It was gambling that paid for my dinner last week. At Ghouls For Schools, the Hallowe’en benefit for the charity Feed The Hungry, there was a raffle. And guess whose number they pulled for dinner for two at Zumo?
I’d really wanted to return to Zumo. They had made some significant changes I wanted to check out. Including a switch in cuisine. Asian Flavors With A Latin Soul they were calling it.
San Miguel de Allende is not lacking in Asian restaurants. You can enjoy Chinese at Dragon Chino, Japanese at Delica Mitsu, Thai and Vietnamese at Chao Ban, and The Restaurant at Sollano 16 has been doing a Michelin-worthy job of melding Mexican and Asian cuisines for years.
San Miguel isn’t lacking in upscale restaurants either. 1826, Moxi, Aperi and Andanza all compete for the crowd with the deep pockets. But there’s something of a sameness to those four high-end restaurants and, until recently, I would have put Zumo in that same niche.
“You’re right”, said Stewart Haverlack, Zumo’s co-owner, “we are trying to separate ourselves from them a little. If someone was staying at The Rosewood and dined close to home at 1826 one night, we thought they’d like a change of pace the next night.”
“We still want this to be looked at as a fine dining establishment though”, Stewart continued. “We’re still sourcing the very best ingredients and I don’t think you can find a more elegant environment in this town.”
Part of that environment, that atmosphere, is the view. You can’t go to Zumo without being captivated by the townscape, particularly at dusk, when the sun is painting the hills to the east with a very special light.
We just caught the tail end of that light, the light that painters change continents for. But after the sun had completely set, and the town I love so well’s lights began to twinkle, the effect was almost as magical.
Zumo has been open for less than two years and has already gone through two chefs. It’s not particularly unusual for that to happen to restaurants where the chef doesn’t share some of the ownership but it’s still two too many. For the owners and their clientele.
The chef on opening night was Gabriel Ferrant, an extremely talented guy with a long and illustrious resume. But I always thought that resume was about a page too long and I wasn’t surprised when Gabriel grew wings within the first year. Zumo’s second chef was Josy Treizman who added a change to the menu here, a variation there, but always kept the standards high. Josy’s stay was also short-lived. Like almost every chef, Josy wanted his own place and, about three months ago, he opened Ba-Bite, the French bistro on San Miguel’s Salida de Celaya that looks to be struggling if you judge by the number of empty chairs.
So, I asked Stewart Haverlack, who is Zumo’s new executive chef and almost dropped my drink when he gave me his answer.
“You’re looking at him”, he replied.
I twisted my head, raised my eyebrows and gave Stewart that hmmmmmmmmmm sound. For when the owner takes over as chef, it’s not usually a good thing. It’s sometimes because they’ve refused to deal with the disappointments of another flighty chef or, even worse, that their ego has led them to the usually mistaken belief that “it doesn’t seem like such a tough job”.
Now it’s not that Stewart Haverlack hasn’t spent time at the stoves. He’s probably spilled more than his share of sauces during the many years he spent in the catering business, not to mention in the kitchen of his former restaurant Boca Bento in Puerto Vallarta. But he still had to prove it to me. And with a brand new menu with dishes that you won’t exactly find in the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook.
”I thought about hiring another chef”, said Stewart, “but then I thought I already have three very good people in the kitchen and they seemed to be getting along fine on their own.”
“That doesn’t mean that I’m not spending time in the kitchen, particularly when it comes to things like menu development”, continued Stewart, “but I definitely won’t be as hands-on as the other guys.”
Stewart was just inside the door when we arrived at the rooftop restaurant and sure enough he was decked out in chef’s jacket and apron. Stewart Haverlack is a stocky guy and stocky guys look like they belong in a chef’s jacket. I was full of anticipation for the Asian/Latin melding and the spin Stewart had put on it. To find out if he really belonged in the kitchen.
It’s standard procedure to be welcomed with an imaginative drink at Zumo and the true test of a cocktail is if the almost-exclusively-wine-drinking Don Day’s Wife likes it. The Passion Fruit Martini cocktail combined vodka, fresh passion fruit and lime. Don Day’s Wife liked it. A lot.
We wanted to try as many of the menu items, all of which had changed since our last visit, and Zumo was very considerate in allowing us to split single orders in half.
First up was a salad that gets the Japanese treatment on Zumo’s new menu. It starts with a variety of greens, some sweet, some a little bitter. Slices of goat cheese that have been rolled in a very imaginative Furikake crust are then positioned on top. Furikake is the Japanese seasoning that combines a number of ingredients including dried fish, seaweed and sesame seeds and yes, it tastes much better than it sounds.
Wedges of grapefruit provide some citric acidity and a dressing of miso adds a salty touch. Then, over the top comes the Mexican nuance — sweet caramel, chile-crusted and roasted pumpkin seeds.
In a China meets Mexico match, we had fusion at its finest. Lo Mein, the Chinese wheat noodles, were tossed with nopales and poblano peppers and then dusted with morita chiles. Moritas are very ripe jalapenos that are smoked and dried. They not only gave off heat but a nice fruity flavor.
You can feed me noodles seven days week. To feed them to me with some of my favorite Mexican flavors was imaginative, perhaps unique. Stewart Haverlack is still calling this menu “temporary” but if any item survives, the Lo Mein should.
It was back across the sea to the islands of Japan again for the next course. Yellowfin tuna was done two ways, first as a sashimi and then as a tartare. The Mexican touch came with the chopped avocado salsa and the chilis in the soy vinaigrette topped with a Wasabi Foam. You could find something similar to this dish in a few San Miguel restaurants but that doesn’t stop it from “being one of the most popular things on the menu” according to Stewart.
The next course melded two classic dishes, one Chinese and one Mexican, into one that was even better, thanks to the replacement of pork with a shredded confit of duck leg. Called Moo Shoo Duck Carnitas Tacos, it came with a small dish of hoisin and another of tomato ginger salsa. The quandary was which one to put on the tacos. The solution was a bit of both.
Next up was the fish course from the mains menu. Pacific sea bass was marinated in miso that had been lightly spiked with achiote to give it not only taste but color. Fish can always use a sauce and the combination of Swiss chard and zucchini blended with cream was ideal. The side of sticky rice was a nice change from conventional steamed though it did make me long for the one thing that’s still lacking in San Miguel, a restaurant that serves dim sum.
As much as I like Chinese food, I rarely order a beef dish because the Chinese traditionally use cheap, lean cuts and then put them in a baking soda bath to tenderize them. The result is meat lacking in texture and taste. But what if a restaurant took one of the tenderest and tastiest cuts of beef then braised it with a hoisin glaze. That’s what Stewart Haverlack has done at Zumo. A thick hunk of moist short rib rests on a bed of cauliflower that has been pureed with rosemary sprigs and is accompanied by a side of baby carrots, zucchini and parsley root.
An Asian/Mexican restaurant (dare I invent the word Mexicasian), with one of the most imaginative and well-executed menus the town has ever seen, has obviously arrived in San Miguel. And Stewart Haverlack had obviously proven he has a place in the kitchen. But for how long would the menu last I wondered.
The original announcement said Asian Flavors With A Latin Soul would be in effect until November 13. So, as the movie marquees used to say, it has already been held over by popular demand. But for how long I asked Stewart Haverlack?
He replied, “My plan is to introduce seasonal, themed menus on a quarterly basis to keep it fresh, exciting and cutting edge for our guests. Asian Flavors With A Latin Soul will continue through to the 15th of December, when a tantalizing winter offering will begin, so, stay tuned”.
Zumo is located at Orizaba 87-9 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday from 6:00 to 10:00 pm and for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday, Noon to 3:30 pm.