Though Don Day has problems remembering things that happened eleven minutes ago, he does remember something that happened eleven years ago.
Don Day’s Wife and I were coming to San Miguel de Allende for the first time in our lives and the owners of the house we had rented had arranged for Mario, a driver, to pick us up at Leon Airport. The driver and I started chatting and, as usual when Don Day starts chatting, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to food. Mario told me about a few upscale restaurants, most of which are now long gone, but there was one that he ranked as the very best and that restaurant is still with us. The problem is, hardly anyone knows about it.
It took a long time until the first time we ever got to this restaurant. It was out of town, on the road to a place called Doctor Mora, a place that apparently was not named after the character from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now the world is a far safer place without Don Day behind the wheel of a car so, being out of town, meant being faced with a $10 or so cab fare each way. That was $20 more that Don Day could spend on food and wine if he stayed in town.
I think it was our third year when we finally went. The restaurant was in a grand old home, Hacienda Landeta, and sitting outside on a warm afternoon was even more enjoyable than being inside on a cool night. One of the dishes we had on that first visit, grilled octopus, is still on the all star hall of fame menu that’s printed on the back of what’s left of Don Day’s brain. Beside it is the name of the restaurant, Ristorante Da Andrea.
A couple of years ago, the restaurant moved. Unfortunately not into town but to the other side of town. Ristorante Da Andrea is now about seven kilometres outside of San Miguel, on the road to Dolores Hidalgo.
Again, mostly because of the distance, it took Don Day’s Wife and I a long time to get there but when our friends Ben and Cheryl mentioned that they had use of a car, Don Day suggested Ristorante Da Andrea. They had the same response that almost everyone else has. It was along the lines of “Yes, we’ve heard of that place. Always wanted to go there.”
The easiest way to find Ristorante Da Andrea is to instead find a restaurant called La Burger. Right beside La Burger is a road and down the road about 100 metres is Ristorante Da Andrea. When you approach, you’re still not sure you’ve found the restaurant. You see what looks like a home in a well-landscaped, only grow in a desert garden with a feature that Don Day has always wanted, a cactus hedge. It’s a home with mid-Century modern touches, the kind of place you see in Dwell magazine. Then, you see parking for more than a few cars and, even though you don’t see a sign, you decide you’re there.
There are a lot of tough food choices to make when you get to Da Andrea but, before that, you have to decide where to sit. There are three choices, outside at the front, outside at the back, or, yes, you guessed it, inside in between.
We ruled out the front patio as it seemed a little too divorced from the rest of the building. We ruled out the back patio because the view was a dusty, scrubby, greyish brown field. We weren’t crazy about our first impression of the inside either. It looked a little bleak, a little industrial. But it did have an impressive open kitchen and foodies do love open kitchens.
Da Andrea is a ristorante Italiano and the wine list is mostly a carta de vini Italiano. Don Day oogled the Super Tuscan and Amarone Classico on the back page and then noticed the extra digit on the prices and went to the front page on a little trip to reality from Italy to Chile. We decided on the house white, a Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc. Though this wine may seem very ordinary, it is one of Don Day’s favorite cheapies and, lately, all Santa Carolina wines have disappeared from San Miguel’s shelves making it almost as desirable to Don Day as Trixie Dempsey was when, in tenth grade, her parents decided she would be better off in a Roman Catholic high school.
At Da Andrea‘s old location, there was no menu for the food and that was something that a lot of people didn’t like. In the new location, there is a menu but maybe because we’re old fashioned, or maybe because we’re just old, we decided we would do it the old way, pass on seeing the menu and listen to what Juan the waiter would say when we asked him what are the very best things to eat at Ristorante Da Andrea.
For starters, Cheryl chose the huitlacoche ravioli, Ben chose the beef carpaccio, Don Day’s Wife chose the tuna carpaccio and Don Day, with those lingering memories of that first time at Da Andrea, chose the squid and octopus salad.
All of the pasta is made in-house but, as always at an Italian restaurant, it’s not about the pasta pockets, it’s more about what’s inside them and what they’re decorated with. Huitlacoche is a Mexican delicacy that began as an unwanted disease that grew on the ears of corn. Like a few other fungus, it has become elevated to cult status, but comparing it to a morel, a chanterelle, or a truffle just doesn’t cut it with Don Day. Cheryl’s pronouncement of the filling as “fine” suggested she may feel the same way.
