Gaby Green has been cooking in San Miguel de Allende longer than I’ve been eating. She’s had restaurants in at least three locations. La Fonda and La Fonda Rosa are two names I remember. She’s had a catering biz. At least one cooking school. And most recently the gone but not forgotten food truck Hierba Buena.
What I discovered this week, when I visited her new restaurant, Aguamiel, was they were all just stops along the road. All just steps on a ladder to higher ground. Much higher ground.
There are a few words I could use to describe the Gaby Green of old cuisine. Comfort food. Traditional Mexican. Home cooking. Well prepared. Savory.
There are some very different words I could use to describe the new Gaby Green cuisine. Innovative. Nueva Mexican. Adventurous. Piquant. Ambrosial.
Gaby has teamed up with a young chef called Sandor Rodriguez. Sandor spent five years at The Restaurant, ending up as sous chef to Donny Masterton and executing his inspired creations. Most recently he’s been working with ex Cafe Rama chef Jason Mallof in Nelson, British Columbia. I suspect Sandor has been an influence in taking Gaby Green to that higher level.
The hierarchy in the kitchen of Aguamiel is very different from most. There’s no Executive Chef, no Chef de Cuisine, no Head Chef. Both Gaby and Sandor have the title of Co-Chef. And, according to Gaby, “There are no my dishes, only our dishes.”
The third key member of the Aguamiel team is co-owner Jennifer Posner. Jennifer is one of the few people I’ve met in San Miguel who recognizes that putting a restaurant in people’s minds is just as important as putting food in their stomachs. She understands today’s media and she’s using it to get people into Aguamiel‘s door and onto the restaurant’s fifty or so chairs.
It was Jennifer who suggested Aguamiel would be a good place for the gentlemen who lunch. Because Jennifer knows we’d soon be back with our wives. And our friends. And of course she knew if Don Day liked it, he might just write about it. And his readers might just come with their spouses and their friends.
The gentlemen who lunch has grown considerably this year. And not just in waist size. There were 20 of us who gathered in Aguamiel‘s elegant but casual courtyard which holds about two thirds of the restaurant’s capacity. Inside there are about 16 more seats and a very spacious and well-equipped kitchen.
That kitchen hit a home run in their very first at bat. There were two things on the plate. The first was a wedge of raw tuna topped with avocado and chipotle mayo. But what made it very special was what was under it. Not a tortilla or any other form of pastry but a crispy slice of banana.
Beside it was something made very special by, not what was under it, but what was on top of it. The base this time was a tortilla, the thicker-than-most tortilla that’s known as a sope or sopecito in Mexico. And on top was something known as tuetano in Mexico and heaven in the language of Don Day. Tuetano is the marrow from beef shanks and, apart from its appearance in Don Day’s Wife’s kitchen, this was the first time I’d seen it in San Miguel de Allende. I felt like a six-year-old kid who’d just found his first bike under the Christmas tree.
From the wine list that features imaginatively sourced Mexican, Spanish and French selections, Jennifer had chosen three Spaniards to pair with the lunch and had started with a Blanc de Pacs from Penedes that combines the three local grapes Macabeu, Xarel•lo and Parellada. The wine is a crisp, clean, puckery white that has, obviously, never seen the inside of an oak barrel. There are forceful citrus flavors with hints of both apple and pear. Priced at $360 pesos, there’s a lot of value in a bottle.
The Blanc de Pacs also went well with the panucho that followed. The tortilla was filled with one of Gaby Green’s classics, cochinita pibil, and topped with habanero sauce and the essential (for me at least) pickled onions.
Meanwhile, Sandor was pouring our soup in the kitchen. The only real finesse required in making a carrot and ginger soup is combining the right quantity of each so that the flavors compliment each other and neither one overpowers. The soup was as well balanced as a teeter totter with twins and a grind of black pepper was an excellent finishing touch.
One of the bigger challenges for Aguamiel is its location. It’s in Colonia San Antonio, too far from the middle of town to ever expect to attract many tourists. But it is in a neighborhood whose residents are very dedicated to anything local.
