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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.