OK. I’m not exactly their target audience. I have grandchildren who aren’t exactly their target audience. But it was one of those early December days when the sunset seduces you into the night and guilt makes it impossible to do another slovenly slouch on the couch.
Don Day’s Wife and I hopped on the bus, headed down to Centro, photo-opped the freshly hung, five-storey tall Xmas tree and oversized candy apple ornaments in Plaza Civica, then walked up Relox to Polp. I’m not sure what the original attraction to the bar was. Maybe six letters I like to see together, G-A-S-T-R-O, under their name. Maybe that posh and perfectly lit atmosphere visible from the street. Or maybe it was just their name. Not Pulpo but Polp. Not the Spanish word for octopus but the Catalan.
The Catalan touch is a nod to the time that chef and co-owner Patricio Fuentes Alvarez spent in Barcelona, working at the Michelin-starred Restaurante Hofmann. His stint there is evident in a lot of the style, content and quality of, not just the interior, but the food at Polp.
Polp is not a restaurant, it’s a bar. It’s ultimate business strategy is to simply make money by selling drinks. But, for most bars, it’s never simple; it needs a hook to lure you in. Polp’s bait is good food at extraordinarily good prices. And, despite that hook being designed to catch the attention of 20- or, perhaps 30-somethings, that’s also the kind of hook I don’t just nibble but bite on.
It was duck breast in peach sauce on the blackboard the first time I ever passed the bar, at a price less than you’d pay for chicken. It was shrimp in a butter sauce tonight.
We climb the glowing stairs to the bar, grit on our teeth, and nibble on our tongues knowing it would be stupid to request they turn down the music. We order a couple of generous pours of wine, and ask Chef Patricio, “¿Que recomiendas?”.
“The scallops”, says Patricio, “and the ribeye”.
We add burrata and a bowl of olives to our order and check out the decor. It’s really stunning. Even to old, tired eyes like mine. Polp can make poinsettias look tasteful not trashy. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to live in. But the kind of place you savor spending one evening of decadence in. It’s reminiscent of a bar you night see in a 21st Century luxury boutique hotel. It might be right out of the portfolio of some design firm you’d find in the pages of Architectural Digest.
The servers are formal but friendly, a complex combination that not many bars can accomplish with their staff. Especially when conversation is required in two languages.
The servers bring the olives first. One full bowl. One empty bowl for their pits. A shot glass of toothpicks on the side. The presentation is perfect.
The burrata is local, from Remy’s on the road to Queretaro. Possibly the best store-bought burrata in central Mexico. It’s topped with sweet, peppered, cherry tomatoes and sided with a slice of San Miguel’s best French country loaf from local bakery Panio.
My request for some sixties rock ‘n’ roll gets a roll of the eyes and a smile from the deejay. But now I’m getting more used to the music. It’s got a touch of seventies disco to it. It certainly doesn’t seem as loud as it was. Maybe it’s the second glass of L.A. Cetto Cab.
The music is being orchestrated by something that looks like it should be in an air traffic control tower. I’m betting that a box like that might be about two months pay to a tune spinner. I want to ask him but even I’m too polite.
Patricio is an out-on-the-floor, not a hide-in-the-kitchen chef. He asks, “How would you like your ribeye done?”. I answer, “However you think it should be done.” “Good”, he replies and brings it medium rare.
The meat is grass-fed Mexican. It’s well-seasoned and very beefy. It comes on an onion confit that “we slow cook for seven hours” Patricio tells me. The steak is a little chewy but it’s as expected, especially when you think about the cost. Polp’s ribeye is ridiculously priced at 80 pesos. I’m sure the 20-somethings have never seen what I consider the royal highness of steak cuts for a price like that. I’m not even sure I saw a price like that for a ribeye half a century ago, when I was a 20-something.
I sat there somewhat dumbfounded, thinking again about the professional service, the luxurious surroundings and how you could bring a date here, both have a starter but still well-sized piece of steak, and get out for less than ten U.S. bucks. It really does seem ridiculous.
Plus the best was yet to come: Patricio Fuentes Alvarez’s most highly-recommended dish, the scallops…not to mention what they come in.
The thick rounds of flesh are grilled just to the point where they’re warmed through and opaque, then bathed in a cauliflower cream with a hint of thyme.
Long after the scallops had disappeared, Don Day’s Wife was still running her index finger around the sides of the bowl with only brief pauses to say, “this sauce is amazing, absolutely amazing”.
We were stuffed like turduckens. And happy as pigs in you know what. But with prices this low it was impossible to resist one for the road.
Patricio wanted to stir up some of his mushroom risotto, one of Polp’s regular, daily specials and, when it’s only another 80 pesos, Don Day’s Wife said “do it”.
The rice was buttery, creamy and the shrooms just barely cooked as they should be. Another bowl was scraped squeaky clean.
I asked for la cuenta and pondered. Perhaps if I visited Celaya and had a little tightening around the eyes, a substantial tuck to the turkey neck, I could fit in a bit better with Polp’s clientele. Nah, I thought. Do you know how many of Polp’s tapas I could buy for the cost of that work? And I might actually start to like listening to what the regular at the end of the bar called a “killer mix”. With one more glass of wine, I might even join the 20-somethings dancing to it.
Polp S.M.A. Gastrobar is located at Relox #3 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2:00 pm to Midnight; Wednesday and Thursday from 2:00 pm to 11:00 pm. Telephone: 415 154 9208.