I’d heard the news. It was exciting news. San Miguel de Allende had a new tapas bar. This was news that Don Day had been waiting to hear since the decline and fall of the sadly missed Cafe Iberico. I was also happy to hear that it was “a couple of Suecos” that were running the place. Sueco is what Mexicans call someone from Sweden and, as there’s a grand total of two Swedes I know of that live in this town, I was guessing it was Anders and Kajsa Litzen. Don Day had first experienced Kajsa’s cuisine and Anders’ hospitality at Los Senderos and I liked it. A lot. Don Day didn’t frequent Los Senderos though. It was only a $50 peso cab ride away but it could have been a $5000 airplane flight for I couldn’t help thinking of the place as a special event destination that required a birthday, an anniversary, or some other special occasion. Which was a shame. Despite Los Senderos being a beautiful place to dine, Anders and Kajsa couldn’t make the restaurant work. And neither has anyone else since they left. I followed the husband and wife team’s careers as they moved to Dos Casas and Cumpanio but I always felt their personalities were somewhat lost there. Those restaurants always seemed like someone else’s, not theirs. I lost track of Anders and Kajsa for a while and guessed that they’d moved back to Sweden. Then I heard they’d started a catering business, news I took with a grain of salt. Like a journalist who’s never out of work, only freelancing (Don Day did a lot of freelancing), a chef is never out of work, only catering. tapasfromstreet Tapas SMA opened about a month ago on Umaran just west of Zacateros. It was previously the home of a couple of other places to eat and drink. About three years ago it was a sports bar that suffered from the oasis on Sunday/arid desert the rest of the week problem that often kills sports bars. For the last couple of years it has housed Orchidea, one of only two places in town to catch a taste of Thai. Tapas are a casual style of food and they’re best served in a casual environment. There is another restaurant with a tapas menu in San Miguel but it screams luxury and it’s an enormous place where most people look uncomfortable when they dine even though they’re seated on the most comfortable of couches. There are also a couple of other restaurants that have early evening tapas menus but they just don’t work for Don Day either. Tapas are traditionally consumed while seated on stools at a bar or high top tables. And that’s the style of Tapas SMA, at least in the front room. There’s a wooden slat topped bar with five stools and three high top tables with ten more stools. When Don Day’s Wife and I arrived at Tapas SMA, we’d just come from Cent’Anni where the stools have nowhere to comfortably place your feet. Tapas SMA‘s stools are designed for lingering, for conversation. tapasbackroom Behind the bar area there’s a cosy room with conventional seating. Off to the side there’s an even cosier nook with a table for ten that would be a perfect place to hold a serious meeting or a friendly family dinner. There were a couple of disappointments when we arrived at Tapas SMA. I first looked for Anders. No Anders. I then wandered down to the kitchen and peered through the window looking for Kajsa. No Kajsa. Was I wrong about whose restaurant this was? The disappointments continued. We sat at the bar and Don Day’s Wife chose a glass of Jacqueline Brut Blanc de Blancs, a French sparkler that scored quite well when Don Day did a best bubbles tasting last year. Yes, Jacqueline was in the house but she wasn’t cold. Don Day’s Wife grumbled (quietly) and, with no other sparkling wine available, chose a Sauvignon Blanc. She grumbled (a little less quietly) when the wine, though refrigerated, was far above the ideal drinking temperature if she wanted to get all of the crispness out of her favorite white grape. tapasblackboard Don Day spotted Incognito, one of his favorite bargain Mexican reds featured on a blackboard. I ordered a glass and ouch! Yet another disappointment. Incognito was out of stock. Don Day grumbled (now loudly) and asked why would you feature a wine that you didn’t have in stock. Why wouldn’t you just erase it from the board or, even better, strike a line through it with the words sold out. Absence does make the wine drinker’s heart grow fonder. Though I liked the wall of bottles that hung beside me, Don Day was hoping all the best bottles weren’t all hanging there. tapaswallofbottles Sensing our discontent, the bartender summoned a young guy with Aztec eyes, a scruff of a beard and a smile crying for a camera. He introduced himself as Antonio Torres