Say the two words Sunday dinner and I will reply with the two words roast beef. There is no stronger food tradition in my life. No family food event so memorable. When I was growing up, beef at six was as predictable as Ed Sullivan at eight. And when I flew the roost, my migration back on Sundays had almost as much to do with meat as it did mom and pop.
The Sunday roast beef ritual began to fade when Don Day’s Wife and I began to spend half of our life in Mexico. There were two reasons. The family was far away and so was good beef.
The family is still in the colder climes but, I’m happy to report, good beef is very, very close by. Last Sunday, I had the best prime rib dinner I’ve ever had in San Miguel de Allende. There were two reasons. A restauranteur and a cow. The restauranteur is Canadian. The cow was American. As we Canadians are used to finishing second, I’ll start with the cow.
As you probably know, in the United States, there is an organization called the USDA that checks out cows so you and I can easily predict how good they will be to eat. It’s a complicated system with eight different grades and it’s kind of boring so I’m going to try to get through it very quickly but, beware, you’ll still have to bear with me.
Start by forgetting about grades six through eight, known by the names Utility, Cutter, and Canner. They might make it into a hot dog but otherwise they’re for containers with words like Alpo, 9 Lives and Purina.
Though they might make it on a supermarket’s shelves, you can also pretty well forget about grades four and five, known as Standard and Commercial, particularly when no butcher is ever going to label his meat with a word like standard when he can legally use words like supreme selection or blue ribbon.
Grade three is called Select and, when you see that sticker, you can start to get excited about what you are you going to eat. Select comes from older cows and cows with much less marbling than the top two grades. It’s good for what chefs call wet cooking, things like stews, and it’s also good for marinated cuts. Though there is no meat grading in Mexico, a lot of the arrachera and fajitas we eat will come from Mexican cows that are an equivalent to Select grade.
Choice is the runner-up grade and what I (and probably you) usually choose when you buy a juicy striploin or ribeye from the U.S. at a retailer like Costco. The marbling gives it tenderness and taste but I’ve found that just seeing the words USDA Choice isn’t enough. Choice is the grade that unfortunately reveals that USDA grading is almost a total waste of time for the consumer. Choice is the score that about 70% of every cow receives. Yes, seven out of ten cows are Choice. I was shocked when I saw the numbers. If seven out of ten guys in high school were popular, even I might have had a date. So there’s a major difference between the best Choice and the worst Choice. You have to personally inspect every purchase to see if it has a sufficient amount of those important ribbons of fat. There are brand names like Sterling Silver or Certified Angus that are usually a good judge of how choice the Choice is but they’re no guarantee.
And then there is Prime. Prime represents the elite of the cattle crowd, the top 6%. These are cows who can stick out their chests knowing that they have the country’s most desirable meat located between their 12th and 13th ribs. Most USDA Prime goes to fancy steakhouses like Capital Grille, Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, Hy’s and Jacobs & Co. Since 2002, the year that my expense account and I retired, I’ve never been to a fancy steakhouse and I’ve had exactly one USDA Prime piece of beef. Until Sunday. On Sunday I had my second. And talk about worth the wait.
Gilles Vachon is a Canadian. He’s a somewhat abrasive, in-your-face kind of a guy. A typical Canadian in some ways but not the typical Canadian you’re often going to meet in San Miguel.
Gilles and his Mexican wife Alejandra are the owners of Mon Bistro. The restaurant is, in just three years, already at its third location (four if you count one that fell through) but I think this time Gilles has got the place right and the menu right.
I like Gilles Vachon in a lot of ways. I like his enthusiasm. I like his passion for food. I like his everlasting journey in search of improving the restaurant’s offering. And I can’t help but love a guy who says he just worked an 80 hour week and isn’t looking for his car keys.
On Monday morning, after my prime rib dinner at Mon Bistro…sorry, Prime prime rib dinner at Mon Bistro, I took a vote in order to give Gilles Vachon a new nickname. As I was the only one with my hand up, it was unanimous. Gilles Vachon is now the prime minister of beef…at least in San Miguel.
Now if Gilles Vachon is the PM, then Number 10 Downing Street is Ventanas de San Miguel, the location of Mon Bistro for the last few months. It’s a golf and country club that takes a car or cab ride to get there. Plus a walk through a construction site to finally get there. But, when you do, wow! The space is bright and airy, casual but classy, with a wonderful view of the golf club’s greenery and the sierras beyond.
Since he opened his first Mon Bistro, the prime minister has been searching for the right cuisine. A pinch of French. A teaspoon of Mexican. An ounce of Italian. A modicum of Japanese. It’s the kind of cuisine for which the word international was invented.
Now though, the restaurant has a slightly different direction and I think Gilles Vachon may have found the right point on the compass. When I was there on Sunday, Gilles showed me a potential new logo. Mon Bistro Steakhouse. My advice? Go for it.
The current menu isn’t close to steakhouse yet. There’s only a filet and a ribeye amongst the current items, both USDA Choice I’m guessing by the price. But I saw some amazing looking tomahawks in the kitchen that were probably Prime and I know my prime rib was Prime because, call me the trash detective, I found the wrapping in the garbage.
“It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion” goes that old fifties doo-wop song that Maria Muldaur sang to me (and a few hundred others) many moons ago in San Miguel de Allende. In other words, you can have the best beef in the world but, if it ain’t done right, it ain’t welcome at my table.
Mon Bistro’s Chef Reyes thickly…and I mean really thickly…coats the roast in butter, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and what the prime minister calls his secret spices (Gilles is almost as tight-lipped about the source of his spice mix as he is about where in central Mexico he gets his USDA Prime). The restaurant then roasts it at a very high temperature until the thermometer probe reaches 125 F (about two hours) and then rests it, tightly wrapped in foil, for about half an hour.
The beef was served with whipped potatoes, an excellent cheezy (Philadelphia) creamed spinach, and an exceptional au jus that had obviously come from bones not a packet or can.
The result. Well, as I said way back at the beginning of this blog post, this was the best prime rib I’ve ever had in San Miguel. And I’ll go one further when I think back to Sundays in the Sixties and the traditional family gathering. This was a prime rib that would have made my poppa proud. And like the one my poppa roasted, at Mon Bistro, it’s only available on Sunday.
I can’t finish without one more reminiscence of my favorite family days: Leftover Mondays.
Don Day’s Wife and I only managed to get through about half of our prime ribs at Mon Bistro, which meant the presentation of a St. Bernard sized doggie bag by Gilles Vachon just before leaving. Served on a Panio baguette with arugula and mustard on Monday, the prime minister’s beef was almost as good as it was on Sunday.
Mon Bistro is located at Ventanas de San Miguel Golf & Country Club, Carretera a Dolores Hidalgo km 1.5 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open on Sunday from 3:00 to 9:00 pm; Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 3:00 to 10:00 pm; Saturday from 3:00 to 11:00 pm. The prime rib dinner is currently available only on Sundays and requires a reservation at least 48 hours in advance.