It was a dazzling debut. Perhaps the best new restaurant to open in 2019.

It had all the ingredients for success in San Miguel de Allende. Or anywhere else. Sophisticated but casual. Classy but cozy. Trendy but traditional. Elegant but not expensive.

I only went to Santiago y Macarena twice. Before I got there a third time, I received a call from Santiago Hiriart, one half of the husband and wife team of owner/chefs. He told me our reservation had been cancelled. The curtain had come down. After just four months, the restaurant inside Hotel Essencia had gone dark. 

Chef Santiago was very forthcoming with the details. It was the most common reason. A disagreement between landlord and tenant. They had different ideas, wanted different concepts. There was no kicking and screaming. No nasty lawsuits. 

“It was done, time to move on”, said Santiago, “and there was good news. Macarena had found a new location that might be even better.”

I went to that new location last week. It is better.

Now imagine the transition for the couple. The original location of Santiago y Macarena was shuttered in early March of 2020. I will never in my life forget March, 2020. I’m sure you will never forget it. It was when I learned that new five-letter C word. When we began taking wardrobe advice from Zorro and The Lone Ranger. When the sun didn’t shine quite as often in my world and probably yours.

Now imagine the task of opening a new restaurant.

“Two weeks became four months”, the chef told me. “The city finally re-opened in mid-June and we opened our doors on July 10. It seemed like forever.”

“Things were OK at first. We were paying our bills, more than just getting by. Often on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday at lunch we had close to a full house. Recently though, in the last couple of weeks, things have gotten very quiet again.”

Santiago y Macarena, Act II, is in Casa Liza, one of San Miguel’s original B&Bs and now part of a small chain of boutique hotels. It’s a nice location to get to and even nicer when you get inside. Situated just around the corner from the end of Calle Recreo and steps from El Chorro and Parque Juarez, it’s walking distance from the jardin for those with sensible shoes (but, please, ladies, don’t stop wearing heels just for the experience).

I would call Santiago y Macarena’s new location a garden setting and, for a guy who writes as much about gardens as he does food, there are not too many places in the world I’d rather be. The two essentials for an outdoor SMA restaurant have been well looked after; there are umbrellas and heaters aplenty. The new standards for these troubled times: Distanced seating, hand sanitizers on each and every table, electronic menu; they’re all looked after. Some things though are still the same. The attractive furnishings, tableware, flatware and crisp white serviettes accompanied the chef/owners to the new location. As did most of their original menu and their superb culinary skills.

My eating-out habits have changed dramatically over the years. I used to be a three-courser…soup or salad, main and dessert, just like most of the rest of the world. Then tasting menus came along for fanatical foodies like me. Five, seven, nine…I’ve even seen (but didn’t partake in) a 24 course menu. I was thrilled to give up my overflowing troughs of pasta and 20 ounce ribeyes for small plates. 

These days my eyes barely travel past the appetizer section of the menu. I’d much rather have two appies than a main. Even better, I’d much rather split four appetizers with Don Day’s Wife. And that’s probably why I like Santiago y Macarena so much. Splitting four appetizers is exactly what Don Day’s Wife and I did on our first visit to their new home last week. It was delectable and affordable.

We started with the exact same dish as on my first ever (and second ever) visit to Santiago y Macarena, the French fine dining classic, the quenelle. In three words or less, a quenelle is a fish dumpling. But that’s just the centrepiece of this dish; it’s what tops and surrounds the dumpling that is the measuring stick.

I was hoping the quenelle would be as good as that first (and second) time. It wasn’t. It was better.

Since that first (and again second) time I had the restaurant’s quenelle, the fish has been changed from red snapper to striped bass. The shrimps have grown a little larger and firmer. But it was that shellfish sauce that really wowed me. Lunch or dinner at Santiago y Macarena begins with a mini loaf of bread and chive butter. Two slices were put to very good use mopping every trace of that sunset orangey pink from the plate.

Next up were tuna tostadas. There are probably at least ten San Miguel restaurants with tuna tostadas on their menu. But none I know of quite like Santiago y Macarena’s. The toast is extra thin and extra crispy, the kind that, if you’re not careful, might have you wearing the toppings. And those toppings? The tuna is kampachi, the responsibly-raised yellowtail, the one called the wonder fish; the accessories are grapefruit, beets and dill; the condiments are homemade mayo and ketchup, the ketchup based on a recipe from Katz’s Deli (with the addition of a little chile guajillo) that pays tribute to the five years that the chefs spent in New York City.

Back to the joy of sharing appetizers, The serving size of Santiago y Macarena’s tuna tostadas is extremely generous. There’s almost too much for one but a perfect amount to share with a partner.

The same can be said about the generous size of their steak tartare. It’s a little different from the traditional. There’s no raw egg yolk, no raw garlic clove, no overpowering taste of Worcestershire sauce.

The beef though is the traditional filet and the rye toast and pickled vegetables are there including some very tasty carrot tops. As usual, the condiment, in this case mustard, was created in kitchen.

Our finale came from a little further down the menu, from the Sopa, Pasta y Ensalada section. The word “cocotte” is included in its description. It’s a word I’m used to seeing only in fine French restaurants, particularly those blessed with Michelin stars. A dish prepared en cocotte, is cooked in a lidded, cast iron and enamelled pot. Santiago y Macarena’s cocotte features an unusual pairing, sweetbreads and scallops. They work. Particularly when they’re baked on a flaky puff pastry crust and topped with a demi-glace of parsley and dill.

We thought of ordering the burrata or perhaps a dessert but we were stuffed like Christmas birds. Four appetizers shared was perfect. Perfect for our tastebuds and our budget. I couldn’t imagine $720 (about $37 U.S.) being invested any wiser on fine dining.

Santiago y Macarena is offering a weekly three course menu during the pandemic but it’s much simpler than their regular offerings.

“Our menu doesn’t travel well. Much of the cooking is à la minute and needs to be eaten immediately. We have to rely on in-person dining to get through this, to survive”, said Chef Santiago.

Don Day’s Wife and I have already made a reservation for our next meal at Santiago y Macarena. Perhaps we’ll see you there?

Santiago y Macarena is located inside Hotel Casa Liza at Bajada del Chorro 7, Zona Centro, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday, from 12:30 to 10:00 pm, with last seatings at 8:00 pm. For reservations, telephone 415 688 3686.

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