Monday, January 30, 2017

Taking a Bite out of San Miguel de Allende: The Best Chefs and Restaurants of 2016

2016 was the year to be in SMA. With the addition of so many good restaurants, you could eat your way through a 4 week stay and never go to the same place twice.

Then there are those of us who live here. Some of us get stuck on a few good restaurants and never go anywhere else. 2017 is the year to break out of your restaurant rut. When a new restaurant opens, give them time to work out the kinks. One of the restaurants on our list below got spotty reviews the first month they were open. Into the second month, the management worked out the service issues. It’s one of our favorite restaurants.

When we walk into a restaurant, we have no expectations. We’re totally open to every eating out experience we’re fortunate enough to have. In 2016, there were over 600 of them. Eating out is entertainment - someone cooks for you and you don’t have to do the dishes afterwards. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

Some people buy art or collect cars; we eat. We eat with all of our senses; we’re passionate about great food. We like cooking at home almost as much as we love going out to eat. We try to order something different every time we go out. That doesn’t always work; we have our favorites too. Dishes like Chef Matteo Salas’s duck breast in champagne sauce at Aperi or Chef Marco Cruz’s blue mushrooms with miso and mezcal sauce at Nomada cocina de interpretacion feed our soul. We read cookbooks like novels, research recipes and get excited when we talk about ingredients. When it comes to getting them, we’re delighted with all the purveyors that were added to SMA’s source list last year. We think high-quality ingredients are worth the price; we can taste the difference.

Some say its people and circumstances that make a great restaurant experience and we don’t disagree. Although we place a great deal of importance on getting good service when we go out, to tell you the truth, for us, it’s always about the food. The mark of an exceptional restaurant is one that delivers great food every single time. We’ve had fabulous dinners in five star restaurants but have also eaten meals at taco carts and tiny palapas that we believe are some of the best we’ve ever had. If the food isn’t good, it doesn’t work for us.

After traveling this past year, we’re convinced that San Miguel de Allende has some of the best restaurants in the Mexico, some of them world class. Here are our picks for the Best Chefs and Restaurants of 2016.
Next week, from agave spirits to vegetarian, a list of where to get some of best food in SMA.  

Buen Provecho!

Best Chef: Chef Matteo Salas, Aperi and Jacinto 1930 AND Chef Marco Cruz, Nomada cocina de interpretacion
Either you have it or you don’t. These two have it. For anyone who has experienced the pleasure of dining at Chef Matteo Salas’s Aperi or Jacinto 1930 or at Nomada cocina de interpretacion with Chef Marco Cruz, the reasons are obvious. Every meal we’ve had with these two chefs was a sensuous feast, cooked with the very best, quality ingredients, many of them local. They embrace tradition, applying contemporary, innovative techniques in their cooking. The results are beyond ordinary; in most cases brilliant. They are masters; elevating flavors to new heights. We continue to be fascinated by their method of interpreting ingredients. The flavor of their vegetables and sauces are like nothing you’ve ever had before. They’re both risk takers, knowing instinctively what foods compliment others. Creative and passionate, their staff adores them. Eat with either one of them and you’ll swear you just had the best culinary experience in San Miguel de Allende. And you did!
Best Restaurateur: Donnie Masterton, The Restaurant, Birdie’s Burgers, Taco Lab and El Vergel Bistro and Market
The expansion of Chef Donnie Masterton’s culinary reach this past year includes Birdie’s Burgers, Taco Lab – partnering with San Francisco based pal Joe Hargrave of Tacolicious - and El Vergel Bistro and Market, teaming up with Houston Harte and Daniel Hernandez. It doesn’t stop there; Masterton is building another restaurant that will open this year. He’s also planning on creating a sustainable ranch to provide for his restaurants.
You’ll never get bored with his food; he changes up the menus constantly. One of the most memorable meals of 2016 was at The Restaurant on Thanksgiving Day. He has trained many of the staff working at other restaurants and has looked after his own staff – Chef Sandor Emmanuel Rodriguez Schwartz and Chef Gabriela Hernandez Aguilar have both been there for years. He revealed his comical side in an amusing video, Chef’s Night Out. He’s was one of the first Chefs in SMA to work with local farmers, ranchers, cheese makers and vineyards to seek out the highest quality ingredients. He planted a rooftop garden where we’re hoping he’ll put in SMA’s first solo dining experience. The best wine and food pairing we had in 2016 was at The Restaurant. He’s continually hosting fundraisers and is also an accomplished DJ. He’s recognized for his pop up dinners around the globe. He and his fiancée, Angela Lewis Serrano, run one of SMA’s most popular food festivals, Sabores San Miguel.

Nobody we know has more fun cooking…or opening restaurants.  
Best Private Chef Michael Coon, Casa de Cocinas

Many of the best meals we had in 2016 were in Chef Michael Coon’s kitchen, Casa de Cocinas, including terrific Asian, which is impossible to find in SMA. Well-known for his famous themed dinners and culinary tours, Chef Michael Coon has traveled all over the world with many of the top chefs as former director of the International Travel Programs at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He’s the founder of the Calle SMA Street Food Festival for Feed the Hungry. He was recently featured – twice - in the Atencion, SMA’s weekly, bilingual newspaper. His customers love his laid back style and his knowledge of world food. He’s got the inside scoop on where to eat in Mexico; one of the many reasons people go on his tours. You could do the tours on your own but then you wouldn’t be standing in the kitchens of Chef Eduardo García or Chef Rodolfo Castellano if you did.
Best Pastry Chef: Sofia Antillon, Nomada cocina de interpretacion
We’re convinced that Chef Sofia Antillon has superpowers. One of the most accomplished pastry chefs in SMA, Sofia is blessed with exceptionally high standards. All of Sofia’s desserts are exquisitely balanced, applying imagination with complex flavors and combinations. She continually surprises us with her creations, some of them whimsical like the one we refer to as her “party on a plate.” A featured chef at the SMA Food festival last year, she wowed the guests at the chefs table with her Pavola. It’s our favorite dish too, along with at least two dozen others. She’s managed to hit every one of our sweet spots and kept us on a sugar high all last year. She also prepared some of the healthiest desserts during our three week detox last year.
Best Beverage Director /Mixologist: Adrian Garcia Evans
The creator of Monkey Mixology, this Welch born beverage director crafted the imaginative drink menus for Dos Casas, Aperi, Cumpanio and Jacinto 1930, offering unconventional cocktails, like this Mole Martini. Want to discover a gin that doesn’t taste like gin? Adrian came up with an agave based Onilikan gin, a 2015 Gold Metal Winner at the SF World Spirits Competition. He’s also the architect of the best hot chocolate we’ve ever had; a combination of Baileys, hot chocolate, cookie butter and cajeta cream.
One thing for sure: drinking without him would be a lot less fun. 
Best Female Chef: The Female Chefs of SMA AND The Maestras: SMA’s Culinary Pioneers

We spent the better part of 2016 working on two in-depth articles: The Female Chefs of San Miguel de Allende and The Maestras: San Miguel de Allende’s Culinary Pioneers.

