Last March, I had the pleasure of helping to organize the San Miguel de Allende Readers Taste awards or SMARTs for short. We drank and ranked some cheap wines. La Frontera served up some fine food. And our guests filled in a lot of ballots. They chose Pizza Pig for their favorite pizza. They selected La Posadita as their favorite restaurant. And from the restaurant that finished number two in the overall rankings they chose their single best favorite dish.
As Don Day’s Wife and I were playing Price Waterhouse partners at the SMARTs, collecting the ballots and tabulating the results, we thought it best not to vote. But if I had, I would have agreed with that number one choice for the most enjoyable thing to eat in San Miguel.
Then came the news.
My favorite might be no more. The restaurant that served that fabulous dish was closing. How could the place that San Miguelenses thought was the second best of more than 200 restaurants in this town not be successful enough to dif tor heh smusmago, as their Vulcan clients would say, or live long and prosper, as Don Day would say.
I actually knew the reason why. For despite having one of the most respected owners, one of the best views, some of the finest foods, and very reasonable prices, the restaurant wasn’t without a couple of problems, and they were serious problems.
It was far from the madding crowds of Centro. And, like so many places to eat in San Miguel, it was way too big for a small town.
I emailed the owner of the restaurant pleading “Say it ain’t so, Antonio, say it ain’t so.”
Antonio wrote back that it was true but…and it was a very big but…a giant sized but. He had been looking for a new location, a smaller, cozier place, a more convenient spot and he’d found it. The all new Firenze would be opening soon.
Moving forward a few weeks, Rosario Arvizu, the owner of The Wine Stop, a specialty wine distributor in Queretaro, with some Italian wines that are very special to Don Day, was personally delivering a case to us. I asked if she’d join us for lunch. She said yes. And where would I take a former chef who imports fine Italian wine? Of course, the new, now open Firenze.
The new Firenze is three blocks from the Jardin, San Miguel’s heart and soul, and the destination at some point of every tourist who visits the town. Firenze is also now walking distance from Don Day’s home. But we weren’t walking. Don Day’s Wife foolishly has discovered something called Zumba, an activity that is harmful not only to Don Day’s Wife’s health but also to Don Day’s because it begins each day at a time when Don Day’s body isn’t even ready to handle coffee. God punished Don Day’s Wife for arising at that ungodly hour by attempting to twist her knee so that it now faces one o’clock instead of high noon.
So it was a cab. Well a cab after Don Day’s Wife had spent an extra ten minutes enlarging her hair, a necessary task when the owner of Firenze is Anthony Delgadillo, a guy who could charm cobras…and especially the female ones…out of a basket without ever picking up one of those weird-sounding Indian pipes. Rosario grabbed a bottle of Italian Syrah that she wanted us to try and we were off.
There was only one sign at the new location on Recreo. It was a sandwich board advertising for a new chef and waiter at Firenze. Had Don Day’s Wife worn the little black dress because she was actually going to try and get the chef job? And spend ten hours a day in a sweat in the same tightly confined spaces as Antonio. I decided, if she was, Don Day was going to update his very old waiter resume.
After a quick glance at the very cozy and comfortable courtyard, we went in to the even cozier but classier dining room and were welcomed by Carlos, the head waiter who’s been a fixture at Firenze since almost the day it opened five years ago. I’d seen Carlos a couple of weeks before at Provecho and was so hoping it was just a layover on the way back to home sweet home.
Carlos opened the Branciforti Dei Bordonara, the Syrah from Sicilia that Rosario had brought as we looked at the menu. It hadn’t changed (thankfully). All of the classics were still there and, especially, that entree that won the SMART award, the braised short rib in a tamarind sauce. I suggested…no I guess I insisted…that Rosario try it and she told me, “I’d already decided I had to.”
Don Day’s Wife and I decided to start with the roasted cauliflower soup. Rosario passed on the appetizers. Well passed until she saw our two bowls arrive and caught a whiff of the truffle oil garnish. “Carlos, is there still time for me to get a bowl?”