and told us he was a one third owner of Tapas SMA and, indeed, Anders and Kajsa Litzen made up the other two thirds. tapasantonioatbar He told me that his supplier’s cupboards were bare when it came to Incognito but the 2013 would be released next month. He offered two alternative Mexican wines both, like Incognito, from the Baja, that weren’t on the printed list. Though Don Day has been intimate with most Mexican reds, he had never had the pleasure of meeting either of these two before. Antonio offered a small taste of both. I sampled and ordered a glass of both. But, at least, one at a time. KM 101 is a blend of 60% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot. It tasted young and fruity with lots of sweet blackcurrants. No, it’s not a wine with a lot of depth or nuances but it’s the kind of blend that Don Day thinks Mexico is very good at making and should be making more of. tapasorbitoandkm101wines Orbita is a little more complex on the nose with a whole basket of fruit on the tongue. Blackberries, raspberries and red currants combine with vanilla and pepper. Orbita is an unusual blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Petite Syrah. It’s a wine I’d order again. Tapas SMA was bringing back memories of those boring lectures on story structure that Don Day had attended long ago. We’d had the set-up. And the confrontation. I hoped we had now passed the climax and the denouement of “One Night in SMA Tapas” had begun. tapasmenu The food menu at Tapas SMA i
s like a dizzying trip around the world or at least back and forth across the Atlantic. The menu starts, appropriately, in Sweden; heads over the Atlantic to Mexico and the U.S.; does a turnaround back to Italy; shifts into reverse again to Peru and comes in for a gentle landing at its final destination, the home of tapas, Spain. We skipped Sweden. Though some of the world’s great chefs are Scandinavian, Scandinavian cuisine doesn’t exactly set Don Day’s tastebuds tingling. And, though Sweden gave May Britt, Anita Ekberg and Inger Stevens to Don Day, he wouldn’t be holding a wake if they took back Swedish meatballs, pickled herrings, and shrimps on toast. We instead started our tapas tasting on home ground, in Mexico, with fish tacos. This is a dish that Don Day would rarely order (I’ve never quite come to grips with why I need something wrapped in batter and wrapped in a tortilla, especially if it’s a thick corn tortilla). But it’s a dish that’s an excellent guide as to how good a kitchen is. “If I’m going to eat a fish taco, this is the one I’m going to eat”, said Don Day’s Wife after taking her first bite. The wrap was a thin white flour tortilla. The perfectly cooked fish was ABT (anything but tilapia) and probably grouper (or what Mexicans call mero). The batter was light and not at all greasy. The sauce, tasting mostly of chipotle, was piquant but gentle with the heat. I asked Antonio Torres if they made their own tortillas. “We make our own corn”, Antonio told me, “but only our abuelas (grandmothers) know how to make flour tortillas.” We were continuing to get over Tapas SMA‘s initial disappointments. Traveling down the menu, we skipped through the two U.S. dishes, particularly when Don Day, ever the food historian, saw that one of them might have been better credited to Mexico. Though Caesar Cardini also had a restaurant in San Diego, it’s generally thought that he first served the Caesar Salad in Tijuana. tapassalumiboard We also flew over Italy and Peru (vowing to return for the ceviches) and headed right to Spain. The dish we chose, though made with Spanish ingredients, has an even greater heritage in Italy. Tapas SMA‘s charcuterie platter includes jamon Serrano, sobrassada (from the Balearic islands) and another dried sausage from Cataluna that Don Day had never heard of. It’s called fuet and was served swimming in a bowl of hot olive oil. Too greasy for some perhaps, but not too greasy for Don Day. tapassausageinoil A charcuterie plate is not a great challenge for a chef. It’s not usually about cooking, it’s about buying. And even Don Day is fair to middlin’ at shopping. Tapas SMA had chosen to purchase two selections from San Miguel’s Anthony D’Avanza. A lot of Tony’s sausages have graced Don Day’s dinner plates but this was my first time with any dry styles. Nice to know I can now shop local for Spanish salumi. I told Antonio Torres I’d rather see an Iberico ham than a Serrano, especially since Nena, the only place in town that I know was serving it, has taken it off the menu. He told me, “It might just be here the next time you’re here.” On the charcuterie plate, for the first time I