Don Day only lived in France for a short time. But it was enough time for a long romance. The object of Don Day’s deep affection was called Madiran.
Every Sunday, Don Day and the rest of the escapees from the asylum (what the locals called the expats) would host a picnic and every Sunday we would have Madiran over for the feast. Unlike the rest of the guests, though, Madiran would never make it home.
Madiran was one of the local red wines, the cheapest of all the local red wines. And the taste? That was of little importance. All that we wanted from the wine was an alcohol delivery system that would be acceptable to the sophisticated belles femmes we would invite and who, occasionally, would actually show up.
In the last few years, Don Day and Don Day’s Wife spent a little holiday time in the Dordogne, not too many kilometres from the place in southwest France where Madiran is made. It was there, 40 years after his original dalliance, that Don Day tried to rekindle his romance with Madiran. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out.
Don Day had changed. Forty years of washing wine over his palate had adjusted it substantially. Don Day found Madiran to be a little too sharp, a touch rough, what Don Day’s Wife appropriately called puckery.
The reason was obvious. Madiran is made from a grape called Tannat, traditionally the wine is about 70% Tannat blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. Tannat, as the name suggests, has a very tannic taste that, despite a number of bold attempts, Don Day has never been able to become accustomed to.
The last time we tried a Madiran was about three weeks ago, in Toronto. It had a lot of fruit but it wasn’t sweet fruit. The blackcurrant was a little tart. The cherry was a little sour. Those tannins still needed softening even though this Madiran had over three years in the bottle.
So what has this got to do with San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, you’re probably asking. Well a few weeks ago a new restaurant opened in San Miguel. And for it’s name, they chose the word Tannat. Don Day, the wannabe investigative reporter had to find out why.
There is one other part of the world that Tannat is popular. In that country, it is considered the “national grape”. That country is Uruguay. In the late 1800s, a guy named Pascual Harriague and a number of other Basque settlers brought the grape from the southwest of France to the south of Uruguay and, slowly but very surely, it became the country’s most consumed wine.
Jose Manuel Garcia, the owner of the restaurant Tannat, is not from Uruguay but he has a passion for things Uruguayan. His wife and partner Monica is from Uruguay and, in his opinion, “Monica is the world’s best woman and Tannat is the world’s best wine”.
We went to Tannat on Saturday night and were welcomed at the door like long lost friends by Jose and Monica. Using the when in Rome philosophy, we of course ordered Tannat, wondering all the while if we could get over our anti-Madiran influences. There are two Tannats available by the glass, both from winemaker Juan Carrau, one of them a reserva.
“The reserva spends about seven months in oak and had an extra year in the bottle’, Jose told us and, when Monica suggested a glass of each so we could more easily experience the differences, it was an easy answer. Two wines are always better than one to Don Day.
There was no difference in the nose and there wasn’t a lot of difference in taste, not as much as you might get between a Rioja crianza and a Rioja reserva. The entry level Tannat and the reserva both had a deep, dark color but the reserva was a little more of a warm brick red if you held it up to the light. It was also slightly more mellow but, without sampling one right after the other, with my eyes closed, Don Day wasn’t able to pass Don Day’s Wife’s taste test (she of course predicted I wouldn’t) by drinking just one and identifying which one it was.
There was another difference, a difference with both Tannat wines. With Don Day of course finding it unavoidable to make reference to a certain Uruguayan soccer player, the Uruguayan Tannat had less bite than Madiran. Though still robust, it was smoother than Madiran. The fruit was more of a blackberry than blackcurrant. And the cherry was more sweet than sour.
As we tasted those first two glasses and before we even had our first mouthfuls of food, I realized there was something special about Tannat, the grape. And Tannat, the restaurant.
Tannat the restaurant is located on Salida a Celaya/Ancha de San Antonio, the street that is as close as San Miguel has to a restaurant row. There’s a classy sign and an attractive entry but the entryway isn’t quite big enough to be a bar or for anything but a little storage and to show off a few of the bottles on Tannat‘s small but interesting list of wines. The next set of doors open into a bowling alley of a back yard where, closest to the entrance, wooden tables and iron chairs seat about 20 people. There’s a bamboo roof that looks like it may need a couple of prayers to stop a rain. A wall of twigs partially hides the restrooms. But no, it’s not the location, it’s not the decor, it’s not the the washrooms that makes Tannat, the restaurant, special. It’s the hospitality. Immediately, Don Day liked Monica and Jose. The way they shared their enthusiasm for their new venture. The way they shared their knowledge about wine and food.
Monica and Jose call Tannat, the restaurant, a cocina con caracter and have divided the creative menu into three sections, caracter inicial, caracter intermedio and caracter fuerte.
With what we picked from the second and third sections and knowing that, when there’s a Don Day, there’s inevitably going to be a caracter finale, a dessert, we decided to skip the caracter inicial.
We were almost successful. Monica brought tiny bowls of one of the five appetizers, a complimentary amuse bouche of cream of fresh pea soup enhanced with a little onion and white wine. It was a nice little tease for the delights to come. Don Day was liking the soup, liking Monica and liking Tannat even more.
On the second section of the menu, we had found a dish that we couldn’t remember ever seeing on a San Miguel restaurant before. It was a favorite dish. A foodie dish. A dish that we knew would go well with the second glasses of Tannat that we’d ordered. It was steak tartare.
Filet of beef had been hand chopped into larger than usual and very tender pieces. The raw meat was nicely seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and lay on a bed of the rarely seen (even though Don Day thinks it’s one of the world’s best greens) verdolaga. Topping the tartare was asparagus, green onions and both shavings and a wedge of parmesan.
