When we first walked into Bastardo, I could see him in the distance weaving his way around his shipping container kitchen. We’d shared a couple of messages back in November but all I really knew about him was his first name. But I knew this guy had to be the chef.
Almost every occupation has its uniform. Whether it’s a lawyer’s pinstripe suit, a surgeon’s scrubs or an auto mechanic’s overalls. And that uniform rarely changes.
But in the last ten years there have some serious revisions in one specific occupation’s garb. A lot of those sometimes clumsy and always too warm chef’s jackets are hanging in closets, replaced by black t-shirts. The floppy chef’s toques have almost all been blown off, occasionally to be replaced by a baseball cap. The houndstooth chef’s pants had already gone the way of the overlong khaki cargo shorts but now have moved on again to the black jeans. The orange Crocs have given away to black Converse all stars (high or low-top both acceptable). Most chef’s head hair has been pulled back tight into a tail and the chin hair usually looks like it’s searching for the sound of clippers. There is a contest for who can get more tats in the least square inches. And there’s almost always a little wrist jewelry and a flashy apron from some obscure supplier.
Yes, that must be Jorge in the kitchen.
I suggested we take the long table with benches; it reminded me of picnics (still crazy ’bout picnics…even if Kim Novak doesn’t show). After a bit of a sigh from Don Day’s tight-skirted wife…“nobody look now”…Mark and Nikol who had told us “you have to check out this place” and I sat down and checked out the drinks menu.
The sign out front of Bastardo includes the words Beer Garden and our waiter, Luciano, charmingly presented the craft brews and Mark settled on something dark and frothy called a Baltic Porter. He sipped and gave it his sign of approval.
His wife, Nikol, did not, unfortunately, share his enthusiasm (well until her margarita, mixed by Jorge’s wife Aida, arrived).
Now I have a problem with restaurants with those 8-1/2 x 14, eight-page menus. How can someone who can hit three pointers also hit home runs we used to say when number 23 broadened his horizons. And I’ve said the same about chefs with those multi-page menus.
Bastardo’s hand-written menu on the other hand is miniscule. The printed area is not much more than the size of my hand. There are just eleven dishes.
Luciano told us the cheese dish had been eighty-sixed (do Mexican kitchens ochenta y seis dishes?) but there was a fresh asparagus dish to bring us back to that count of eleven.
Now I grew up more than a few decades ago when asparagus was seasonal. And the first spears of the season were one of the rites of spring. Yes, we have to have that.
And roasted cauliflower. Yes, as overly trendy as this veggie may be on San Miguel menus, we’ll share an order of that.
And the morcilla? After about three seconds of my request for the hands up for those who wanted to share the blood pudding, the women’s hands were firmly under their cheeks…yes, those cheeks. But Mark reminded me we’d shared some morcilla tacos at the Tuesday market and his thumb was up again. One order of blood pudding please, Luciano.
Mark and Nikol were still contemplating but, as Mark only favors vegetables that never see the light of day, it was, not one, but two orders of the beet salad.
Don Day’s Wife and I went for the burger (“this might be the town’s best burger” Mark had told me) and Mark and Nikol went for the chicken.
First to arrive at the table was a brioche style bun nicely dusted with sea salt and black pepper and sided with herb butter. Why don’t more chefs serve herb butter I thought.
“The bread is baked here”, Luciano told us. “The herbs are from our own garden…just outside the kitchen”, Jorge later told me.
The asparagus arrived second. Now a Texan will tell you that biscuits are only as good as the gravy that you sop them up with and a similar thing can be said for asparagus. I like that chef Jorge hadn’t gone for the traditional bearnaise or hollandaise, He instead pairs it with a celery root and butter purée.
“It’s simple but I love soft purées with earthy flavors”, the chef told me.
It was what came with the cauliflower that made it so special as well. The perfectly cooked head (“not an easy task to get cauliflower to the exact tenderness” Don Day’s Wife told me) was on a bed of puréed cauliflower, onions, garlic and light cream and topped with almonds, pistachios, and…in a very bold move by the chef…cacao nibs.
“This dish rivals, perhaps even surpasses, Casa Blanca’s roasted cauliflower dish”, said Don Day’s Wife. “With the addition of that purée, you could almost convert me into a vegetarian.”
It is nigh on impossible for me to avoid blood pudding when it’s on offer at a taco stand. But this was my first opportunity to have it with a roof over my head. Bastardo serves it with grilled tomatoes and a poached egg. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste but I’m just crazy about the spicing that’s used in blood pudding and, with a hint of what I think was hierba buena, this was one of the best I’d had.
