If you want to be thought of as an exceptional restaurant, these days, you’ve got to have it. Because that’s apparently what people want when they finally bag a table at an exceptional restaurant.
I’m talking about the tasting menu, the prix fixe menu, the multi-course menu. Yes, a la carte is dead and buried, or at least barely breathing, at almost every high end restaurant in the world.
And then there’s the amount of courses. There used to be four or five. Then four or five with a complimentary amuse bouche to start and a freebie sorbet somewhere in the middle to cleanse our obviously filthy palates. Then, at some restaurants, it became eight courses. Then nine. Then twelve. Then fourteen courses. Then, from one New York upstart, simply “more courses than any other restaurant in the world”.
Then Don Day’s Wife and I almost stopped going to high-end restaurants. Stopped even thinking about listening to busy signals when trying to make a reservation. And if we could get through, stopped making reservations for dates when we weren’t even sure we’d still be alive.
When I think upscale restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, I think of Aperi, 1826, Bui, Moxi and Zumo. The big five I call them. There are enough of them in this town that reservations are fairly simple to get. You can usually just call or email the day before. I emailed Zumo last week.
I’d been to Zumo once before. Just before we’d left for Toronto last April. I liked it. A lot. We returned to San Miguel in October but we didn’t rush back to Zumo. Because Zumo fancies itself as a world class restaurant. So Zumo only offered a seven course tasting menu. Until last week.
And that’s when we decided to go back. Zumo now offers a choice of five or seven courses. Call it the Goldilocks complex. Three is not quite enough. Seven is way too many. But five is just right.
It’s not the cost. Don Day’s Wife and I silently agreed a few years back that food was the cement that would fill any and all cracks in our relationship. And we would occasionally (and note the italics on the occasionally) spend way beyond common cents to enhance the relationship. The choice at Zumo was 650 pesos or 850 pesos. I thought of the choice as satisfied or stuffed. We would definitely take satisfied.
We invited Andy Reddyhoff and Marie Claude de Billy to join us at Zumo, two fairly new friends who I thought I knew well enough that they would enjoy Zumo as much as we did. But could Zumo repeat that premier performance?
I told Zumo that we’d like the five course option. Stewart Haverlack, Zumo’s owner emailed back to ask if we’d like the steak or shrimp as our main course. I wrote back that we’d like one of each knowing, from experience, that there’d be some plate sliding halfway through.
Zumo is perched on a rooftop in the western fringe of San Miguel de Allende. When we arrived at Zumo back in April, I was wowed by the decor. When we arrived in November, I was awestruck. Vanessa Villegas, Stewart Haverlack’s partner has done a magnificent job of creating a chic, sophisticated atmosphere, no easy task when the setting is outdoors and you’re dealing with sun, rain, darkness, wind and frequent 10 degree C nights.
Stewart glows when he cites the talents of his mixologists. So where else to start but with cocktails from Zumo’s bar.
The bar area, with benches surrounding a fire pit is open during the evening, whether or not you’ll be dining in the restaurant. Watching the light and shadow show on the surrounding hills can even stir up the romance in old Don Day.
There are a few dishes that are used to test a French chef’s mettle (and Zumo’s executive chef Gabriel Ferrant does have Made in France credentials). One of the toughest is vol au vent, that fluffy, puffy pastry traditionally used as the shell for creamed meat or shellfish and requiring skills that are more in the realm of a patissier. A gust of wind could have blown away Gabriel’s vol au vent starter. It was filled with blue crab and morels and sided with artichoke hearts and a balsamic reduction.
Zumo has a wine list that fits on an 8-1/2 x 11 page as perhaps all wine lists should. France, Spain and Mexico are about equally represented. Argentina, Chile and Italy are next in popularity.
I asked Stewart Haverlack to choose the white that would go with our starter and salad and we liked his pick of a Sauvignon Blanc.
It worked especially well with the couscous, mixed greens, tomato, cucumber, onion, mint and cilantro in a citrus vinaigrette.
I was doubly excited about the next course. First because it’s a classic. Second because it was a portion small enough to not steal away all my appetite from what was still to come. The French onion soup was done in a very traditional manner right down to the emmental and comte de gruyere cheeses.
There was one thing that impressed me throughout our meal. The service. It may have been the best service I’ve ever had in any restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.
It brought back memories of Don Day’s excruciatingly short career as a fine artist. Part of the contract with the gallery was that I had to “sit the show” two days a week which basically means you’re a retail sales clerk twice a week. But I learned something very important. When I wasn’t in attendance, the gallery didn’t sell a thing. When I was “sitting the show”, I sold at least enough to pay for the framing and the gargantuan quantities of wine people drink at gallery openings.
The lesson: Buyers want to buy, not from sellers, but from the creators. And the same thing applies in the restaurant biz.
Gabriel Ferrant came to our table during every course. Some he actually delivered to the table. And Stewart Haverlack, Vanessa Villegas and General Manager Cindy Buhler, were also not far away. Refilling water glasses, Pouring wine. Removing plates.
The next courses that Gabriel arrived with were the mains. A fairly straightforward filet mignon with wild mushrooms and a not so straightforward shrimp dish that combined the sauteed camarones with an asparagus flan and sauce made with smoked salmon.
Now having to pair shellfish and steak with the same bottle of wine would cause some sommeliers to be draining down the dregs from all of those almost dead soldiers that get dumped back into the kitchen. And I do think I detected a few beads of sweat in Stewart Haverlack’s brow.
But he did come up with a wonderful match and a very unusual match. He chose a Mexican red called Sinfonia de Tintos which combines Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignan. It`s the kind of wine that might not score that well with serious wine critics. But it scored so well with us that when I got home I emailed the distributor for a case for Andy Reddyhoff and myself.
The fruity, peppery red also worked well with the dessert, a bavaresa that combined rompope (the Mexican eggnog), and xoconostle (the cactus fruit) with the rich mousse and white snowflakes of chocolate.
Zumo had done it. Ambiance, service and imaginative food can take some fine restaurants years to refine. Zumo had mastered all three aspects of a great restaurant in just a few months. And now they offer that just right amount of five courses.
I called Zumo the top rated restaurant in San Miguel de Allende when I started this blog post. Now I actually don’t rate restaurants. I only share with you the ones that I think are good, better and best. That number one rating actually comes from the very respected Trip Advisor and for a high-end restaurant in any city in the world that borders on the impossible.
Zumo is located at 87-9 Orizaba in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They have two seatings each evening, at 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm, from Wednesday to Saturday. Reservations are required.