I’m not sure I’ve ever met a chef who didn’t like to strut their stuff once in a while. Maybe even twice or thrice in a while.
Because making the same thing every day and every night can be very, very boring. And don’t ever think that restaurants have specials for their customers. They’re there first and foremost to stop the kitchen staff from nodding off.
I doubt that Chef Marco Cruz is very bored these days. He’s feeding the equestrian crowd (or horsey set if that’s not an insult) at Otomi on weekends. He’s got Milpa in the fine and fancy Doce 18. He has a burger stand in the still there but barely breathing Mercado Centro. And he’s got Nomada tucked into the back corner and a little lost in the same Mercado.
I like Nomada. It has its problems. A few problems. But ask me where I’d rather be on any given Wednesday in San Miguel de Allende and my answer would be Nomada. Because Wednesday is the day that Marco Cruz is always at Nomada. And Wednesday is the day he does his special menu for the ridiculously low price of $400.
The last time we were there Chef Cruz started us off with something that you’ll find up near the Texas border but I’ve never seen before in San Miguel de Allende. Esquites, or troles as they’re sometimes called in Northeast Mexico, are a snack made from corn. The word esquites comes from the Nahuatl word ízquitl, which means “toasted corn”.
The esquites were served with accompaniments I doubt you’d find with them anywhere in Mexico. Capers, an epazote mayonnaise and black truffles.
“This is the first time I’ve had epazote pureed like this”, said Don Day’s Wife. “It’s usually hidden under a hill of beans. I like it. It’s different.”
Imagination flowed on to the table with the second dish. Pipian, the sauce made from pumpkin seeds, was used as the base for huauzontle, a green that looks a little like broccoli and comes from the same family as quinoa, and avocados deep fried in a perfectly light and ungreasy tempura batter. There was a bittersweet taste and a citrusy edge when the greens entered your mouth.
“Nowhere in this town do we get Mexican-inspired food with these kind of tastes”, said Don Day’s Wife.
There are very few more perfect partners than tomatoes and goat cheese. And presentation added to the perfection of the next dish. The cheese came to the table as a ball in a bowl with decorative but edible elements such as a begonia flower, shaved vanilla pod and nasturtium leaf.
Gabriel, our very efficient server, then brought the infusion of tomatoes to the table to be poured from a separate jug. It was a very elegant touch.
Now, even though my father, whenever he’d take me to one of his favorite holes-in-the-wall, would always say, “You can’t eat fancy flatware, son”, I should say something about the clean lines of the cutlery and the various shapes, sizes and neutral colors of the serving pieces at Nomada. They work as wonderful canvases and frames for the superbly presented food.
And one more comment on the flatware came from Don Day’s Wife: “I like that we’re getting fresh cutlery with each course. So few restaurants do that. I don’t want to be licking my fork, saving it for my next course.”
That next course was something that I think Marko Cruz does better than any other chef in San Miguel. Because Marko Cruz knows how to make it more tender than any other chef. I’m talking about octopus that on this occasion, Chef Cruz served with a chunky pico de gallo.
“The octopus is not just incredibly tender”, said Don Day’s Wife, “it’s incredibly tasty.”
Next to the table came pork belly with the fat and lean layers creating the look of a millefeuille. It was accompanied by pork’s best friends, beans and onions plus some shavings of asparagus. Below it was a pool of chichilo the rarest of Oaxaca’s seven moles.
“So much pleasure, so much quantity, so little time”, said Don Day’s Wife as she handed me the rest of her melt-in-the-mouth belly.
Nomada is a family affair and, when Marko Cruz steps to the side, his wife Sofia Antillon takes center stage. Sofia is the restaurant’s pastry chef and she accomplishes the same things with sweet that her husband accomplishes with savory.
The finale of our six course tasting menu was a creme brulee topped with, among other things, a sweet beet puree where, once again, appearance added to the appetite.
There’s a third member of the Nomada family that you might also see at the restaurant. And, even if he’s not there, you may still see his name, for Chefs Marko and Sofia both wear it on their forearms.
When Don Day’s Wife’s grandkids are not in attendance, she can enjoy tipping bottles with little Leon.
I mentioned up front that Nomada has a few problems and their biggest problem is due to one of my biggest problems. I drink a lot. Especially with fine food.
Though they’ve now been open for six months, the restaurant still doesn’t have a wine list. On that most recent visit, they didn’t even have a single bottle of wine. Yes, Gabriel Avila, our server, went somewhere and found one for us but it was below even our low budget standards and the last time I found it necessary to add ice cubes to a glass of wine was at Denny’s.
I don’t know why Nomada has chosen not to stock wine. I’m sure they’re aware of the restaurant “golden rule” that the expenses are served on plates and the profits are served in glasses. I presume they know they could have cleared $500 just on the mark-up on the wine that we would have consumed. It remains a mystery, just like how they can serve an absolutely remarkable six course tapestry of tastes for only $400.
“A tasting menu like this would cost about 120 dollars (about $1700 MX) in Toronto”, said Don Day’s Wife. “I don’t know how they do it.”
“Neither do I”, I replied, “but I sure hope they don’t stop.”
Nomada Cocina de Intrepretacion is located in the northeast corner of Mercado Centro, Codo 36, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The Menú de degustación is only available on Wednesdays.