saw the personal touch of Kajsa Litzen. Sprigs of rosemary are her signature herb. And Don Day has never had a Litzen meal where they didn’t make at least one appearance. On the plate, they weren’t just used for decoration. They served as skewers for the olives. And they weren’t just functional. The taste of rosmarin had infused into the aceitunas verdes. tapasantonio Antonio is a chatty guy, with arms that wave like a traffic cop. He told us that usually there are five specials also at Tapas SMA but Anders and Kajsa were on a catering assignment in Puerto Vallarta and he thought it best that they not introduce anything new or different. Good idea, thought Don Day. “I think it’s very important to always improve the menu”, said Antonio. “That’s why we didn’t print anything fancy. We can change it in seconds.” Antonio Torres is 26 years old but seems far smarter than Don Day was when he was 26. Or 66 for that matter. He’s close to getting a law degree but told me, “I won’t be leaving the restaurant business any time soon. This is where my heart is.” Tapas SMA was our second food stop that evening and Don Day was already getting full but I had to make one more stop before I checked out the dessert menu. I thought about staying in Spain for gazpacho, calamares, chorizo or papas bravas but decided instead to head back home to Mexico for one last savory dish and one that, again, would let me compare the kitchen to other San Miguel restaurants. tapassope I chose something small, a $30 peso sope. Canadians like Don Day seem to be attracted to sopes. Maybe because they’re shaped like hockey pucks. The thick but not too thick corn tortilla base was topped with rajas. This mix of poblano chiles, a touch of onion, heavy cream and a sprinkle of pepper is often overcooked. But not this version; the chile peppers at Tapas SMA still had lots of give. The tortilla was as it should be, crispy on the outside and melt in your mouth in the middle. tapassergiobar I’d thought the lighting was a little too mid-afternoon in Tapas SMA. But now Antonio was dimming it down. It made the backlit glass bar shine even brighter (and made Sergio the bartender look even more handsome according to Don Day’s Wife). The bar has more selections than almost any cocktail bar in this town, including all those flavored vodkas that Don Day has vowed will never touch his lips (though it wouldn’t be the first vow Don Day has broken). Tapas were originally an early evening experience in Spain, often appetizers for a trip to a more formal restaurant later in the evening. It’s obvious from that stock of bottles that Tapas SMA is targeting not just that wine drinking crowd but also a totally different audience. There’s one market that Don Day’s a part of and a totally different one that comes out when Don Day’s long gone. The fact that the music on weekends at Tapas SMA starts at 10:30 pm is also testament to that strategy. Don Day knew immediately what the finale of his evening would be. There are only two simple desserts on the menu, chocolate truffles and ice cream. Without consulting, the woman who knows Don Day best said he’ll have the truffles. They were perfectly accompanied by a ripe blackberry and a mint leaf. They were music to my mouth. Though he’s still young, Antonio Torres seems to already get that people go to restaurants primarily for what Don Day calls “the experience”. It’s about ambiance, camaraderie, decor, environment, entertainment, luxury and other factors that are only vaguely related to the consumption of food. People go to restaurants not so much to have their stomachs filled but to have their dreams fulf
illed. When I discovered that Anders and Kajsa were absent, I was worried. I shouldn’t have been. As Don Day’s Wife said, “The birds may have flown but someone’s still minding the nest.” She also said something far less eloquent but far more significant in the potential success of Tapas SMA: “This could be one great neighborhood joint.” tapassign Though a town can have too many tapas bars, they can never have too many “neighborhood joints”. The kind of place where the bartender knows your name, knows what you drink and knows to laugh at your jokes. A tapas bar makes a perfect neighborhood joint for Don Day because Don Day always puts food first when he decides what bar stool rates the presence of his bony behind. The lifeblood of almost any bar or restaurant is the regular. I think you might regularly see Don Day at Tapas SMA. Tapas SMA is located at Umaran #36 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 6:00 pm everyday except Sunday.

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