“We’re not a place that people are going to make plans two weeks ahead to go to,” said Jennifer. “We’re a neighborhood cafe with casual food at everyday prices. We’re a ‘hey I’m hungry, let’s walk over to Aguamiel‘ kind of place.”
A few years ago, Colonia San Antonio was home to a restaurant called Cafe Iberico. At its peak, it was almost impossible to get into, proving that people will go a little out of the way in this town if there’s good food to lure them there. Cafe Iberico had a dish that was legendary. So good that I once dedicated an entire article to it. And unfortunately, when Cafe Iberico left, it was the last we saw of deep fried avocado slices.
Until last week. For there on my plate was a taco. And on top of that was a half moon wedge. I looked down the table at Cactus Jack Jacobs, perhaps the only person I knew that had a deeper affection for Cafe Iberico and deep fried avocado than I did. He looked back at me. We nodded. It was like that two pound speckled trout that had swam downstream, waiving its tail in defiance was back on our line again.
The avocado was paired with a spicy mayo and kimchee. One of the guys turned to me and said, “I really like this kimchee. Which is pretty amazing because I’ve never ever liked kimchee before in my life.”
It was a turn back the clock to the more traditional Gaby Green for our next course. A leg of pork, slow-cooked and served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and succotash, a side that, seeing men will be boys, always results in at least one Sylvester and Tweety impression. Particularly as our third wine was now being opened.
Wine number two was Abadal, a Pla de Bages red that combines the very common (for Spain) Tempranillo grape with the not so common (for Spain) Cabernet Franc. Last year, it won a silver at Canada’s World Wine Awards which is quite the accomplishment considering the competition.
I liked it a lot but not as much as I liked wine number three. It was a big spicy red much more in the style of France’s Southern Rhone than Spain’s Southern Catalan. It’s called Blau and combines Carinena, Syrah and Garnacha grapes to produce ripe plum and black cherry aromas and coffee, chocolate and vanilla nuances from the 18 months it spends in oak barrels.
Last up was another Gaby Green classic. It’s so well respected it includes her name in the title Gaby’s Flan. A superb flan to one man is an ordinary flan to others. Some like the light, milky style. I like the denser, eggier style with less sugar and a little more vanilla. It’s gutsy putting a flan on a menu. It’s even more gutsy signing your work. I like that. For you know what they call a chef without an ego? They call them cooks.
I always like to do a little poll when the gentlemen finish a lunch, asking them what were the highlights. The fried avocado scored a few points. As did the tuna on the plantana chip. Plus the bone marrow caused a few hands to be raised. Living up our other name, the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out), I should have known, however, that our server Dani would be named favorite dish.
I thought about the courses that the guys enjoyed the most. Though you could argue that they all might have had some pre-Hispanic roots and all had some Mexican content, it was straying a little from the ordinary that made them special.
The restaurant’s full name is Aguamiel Cocina Rustica. Aguamiel, in case you don’t know, in addition to translating literally into honey water, is the word used to describe the liquid gathered from agave plants that is fermented into pulque, one of those drinks that people like Don Day only drink to say they’ve done it.
I like the word Aguamiel. It’s a nice word. A nice word for a restaurant. But I’m not sure about the Cocina Rustica part. Because it was when the kitchen strayed from the country classics that Gaby Green and Sandor Rodriguez separated Aguamiel from the other traditional Mexican restaurants in San Miguel. It was those dishes plus superb service and a delightful ambience that make me say that Aguamiel has made one of the most ovation worthy debuts ever in this town.
The menu at Aguamiel changes weekly and there were many other things I’m anxious to taste. The risotto with sweet corn, mushrooms, huitlacoche and squash blossoms. The cold asparagus soup, served with pico de xoconoxtle and cotija cheese. Mahi mahi in a coconut ginger sauce. And one of Gaby Green’s classics, ancho chile stuffed with three cheeses.
A few of the gentlemen who lunched last week have already gone back to Aguamiel. I’m sure it won’t be long before I do.
Aguamiel Cocina Rustica is located at Pipila 3A, Colonia San Antonio, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Telephone 415 150 7387. To be placed on the restaurant’s weekly menu distribution list, email email@example.com. The restaurant is open Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays from 1:00 to 9:00 pm and for Sunday brunch from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.