It was a mystery that absolutely fascinated me. I’d stand on the other side of the street, on the north side of Calle Correo, and I’d watch.
On the left was a business called Cumpanio. With a never ending stream of customers snaking their way in and out carrying white paper sacks and clear plastic bags or perhaps something wrapped only in a napkin, half-eaten in their hand. They’d stand in line for as long as five minutes to take away baguettes, croissants, scones and muffins plus some very decadently delightful combinations of fruit and cream and chocolate and pastry.
On the right was a business called Cumpanio. Most of the time it was almost empty.
When they opened about four years ago, both the business on the left and the business on the right were both moderately successful.
The business on the left, Cumpanio the bakery, made a decent baguette and good croissants and pans au chocolate from the day they opened. But in time they went from good to very good and, with the arrival of a French patissier to manage the operation, they went from very good to as great as anything you’ll find in Paris. Yes, that great.
The business on the right, Cumpanio the restaurant, went in the other direction. And a lot of it seemed due to lack of direction. The food was OK but it had no image. It was a little bit French. A little bit Mexican, a little bit Italian, a little bit this, a little bit that. It’s impossible to be just a restaurant, you’ve got to have an identity and, like its name, Cumpanio, nobody knew what it was.
People were a problem as well. Servers just didn’t seem happy. They looked really slick in their black outfits but they acted a little too slick. And the maître d’ was either busying herself at the counter or nowhere to be found.
Business didn’t totally die for Cumpanio, the restaurant. There were always people in the cafe area at the front. Particularly in the late morning or early evening. And even more so on weekends when tourists were in town. The back room, though, the area dedicated to finer dining, was almost always close to empty any day at any time.
How, I asked, could someone who owned the most successful bakery in town not be able to make their restaurant more successful?
And, even though I was only talking to myself, someone did answer. It was last February when two different wine distributors asked me if I’d eaten at Cumpanio lately. You should, they said. You’ll like the changes, they said. They were right, very right.
The following week we went back to Cumpanio. For the first time in probably a year. And we had one of the best lunches we’d ever had in San Miguel de Allende.
I give most of the credit to a guy called Enrique Farjeat Guzman. Enrique came to San Miguel with a resume that included working both in the front and in the back of restaurants. He’d had a catering business. He had taught a pastry course. He had ran his own restaurant in Mexico City. He had been the food and beverage manager at the St. Regis in the capital.
“It was long hours”, Enrique told me, “fourteen to sixteen a day. All I really had to show for it was high blood pressure. I had to escape.”
That first escape was Hacienda Purisima Jalpa, located about 20 minutes outside San Miguel. A few months later he accepted a position in town, at Cumpanio.
“San Miguel has been the best thing that could ever happen to me”, Enrique continued. “I want to live here for the rest of my life.”
Don Day’s Wife and I were back at Cumpanio yesterday. We didn’t see Enrique Farjeat Guzman. These days, I think he’s involved in more of the company’s overall operations that, not only include Cumpanio the bakery and Cumpanio the restaurant, but Casa de los Olivos Hotel, Dos Casas Hotel, the chef-driven restaurant Aperi, and another restaurant to open next year in the building that once housed the Casa Cohen hardware store.
I like the dining room at Cumpanio. It feels very 21st Century. It feels like I’m in Paris. Or Milan. Or, at least, Mexico City. The colors…yellow, white and woodgrains…give it a cool and classy yet very comfortable cafe feeling. The mid-century modern chairs are ones I’ve always wanted to own. The arched window to next door’s 18th Century courtyard and the little nuances like the pig making a fast exit add to the charm.
Lunch at Cumpanio begins with a great opening act.
A crusty seeded bun is accompanied by herbes de Provence olive oil and lavender balsamic vinegar. I told Don Day’s Wife that “One day, I want to make a dinner at home, simply using that bread, bottles of oil and vinegar from Olio Fino’s shop on Calle Zacateros and, nothing else other than, maybe, a few slices of Jamon Serrano.”
Don Day’s Wife and I were happy to see the menu hadn’t changed from our last visit. Because two of our favorite dishes are on that menu. And, not only that, I think that even though it doesn’t really define a certain style or ethnicity for the food at Cumpanio, it’s one of the best thought-out menus in San Miguel de Allende.
We started with some perfectly created sparkling limonadas (not too sour/not too sweet), the only salad in town that makes my list of the top 60 dishes of San Miguel, and the salmon carpaccio.
The salad is described on the menu as “Organic lettuce, citrics and honey and mustard dressing”. And, though the description perfectly describes the ingredients, it doesn’t exactly get you all excited about ordering it.
I only discovered the salad because Enrique Farjeat told me it was “one of the dishes I’m most proud of”. And should he be proud! One of the many pleasures of living in San Miguel de Allende is eating lettuce that hasn’t been riding on the back of a truck for a week or two. Simply combining those crisp greens with a near perfect dressing plus segments of orange and grapefruit (with all of their membranes delicately removed) and pumpkin and sunflower seeds is magic.
The salad serving is enough for two. As is the generous portion of fresh, sushi-grade salmon that’s paired with lettuce, capers, shavings of apple and lime oil.
There are a lot of great sounding dishes on the Cumpanio menu. The boneless pork ribs with pineapple and sweet potatoes. The salad nicoise with tuna in a black sesame crust. The coq au vin. The feta, spinach and walnut ravoili. But I’ve never tried a single one of them.
Because neither Don Day’s Wife nor Don Day can resist ordering the baked beef marrow bones with garlic and parsley. With the crusty seeded bread to soak up those rivers of fat, the shank marrow is pure decadence.
And if you’re going to be decadent, why not a side of frites sprinkled with black truffle oil and a healthy (or is that unhealthy?) sized topping of Parmesan slivers.
It was another very satisfying (and, at less than 500 pesos, reasonably economical) lunch at Cumpanio. But, as usual, it was a lonely lunch. There were only five other people for most of the time we were there. If only one tenth of the people picking up the pastries and bread checked out the bakery’s next door neighbor, the restaurant might finally get the attention it truly deserves.
Cumpanio is located at Correo #29 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.