It was always an awkward space. It was plunked between a bakery, a hotel, some upscale boutiques and a hallway that led to a usually empty Mezcal bar, then opened into a mall-style food court with all but two of the tenants (Birdie’s Burgers and Tacolicious) constantly changing. Perhaps it never did stand much of a chance. The venue attempted a few changes, including building a mostly glass wall that helped separate the restaurant from the inquisitive eyes of the tourist traffic that strolled by. But despite a celebrated chef and some extraordinarily good food, the almost never busy restaurant, Jacinto 1930, closed its doors a few weeks ago. I thought of asking the owners (they’ve elevated another property, Matilda, into one of Mexico’s most-celebrated hotels) exactly why they shut it down but then I thought better of it. Instead I’ll share Don Day’s Wife opinion:
“I don’t think people were ready to pay for fine dining in what looked like a school cafeteria.”
Replacing Jacinto 1930 in the century old building, formerly known as Cohen’s Hardware Store and now known as Dôce 18, is Oli Tapas, “a new gastronomic concept by Chef Vicente Torres” an email told me. Might this be Vicente Torres, the former Michelin-starred chef? OK, I’m intrigued. OK, I’m going.
I was glad that I didn’t see the words Vicente Torres on any signage, on any menus, or anywhere else in the restaurant. I like kitchen chefs, not celebrity chefs. I like chefs that spend at least a few days a month at the restaurants with their names on them. Oli’s manager, Luigi Tumoletti, told me that, in fact, the Spanish chef who also heads Garum in Mexico City had been there for the last four days and would be returning to Oli on Sunday.
Oli Tapas doesn’t look much different than Jacinto 1930 did. So if the look of the restaurant did, in fact, help to put a nail in Jacinto 1930’s coffin, survival may be a challenge. There is a difference at Oli Tapas though and it’s a sizeable difference. Oli has gone more downscale. The menu focuses more on comfort food. The placemats and napkins are paper not cloth. And there’s a much more casual and relaxed air amongst the staff.
I always liked the interior of the space. I was fond of the natural light from the skylights and the surrounding distressed/industrial look. I was pleased to see that the classy and comfortable furnishings, triangular patterned floor and hammered copper lamps had been retained. The picture windows are also still there though, so eating at Oli Tapas is still a spectator sport for the window shoppers who walk by while you’re eating.
What you’ll be eating is fairly evident from the name of the new restaurant and, though there are already two or three restaurants with Spanish tapas menus in San Miguel, there is definitely room for another tapas bar, especially a good one.
Oli’s menu is concise enough to be printed on your placemat. There’s a choice of seven cold and twelve hot tapas; three rice dishes, including the classic Paella Valencia from the town where chef Torres was awarded his Michelin star; two mains, a fish of the day (red snapper when we were there) baked in a salt crust and a t-bone steak; plus three desserts.
Don Day’s Wife and I decided to focus on what Oli focuses on, the tapas, for our first time at the restaurant. We like the concept of tapas, the ability to share so many tastes and textures without stuffing ourselves to the gills. We’re not crazy, however, about the Spanish tradition of eating tapas around 6:00 pm then eating again three or four hours later. We like to dine, heartily, not snack on tapas.
We liked the tapas list. A lot of the Spanish classics were there…ham croquettes, patatas bravas…but there were also words like wasabi and tamarindo that suggested a more international scope. We also liked what wasn’t on the tapas list; there were none of those little open-face sandwiches with things like jamon serrano and manchego cheese; even I can make those kind of tapas. We liked the prices; we could put our own tasting menu together for less than 300 pesos a person, that’s cheap in this town, these days.
Our first tapa was a tostada de atun marinado.
“A tuna tostada is a perfect dish to judge a restaurant by”, said Don Day’s Wife. “So often the tuna ends up vinegary but the marinade hasn’t overpowered this taste…and they’ve used a good quality tuna.”
Baby jalapenos, shaved onion rings, black sesame seeds and a wasabi mayo complemented the generous amount of fish. A paper doily accentuated the casual nature of the cuisine. And though it may seem unimportant, plaudits went to the texture of the tostada; it didn’t fall apart and leave half the toppings on our plate (or lap) at first bite.
Next up were the croquetas de jamón ibérico. A tapas feast just wouldn’t seem right without croquetas and a good one is judged by the inside and outside, by the crispy and the creamy. The best croquetas are almost always the lightest ones and Oli’s seemed weightless. The gooey interior was so rich I accused the kitchen of sneaking some cheese into the sauce but sous chef Miguel Espurza told me “no, it was just the traditional recipe”. The crunch of the golden batter was a delightful contrast.
We weren’t exactly sure what to expect from our next tapa. It was called bomba cola de res but all the Spanish we needed was that cola de res is oxtail and that’s one of the most flavorful parts of a cow. It was similar to a croqueta but with a more substantial crust. The amber-colored salsa was much more new than old world with serrano chiles being the most recognizable ingredient. It was a tapa we had never ever had before. It was a tapa we promised ourselves we would have again. Soon.
Our next choice was a dish that, in various forms, finds its way into a number of cuisines. In Asia, it’s salt and pepper squid. In Italy, it’s often part of frito misto. Oli calls their dish calamares, salsa limón y wasabi.
Sourcing squid is, perhaps, more important than cooking squid and, generally speaking, the smaller they are, the less rubbery they are. Oli’s calamare rings were tiny, plus there were lots of tentacles, so there was next to no chew necessary. The batter was light and fluffy with no greasy cooking oil taste. A just-right amount of wasabi cream, lemon zest and mini jalapeños topped the squid.
Sous chef Espurza told us we “definitely have to” and Oli manager Erik Cortez told us we “absolutely have to” try the taquito de lechón. We listened. We learned. We both agreed that the other four tapas were all worthy of being headliners but this was the star attraction.
The sweetest, juiciest, most luscious young pig was chopped and formed into a rectangle, then topped with a salty pork rind crust. On the side was an orange wedge that came with instructions from our waiter: “Don’t squeeze the orange, eat it.” We did and we also decided we would have Oli’s taquito de lechón again. Very soon.
Don Day’s Wife and I almost never eat dessert at lunch (and Don Day’s wife almost never at all) and there was nothing on the description of the three postres on the placemat…strawberries and cream, chocolate cake, mandarin cheesecake…that had us particularly excited. Then Chef Espurza started to describe the cheesecake and we could see the pride on his face, hear the excitement in his voice. I asked if I could watch him make it.
Forming the base on the dusted green plate was a crumbled brownie and, in the center of it, a truffle-like, gooey chocolate cream. Next, came daubs of citrus jelly that were reminiscent of the filling in a lemon meringue pie.
Finally, a mandarin-sized and colored ball was feathered into position and topped with a sprig of spearmint. Don Day’s Wife was humming Carly Simon’s Anticipation as we broke open the orange crust. I was so happy that inside was not some exotic filling but traditional, New York style cheesecake.
I was trying to think about how to sum up our tapas lunch at Oli and thought I’d simply tell you about the last thing Don Day’s Wife and I did before we left the restaurant. We made a reservation for lunch the following week. Enough said?
Oli Tapas is in the interior of Doce 18, located at Calle de Relox 18 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Monday to Thursday, 1:00 to 9:00 pm; Friday and Saturday, 1:00 to 11:00 pm; and Sunday 1:00 to 7:00 pm.