A few months ago, Don Day wrote a blog about Chef Boris Olvera creating a wonderful version one of his favorite fish dishes, pescado a la veracruzana. And though Don Day doesn’t get many emails, that day he got two. And both were raves about two other fish dishes that are available in two very well respected San Miguel restaurants.
So did Don Day rush out and sample them? No, Don Day didn’t. What Don Day did was delve a little deeper into the dishes.
The first was based on salmon but, unfortunately, it was salmon that had been farmed and frozen and Don Day prefers his salmon to have similar attributes to the women he prefers to dine with. Don Day likes his salmon wild and fresh.
The second dish was based on tilapia. In this case the restaurant didn’t know (they should have) whether the tilapia was farmed or wild or whether it was fresh or previously frozen. But statistically, there was about a 99% chance the fish was farmed. And Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia. Not because farmed tilapia eat corn and soy rather than aquatic plants. Not because farmed tilapia are fed methyltesterone so that they grow fat bellies instead of sex organs. Not because farmed tilapia contain a lot of bad Omega 6 fatty acids and very little good Omega 3 fats. Not because Harvard University says farmed tilapia can have ten times more toxins than farmed fish. And not because a Wake Forest study said that farmed tilapia is worse for you than bacon.
Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia because farmed tilapia is bland, almost tasteless and Don Day likes his fish to be rich in flavor and taste at least a little fishy.
Now if you’re a regular reader of Don Day in SMA, you’ll know that I don’t write about what I don’t like in San Miguel, I write only about what I like. And mostly only what I like a lot. So yes, today’s blog has a lining the same color as the skin of a fish. For today I’m going to tell you what I think is the very best fish dish in all of San Miguel de Allende.
Don Day is very fond of San Miguel restaurant Mi Vida but I don’t go there very often. Because often I look inside and it’s as empty as Don Day’s pockets after a Wednesday night at Cactus Jack’s San Miguel poker game. And, in Don Day’s opinion, ambience and atmosphere can only be fully achieved in restaurants that are, at the very least, half full.
It was no different the last time Don Day’s Wife and I went to Mi Vida. There were only two other diners in a restaurant that could probably seat sixty. But you can only go so long without Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal.
Mi Vida is a beautiful and elegant room. It’s a little cluttered but still very classy. The tableware says quality. The napkins and tablecloths are the kind you hate to dirty. There’s an open airiness yet still a coziness. There is art that Don Day would be happy to have on the walls of his home (including a menu cover that Don Day thinks is the second best in San Miguel…Andanza is my favorite). And if you arrive on the right evening, you’ll catch some of the best live music in town.
But not everything is ideal at Mi Vida. The restaurant always seems to be lacking (and needing) a maitre d’. Once you get past the front door though, service is very precise and very efficient.
Mi Vida arrived in San Miguel de Allende about five years ago, taking over a space previously occupied by El Gallo, an ambitious attempt by Nirvana to open a second location. It’s run by two chefs Davide Garibaldi and Greta Ortega, he from Italy and she from Mexico. The catchline for Mi Vida is, appropriately, Italian Restaurant with a Mexican Accent.
Previously Davide and Greta cooked together in Playa del Carmen and, I suspect, used to occupy rooms other than the kitchen together. Today the partnership is strictly business and one of the reasons that it may work so well is because I seldom see both of them in the restaurant at the same time.
It was Greta who was there the last time we were there. She’s a fortyish woman with a model’s walk and mysterious cat’s eyes who, with her school ma’am hair always pulled severely back, reminds Don Day of Dorothy Malone in her brunette days in The Big Sleep. I suspect that, like the Acme Book Shop proprietor that Malone played in the movie, she looks much more stern and serious than she really is.
If you don’t know what that fish dish on Mi Vida‘s menu is let me tell you that I copied the exact words pescado entero del dia a la sal from their menu and, in the simple words of Don Day, it’s simply a whole fish baked in a salt crust.
Though it sounds very scary (“Oh what if it tastes so salty nobody can even eat it!”), fish in a salt crust apparently isn’t that difficult to make. You gut a whole fish and remove the gills and fins but not the head and tail (Don Day would of course leave the nasty prep parts to the fishmonger). Then you stuff it with some light and simple spicing. You mix coarse salt with egg whites and wrap it up and roast it. The only controversy I’ve ever heard about preparing the dish is whether or not you scale the fish (some say it lets too much salt into the flesh if you do).
What cooking in a crust of salt does is help retain the moisture, keep the flesh flaky and, for some mysterious reason, make the fish exceptionally flavorful. There are a number of dwellers of the deep that work well using this treatment. Traditionally Mi Vida has used robalo. During our last visit, huachinango or, in English, red snapper was the choice. The importance of any fish dish is freshness and, though it was a couple of years ago when I asked him, Davide Garibaldi told me he was sourcing his fish from San Miguel seafood shop La Isla. That’s the same supplier of choice for all of the fish Don Day’s Wife cooks at our home.
As you know, all good things are worth waiting for. And the same goes for fish in a salt crust at Mi Vida. For it is only done to order. And prep and cooking take about an hour. If you were much more organized than Don Day you might call ahead. But that means you wouldn’t have an hour to fill savoring other delights from Mi Vida‘s menu.
The dish also needs to be ordered for at least two people so you’ll need an agreeable lunch or dinner date (Don Day is often available). At a price of 390 pesos a kilo and a kilo sometimes being enough for three people, it’s not only San Miguel’s best tasting fish dish, it’s also one of San Miguel’s best priced dishes of any description.
Most recently, we started by ordering wine. The wine menu is a binder with one of those chunky covers that are more familiar in steak houses frequented by people with slim suits and fat expense accounts. It has more pages than some restaurants have wines. There are some Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany that, with their 3000+ peso prices would require Don Day to have a suit-wearing job to afford them but there are also a lot of bottles at the Don Day less than 500 pesos level. Almost always, we would order a white to go with fish but Mi Vida‘s fish in a salt crust is flavorful enough to handle a red. The fact that Incognito, a favorite from the Valle de Guadelupe that is very hard to find, was on the menu sealed the deal. The wine combines cabernet sauvignon, grenache and tempranillo, has wonderful hints of blueberries and blackcurrants, and is priced at a very reasonable 330 pesos at Mi Vida.
In addition to the wine we ordered water. The look of the bottle of Ciel that comes to the table unfortunately robs the table setting of a lot of its elegance.
Accompanying the wine to the table was Mi Vida‘s tin box of breads that are baked on the patio by Mi Vida‘s third partner Pedro Escamilla in a wood fired oven.
At the front of the restaurant, Sale Pepe sells some of the best artisan baked goods in San Miguel. Included in the tin were three different and delicious breads as well as grissini sticks. With them came good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.
For our the wait is killing me course, the one where we hum Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” we went with the appetizer that seems to have been added to more restaurant menus than any other in the last year. We went with the pulpo a la parilla, grilled octopus done in salsa verde, served with seaweed, giant capers, roast potatoes and almonds and walnuts still hot from toasting.
“That’s very tender octopus”, said Don Day’s Wife.
“That’s a wonderful accompaniment to the tentacles”, said Don Day.
Maybe the server saw Don Day’s Wife checking her iPhone for the time; maybe he had a way to recognize a man who is salivating; for when the server returned from the kitchen he brought a little surprise course. Two slices of bruschetta arrived on an oval wooden platter.
“Um good”, said Don Day’s Wife, after her first bite.
“Um very good”, said Don Day, after his second.”
“That could be the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day.
“That is the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day’s Wife.
The bruschetta isn’t on the menu but I presume, Mi Vida will make it for you. Or, you could just try checking your iPhone when the hour’s wait for the fish is almost up.
Don Day likes a little showbiz in restaurants. Don Day misses caesar salad being tossed at his table. Don Day misses cherries jubilee, crepes suzette, bananas foster and any other dessert that became endangered by the sensitivity of smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. So drumroll, please. And maybe a few French horns. Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal revives the showbiz tradition.
A metal tray is carried in on the extended arm of your server and placed on a side table. On the tray is a lining of parchment paper and on that paper, just turning a rich golden color, is the package you’ve been waiting for. Only a few exposed tail fins indicate what’s inside.
The server then proceeds to open the package, removing the top crust of salt and, with knife and fork, releasing the most delightful of aromas, expertly removing the flakes of white flesh from the bones and placing it on each plate. Salad greens and veggies are added and, with one final squeeze of lime, San Miguel de Allende’s very best fish dish is ready to touch your tastebuds.
What makes it taste so good? An art critic might call it minimalism. There’s no sauce for it to hide behind. All you taste is very fresh fish. And that is one of the world’s great tastes.
Now this blog could end here. But it won’t. Because there’s a grand finale to the best fish dish in town. I’ll tease you with some of the words that came out of Don Day’s Wife while we were eating it.
“What a beautiful presentation!”
“We could be in the finest French restaurant.”
“That’s one of the prettiest desserts I’ve seen in a long time.”
“You know I’m not really a dessert eater but this is impossible to resist.”
Don Day is not even sure exactly what the dessert is called. I think Mi Vida‘s servers simply refer to it as lemon cheesecake. But what an understatement. It goes miles beyond that. It combines lemon, chocolate and strawberry in wonderful proportions. There’s cake, meringue and preserves. The tastes all work separately and they all work together. And the presentation on the plate is a work of art that can compete with the art on the walls.
Our dessert was preceded by a complimentary lemon sorbet and followed by complimentary cookies. It was a fairytale ending to one of San Miguel’s ultimate dining experiences.
There are three restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that are totally dedicated to seafood. But if you suffer from pescadophilia. If you want the best fish dish in town. You need instead to go to an Italian restaurant with a Mexican accent. You need only two words to put the best fish dish in your life. Mi Vida.
Mi Vida is located at Hernandez Macias #97 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open on Monday and from Wednesday to Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday 1:30 to 10:00 pm. They are closed Tuesdays. The bakery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 8:30 am to 10:00 pm, every day except Tuesdays.