As far as the sauce was concerned, Cheryl said, “It’s mostly butter, cream and salt but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with butter, cream and salt.”
Ben’s carpaccio was unusual in that the beef was lightly cooked and served warm. The generous portion of meat sat on a bed of wafer-thin sliced zucchini and was topped with the absolutely always welcome parmesan.
Don Day’s Wife serving of sashimi grade tuna also came in size large. We guessed it was yellowfin and, as it was “a little too vinegary”, Don Day’s Wife talked about how she almost always preferred “Asian treatments of raw tuna rather than European.”
Don Day’s salad was a bed of arugula, radish, and raw octopus topped with fire grilled squid. Don Day’s Wife watched Don Day take his first piece of octopus. Don Day’s Wife watched as the first bite was taken into the octopus. Don Day’s Wife watched as a smile lit up Don Day’s face.
Don Day asked Juan, the charming waiter to ask the kitchen what they did to the octopus that made it so tender. What did they marinate it in? Juan, the charming and efficient waiter returned to say they did absolutely nothing to the octopus. Perhaps Don Day should stop parading all over San Miguel de Allende searching for buttermilk to soak octopus in when neglect seems to be a much better solution.
As we savored our starters, we looked about the room and we talked about the room. There were some nice features: A classic stone fireplace. Rustic logs built into the plastered walls. A central vase with a huge spray of flowers. A nice step down into the washroom area. Even the most artistic handicapped washroom sign that Don Day had seen. But all the parts didn’t add up to a whole.
Don Day has often complained about restaurant tables being too close together but he couldn’t remember ever complaining about them being too far apart before.
“It just all looks very sterile to me”, said Cheryl. “There’s nothing charming at all about the place.”
“These Swedish modern chairs look good but they’re not at all comfortable,” she added.
“Especially on a bony ass like mine.” said Don Day.
Though I’m sure the intention was a clean, uncluttered almost stark look, Don Day was dying to do a little picture hanging.
As we contemplated our main courses we contemplated what the restaurant would be like at night. Would Restaurant Da Andrea be any more warm and welcoming if we had come for dinner?
“All things look better in the dark”, said Don Day’s Wife, “especially restaurants and women over sixty.”
Don Day’s Wife had ordered the lamb chops, something we’ve been shying away from in San Miguel in the last few months.
We’re not sure why…in fact we’d love to know why…but lamb seems to have lost a lot of its taste lately. We know that part of it is because when they’re butchered, particularly when they’re being Frenched into loin chops, a little too much fat is cut away, but otherwise lamb’s blandness is mostly a mystery.
So it was really nice to hear what came out of Don Day’s Wife upon her first bite.
There were only four words: “This is lamby lamb.” Not exactly eloquent but she probably couldn’t have expressed her joy any better.
Ben and Don Day had ordered the robalo which is also called the common snook but shouldn’t be as it’s uncommonly good. Robalo is appearing on more and more San Miguel menus and more and more of Don Day’s plates. The fish was perfectly cooked which means it was only lightly cooked. It was topped with salicornia, an interesting and tasty green that Juan, the charming, efficient and bilingual waiter told Don Day was seaweed.
Every once in a while you order something in a restaurant and it punches you right in the mouth. It just knocks you for a loop it’s so good. That was the way Cheryl’s quail was. She shared a little with all of us and then we big-eyed her with Oliver faces.
The quail was simply spiced with not much more than salt and pepper. It was fall apart tender on the inside yet crisp on the outside. More importantly, it was wonderfully moist, something that requires a chef with the keenest sense of timing or a very sensitive meat thermometer. Plus the legs and breast were equally done, another almost impossible feat with a small bird.
“This quail is so good”, said Ben.
“This is the best quail I’ve ever eaten,” said Cheryl. “My mother would love this. My mother absolutely loves quail.”
“The quail is definitely the star,” said Don Day’s Wife.
