It seems hard to believe but, looking back to 15 years ago, I can’t recall a single Asian-influenced dish on any menu in San Miguel de Allende. Oh, there were Chinese restaurants and there was a Japanese restaurant. But none of those restaurants that added a splash of this, a hint of that, a sprinkle of this, or a pinch of that, ever took some familiar dish to unfamiliar new heights.
Then a guy called Donnie Masterton came to town and opened a restaurant called The Restaurant and added flavors like teriyaki, cumin, soy and ginger to an array of never-seen-before-in-this-town dishes. With many other plates and bowls, he elevated them to new heights by including Mexican spicing. For a few years, The Restaurant was the restaurant in this town. For foodies like myself, it was a weekly dose of culinary medicine.
Other restaurants followed, not necessarily copying The Restaurant, because the whole world was adding Asian and Mexican influences to their menus and, now, you’ll find many of those dishes that were on The Restaurant’s original menu…pork riblets, tuna tostadas, shrimp pot stickers…in restaurants all over San Miguel, all over Mexico, all over the world.
None of those other restaurants were considered, though, when it came to choosing where Don Day’s Wife and I would spend our last evening out in San Miguel before heading north to Toronto for the summer. Not that we’d been to many other restaurants during our four months here but I actually felt guilty for not making one, single visit to the first San Miguel restaurant that ever captured my heart and my palate.
It was an early Tuesday evening when we met good friends Stan and Peggy Jones at The Restaurant. Tuesday is, traditionally, the slowest night of the week for San Miguel eateries but The Restaurant was already almost half full, already had a bit of a buzz.
The look hasn’t changed in the 13 years that The Restaurant has been a San Miguel institution. There’s the same Moorish arches, the same greens climbing the walls, the same red rose petals floating in the fountain.
The menu hasn’t changed much either. I think Donnie Masterton has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude to what’s on the menu. And I think it’s an enviable attitude.
Chef Masterton told me, “It is in a constant state of change to some degree. We now have some menu items that are our signature dishes but in general we change one to two items every couple of weeks.”
The chef continued, “We rotate dishes that we have done already back into the menu. I think that is very important to teach our staff new things with food, wine and service. It helps to keep them motivated and stimulated.”
Ordering from the menu at The Restaurant is always the same old struggle. Do I safely order some old familiar favorite or do I trip the light fantastic (though I’m never quite sure what that phrase means) and try something brand new.
I still remember our first exposure to The Restaurant’s menu. The conversation went something like this:
Don Day: “Look at that salad. Kale and Brussels sprouts. Sounds like something my mother would serve to punish us. Who’s going to order that?”
Don Day’s Wife: “I am.”
“That salad is still the best selling starter”, Donnie Masterton told me. “I took it off the menu once and there was a huge uproar.”
“That and the proteins are rarely off the menu but we seasonally change the garnishes. Right now, for instance, the ribeye is served with asparagus and spring onions.”
“The short rib with mashed potatoes is one I wouldn’t dare take off the menu. Customers enjoy eating it. I love making it.”
Peggy Jones is one of those customers who enjoys Chef Donnie’s short rib braised in red wine. Peggy ordered it for her main course.
Before the mains though, we sampled a couple of the new starters.
I liked the way the beet salad allows you to individually savor and enjoy the separate components…red beets, scoops of avocado, orange and grapefruit sections, and roasted hazelnuts.
I’d seen beef carpaccio before on The Restaurant’s menu but tonight’s treatment was totally new to me. When I first saw the plate, I thought the taste of the beef filet might be drowned by the truffle ponzu. I was wrong. The meat, the mint and cilantro, the radish and sprouts, the shoestring potatoes and crispy shallots worked harmoniously with the sauce.
Another nice menu surprise was the possibility of now being able to also order from the menu of The Restaurant’s neighboring The Bar at the R. A warning that the long list of temptations is bewildering.
Our decision was to keep it down to one and chose the tonkotsu ramen, mainly because it’s such a great soup in the hands of a talented chef. The ramen was, of course, good, good to the very last drop.
A few years ago, Donnie Masterton added entrepreneur to his restauranteur credits and, one year ago, the chef was involved in seven different San Miguel food businesses…though a guy sporting a baseball cap, bushy beard, and two overflowing armloads of tats never looks quite right to me sitting down on a swivelled chair with wheels.
Covid times have not been kind times for any San Miguel restaurants and Donnie Masterton’s properties have not escaped its wrath. Donnie recently severed his relationship with Hotel Casa Blanca 7 and their restaurant, Fatima. His fast food businesses, Birdie’s Burgers and Tacolicious moved out of the food court at Doce 18; they’re both still in business but now operated out of The Restaurant’s main kitchen for pick-up and delivery only.
“We just couldn’t afford to give 35% to Uber Eats”, said the chef, “but we’ve got our eyes wide open looking for the right bricks and mortar.”
Meanwhile, El Vergel, the restaurant on the road to Dolores Hidalgo where Donnie Masterton is a partner and executive chef continues to attract a steady crowd and, if our dinner last week was any indication, the occupancy rate of bums on chairs at The Restaurant isn’t that far off pre-covid levels.
Back to that last snowbird dinner and what came out of The Restaurant’s kitchen, the main courses continued that 13-year tradition of superbly-crafted food and, as almost always, it was impossible to leave without sharing the burnt caramel sundae with marshmallow and peanuts.
In the film King Georges, Daniel Boulud says “…every ten years you have to destroy and change everything.” Daniel Boulud may be one of the world’s best chefs and most successful restauranteurs but his comment just doesn’t apply to The Restaurant.
When we return to San Miguel next October, I know where we’ll be eating our first dinner out. I’m confident that there will be something old, something new, and everything will be just as good as it was 13 years ago and has been every year since.
The Restaurant is located at Sollano 16 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It’s open on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday from Noon to 10:00 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday from Noon to 11:00 pm. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 415 154 7862.