La Posadita is located at Cuna de Allende #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 pm, closed Wednesdays.

A play in five acts about squash blossoms, Jimmy Durante, getting horny and a San Miguel soup.

ACT ONE: 

It goes back almost 20 years to Puerto Vallarta. We were renting an apartment on one floor of a seven level house at the south end of town that cascaded down the cliff into Banderas Bay. Our place was spectacular and included a room that I’d never ever had before and have never had since. Our place had a ballroom.

Don Day’s wife loves to dance and, after some liquid encouragement, so does Don Day. In the ballroom was a CD player and, in a drawer, only two CDs. We played the first album, “Songs You Know By Heart” by Jimmy Buffett for three straight days until we could sing along to almost every word of “A Pirate Looks At Forty” and “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes”.

Then, all too soon, it was the two Canadian pirates’ last night in paradise. We planned a romantic picnic on our balcony above the Pacific. Finding gringo food in a supermarket was almost impossible in those days so we ended up picking up soft-crusted bread that was sweeter than brioche, local cheeses that were really only good for melting, and packages of Fud meats with the most unappetizing names imaginable, along with a bottle of Spanish Cava and a bottle of Marques de Riscal Rioja. Jimmy Buffett just didn’t fit the mood. It was time to check out the second CD. It was titled “As Time Goes By”. The artist was Jimmy Durante. Don Day had always thought Schnozolla was a bit of an asshole when he had his own TV show but Don Day finds it easy to relate to guys with big noses who are a bit of an asshole and, if nothing else, the CD had a lot of romantic ballads.

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“Try A Little Tenderness”, “The Glory Of Love”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “September Song”…we were soon in each other’s arms in the ballroom. An almost full moon glowed through the balcony’s French doors. The waves crashed below. Don Day, Don Day’s Wife and Jimmy Durante shared one of the most intimate Mexican dinners ever.

ACT TWO: 

I’d almost forgotten that night until about five years ago when I was speeding down the Queen Elizabeth Way in my friend Ben’s Jag on the way from Toronto to Buffalo to catch a plane to St. Pete’s, Florida where we were going to try and take a steel-hulled houseboat over to the Atlantic side. Ben had Jimmy Buffett on the CD player to warm us up to the task but then, as we approached Niagara Falls, it flipped to another album. Don Day heard a familiar voice singing “Make Someone Happy” followed by “Young At Heart”. It was Jimmy Durante again.

I told Ben I couldn’t believe what he was playing. I’ll never forget Ben’s explanation: “Nothing makes them hornier than Durante.” And I thought it was Don Day’s secret. A couple of weeks ago, Ben sent me an invitation to his wedding. Jimmy must have been working overtime recently.

ACT THREE: 

We switch now to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and it’s February, 2010. We were having some people to dinner that I wanted terribly to impress. I had seen a somewhat rare and showy delicacy at the Tuesday Market and decided yes, stuffed squash blossoms, that would be pure showbiz. 

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Don Day didn’t know much about squash blossoms. Other than christening the first woman who wore Spandex at the racquet club (and shouldn’t have) with the name. I decided to make sure I knew what the Spanish name for squash blossoms was so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself when I arrived at San Miguel’s Tuesday market. Flor de calabaza was what Google Translate said. But, as Don Day’s mind isn’t quite as sharp as it once was, I was afraid I’d forget it before I got there. I knew flor was flower; that wouldn’t be a problem but with that other word, that word for squash, I needed assistance, a little trick. And there was Jimmy Durante anxious to help again. Durante always ended his show with “And goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” So off Don Day went to Mercado Ignacio Ramirez humming “Inka Dinka Doo” knowing I would never forget the word calabaza.

ACT FOUR:

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It’s August, the time of year when flors de calabaza are making an appearance in fruit and veg markets again. They grow wild in San Miguel and on the walk to the Tuesday market, Don Day has to sometimes dance between them as they invade the sidewalk. There are not many flowers (the locals rise much earlier than Don Day) but you’ll see those familiar flag leaves amongst the wild grasses.

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A more appropriate name for squash blossoms might be zucchini blossoms (or courgette blossoms if you’re from England or France) because that’s what they really are. Flors de calabaza should be used within a couple of days of being picked. They should be firm and only partially open. North of the border, they’re hard to find because they need gentle handling and perish very quickly.

To me, squash blossoms were always an Italian dish. I’ve had the petals deep fried in a light batter and I’ve had them stuffed, usually with cheese, and baked. In Mexico, most often they are put into a soup.

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Though you don’t get a lot of flavor out of the flowers, here is how I like to stuff and prepare them. It makes for one very impressive looking appetizer and Don Day loves getting a little attention.

Hold on to the stems and gently remove the parts inside the flowers (if you’re into plant sex, those are pistils on female flowers and stamens on male flowers). Stuff them with a mixture of goat camembert (available at Luna de Queso on Salida a Celaya) dotted with finely chopped roasted poblano peppers, red pimiento peppers and almonds (other nuts will work). Dip the stuffed flowers in Mitsuki tempura batter (available at Bonanza on Mesones). Deep fry them, two or three at a time, in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes and drain. Serve them, hot or cold, with a dip of one part Valentina sauce to about three parts sour cream.

