I have a new date restaurant. “A date restaurant?”, you might be asking. Yes, a date restaurant, not just somewhere you go to eat interesting, well-prepared food but a very special place to visit. A place where you might even suffer a suit jacket and uncomfortable shoes. A place where the style, atmosphere, class, ambience and service are almost as important as the imaginative food. A place that might just, for Don Day’s Wife and I, become “our place”.

The restaurant is called Santiago & Macarena Cocina Contemporánea. I know, a bit of a mouthful but, so far, I’ve resisted the temptation to shorten it to S&M.

The chef/owners are Santiago Hiriart and Macarena Gomez, so this is obviously a chef-driven restaurant. Unlike many chef-driven restaurants, however, Santiago & Macarena has not made the mistake of negating the importance of the front-of-house position. They have hired a very charming, very efficient and very likeable woman called Eugenia Torres.

My date for my first visit to Santiago & Macarena was not Don Day’s Wife but the very discerning, now retired California chef Mark Tamiso.

Mark is a great first date at a restaurant because Mark has a lot of things to say about his first time at any restaurant. If I don’t have too many opinions, I know Mark will.

We were a little early for our date so Eugenia suggested we have a drink in the bar. The bar is tiny and backlit. Just four comfortable stools. It reminded me of bars from decades gone by. Where one might have a secret rendezvous with a married woman. Where you might order a gin martini even though you hadn’t had one in years. And where the bartender would realize that you only wave the Vermouth bottle over the shaker, never actually pour any in.

The restaurant itself is in the courtyard of a nine room boutique hotel called Essentia that just seemed to appear overnight, right in the middle of Calle Mesones, right in the middle of San Miguel de Allende. The restaurant seats maybe 30 max, a nice number for a chef-driven restaurant, because it implies you’re not going to be lost, you’re going to be looked after, at some point you’re going to have that all-important moment where the chef, or in this case the chefs, will actually come out and acknowledge you.

I liked the menu from the first time I saw it online. It had a nod to the classics. French. Italian. A little bit of Mexican. A touch of Asian. It was short and it was sweet, sour, salty and savory.

There are a few dishes that are used as measuring sticks for a chef’s abilities. So Mark and I were both glad to see the quenelle on Santiago & Macarena’s menu. When an eager young rookie arrives in Lyon, France, a city some people call the culinary capital of the world, the quenelle will probably be part of their first semester.

“It may have also been at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America)”, said Mark, who had attended the school a few decades before Santiago Hiriart and Macarena Gomez.

A quenelle is a combination of creamed and finely-sifted fish that, like any poached dumpling, is measured partly by its lightness but mostly by the sauce that accompanies it. The sauce was very much Lyonnaise but, probably based on available ingredients, done with shrimp rather than crayfish. Huachinango (red snapper) replaced the usual pike in the dumpling, again I’m sure based on availability, and had the right balance of fishiness versus filler. A quenelle sauce should taste of seashell not seafood and again it worked.

“We’re one for one”, said Mark.

Next up was a dish called Pâté de Hongos con Trufa y Gelée de Whiskey on the menu. The consistency was so smooth, you could have almost called it a mousse. The meatiness in the taste came from using portabellos and shitakes. There was barely a hint of truffle but I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish where I’ve ever said there’s an adequate amount of truffle. The highlight of the pâté though was what sat on top, the boozy gelée. Aspic is tough to do without it being either too runny or too rubbery; this was perfect, as was the crusty sourdough that delivered it to our mouths.

“It’s baked in house”, said Eugenia Torres, “but, before that, the dough ferments for three days.”

“Two for two”, said Mark, “with the pâte now in the lead as the best thing in the house.”

Our third course was a simple one. Two greens, escarole and frisée, were topped with shaved carrot, fresh peas and watermelon radish plus a generous helping of aged parmesan. The dressing had Mark and I reminiscing about the bad old days of oversweet bottled dressings and one in particular that was considerably better than the rest. It came, not from Kraft (though they eventually acquired them), but from a company called Seven Seas and it combined anchovies, scallions, parsley, tarragon, mayonnaise, tarragon vinegar, and chives into something called Green Goddess. It was only when I got home and started writing this blog post and checked Santiago & Macarena’s online menu that I realized the dressing actually was the chef’s take on Green Goddess. Nice idea, nice tribute, I thought.