The soup is rich and creamy. A golden crouton floats on top and over that is a generous shaving of Parmesan. Cauliflower and one of the world’s best cheeses. Perfect partners. And, of course, that truffle oil which unlike a lot of truffle oil actually has the essence of truffles.
Don Day’s Wife had the ravioli stuffed with spinach and topped with a Bolognese sauce for her main course. “This is simply a perfect Bolognese, there’s nothing else that can be said,” was her only comment.
The short rib. Well, Don Day’s Wife and I have a constant debate about what part of the cow has the richest taste. She usually goes for the cheeks or shanks. I usually argue for the short ribs. With every taste of Firenze‘s short rib my case gets stronger.
You can cut a short rib in many different ways. Whoever butchers Firenze‘s short ribs is a master of the knife. It is cut especially thick. The bone is removed. And after many hours of being braised at a low heat in the oven, all of the collagen has melted away like snow on the first Spring day. I held a piece up that had pulled away with just the fork, checking out how the fibres had fallen apart, teasing myself on the timing of the next mouthful, savoring the moment, as I inspected how the juices ran all the way through the beef.
Rosario had her iPhone out, taking a picture of her plate. I wasn’t the only one who was going to remember this lunch. “What do you think?”, I asked.
“Awesome, absolutely awesome”, Rosario replied.
The sides that come with the braised short rib dish change frequently. On this day, they were perfectly cooked zucchini and green beans and a puree of sweet potato that worked better than a Swifter when it came to mopping up the fruity gravy.
Dessert was a choice of molten chocolate cake or panna cotta. Don Day’s Wife ordered the cake. I ordered the panna cotta. Rosario ordered an extra spoon. The panna cotta was not just decorated with fruit it was covered with it, with every berry at the peak of ripeness and sweetness.
“Everyone can make panna cotta”, said Don Day’s Wife. “But not many people can make it this well”, as she dipped her spoon in my bowl a second time.
If Don Day’s Wife molten chocolate cake looked not quite as large as the panna cotta, there was a reason. She had ordered the luncheon prix fixe which is three courses of slightly smaller helpings of some of the very best of Firenze. There are always a few choices. Salmon or an arrachera steak were the alternatives to the ravioli on this day.
I had to complain to Antonio about the price of the prix fixe. And it wasn’t the first time.
“Geez, Antonio, you’re giving this stuff away. 150 pesos (about $11 U.S.) for three courses is absolutely ridiculous. That meal would be cheap at twice the price.”
He waved his arms and shrugged, making it as difficult as always to get a good photo of him.
“It is what it is” was his only answer.
I may look more like Papa Bear but I felt more like Goldilocks in the new and third version of Firenze. The first restaurant, with about 18 seats, was far too small. The second restaurant, with about 80 seats, was far too big. The new Firenze, with about 35 seats feels just right and more charming than both of the two previous incarnations put together.
Before we left, Rosario Arvizu thanked Don Day’s Wife and I. Not just for lunch but “…for introducing me to one of the most delightful restaurants I’ve ever been in. I just can’t tell you how wonderful this lunch was.”
All the essentials are there. All that’s left to do to the new space is a little decoration. The walls are crying for art (and there’s some coming). There’s no sign yet (but there probably will be by the time you get there as Antonio’s having a very special one made of cantera stone). But if you find the Q Art Gallery, between the Candela sign and the Solutions sign, you’re there.
There was one more thing missing at the new Firenze. Customers. There were only two other people there for lunch when we were there. A restaurant that won the SMART award for the very best dish in San Miguel deserves a lot more customers. A restaurant that came second overall in the SMART awards deserves line-ups.
Please, don’t let Don Day think he may lose his beloved short rib again.
Firenze is located at Recreo #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 1:00 pm every day except Sunday. For more information about The Wine Stop you can check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/tws.grupo.