I took Don Day’s Wife out for a very memorable lunch recently and, as I often do, I also took my tiny spiral-bound notebook that fits in the back pocket of my jeans.
As usual, a lot of what I wrote down were Don Day’s Wife’s comments about the food and the experience. I planned to use her valued opinions in an upcoming review of the restaurant but, looking at all the quotations, I thought why not keep it simple and just share our conversation (with quite a few edits and omissions) plus a few pictures that should help tell the story.
The venue was Casa Blanca. The restaurant, conveniently located in the heart of San Miguel’s Centro, opened late last winter.
Executive Chef Donnie Masterton and Chef JJ Casteñeda have put together an extraordinary menu of Mediterranean/North African/Middle Eastern dishes that are served in a choice of three, five or seven small plate offerings.
Please feel free to eavesdrop on Don Day’s Wife and I.
DD: It’s quiet as usual. Let’s take that corner table in the courtyard.
DDW: I think the lack of business has something to do with the restaurant being somewhat lost inside the hotel and the sign on Juarez doesn’t give you any idea of what kind of business is inside.
DD: Yeh, I tried to check their hours on Trip Advisor and all I could get was the hotel…and lucky to find it at all. I think they’re now calling the hotel Casa Blanca 7…their street number…to help set them apart from all of the gin joints in all of the world (spoken with a very poor Bogart impression) also called Casa Blanca.
DDW: I love this menu. It’s so interesting, intriguing, inviting.
DD: I hate this menu. Let me count. Seventeen different choices all enticing me. Sooner or later, I have to try ever single one but, today, I have to cut it down to seven.
DDW: Not seven. Five.
DD: I think we should order seven.
DDW: There’s no way we’ll be able to eat seven. These small plates are big. Some of them are a meal in themselves. We’ll order five.
DD: I want seven.
DD: OK (sulking), five.
I won’t take you through the ten minute argument…sorry, discussion…that took place narrowing our decision from seventeen down to five of what Casa Blanca calls meze, but I will tell you the chatter was calmed by some flash ‘n’ dash, showbiz-poured mint tea, a good selection of olives and some crispbread well-seasoned with seeds and spices.
DDW: You know what I like about the dish of olives?
DD: Knowing you, you like everything about the dish of olives.
DDW: What I like most is that they give you that second empty dish for the pits. It’s little things like that that make a good restaurant into a great restaurant. And look at the design of that container for the pita; it’s a work of art.
DD: Another thing that makes a restaurant great is not so great mark-ups on the wine. This is a very upscale spot as far as decor, atmosphere, service, yet most of their wines are under a thousand pesos.
DDW: Yes. I can think of some other San Miguel spots where you’ll struggle to find anything under four figures.
DDW: What language do you think the word meze is?
DD: I don’t know. Maybe Persian. But there’s that Greek restaurant in Toronto called Mezes. And I think, maybe, I’ve seen it on Lebanese menus.
DDW: I think it should be a translation from the Chinese.
DD: Uh? The Chinese?
DDW: Yes. Because you know what this is. It’s the other side of this world’s version of dim sum. And you know how much I love dim sum.
DD: Nice comparison. If only those dishes heading to our table were on a pushcart.
DD: I think dips and pita are the way every Mediterranean meal should start.
DDW: And you know what’s so great about these; it’s not so much about what they are is what they’re not. Yes, there’s some hummus down the menu and some tzatziki, but no taramosalata, no baba ghanoush. These are very different. The preserved lemon is what makes this spread so good. Definitely my favorite of the three is the labnah (a fresh cheese made from yogurt). I wish we could grow enough lemons to preserve them.
DD: I agree, but the one with the sweet garlic is a strong second, and the za’atar (a middle eastern spice mix) is no slouch.
DD: Cauliflower sure has made the big move from side to main lately…and it wasn’t that long ago you couldn’t buy a head in this town.
DDW: It deserves it. It’s so substantial. Like eating meat. With close to zero calories.
DD: And what do you think of pairing cauliflower with olives?
DDW: You could pair olives with anything and I’d like it.
DDW: So glad I ordered the polenta. I never would have, if I hadn’t had a taste of it last time I was here.
DD: Yeh. You never order polenta. I can’t remember the last time you cooked it.
DDW: But this polenta is so creamy, so rich. It’s not like any other I’ve tasted.
DD: They’re not too shy with the parmesan either. Or the truffle oil.
DD: You know what I just realized? I just ate three vegetarian dishes. Me. Three. In a row. I’m afraid a carcass of beef might fall on me on the way home.
DDW: Take a deep breath. Here comes the lamb kofta and beef pie.
DD: Nice spicing on the meatballs. I had forgotten how good mint is with lamb. And look at the size of the Moroccan meloui.
The pastry is light with a nice flake on the crust but, you know what, I’m stuffed like a down duvet. I can hardly finish the ribeye. You were right, seven would have been way too much.
DDW: Did you just say I was right and you were wrong? Five would have been too much for a lot of couples. I think seven would serve four.
DD: Definitely and, not only that, at bargain basement prices. It was just $500 for our five choices. It’s $665 if four people have seven dishes. Even with a generous tip, that’s less than $200 a person and you get to sit here, in elegant surroundings, waited on by very efficient servers.
DDW: This restaurant desperately needs a sign. Or maybe some old geezer writing a rave review about it.
Casa Blanca, the restaurant, is located inside Casa Blanca, the hotel, at Juarez #9 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open seven days a week from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm.