Monday, November 21, 2011

New demographics, new menu

Contributors to the Civil List, the local internet bulletin board for San Miguel expats, frequently drool and rhapsodize about a new dining discovery, a place with better fish than any in San Francisco or steaks every bit as tasty as those in Houston or Omaha. The raves keep flowing like bad coffee at a roadside diner even though, really, restaurants in San Miguel--except for a few you can count with some of the fingers of one hand--range from just "OK" to "fugetaboutit."

Many of the good ones, like Doña Diabla, a tiny Oaxacan joint run by a young Mexican, for some reason open and shortly afterward fizzle. Or if they go on, the quality of the food and service are inconsistent.

Some of the Civil List posters even talk about San Miguel as a new gastronomic center of Mexico and a "heaven for foodies," forgetting many hardly-shabby restaurant towns like Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Yucatan and even Mexico City. Still, if not remotely world-class, our town's collection of ho-hum restaurants, and the few good ones, compare very favorably with nearby towns. Visit Celaya or even the state capital of Guanajuato, and you'll be singing hosannas to our local eateries on the way back, flawed as they may be.

On Friday, to celebrate Stew's Medicare birthday (65!), we went to a one-seating culinary extravaganza at the Hotel Matilda, featuring star chef Enrique Olvera, 33, of Mexico City's Restaurante Pujol.

Well, shush your mouth. The evening, though hardly a cheap treat, was memorable, from the setting, to the service, and certainly the food. It may also have been a preview of what San Miguel is becoming.

I don't know enough about high cuisine to say whether Olvera's cooking qualify as "molecular gastronomy," but some of the portions were so miniscule they may have qualified as "subatomic."

A tiny ear of corn at the end of stick, dipped in some exotic sauce that arrived in what seemed a hollowed-out pumpkin. A few sprigs of nopal cactus leaves with a dash of some intense dressing. A corn mushroom tamal, with a dollop of some sort of cream on top and a green tomato sauce on the side. For a "whaat?" touch, there was a taco, or more properly a taquito, with a fish called "escolar" and dusted with "ceniza," which means "ash." Ash on an oily fish we'd never heard about. Who knew? A really wonderful piece of slow-roasted lamb followed, and at the end came my favorite, an amazing dessert of glazed sweet potatoes in a sauce with four or five little cubes of white gelatin (according to Stew; the waiter didn't really know).

My consistent use of the singular throughout my description of the dishes is not an accident: These were single and very small servings of very nicely prepared food. Molecular gastronomy supposedly involves unusual treatments of ingredients, bordering on lab experiments. I don't know if Olvera's cooking qualifies as molecular, but it tasted wonderful. I'm certain he does not do bronco-busting steaks, Dallas-style, or two-kiloton deep-dish Chicago pizzas.

Matilda also was a revelation. It's one of several super deluxe hotels to open in San Miguel, with prices to match. This used to be the site of the Jacaranda, a tired hotel, in Mexican-rustic style, that showed movies every week for five dollars, one drink and a bag of popcorn included. Some weeks, the audience--mostly gringos--looked as old and tired as the hotel. Now Matilda is a super modern facility with a plexiglass roof over the outdoor dining area, automobile tires hanging in the lobby--and not a trace of the old Jacaranda or even anything remotely Mexican-looking.

The sell-out crowd was a revelation too. Only about 20 percent of it was foreign, judging from the rat-tat-tat of Spanish and the fashions in the room. Men wore casual-shabby jeans and dress shirts open to showcase the many hairy chests. Men were also accessorized with expensive watches and the ubiquitous iPhones. In the minimalist spirit of the evening women favored micro, high-water skirts. This was not just a dinner but a coming-out scene for well-to-do, 20- and 30-somethings from Mexico City, and possibly a snapshot of San Miguel's new crowd.

How much, you ask. About $175 US for the two of us, a hefty portion of which--our one complaint--went for six open-ended servings of liquor after every course. Because we don't drink, the waiter was kind enough to replace the alcohol with sodas and juices. But that still was way too much booze for a meal, enough in my opinion to muddle the taste of the lamb or the dessert.

A thin and quite attractive, older American woman sitting at the next table methodically posed during the earlier courses for pictures by her husband and a roving photographer, flashing a just-so smile while holding very non-molecular glasses of wine, also just-so. Alas, by the end of the meal her posing technique had crumbled a bit, as she leaned to and fro, like a palm tree after a hurricane.

2 comments:

  1. I fell into the trap of thinking San Miguel's food was glorious. Until I realized I was comparing it to the rather boring food of Melaque. San Miguel offered different cuisine. On reflection, it was not very good.

    But I did not come to Mexico for the food -- or the weather. Both of which are less than satisfying. Fortunately, there are restaurants in Mexico City that allow me to appreciate the fact that food can be a pleasure -- and not a drudgery.

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  2. Agree with you on that. For our money the best food in Mexico is in Oaxaca, where it's almost impossible to have a bad meal. Plus the dishes are original, rather than the usual "green or red enchiladas?"

    Happy Thanksgiving.

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