I mentioned the roof over our head. It’s a tin roof, for Bastardo is a casual restaurant. But it’s a casual yet still classy restaurant.
The steak knives are Languiole. The napkins are cloth. The water comes in a decanter (without any attempt to sell you water that comes in a bottle). The ice cubes stay on the table, in a bucket with tongs. The lighting is senior friendly. As is the music (CSNY, Van Morrison, Harry Chapin, James Taylor).
We were humming along with “A Horse With No Name” when the mains arrived but I was also thinking can the kitchen keep up the sky-high standards they’ve set with the starters. Burgers, fries and chicken…there aren’t too many better judges of a chef’s talents. For three of the easiest things to do are three of the most difficult things to do very well.
I would say you have about a 70% chance in a restaurant of receiving a burger how you asked for it done. So far, Bastardo is sitting 100%. We asked for medium; they delivered medium.
The meat was extremely beefy which usually means that the lean/fat ratio is higher than usual on the fat side but there was something richer to the taste of Bastardo’s pattie. The menu tells you the cut is short rib and also mentions veal stock. After the lunch, I asked Chef Jorge what his secret was. He told me, “I simply use one part of 70/30 mix and one part of lean.”
The bun was a home-baked brioche, not usually a favorite burger bun, especially with Don Day’s Wife. But the chef had gone light on the sugar content in the dough so this brioche did work.
The cheese was cheddar. The toppings were minimal. You don’t want to fight with a good piece of meat.
Chefs have told me that it is impossible to make great fries with the local potatoes we call “Mexican whites”. Chef Jorge has a solution. Don’t even try to make them in the thin cut, double-fried French style. Instead, Jorge cuts them in wedges and, “I preboil the potato but, since I don’t have a deep fryer, I bake them with garlic oil”. The result: fries with one of the best tastes and textures you’ll find in San Miguel.
Don Day’s Wife and I rarely order chicken when we’re out but Mark and Nikol did so I was able to steal a piece. My thigh was very juicy and the rub enhanced rather than overwhelmed the taste of the meat.
“The chickens are butchered daily for me, deboned entirely except for the wing bone”, said chef Jorge What impressed me most though was the sweet purée of local, heirloom carrots that formed a nest for the bird.
There are two desserts on the menu and, based on the tightness of our belts, we decided on just one single order to share of what the menu calls French toast and I wandered over to the waiter’s service window to watch the chef create the ensemble.
My only problem with the dish turned out to the name of it. I was expecting but not particularly looking forward to bread dipped in egg, fried and topped with syrup. What I got was something far better. Cinnamon brioche, lavender ice cream (yes, made in-house), hazelnut whipped cream, caramelized bananas, grated hazelnuts, and fresh spearmint. It was a fine finale to a memorable meal and I had to share my enthusiasm with the chef.
“I thought everything was superb”, I told him. “The imaginative dishes were brilliantly executed and presented. From this one lunch, I already consider you one of San Miguel’s finest chefs.”
I wanted to know more about him.
The chef told me his full name was Jorge Avendaño, his wife was Aida García and that he’d been cooking for fourteen years.
“I worked mostly in Mexico City opening more than five restaurants, from a bistro to a ramen joint”, said Jorge. “I was in Montreal for a while and did a term at Noma (rated in those days the number one restaurant in the world) in Copenhagen.”
“I’ve loved SMA forever. I have good memories with friends here a long time ago and we liked the idea of starting over again. We’re on the way to Dolores honestly because of the rent and I love open air restaurants, no walls.”
“At Bastardo, most vegetables and all of the eggs are organic from Lepperoni’s farm, hand-picked by Luciano (the server that Nikol referred to as “such a delightful man” on our way out) and I. By the end of the year I expect to have 100% of our products grown, raised, and made strictly in San Miguel.”
There was one more question I had to ask Jorge Avendaño. I had to know why he would name his restaurant Bastardo. Did he consider the restaurant his love child? Or is he who is the scoundrel, the rogue, the rascal?
“Bastardo for me is a ‘rebel’ condition in which someone doesn’t recognize…strict, militarized kitchen work, lots of hours…I’m not exactly into that”, said Jorge. “I think making great food consists of loving the place you work at and doing what you want.”
I still wasn’t totally sure what the chef was trying to say with his choice of restaurant names. But I do know that what Jorge Avendaño chooses to make is what I want to eat.
Bastardo is located on Carretera San Miguel de Allende – Dolores Hidalgo km 7.4 about ten minutes outside of Centro in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Saturday from 1:00 to 8:00 pm, Sunday from 1:00 to 6:00 pm.