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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.