It’s not easy being a musselholic in the middle of a desert. It’s not so much that the restaurants serving mussels come and go. It’s that mussels come and go on their menus.
I just tallied up the number of San Miguel restaurants whose mussels I’ve praised in the nine years that I’ve been writing this food blog. It was a bigger number than even I expected. Six. Three of those restaurants are still here; three of them are long gone. But not one of those that are still around have mussels on their menus any more. So you know where I’m going with this. Of course you do. I’ve obviously found a number seven and, as unbelieving as I am about superstition, I think number seven could be a very lucky number.
Eric Gueguen is from Brittany. And mussels to a man from Brittany are like ribeyes to a man from Texas. Eric is the chef/owner of La Bastide. It took me a while to get there (my only excuse is the 70 pesos extra it takes for a cab) but I have nominated and unanimously elected Eric Gueguen my new Charles Atlas, my new mussel man.
Now I should explain that I understand why mussels come and go at San Miguel restaurants. Most North American mussels come from the northeast coast. Some Mexican mussels come from the southwest coast. And getting them from either coast to this town ain’t easy.
Judging by the quality of his mussels, I think La Bastide’s chef has a solution to the transportation problem. Getting them here though is a long and complicated journey and I was surprised at least at one part of the process so I’ll let Eric Gueguen explain it to you:
“The mussels come from Agua de Todos Los Santos in Baja California and are shipped fresh to Mexico City to a provider of mine that has satellite retailers all over Mexico and, locally, in Queretaro. The retailer vacuum seals the mussels in 500 gram packages that I receive frozen (DD: the part that shocked me). I’d much rather buy frozen instead of fresh because I had a bad experience when I was working with fresh mussels in Puebla!”
La Bastide is on the road to Dolores Hidalgo, in the building that once housed Pizza Pig. From the outside, things don’t look much different. But oh how things have changed inside. What once looked like a bowling alley now…well, actually…still looks like a bowling alley but, certainly, the most elegant bowling alley I’ve ever been in.
There’s about 20 metres of glass pouring in oceans of light on the east side. The tables are substantial, constructed of heavy wood. The chairs are upholstered and comfortable. Lilies decorate the tables and there are glads on the fireplaces. The walls are empty but only because they’re about to be filled for a show by former San Miguel artist Andrew Osta.
Eric Gueguen’s partner, Tayde, and the other servers are smartly dressed. The sound system softly plays Ellington.
The table mats are imaginative. About the only negative is paper napkins that are crying out to be cloth and complete the classy look of the restaurant.
Before it’s time for La Bastide to flex their mussels, there are a few other considerations which are best made while munching on a good bread and a sweet butter, saving some of the bread, of course, for some serious dunking.
There’s a small but carefully chosen selection of French wines including a Muscadet that I think is as good as it gets for washing down mussels.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne are served in shells as they should be. The salade au Rocamadour includes the essential goat cheese. But I knew exactly what our starter would be seconds after seeing the menu.
The médalion de foie gras was awarded an “excellent” by Don Day’s Wife, one of poultry liver’s severest critics. And “a big enough to share” by me.
Now ordering mussels at any of those other San Miguel restaurants that are still in my past performance stats was very easy. You simply said, “los mejillones, por favor” because there was only one mussel dish on the menu.
It’s more difficult at La Bastide. Much more difficult. There are four different mussel dishes and all of them are very alluring. We eliminated the mejillones Champenoise from the list because who needs shrimp in the mix when you have mussels.
The mejillones marinière received some consideration. The simplest and most traditional French mussels dish is, after all, the greatest test of a chef’s talent.
It was actually Eric Gueguen who eventually made up our minds for us.
“You should have the Mediterráneo and the Charentaise”, said Chef Eric, “definitely the Mediterráneo and the Charentaise”.
There are about 20 mussels in a serving at La Bastide which is, to me, a just right quantity; the mussels are farmed not wild as virtually all mussels are these days; Don Day’s wife called their size “not too big and chewy and not too small that you can’t find them”; freezing the mussels had no impact whatsoever on their texture or taste; there was not one single mussel in our bowls that didn’t open; and the mussels were mostly males (no, I’m not going to tell you how I know the difference…well maybe if you buy me a drink).
The mejillones Mediterráneo doesn’t stray too far from the traditional with the addition of Pernod being the only signicant, taste-changing ingredient. The smell of anise reached our noses before the bowl was even placed on the table.
Mediterráneo quickly became the favorite of the two for Don Day’s Wife and the pleasures continued long after the shells were piled high in the bone bowl.
My vote went to the Charentaise but I’m a fool in love for any mussel broth with curry in it. I like that Chef Eric hasn’t moved to coconut like a lot of chefs have with their curried mussels; he still uses the traditional sour cream. And the dish lived up to its billing; Cognac is listed on the menu as an ingredient and I saw the Hennessy heading for the kitchen.
The always has been and always should be accompaniments to mussels are frites and mayonnaise. Three different mayos (regular, curry and chipotle) plus ketchup are beautifully presented.
The French fries were, unfortunately, a disappointment, desperately in need of some sunshine, some crisping. What was encouraging though was Eric Gueguen’s attitude when we had a discussion at the end of our meal. In my experience, seasoned French chefs are as stubborn as Mexican mules (and I’ve worked with a few…chefs not mules that is).
As we pianoed our fingers in the lime and rosemary finger bowls (nice touch), Eric was all ears when he and Don Day’s Wife talked about alternatives to starchy Mexican white potatoes and the best temperatures at this altitude for a frite’s first and second frying.
I’m predicting those frites will be better the next time I’m mussel bound to La Bastide and I’m predicting that will be very soon.
There are some desserts that some people find almost impossible to resist. For me it’s the French classics and on La Bastide’s menu is a tarte tatin. Chef Eric’s version of the upside down apple pie had apples that were “not overcooked and not too syrupy sweet” according to Don Day’s Wife. Plaudits went also to the presentation of the postre.
La Bastide is located on Carretera Dolores Hidalgo – San Miguel de Allende km 5. The restaurant is open from 1:00 to 10:00 pm, Thursday and Friday; 9:00 am to 10:00 pm, Saturday; 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, Sunday; closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
A good time to taste and decide if those frozen mussels are as good as I say they are is at the opening of Andrew Osta’s exhibition on March 1.