The salad was fine and the freshness and slight bitterness of the lettuces made it a good palate cleanser. If it had been my only course before the main, however, I think I would have wanted another starch or protein in the mix.

As the table was cleared and we awaited our mains, Mark and I’s minds strayed from the food as we began talking about the other pleasures of restaurant dining. Our servers, Joaquim and Victor, were smartly dressed in crisp white jackets. The cotton serviettes were twice the thickness of napkins in some other San Miguel restaurants. The hammered copper tables were left undraped and we liked them that way. Their colors blended well with the browns, tans, muted greys and blues that were used throughout the room.

The dishes were from Britain. The cutlery was from France. After each course, the crumbs were swept away into a handsome wooden box.

Santiago & Macarena is an upscale, sophisticated restaurant but Santiago & Macarena is also a casual, comfortable and unstuffy restaurant.

There are certain foods that require very little adornment, that can stand on their own with little accompaniment. A grilled fresh fish is one of those foods. The kitchen cooked the huachinango perfectly, the flesh still moist and firm, the skin fall-apart crisp.

The fish does come with a yellow pepper sauce but Chef Santiago Hiriart told me he keeps it to the side of the plate “so you can have as little or as much as you wish”.

Our other main was called lechón on the menu. That term implies a very young pig, one that is still being fed from a sow’s breast, but it seldom really is. The moistness and tenderness of this lechón confirmed this was definitely a suckling pig and when I asked Chef Macarena Gomez how old or, more appropriately, how young it was, she said, “You might not want to know”, which, I guess told me a lot.

“I love that the crispy fat and skin is still on it”, said Mark. “We usually lose it all to chicharron in this country.”

The ginger-soy sauce complimented but never overpowered the pork. The lechón was the highlight of the dinner. As much as I wanted to try so many other things on the menu, it would be hard to return for that special date with Don Day’s Wife and avoid reordering it as well as the mushroom pâté.

“Do you still have room for dessert”, said Chef Macarena. “There is something I definitely want you to try.”

“My parents called me the cookie monster when I was a kid because I constantly craved them”, Macarena continued. “I’m trying to recapture my youth with all of the cookies I loved.”

What arrived at our table was good but a bit over the top after so much other food. I promised myself a date with one or more of my grandaughters in the future where all we would order would be the milk and cookies. And then, maybe, we would order them all over again.

Santiago Hiriart and Macarena Gomez are man and wife. They met in New York at culinary school. I know that Santiago made the sauce for the lechón. I know that Macarena baked the cookies. The way they speak of the menu, though, I suspect many of the dishes are collaborative efforts. I like the way the chefs pay tribute to some of fine cuisine’s classic dishes, straying a little from historic recipes but never too far away. It’s also refreshing that Santiago and Macarena don’t seem overly influenced by the current culinary trends and, unlike many of their contemporaries, they don’t try to put smoke, foam and other effects on their plates simply for the showbiz.

One last comment and it’s a return to my plans to soon bring Don Day’s Wife to Santiago & Macarena, to perhaps even make it “our place” if my second time there is as good as my first. In addition to the food, the atmosphere, the service, etc., there’s one other influence on where we choose to eat, particularly when it’s what I call an upscale, a special restaurant. That influence, that major influence, is called price. There are other fancy restaurants in San Miguel de Allende where it’s difficult to find main courses under $400. There are other upscale restaurants where it’s impossible to find a wine under $1000.

I know what we’ll be starting with when I return to Santiago & Macarena with Don Day’s Wife. We’ll be starting with the $850 Prosecco or, even better, the $500 Cava. I’m not sure you can find a bottle of imported sparkling wine at twice that price in any of San Miguel’s other upscale restaurants.

Santiago & Macarena Cocina Contemporánea is located in the courtyard of Essentia Luxury Hotel, at Calle Mesones #63, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Thursday from 2:30 to 9:30 pm, Friday and Saturday from 2:30 to 10:00 pm, Sunday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm.

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