We salute all of the beautiful, passionate, strong, confident, educated, articulate, doubly committed, and accomplished women who taught us everything about commitment… and the San Miguel spirit.
Best Loved Chef: Gloria Espinosa Briseno, Tacos Don Felix
Gloria Espinosa Briseno of Tacos Don Felix flashes one of her contagious smiles and you can't help but smile back. She’s the chef you want to call a friend. Armed with an abundance of charisma, she’s a classic cook turned chef who has earned the respect of everyone in SMA. Known for her enchiladas and fish bowl size Margaritas, the restaurant is currently celebrating its ninth year. During the week, Gloria and her staff also serve over five hundred meals to local high school students. My favorite dish, Enchiladas Gloria (chicken and pork topped in red and green sauce), is named in her honor.
Rising Star: Chef Cecy Alvarez, MiVida Restaurant
Keep an eye on Chef Cecy Avarez; she’s going places! We had a renewed love affair with MiVida this past year. Training under two of the best chefs in town, Greta Ortega and Davide Giribaldi, we had at least a dozen meals at MiVida in 2016 and Chef Cecy Alvarez always brought something new to the table. Tell her to surprise you and you’ll see how talented she is. On the top of her game, she presents original dishes that keep us coming back for more. From her appetizers to the desserts, we think her food is some of the best in SMA.
Best Young Chefs: Chef Alonso Dominguez, neXtia and Chef Luis Pablo Dominquez, La Canica
Being a chef is in their DNA; father Bricio Dominguez, one of the best-known chefs in SMA, helped put Guanajuato state on Mexico’s culinary map. Bricio owns five restaurants: El Jardin de los Milagros, La Canica, neXtia, 13 Cielos and Pimienta Negra. From  Alonso’s Lamb with mashed membreo, mashed sweet potato, plums, peach, mashed onion, chocolate air and tamrind sauce to Luis Pablo’s Lechon cooked 12 hours and sealed in garlic oil with a yam and pumpkin gel and red fruits Mole, their food is both original and exciting. We can’t wait to see what these two brothers are going to do in 2017. Stay tuned.
Chef of the Year: Chef Armando Prats
He’s a chef’s chef and always on assignment, unless of course you need something. Last year, he put together a team of chefs to travel half way around the world to cook at a 10 day wedding in India. He selected the chefs to present at the SMA Food Festival and will do so again this year. Chef Prats also opened a new restaurant, OMA, located in the Los Frailes neighborhood, renowned for the salt crusted prime rib on Wednesday nights. Popular, charismatic, influential and charming, what makes him authentic is that he’s put in all the years of hard work. He’s earned respect by serving it up himself. He’s our pick for SMA Chef of the Year in 2016.
Best Restaurant: Nomada cocina de interpretacion
Plating food is an art but making food taste this good is magical! We eat with our eyes first so I am, as a rule, impressed with presentation. Everything that comes out of the kitchen at Nomada is visually picture perfect. The flavors surprise you; the meal you’re currently eating is better than the last one you ate there. Chef Marco Cruz guides a well orchestrated team, alongside Pastry Chef Sofia Antillon and protégé Pablo Nicacio. Together, they push all the boundaries, using ingredients in ground-breaking ways, like a slice of cecina in place of an ordinary tostada. A favorite dish, Pork Belly Ramen, is transcendental. Their Wednesday night tasting menu is legendary and the Monday night street food offerings are affordable, inspired and delicious. The first-rate service, frequently provided by Gabriel Avila, who has also mastered the art of creating cocktails that rise above the predictable, is some of the best in town. Their knowledge on the origin of ingredients is astonishing. The entire Nomada team takes their position in the tiny, open kitchen and delivers food that will convince you that you do not need to look any further for your favorite restaurant town. Nomada is it… for the second year in a row. 
Best New Restaurant: Jacinto 1930
The year 1930 marked a decade of reform in Mexico and this restaurant hits all the high notes when it comes to creating Mexican food that is inspired, marking the cultural diversity of Mexico. With the first maize station in SMA, Oaxacan born Chef Luvia Esmeralada de la Rosa, handcrafts fresh tortillas with incomparable flavors and texture. Chef Israel Loyola, also born in Oaxaca, collaborates with Chef Matteo Salas to produce a menu that is authentically Mexican, made with the best ingredients of the region. The drink menu is exciting.  Produced by Welch born Beverage Director Adrian Evans, it combines the very best of Mexican spirits with European accents.
We think Jacinto 1930 is Chef Salas’s signature restaurant. The contemporary design and open kitchen are set off by an abundance of natural light that adds to the character of the space. It’s equally beautiful at night. Accenting the stunning architecture are the simple, copper lamps, designed and made by the Chef Salas’s brother Lucca.
Finally, an exceptional Mexican restaurant in SMA. We love Jacinto 1930 for everything it is…and then some.  
Best Rooftop Restaurant: Quince
With in-your-face views of the Parroquia, we savor everything about this beautiful rooftop restaurant, especially the food created by Chef Gonzalo Martinez. The short ribs are the best in town. His desserts are textbook sweet and savory; take your pick of a moist corn cake or an attractive plate of sugar-coated bunuelos. This chef has breathed life into some pretty straightforward dishes. He’s consistently turning out eye-catching food that tastes nothing like any of the other spots in town. We like his style and love the fact that we can’t predict what will come out of his kitchen next. The service is exceptional; we were impressed when the waiter refolded our napkin when we got up to take a photograph.

Quince recently finished a gorgeous upper deck, which is showcased by a table that seats fourteen. It’s straight out of Martha Stewart and pockets a different view of SMA’s stunning landscape.
Best New Space: Café Muro, Calle San Gabriel #1 in El Obraje

