It had always been one of San Miguel’s best-looking restaurants. Right from the day a few years ago that an Argentinean couple converted it from a residence and moved their restaurant La Virundela there. But they couldn’t make a go of it. And neither could Laila Murra when she took over La Virundela a couple of years ago. I think the problem was the Field Of Dreams complex. Despite what happens in Lala Land, just because you build it doesn’t mean that people will come. You have to tell people about it and persuade them to come.
The place I’m talking about is Hernandez Macias #48. It’s now the home of a new restaurant called Marsala. As good as it always looked, it’s more attractive than ever these days. And the owners have already made sure the news is out.
The owners of Marsala are Marcela Bolaño and Ximena de Léon Campomanes. Ximena has one of those voices that sounds like it’s the result of either gargling with Mezcal or three packs a day of Delicados sin filtro. Regardless of where that husky voice comes from, when Ximena speaks, she oozes charm.
”Marcela and I have been partners for seven years,” Ximena told me. “I used to be a TV and film producer before I began taking care of Marcela’s catering business…the administrative area. I’m good with numbers, she’s good with food.”
Ximena continued, “Marcela has been a cook all of her life. She didn’t go to cooking school. All of her knowledge comes from her mother who also was in the catering business all of her life.”
There are two main eating areas in Marsala. The well-treed courtyard is a fresh and airy place for lunch. The dining room is a warm and cozy place for dinner. Large windows between the two areas give you a view of both.
We chose the dining room where the classic bleached wood tables and chairs remain from La Virundela days but a very comfortable seating area has been added in front of the crackling wood fire.
“We wanted to create a space where people would feel comfortable and want to stay,” said Ximena. “We want everyone to feel right at home and think of us as their first choice, not only because of the food, but because there is a little spot for everyone to enjoy and make their own.”
I had seen the pink chair. I had seen the pink t-shirt on the bartender. I had noticed the pink on the rims of our plates and the freshly painted pink trim on the walls but it didn’t quite prepare me for what was on the wall of the washroom or the woman with flamingo feathered hair who came from the kitchen.
“It’s Marcela´s favourite color and she loves the nickname ‘pink chef’,” Ximena told me.
Marcela Bolaño calls her cuisine cocina con acentos. I would call it international, with a deep bow to Mexico and a nod to more than a few European countries.
“It means kitchen with accents, although I think in English, it sounds better as kitchen with an accent”, said Ximena. “Marcela includes in every dish a little bit of a French accent, or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek…”
We get a taste of Greece and the Middle East when dinner starts with the arrival of a wooden cutting board topped with hot-from-the-oven pita bread and some cooling garlicky tzatziki. Different, I thought, than any other San Miguel restaurant and a very nice touch. Especially when it’s complimentary.
Don Day’s Wife thought the pita was “superb”.
We were dining with Lillian Adamakis who, from her name you may guess, has tasted a lot of tzatziki in her time. She declared the olive oil topped spread “excellent”.
The French-influenced pork terrine with prunes and pistachios was something else I hadn’t seen before on a San Miguel menu and it was very tempting when a waiter walked it past my nose. But we decided it would wait. We would order the rib eye tacos and chicken croquettes.
A good croquette is a light, fluffy, never greasy croquette. Marcela Bolaño’s golden chicken croquettes are very good croquettes.
Inside the rolled tacos, they’re moist with tender beef and caramelized onions. On the outside, they’re crisp from a couple of minutes under the salamander.
I like a menu that has dishes you can’t get elsewhere in San Miguel. Though it screams Mexican, the corn cream with crab and roasted poblano is something I’ve never ever seen on any menu in this town. Though you can find a lot of San Miguel menus with ravioli, I don’t think you’ll find it stuffed with artichoke and washed in mascarpone, goat and pecorino cheeses. Fideuá is a Spanish dish, made with Capello di Angelo, a very thin spaghetti, topped with chorizo and oxtail in a red sauce. Not only had I not seen it on a San Miguel menu, I had never seen it on any menu anywhere in Mexico.
All three of those dishes will have to wait, however, as I chose the lamb ragu pappardelle. Outside of barbacoa joints, you seldom see lamb in San Miguel. A local goat cheese tops Marsala’s version of the dish.
Marsala has quickly assembled an interesting carta de vinos with Mexican and Kosher wines well represented. Most of the labels though are unknowns, even to a wine junkie like me, so you may have to take a chance on your choice.
I chose a previously unknown wine from the Baja called Grapho based on its interesting combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes. Lillian did the first tasting and gave it a thumbs up.
I would have liked to have chosen a wine I did know, Benmarco, one of the best Argentinean Malbecs I’ve ever tasted, but at $1085, it would have taken a big chunk out of the pension check.
After you’ve been around the restaurant biz for a few years, you develop this extrinsic talent to predict how long a restaurant will last. Don Day’s Wife has it too. When we leave a restaurant after a first-time visit, the usual conversation goes something like this: “So what did you think?” “I wouldn’t give it a year.” “I’m thinking about six months.”
The conversation was quite different when we left Marsala. It went something like this:
“So what did you think?”
“Great spot. But it always was. And it’s still got the problem of being about a block too far from mainstream Centro and little or no tourist foot traffic.”
“Despite being rookies though, I really think these women know what they’re doing. They’re overflowing with enthusiasm. They seem totally committed. And both have the kind of charm that will have people returning.”
“The chef really seems to know her stuff. The menu is inventive but not weird. That menu will excite foodies and normal human beings.”
“I’m saying Marsala is around for the long time.”
“I’m saying as long as they want to be around.”
Marsala is located at Hernandez Macias #48 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm, every day but Tuesday. For reservations, telephone 415 152 0080.