Dinner and a movie. With a side order of music. Is there a much better way to spend a Saturday night?
For me the routine started in 1974. I’d landed a job in the big city of Toronto. And they were foolishly paying me the obscene amount of $10,000 a year. And I could afford things I’d never imagined. I think on that very first Saturday night out I wore my new off-white, three-piece suit. And this was when Tony Manero was still Vinnie Barbarino and still in Mr. Kotter’s class.
Back in the old four figure income days, the big splurge was, on the occasional Saturday night, dumping the kids on their grandparents, a 5:30 pm movie, and, maybe, a papa and a mama burger at the A&W.
But that was Triple A. Now I was in the big leagues. We actually paid someone to babysit, we went to a 7:30 movie, and then we did the most decadent thing I could imagine. We ate dinner at the obscenely late hour of 10:00 pm (which I believe may actually be later than some people in Mexico City). And, wherever we ate, there had to be music. Fabulous live music. Jazz. And always with a good vocalist.
I’ll never forget the names of the places: The Town Tavern. The Imperial Room. The Savarin. George’s. The Colonial. And the musicians. The well known queens: Miss Peggy. Sassy Sarah. Blossom. Georgia. Nina. Nancy Wilson. Annie Ross. Carmen McRae. The not so well known kings: Jimmy Witherspoon. Joe Williams. Mose Allison. Mark Murphy. Jay McShann. Jon Hendricks.
I revived that tradition a couple of weeks ago. With a couple of revisions. I almost never go into a movie theatre anymore. I stopped when they wouldn’t let me smoke. And when the screen in my living room was almost as big as the one in the theatre, there seemed to be little reason to go back even when I finally quit the evil weed for good.
So the movie was at home. And it was the film that, despite me suffering Jimmy Stewart guilt pangs, recently became my official, reigning all-time favorite Christmas movie. Oh how I’m touched by “Love Actually”. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry. It made me walk out of the house singing Beach Boys falsetto to “God Only Knows”.
We were heading for part two of Saturday night dinner and a movie. Or I guess, the more chronologically proper, movie and a dinner. We were heading to the restaurant that now does the best job in town at combining good food with good music.
Paprika looks different at night. But it’s still one of the most beautiful places in San Miguel de Allende. I’d reserved two seats in the courtyard. Reserved because when we’d shown up on Thursday to catch David Garza there wasn’t a seat in the house. The courtyard because that’s where the band plays and where you want to be if you love music.
If I had to list the four local male vocalists I enjoy listening to the most it would be David Garza, Johnny Favorite, J.K. O’Donnell and Bobby Kapp. And Bobby Kapp was playing Paprika on Saturday. I hadn’t seen him for a while and the last time, at VC and Friends, it was rhythm ‘n’ blues Bobby Kapp blowing harp and growling “Walkin’ The Dog”. Tonight it was mellow jazz standards Bobby Kapp brushing percussion and scatting “Sunny Side of the Street”.
This was perfect Saturday night supper club music. Bobby Kapp doesn’t have what most people would call a great voice. But I do think he’s a great singer. He’s got style. And what jazz musicians call phrasing. He talks the first few words of a line and then casually stretches the last note into the next line. It stays smooth and mellow and then out comes a throaty rasp. His repertoire is almost exactly like a typical set list I’d hear in those Toronto taverns circa 1977. And I can never get enough of classics like “Fly Me To The Moon”, “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”, or “God Bless The Child”.
Bobby Kaplan even looks a little 1977. But not tuxedoed Toronto supper club 1977. More New York cellar dive 1977. With a never quite complimentary jacket, shirt and tie and an ever-present, not quite pork pie hat that looks one size too small hung on the back on his head, he’s a little like a country boy at a shotgun wedding.
Music is fairly new at Paprika and so is the wine menu. It includes some new labels from Freixenet, just outside Queretaro, that are sourced exclusively through local retailer Carnevino. We chose the Vina Dona Dolores Vivante. It’s obviously not a wine that’s targetted at oenophiles as Freixenet doesn’t even reveal what the grape is. I’m guessing 100% Malbec but that would make it extremely rare as a local grape.
Don Day’s Wife pronounced it “good”. I pronounced it one of the best buys in town at $230 pesos.
Why order two starters when you can order one that’s big enough for two. The baked Brie with peppers on toast, topped with capers and walnuts has generously thick slices of double cream cheese. You could even share it between three people. But you wouldn’t want to.
On those late seventies Saturdays in Toronto, we’d walk down Yonge Street and turn left at Queen if we were heading to the Town Tavern or the Savarin. And it would hit us. The reek of garlic drifting out of their doors. Because in those days red meat was the entree of choice and, if it was steak, it was always dressed to the nines with seasoning. With great globs of finely chopped, shimmering golden garlic. Twists of dried parsley. Absolutely no salt (because it was then thought that it toughened meat). Three or four rotations from an oversize pepper grinder. And that miracle tenderizer called Accent which we later learned was the reason we were so buzzed even though we hadn’t had our first drink until ten and last drink orders were at eleven. I know, those hours are hard to believe if you’re from a city with 3:00 am curfews.
At Paprika, my ribeye was a generous size that was very lightly seasoned. With salt and pepper and probably nothing else. Which I think is all a good steak needs. The beef tasted like it had come from pastured cattle with at least a few weeks of finishing on corn to add some marbling. It was nicely tender and came to the table medium rare, exactly as requested.
If you dismiss barbacoa (which, of course, you never should), good lamb is hard to find in San Miguel de Allende. Or make that was hard to find. Paprika is serving a nicely seared, Frenched rack that was plated as four lollichops. The lamb was young but still had what Don Day’s Wife called that “lamby” (and no, I don’t have a better word) flavor.
“Let’s make Paprika our go to lamb place”, she said after stripping each of the ribs to the color of piano keys.
Bobby Kapp is fronting a trio called “El Guero Azul” these days. The resident keyboard king in seventies Toronto was a guy called Doug Riley and the San Miguel trio’s Gabriel Hernandez, who I’d last seen at Tio Lucas, has the same small, stubby hands that flow so freely and gently in the higher ranges. When Gabriel takes a lead, it’s short, sweet and never strays too far from the melody. Adrian Flores’ stand-up bass gives a solid backbone to the group.
The de rigeur dessert on Saturday movie and dinner dates was called a Black Forest cake. Paprika’s very moist chocolate cake, paired with strawberries and ice cream isn’t far off it.
Fran Llano and her partner had next to no restaurant experience when she boldly opened Paprika last year. And she keeps adding, subtracting, revising and altering so that the place gets better all the time. All those Toronto jazz clubs are long gone. But on a Saturday night at Paprika, the memories still linge
Paprika is located at 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. The best way to find out who’s playing when at Paprika is to check their Facebook page.