When I met Ernesto Narvaez, the executive chef at Zibu Allende, one of the first things he said to me was, “This is not my restaurant. All of that credit goes to Eduardo Palazuelos. It is his concept. It is his menu. It is my job to continue what he created.”
Zibu Allende is Eduardo Palazuelos’ third restaurant to share his concept, his menu. The first was at Zibu in Acapulco (in the photo above); the second was at Mar Del Zur in Monterrey. Initially I was disappointed that Zibu Allende’s menu was almost identical to the first two locations but, as much as I dislike chains, even those with only a few links, producing the same proven dishes over and over again does guarantee consistency. Besides, I had never eaten at Zibu Acapulco or Mar Del Zur, so the menu was brand spanking new, not only to me but probably 99% of the other people who eat at Zibu Allende. In fact, I’ve never eaten from a menu quite like Zibu’s in any restaurant, anywhere.
Eduardo Palazuelos calls the cuisine of his restaurants Mex-Thai and cites the influence of the Manila Galleons, the ships that, for 250 years, sailed between the Philippines and Mexico.
“Acapulco was the center of trade that received these ships loaded with rich treasures such as silks, porcelains, jewelry and the precious spices that complemented the gourmet cuisine of those times”, shared Eduardo. “With this exchange of spices, more flavor began to be added to Mexican cuisine and, in general, to the world.”
Most of the dishes on the menu are more Mexican than Thai but Chef Palazuelos sneaks the Asian influence in to many of them in a very subtle way. He uses a lot of coconut milk in his sauces. Instead of conventional ginger, he uses the much more pungent galanga. He salts things with the deep flavor of fish sauces.
“The Mex-Thai food has the audacity to mix the spicy. the acid, the sweet, the salty and the bitter”, said the chef.
In addition to Mex-Thai, there is another very defining element to Chef Palazuelos cuisine: The ocean. There are almost twice as many dishes on Zibu Allende’s menu that feature seafood as dishes that include meat.
My eating habits have changed dramatically over the years. For the first 50 or so years of my life, I almost always did the appetizer, soup or salad, main, and dessert routine. Though menus still usually sectionalize things, including at Zibu Allende, these days, I rarely get as far as the main courses. The starters are usually where I start and finish, particularly if Don Day’s Wife is there and we can talk each other into going sharesies.
I like the price of appetizers (can I really enjoy a lobster tail when it’s costing $1100?); I like the style of appetizers; I like the size of appetizers; and I really like the appetizers at Zibu Allende.
Baked octopus arrives at the table magnificently perched atop twin spires. The tentacles are charred perfectly and there’s the right amount of chew to the tenderness.
Ernesto Narvaez took me through the steps of how Zibu prepares the octopus.
“We first put it in a big pot with celery, carrots and onions. Then we do what we call esparta in Spanish. The tentacles curl up, the octopus is removed and the head and body separated. We add about five grams of salt per liter and, when the water is boiling again, put the octopus back in for another hour and a half to two hours depending on the size.”
The octopus is finished in something that I would definitely buy for Don Day’s Wife if it didn’t cost an arm and more legs than an octopus. It’s called a Josper oven. It’s fired by charcoal or wood and it magically grills or roasts while still maintaining moisture.
“When we receive an order, we spread a little mayonnaise and some condiments on the tentacles and put them into the Josper at 400 degrees C for about three minutes. You get just the hint of smoke in the bouquet.”
The dipping sauce, “chileajo/miso”, is an excellent example of the Asia meets the Americas taste that is evident in so many of Zibu’s dishes. My only problem with the grilled octopus is the price, $380 is a bit rich for one of the world’s cheaper proteins.
That leads me from the ridiculous to the sublime. Something I’m used to paying twice as much for is priced at a quarter of the price of the octopus on Zibu’s menu. Some of the appetizer-size portions are listed in the taco section and the soft shell crab taco is bargain-basement priced at 95 pesos. Don Day’s Wife and I have been tempted, very tempted to go back to Zibu and just order four courses of the crab, called jalba de concha suave in Spanish.
The crab is nicely battered and has none of those gunky bits that Don Day’s Wife is far from fond of. Asia meets America this time with a Japanese style vegetable-based tempura and a sauce with the scent of habaneros.
The first time that Don Day’s Wife and I ever went to Mexico, we did something that we thought was decidedly daring. We got into a taxi one night and went to a village in the hills outside Puerto Vallarta for an “authentic” dinner. The first course in the comida corrida was a sopa de nuez. We went nuts over it. To the point where Don Day’s Wife added the recipe to her repertoire.
Though nothing’s ever quite as good as the first time, at Zibu Allende, they have a crema de nuez that rivals the one on the coast. The nuts are walnuts. The spice is chipotle. The presentation, with a jug that is poured from at the table, adds to the experience.
The beef for the short rib tacos is U.S. choice and I expected it to be slow-cooked in the Josper.
“It’s actually done in the gas oven”, Chef Narvaez told me. “We sprinkle it with salt and pepper and braise it with a little red wine and veal stock for eight hours at 120 C…but it does get finished in the Josper for two or three minutes before it goes on to the tacos and is served.”
Inside the light char, the meat is fall apart and moist. The three-chile sauce is a complex blend of sweet and heat that brings thoughts of both Thai and Mexican cuisine.
I find bone marrow irresistible and the thought of it topped with Zibu’s tender octopus bathed in a garlic sauce made it even more so. I still remember my disappointment when, after ordering the dish, the server returned to tell me, “I’m sorry sir, the chef’s not happy with the bones we have; there’s not enough tuetano in them; he suggests you change what you ordered.”
As appetizing as the description of the tuna tataki is on the menu, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bones. About five minutes later, the server returned. “A new shipment of marrow bones has just arrived; you can still go back to your original order?”
Zibu had cut them horizontally, as they should be, and there was plenty of rich, buttery marrow. I had been apprehensive at first about the fusion of Thai and Mexican cuisine. I think this dish had swayed me. Eduardo Palazuelos Mex-Thai works. And works well.
How often Eduardo Palazuelos will visit Zibu Allende, how much time he will spend in San Miguel, no one at Live Aqua seemed to be sure. Personally, I hope he is not one of those absentee San Miguel “celebrity chefs” who stop in for a couple of days, a couple of times a year.
I do think that, even though Chef Palazuelos may be the creator of the menu, Executive Chef Narvaez and his team are doing an extraordinary job of bringing it to life. And even though Zibu is at the top end, as far as pricing goes in San Miguel de Allende, by selectively choosing a couple of the right appetizers…the soft shelled crab taco, the beef medallions paiko, or the crispy tuna rolls for instance…you can still do lunch or dinner, with superb service, but without drinks of course, for 300 pesos. Which means you can go back quite often to Zibu. Just like I’m starting to do.
Zibu Allende is located in the Live Aqua Urban Resort, Calzada de la Presa 85, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.