Take one look at this gorgeous place and you’ll want to hang out here forever. It’s one of the most beautiful restaurants in SMA. Bringing the outside indoors, the space is full of light, with patios and views that are set off by the curved glass wall in back. It’s a quick 10 minute walk from town. A work in progress, your host Gerardo Arteaga, will also be building a beautiful park near the restaurant. The El Obraje neighborhood continues to grow; LIVE AQUA San Miguel de Allende hotel, a new luxury hotel and state-of-the-art complex will be built close by. This restaurant has consistently good food; we’re especially devoted to the breakfasts, both traditional Mexican and American and the cream cheese cupcakes for dessert. It’s been a favorite in SMA for a long time. It’s now one of our favorites too.
Best Restaurant Outside Centro: Trattoria da Laura a Los Mezquites
Chef Laura Buccheri’s Trattoria da Laura a Los Mezquites is one of our much-loved sanctuaries in the campo. The restaurant serves authentic, Italian flavors straight from their garden to your plate. The dishes will convince you that this is the only comfort food you’ll ever want or need. The beautiful views of the countryside are secondary only to the food; from the homemade cocoa tagliolini with walnuts, gorgonzola sauce and mesquite smoked bacon to the creamy, to the bacon-laden Carbonara (it’s always about the bacon isn’t it?) and the satisfying desserts. Straightforward flavors transport you to Laura’s homeland of Sicily. Ask for a one way ticket. Every time we go, we’re tempted to stay. Not a bad thing but Laura’s husband Justin Marino is likely to put you to work with the cheese making, sold under their La Cucina di Afrodita brand. Right now they make thirteen different types of cheese along with homemade sausages, Italian breads and Limoncello.
People’s Choice Restaurant: Aguamiel
We love everything about Aguamiel and the formula is simple. Gaby Green is one of the best chef’s in SMA and reliably delivers dishes that are down-to-earth and delicious – from a chilaquile tower with two different sauces to her already famous BBQ ribs. Jennifer Posner has the marketing and service down to a science. She orders wines from small producers that are both complex and affordable. Their popular, early bird special (Happy Hour) from 3:00 – 5:00 PM includes a soup or salad, a main course and a margarita, beer soda or ice tea for $200 pesos. Guaranteed to deliver a punch, we also fell in love with their Jalapeno Margarita, our pick for the best Margarita in SMA in 2016.

Together, they are the best restaurant team in SMA. But then…you already knew that. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Taking a Bite out of San Miguel de Allende: The Best of 2016

Things have changed since I came to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) back in June, 2013 and started writing about food. Time flies when you’re busy eating and what seems like a long time ago has done a 180 in the blink of an eye. The food scene back then was owned by a few chefs and a handful of restaurants. 2016 changed all that with restaurants opening almost every week. Much to our disappointment, not all of them survived.

SMA is now one of the top destinations in Mexico for food. Every day, someone is discovering what we already know: SMA is a great place to eat.

The city of SMA continued to receive awards in 2016: The best city of Mexico, Central and South America and third in the world byTravel and Leisure magazine and fifth in the world at Conde Nast Traveler. Chefs and restaurants acquired them as well; Chef Matteo Salas winning Best Chef during the Food and Travel Readers Awards, along with other major awards.
The opening of the year was unquestionably Sally and Roy Azar’s stylish food and shopping complex, Doce 18, which added notable restaurants like Chef Matteo Salas’s Jacinto 1930 and Daniel Estebaranz’s farm-to-table restaurant ,Milpa. Redefining fast food was Chef Donnie Masterton. His restaurants in the complex, Birdies Burgers and Taco Lab, put us back in touch with reality; finally, a good hamburger, fries and a shake along with a trio of hard shell tacos overstuffed with carnitas, short rib and fish. I’ll confess now that I tried them both in one seating the first day they opened. Chef Masterton is currently building another restaurant, scheduled to open this year.

In 2016, our appetite for new restaurants was insatiable. Rooftops like Quince emerged, where Chef Gonzalo Martinez surprises us every time we go there. Antonia’s Bistro also provided a new look at SMA’s magnificent panorama, along with a flavorful food selection and a not-so-usual assortment of agave drinks.

Café Muro moved into an incredible new space, showcased by a curved, floor-to-ceiling glass wall, old-time favorite Ole Ole reopened, Luna de Queso kicked off a much welcomed eatery and grocery in the center of town, along with Vino + Tapas, Ba-Bite, La Crepe du Chef, Pork Belly, Fat Boys, CARNEVINOGrill, and the latest opening, Marsala, cocina con acentos and Yaya’s by Marsala take out, who are currently collecting five star ratings from their ravenous fans.
Outside of Centro, El Vergel Bistro and Market and Trattoria da Laura a Los Mezquites launched sanctuaries to escape our daily routine. The Los Frailes neighborhood also got a restaurant; Chef Armando Pratt’s OMA, where you can find salt crusted prime rib on Wednesday nights. So it goes with restaurants and private chefs traveling to the campo for the drop-dead gorgeous views.
One of our favorite cheap eats, El Pato Barbacoa and Mixiotes, keeps climbing the list on Trip Advisor, currently #26 and our favorite SMA dive, El Tucan, created a salsa from a single chili that we think is one of the best in town, along with their flautas.
Some of the greatest things to eat are close to home. We found the best bread in SMA at tiny La Crepe du Chef. Max bakes a cheese and bacon variety that never seems to make it home in one piece, despite the fact that we live just 2 blocks away.
Taking us to new heights, we foraged for mushrooms in the mountains of Santa Rosa de Lima and filled our bottles with a terrific orange-flavored mezcal at the only bar in town for under 100 pesos. It’s one of our favorite day trips with mushroom specialist, Arif Towns Alonso.
One of our best finds last year was the pizza at MiVida. Celebrating their 7th anniversary, it WAS one of the best kept secrets in SMA, along with their garden out back. We also delighted in finding the Mexican version of Bananas Foster at Buenos Aires Bistro, where Chef Mariano Alverez masters grilled meats.
Many of the market openings in 2016 offered high-quality ingredients. Mercado Sano continues to grow with the Saturday Organic market (TOSMA) moving there this past fall. The market is also home base for a new chapter of the International Slow Food Movement.
Food festivals also filled our year with some of the bests: we discovered the best tequila we’ve ever had, Chula Parranda Tequila, the cuisine of Tabasco, Mexico in the cooking of Nelly Cordova Morillo and Lupita Vidal Aguilar and enjoyed some of the best oysters in Mexico at the SMA Food Festival.
Another SMA favorite, Sabores San Miguel, gave us the chance to sample foods from many of SMA’s best restaurants. Half of SMA showed up for the feast and to sample the best dish of any festival this past year, Chef Donnie Masterton’s Lamb Shawarma.

A few other highlights this past year to put on your list for 2017: the San Lucas Fiesta de la Vendimia for the grape crush, the Lamb and Mezcal Festival, where  we were a judge, and the National Wine and Cheese Festival in the colorful little town of Tequisquiapan.
In 2016, ingredients continue to be powerful, giving us plenty of food for thought. Chef Marco Cruz turned just-picked Lactarius indigo into perfection by topping them with a miso and mescal sauce; further distinguishing great food from good. Fennel, coriander and arugula flowers are ingredients that Chef Matteo Salas turns into magical morsels to feed the soul. We also had a braised Oxtail Ravioli at Aperi that I dream about to this day. Both chefs set the bar a lot higher in 2016.
Restaurants and chefs also raised their own game, getting just right shots that did justice to their food. Mouth-watering photos surfaced everywhere on social media; so much so that the group over at Cumpanio, Dos Casas and Jacinto 1930 hired a digital media person this past month.
Cupcakes and Crablegs also had a great year. Extended trips to Oaxaca and Lima taught us a lot about foods, including that there are some foods SMA just does better than anywhere else.

Eating over 600 meals out last year, we uncovered many restaurants that surprised and delighted us. We also attended the largest food festival in Latin America, MISTURA. Last year, we were privileged to finally meet the “Julia Child of Mexico”, Diana Kennedy, fulfill the lifelong goal of cooking with Susana Trilling at Seasons of My Heart in Oaxaca and met many other celebrated chefs from this part of the world including Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz of Central, Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar, Chef Micha Tsumura of Maido and Top Chef Mexico Rodolfo Castellano of Origen Oaxaca.

The best meal we ate outside of SMA last year was at Maido, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in Lima owned by Chef Micha Tsumura. In fact, it was the best lunch we’ve ever eaten anywhere; all 10 courses.

We also loved the food at Origen Oaxaca from Chef Rodolfo Castellano. Food is the reason we travel.

We were featured in the Atencion’s article on Bloggers in San Miguel ( registered over one million hits back in July, thanks to our loyal readers.

On our annual detox last year, we had one of the best chefs in town cook for us; 3 week of healthy eating at Nomada cocina de Interpretacion. We were grateful when many food lovers in town jumped onboard for the detox and discovered just how great Nomada’s food is. Nomada is celebrating their first anniversary on January 30th.
We spent the better part of 2016 working on two in-depth articles: The Female Chefs of San Miguel de Allende and The Maestras: San Miguel de Allende’s Culinary Pioneers and salute all fifty beautiful, passionate, strong, confident, educated, articulate, doubly committed, and accomplished women we interviewed. They defined our year.

We take pleasure in providing a lot of useful information for both locals and tourists. We gave tips on eating out and two things stand out: Always call to find out if the chef is in the kitchen and rely on food bloggers for the most current information when traveling. We regularly contact them before we hit the road in search of the next best meal.

Our 3-part review will begin next week with the Best Chefs, Best Restaurants and Best Food in San Miguel de Allende from 2016. Come hungry; we'll provide the visuals.

¡Buen provecho!