“I would have shaved all of the parmesan”, said Don Day’s Wife, “but I still give it a five out of five. If it had a couple more pieces of that toast on the side, I’d give it a six.”
There was a good reason the food was good. Jose Manuel Garcia had spent four years at San Miguel’s The Restaurant. Monica had spent two. From the standpoint of serving imaginative, flavorful but still reasonably simple food, there’s probably no better exposure than The Restaurant. Haniel Cruz and Cecilia Alvarez, the couple manning (or should that be man and womaning) the back of the restaurant, had a similarly excellent training ground in the kitchen of San Miguel’s MiVida.
The Italian influence from MiVida showed in our selection of main courses. Don Day’s Wife chose a pasta with cherry tomatoes, anchovies, cubes of mozzarella, torn lettuce and green olives.
Don Day chose a pasta with veal in a sage butter sauce colorfully decorated with carrot shavings. Both pastas used fresh, not dried fettucine. Both were fine but could have been spiced up a little for our tastes (but perhaps not for everyone’s tastes). The sage butter would have been helped by a little more sage in Don Day’s opinion and he also would have liked the chance to sprinkle some dried chiles and add a little heat. Don Day’s Wife thought some capers or more anchovies to add salt would have helped hers. Along with perhaps a sprinkle of dried oregano. A request for parmesan was granted instantly and a “would you like more cheese” inquiry came from Jose before we were half finished.
Though it deserved to be full to the brim. No, make that overflowing. Tannat, the restaurant, was not busy. Especially for a Saturday when there were a lot of Mexican tourists in town. There was only one other table for four occupied so it wasn’t difficult for Jose to take time out from hand towelling the tall stemmed glasses (he’s one of those finicky people who even sticks his nose inside the glass before any wine is allowed to enter it) and join us to talk wine in general and Tannat in particular.
It was immediately obvious that Jose Manuel Garcia lives and breathes…no makes that breathes heavily and deeply…wine. To the table, he brought with him a selection of Tannats, most of them well aged, for our viewing pleasure. One of them, from 2000, he planned to open next week when he celebrates a fortyish birthday. Another of them, we decided to open immediately.
We were now tasting an older, much more mellow Tannat. I was beginning to understand Jose’s passion; it was beginning to rub off. Jose told me he collects Tannats. He knew, exactly, how many different he had, 72 in total. He told me how there are only about 120,000 bottles of Tannat produced each year in Uruguay (in comparison, the annual production of Madiran in France is about 10,000,000 bottles and Madiran is far from what you’d call a popular French wine). He bought out a bottle of Bouza, a Uruguayan Tannat that includes Merlot and Tempranillo in a blend to mellow the tannins and showed me how production is so limited each number is bottled.
“I can’t find another woman as good as mine…but I can find an awful lot of good Tannats,” Jose said.
Rather than order a glass of dessert wine, we decided that Tannat would be a perfect partner for the molten chocolate cake that we’d ordered.
Delivering the dessert to the table were Haniel and Cecy. Don Day thinks going to a restaurant without meeting the chef is like going to a gallery opening without meeting the artist. Seventies soul was playing in the background and Don Day couldn’t help imagining the next song being Marvin Gaye doing “Pride and Joy” to describe the glow on the chefs’ faces.
Though it would never stop Don Day from ordering it and ordering it often, molten chocolate cake is a bit of a been there/done that dessert that doesn’t take much more than timing to perfect. What makes the difference is what might keep it company on the plate. There were two white slabs on the side of Tannat’s molten chocolate cake that looked a little like nougat. They had a melt-in-the-mouth creamy, cheesy, fruity taste that was a perfect partner to the chocolate. The flavor was passion fruit, Cecy told us, and the name for the two white slabs was donata panciera.
Jose had now brought two books to the table. The first one was an obvious choice. It was “Wine Grapes”, the Encyclopedia Brittanica of wine that details almost 1400 grapes in almost as many pages. It’s a book Don Day once considered buying until he realized he could buy ten bottles of wine for the same amount of money.
The other book that Jose had placed on the table was one Don Day was very surprised to see. Though written by a restaurateur, it’s a book that’s relevant to almost any business. It’s a book about the importance of hospitality in virtually every aspect of life. I think Donny Masterton, chef/owner of The Restaurant had recommended or given it to Jose.
The book is called “Setting The Table”. The author is Danny Meyer, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, a chain (though he wouldn’t like that word) of New York area restaurants whose chefs have won an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards.
In “Setting The Table”, Danny Meyer says, “Within moments of being born, most babies find themselves receiving the first four gifts of life: eye contact, a smile, a hug and some food. We receive many other gifts in a lifetime, but few can ever surpass those first four.”
During our first visit to Tannat, Jose and Monica Garcia gave us frequent eye contact, piles of smiles and fed us very well. As we left the restaurant, they gave us a hug.
When Don Day’s Wife and I are charmed by a restaurant, as we were on Saturday night by Tannat, we have a line. It’s only three words. Those three words are, “They get it.” Surprisingly, very few restaurants “get it”. Those that do are usually around for a long time. And they almost always keep getting better.
Tannat, the wine, is not easily available at retail in San Miguel de Allende. La Europea lists five Tannats or Tannat blends but doesn’t stock any of them in their San Miguel shop. Some of them may be available in one of their two Queretaro stores. Tannat, the restaurant, is obviously your best bet for finding the wine locally. They have two available by the glass (or bottle) plus a premium Tannat available only by the bottle. There’s also the possibility of enticing Jose to sell you something from his “private” stock. Tannat is located at Ancha de San Antonio #67 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday.