Guilty as charged. I’m constantly chasing the very latest and maybe greatest when it comes to restaurants in this town. And neglecting the tried and true. It resulted in a rude awakening last month.
One of the few restaurants that’s been around this town as long as I have ranked very, very high in the results for The Smarts, the annual awards that recognize San Miguel de Allende’s favorite restaurants. The “biggest surprise in the history of the awards” I called it. For this restaurant had never ranked in the top twenty in any of the previous years’ voting but, in 2018, there it was way up at number six. Which means that, of the 300 or so restaurants in this town, it sits in the top 2%. Not bad for a place that I (and, I suspect, a lot of other San Miguel oldtimers that I know) hadn’t been to in years.
We were planning lunch with Bob and Sue Cumming, two of those oldtimers (that’s old in years in San Miguel of course, not years in time spent on this planet) that’d we’d met during our second Winter in San Miguel back in 2006. It was to be our last, leisurely lunch (leisurely is the Canadian translation of with wine) this winter before we flocked with the geese and headed north.
The conversation went something like this:
“How about Chamonix?”, I asked.
“Chamonix?”, replied Bob. “Is it still around?”
“Still around and still flourishing”, I replied. “At least in popularity. It was in the top ten of this year’s Smart Awards.”
A unanimous decision was awarded to Chamonix.
We were standing outside the restaurant on Sollano, wishing they opened earlier, at 1:00 pm instead of 1:30, when we heard the bolt slide. The door opened to a nicely-decorated hall with a 19th Century courtyard beyond, invitingly patterned by the sun. As there was nobody else there, we were able to take what we considered the best table, the one in the far corner at the bottom of the stairs.
The first part of the conversation was, almost obviously, how long had it been since our last visit to Chamonix. Don Day’s Wife and I were guessing ten or eleven years. Sue thought she and Bob’s last time was twelve years. Back in those days, there were three, maybe four “fancy” restaurants in San Miguel and, for a while, Chamonix, a French restaurant with Swiss-trained staff was all the rage. I’m not sure what happened over the years…I decided I didn’t want to even ask…but, somehow, the shining light dimmed. It was never enough for Chamonix to close its doors but enough to fade it from my memory.
Lunch at Chamonix started with another flashback. To the days when waiters hauled blackboards through restaurants and diners tilted heads and twisted necks trying to get a look of them.
It takes three blackboards at Chamonix to present the regular dishes, the specials and the wine list which is probably about two too many blackboards.
The wine list is, from my standpoint, very well chosen. There are about 25 wines on the board, most of them reasonably well-known to me and well-respected by me. I like wines that are old friends, not imperfect strangers. My favorite part of the wines at Chamonix though is not the labels. It’s the numbers beside them. Because small prices are a big thing with me.
At some new San Miguel restaurants, I struggle to find a wine under $1000. At old Chamonix…maybe I should call it good old Chamonix…there is only one over $1000. That’s about as rare as dientes de gallina in some upscale SMA restaurants.
Our choice was a Sauvignon Blanc, a white grape that my friend Greg Nye recently said was “always a good choice because it’s very hard to get a bad one”. It was a bottle I’d stayed away from for a long time. Mostly because of the name. Though I’m not exactly crazy about French wines with names like Chateau this and Chateau that, I don’t dislike them as much as handles like Arrogant Frog (do you think they’ve ever sold a single bottle to a Parisian?).
When I finally tasted Ribet White (the winery’s overly cute nickname for Arrogant Frog), I discovered a wine reminiscent of another French Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, though the grapes are grown about 600 kilometers south. Chamonix charges $510 a bottle for Arrogant Frog, which is not much more than 100% over retail. It’s one of 16 wines on Chamonix’s wine blackboard for less than $600. Love those kind of numbers.
Chamonix has a sophisticated and elegant style and look. There is quality in the linens, the flatware, the glasses, the fresh roses, the serving pieces (sorry for breaking your no photos rule, Chamonix…I only did it because I thought it was rather stupid).
A room off to the side is remembered as a cozy spot where you might want to eat a leisurely dinner (leisurely
is Canadian for red rather than white wine when followed by the word dinner
) on a chilly San Miguel night.
The two blackboards listing food items are titled Menu Regular and Especiales though I suspect the specials board rarely, if ever, changes. That was reinforced when the waiter also brought out the pre-plated special of the day as another possibility.
The cuisine of Chamonix is best described by the general term international and, just like in those days a decade or so ago, French is the slightly more dominant influence. What I like about the menu is, not so much what is on it but what isn’t. No smoke or foam. No edible insects. No activated charcoal or ashes or dehydrated this or that or anything resembling molecular gastronomy. No amaranth or chia or sorghum or millet.
I used to eat a lot of escargots. Or should I say I used to eat a lot of garlic and herb butter? Then I stopped ordering Escargots à la Bourguignonne. Not because I no longer liked snails. But simply because they were no longer on menus. I think it was because, what was once considered risqué, was now considered déclassé.
Chamonix still has escargots on their blackboard. But not in garlic butter. In a light Camembert sauce. The snails were not at all rubbery. The sauce was not at all heavy. The dish was delightful. I couldn’t remember where I’d ever had snails in cheese before. I know where I’ll be having snails in cheese again.
A favorite of Don Day’s Wife is Vietnamese cold spring rolls. It’s another dish that has all but disappeared off menus. What makes a roll exceptional for her is the different textures of the ingredients and when all the individual tastes come through. The paper-thin rice wrappers, the carrots, the shrimp, the vermicelli, the sesame seeds and microgreens all contributed to what she considered “an exceptional roll”.
“It’s nice to have a choice of the sweet or peanut sauce as well”, Don Day’s Wife added.
Farfalle with figs and Roquefort seemed like a strange pasta choice. But figs are a favorite of mine. As is blue cheese. So why not? The bowties had the right amount of give. The Roquefort sauce was light, not overpowering, and tasted like real Roquefort, not the usual cheaper substitute. The walnuts and the wilted spinach were a welcome complement to the other tastes.
Fig and blue cheese is one of two intriguing and inventive pastas on Chamonix’ menu. The other…linguine, shrimp, pine nuts and raisins…is now on my “to do” list.
The plates we chose were a visual as well as a taste delight. Nectarine was a colorful addition to the fig and well-aged Spanish ham salad. And watermelon radish had been added to the skewered beef and shrimp special that the waiter had sold Don Day’s Wife on earlier.
“Great job on spicing the tenderloin”, said Don Day’s Wife, “plus it’s very tender.”
Dessert doesn’t often make it on to our lunch menu. For the Cummings either, they admitted. But lunch had already become more “leisurely” with a second bottle of Ribet.
The frozen lime pie with a chocolate crust was “really delicious”, said Sue, “but it’s so big I wouldn’t want to order it unless I knew someone was going to share.” We obliged.
So was our visit to Chamonix one of those extraordinary gastronomic experiences? No it wasn’t. There was nothing that was particularly new, nothing that was extremely inventive, But every component of every single dish was very, very good. And consistent quality throughout an entire meal is one of those attributes that one seldom ever finds in a restaurant.
And the ambiance, the atmosphere? I loved it. Because it’s almost equally upscale and comfortable. Because there’s nothing over the top in the design of the restaurant. Nothing overly trendy. It’s old-fashioned, classic, traditional. And, perhaps, I am as well.
I’ll give the last words to Sue Cumming because our lunch couldn’t have been summed up better: “How did we forget about this place for so many years? Why did we take so long to come back.
Chamonix is located at Calle Diez de Sollano y Davalos 17 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Monday to Saturday from 1:30 to 10:00 pm.