ACT FIVE:

Don Day’s Wife is the soup specialist in the family but doesn’t get too excited about squash blossom soup so Don Day has to venture out for this Mexican treat. If I was in San Miguel, Don Day would be sampling it personally but, as I am in Toronto as I write this, I will direct you to where, I understand, they have one of the best sopas de flor de calabaza ever. The word I got via email is that “when the squash blossom soup is on the menu, it’s like a run on a bank.”

The soup is being served at Olivo Verde, that little place that’s a little too far away from where most people live in San Miguel that specializes in Italian cuisine. That restaurant is in the house where Chef Juan Manuel Reyes Patlan, who is much better known by the much easier to remember name of Denver, grew up. Denver’s mother was Maria Ines one of the most celebrated cooks in San Miguel de Allende during the sixties and seventies and the recipe came from her.

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Most squash blossom soups in Mexico are cremas but Olivo Verde‘s is tomato based (thanks for making me very hungry with the photo Todd McIntosh) with a stronger than usual hint of garlic and a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

In an email, Patricia Mahan told me, “Denver makes such good soups I have had two full bowls in one sitting.” She continued, “We love to watch him at work and how he beams when you compliment him.”

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Follow the soup with one of Denver’s pastas, add on a glass or three of wine and then just saunter home singing “The Whiffenpoof Song”.

We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa!

We’re little black sheep who have gone astray, Baa! Baa! Baa!

Goodnight Mrs. Calabash wherever you are.

Olivo Verde is located at Colonia Aurora #5 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from Noon to 8:00 pm, Wednesday through Saturday. Squash blossoms are in season from June through September and Wednesday is, traditionally, soup day at the restaurant.

Eating the dragons slain in my San Miguel yard.

They definitely looked familiar. From somewhere but I wasn’t sure exactly where. Now there were these two big bloodshot eyes staring at me from over the ten foot high wall that separates our property from the neighbors.

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I asked Jose who had lived in San Miguel de Allende all his life if he knew about the dragons. He said no. I asked his sister Juana. She reiterated the no.

Don Day is usually a foul weather friend of Mexico. He usually only comes to San Miguel in December through April, escaping those most unfair of Canadian winters. In the winter months he had seen white eyes looking over the wall but he had never seen them red before.

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Don Day loved the white eyes. So much so that he went to Google to find out what they were. It took a while. A need to refresh the glass twice during the research time. But Don Day found them. Those eyes were pitaya flowers. And they were some of the most beautiful flowers he had ever seen.

The flowers always looked best when Don Day looked his worst (but thinks he looks his best). Like Don Day they come alive at night and wilt long before morning. They are often known by the name Moonflower or Queen of the Night, two names that Don Day, to the best of his knowledge, has never been known by.

This Summer, Don Day did something he’d never done before. He spent two of his summer months in San Miguel de Allende. And the white flowers had been replaced. There looking over the wall at him were red fruits. It was time to go to Google and learn even more about these neighborly invaders.

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Don Day discovered that in the summer, pitaya (or pittaya or pitahaya) flowers become dragon fruit. Dragon fruit. Now Don Day knew where he had seen them. In front of the Chinese supermarkets that line Spadina Avenue in Toronto. He had even bought one once because of his insatiable appetite to eat everything once.

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It was a little strange looking, white flesh with black seeds. It was reminiscent of kiwi fruit. Sweet and nutty. The problem was, like kiwi fruit, Don Day was never quite sure what to do with it (other than provide one more variation on the recipe for pavlova).

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So I didn’t have it again until this summer. And I liked it even more. Though it might be tough to come up with an appropriate after dinner dessert if you’re having company, it’s damn good just cut in half and eaten with a spoon in front of the TV when you’re catching the latest episode of Ray Donovan.

In Don Day’s opinion, there are only two superfoods, grapes and barley. But to more sophisticated people there are others. And one of them is pitaya (or pittaya or pitahaya). This Mexican native has got just about all of the buzzwords those people who eat food because it’s good for you flaunt when they talk about their superfoods. You know the words: Antioxidants. Vitamin B. High in fiber. Low in calories. And, according to the website therawfoodfamily.com, “It has almost zero cholesterol, fat and trans-fat so it is such a good food if you struggle with weight issues. As it has a lot of plant fiber which helps prevent diarrhea and digestive issues, it is helping from two angles to aid your body. It is giving you a saturated feeling, helping to feel full in a healthy way, not bulking up with too many calories, and on the same token healing and supporting your whole digestive system in a very healthy way!”

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Now because Don Day is always fascinated about weird stuff that concerns food, he must share with you what he found in The Organ Pipe Cactus (another name for the pitaya) by David Yetman.

Several of the Padres who missionized Baja California recorded an unusual form of consumption of pitaya that is also shared in some O’odham stories from southern Arizona. It is called the “second harvest” of pitaya seeds. With the scarcity of fruits in their lands, the pitaya was such a prized fruit that once it was eaten, the natives would wait for their own excrement to dry, then break it apart separating the pitaya seeds. These seeds would be ground into a flour and eaten again, giving the pitaya’s “second harvest” its name. Interestingly, the O’odham name for the Milky Way translates as “the second harvest of pitaya.

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If you want to check out dragon fruit in San Miguel, there’s only one place I’ve seen it. It’s at the Tuesday market. At that stand that’s about one aisle in from the south and west corner, the stall you may know as the one that always has basil. The one run by the guy in the photo. That’s where Don Day found it which means that, yes, I’d already eaten all of the dragons that breathed their fire over my wall.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.