From visiting the old Ristorante Da Andrea, I remembered Andrea as a very charismatic host. The kind of guy who welcomed you at the door. A guy who walked around with an air of confidence. A guy who visited your table at least a couple of times. I couldn’t remember how old Andrea was. I didn’t think he was as old as Don Day. But I was still a little worried to ask about his whereabouts. He’s on his way said Juan, the charming, efficient, bilingual and knowledgeable waiter.
A couple of minutes later, there he was. Still with that curly salt and pepper hair and those blue/gray eyes. At our table asking how we were enjoying everything. And ready to pose with Don Day’s Wife.
I discovered that the previous location at Hacienda Landeta had been rented. The new location of Ristorante Da Andrea is owned by Andrea, as are the premises occupied by La Burger.
When you’ve had two very good courses, and you’re into your second bottle of wine, dessert always seems like a necessity to Don Day. We chose two to share between the four of us. Not surprisingly, both were chocolate.
By now, it was lunch time on Mexican time and Ristorante Da Andrea was beginning to fill up. We noticed that we were probably the only non Mexicans there. That was something that Don Day remembered about the old Ristorante Da Andrea as well.
Don Day mentioned that it was, “One of those places where you see Mexicans dressed like gringos.”
“And gringos dressed like Mexicans,” said Ben, with an eye towards Don Day.
Dessert number one was a chocolate mousse. There are various styles of mousse, most of them airy and creamy; this one was a heavier version.
“It’s a fudgy chocolate mousse”, said Ben.
“If you’re going to eat chocolate, you might as well eat fudge,” said Cheryl.
Dessert number two should have actually been called dessert number one as it was the favorite. The restaurant called it a rollo chocolate; it was a dense pastry, what a French restaurant would call a ganache, with roughly chopped nuts and biscuit floating throughout it. It was a cookie and a cake at the same time. And it was crunchy and creamy at the same time. Topping it was a sprinkle of salsa zarzamora or blackberry sauce.
Before we left for our lunch, Don Day had gone to Trip Advisor to check for the exact address of Ristorante Da Andrea. He was a little shocked…no, he was a lot shocked. Not with where the restaurant was located but how visitors had rated it. The restaurant has a score a little above of average which is not at all surprising. How it got that number though is very strange. Out of 30 reviews, 17 rated it as excellent, the very best score you can give. Six reviews, however, rated it as terrible, the very worst score you can give. Now an excellent is pretty easy to get. Terribles are like hen’s teeth. Most people are similar to Don Day (well maybe only in a couple of ways). When they have a bad experience at a restaurant, they mark it down as experience and move on. So 20% of the people thinking the place was terrible and taking the time to share that with others, that’s something that Don Day has never seen with any another restaurant.
When I got home I thought about it again. I realized that Ristorante Da Andrea is a place that would probably appeal to foodies but, perhaps, not to a lot of other people. Some people like casual, comfortable décor, not sophisticated design. Some people like hello my name is waiters, not vets of the business with a bit of attitude. Some people like a little more elegance when they’re spending 1000 pesos for a meal for two. Some people like chicken and shrimp not quail and octopus. And almost all people like menus with prices.
If it was up to Don Day, I’d give Ristorante Da Andrea a very good, a four out of five. The food was excellent, some of the best I’ve had in San Miguel. The service was very good. And, though Ristorante Da Andrea is definitely a special treat kind of place, I thought the prices of about 90 pesos for a starter, 260 for a main and 70 for a dessert still represented reasonable value. The only reason it wouldn’t make the excellent ranking is because of that lack of ambience. The decor is definitely disappointing. But, as Don Day’s Dad used to say when he took him to his favorite cheap and cheerful place to eat, “You don’t eat the walls, Son.”
It is a hassle to spend almost half an hour getting to Ristorante Da Andrea. It’s a bigger hassle spending half an hour getting back after a couple of bottles of wine. What it really gets down to is, with so many Italian restaurants so much closer, and most of them more warm and inviting (even if it’s the red tablecloth and candle type of warmth), is Ristorante Da Andrea worth the drive. Don Day thinks so. And also thinks if you’re the kind of person who has read this far, you will too.
Ristorante Da Andrea is located at Kilometre 7.4 on the Carretera San Miguel a Dolores Hidalgo, in Guanajuato, Mexico. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, from 1:00 pm, from Thursday through Sunday.