Fed up with faux haute cuisine

And now a rant, of as the French might say, a cri de cœur, about all the pissiness that is swamping San Miguel, what with a boutique hôtel or some restaurant with haute cuisine delusions popping up practically on every corner.

Last week Stew, a friend and I went to a restaurant that had all the trappings of a haute cuisine restaurantmost notably the prices—but lacked the most important ingredient: memorable food.

Servers wore black uniforms, suggestive of a joint operated by the Viet Cong, and the small portions of “global cuisine” came decorated with dashes of unknown sauces that were served on plates the size of hubcaps. As Stew drolly observed, “The dishwashing bill must be killing them.”

Bon appetit. 

The ingredients were suitably exotic, such as “furikake-crusted goat cheese,” the soup was a potage, and the tablespoon-size dollop of caramelized flan posing as dessert came disguised as a crème brûlée with “smoke essence.”

Out of respect for, or fear of, Mexico’s notoriously promiscuous “defamation” laws I cannot reveal the name of the restaurant except it begins with one of the last letters of the alphabet and is located in a decidedly downscale arrondissement of San Miguel. Naturellement it was part of a boutique hôtel.

By San Miguel standards, the dinner tab for three was almost Parisian alright—four thousand pesos that included one glass of white house wine, two coffees, mineral water, and four non-alcoholic drinks. Plus an obligatory fifteen percent tip, an annoying add-on for service that was neither particularly attentive nor informative about the items on the dégustation menu. We didn’t go for the wine pairings which would have added another eight hundred and fifty pesos per person to the bill.

Or as Mexicans would say: ¡Híjole!

I don’t mind elegant settings or even pricey food as long as it is worth it. Three weeks ago Stew and I had dined at “Tentaciones,” an outdoor restaurant overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay from behind a narrow infinity pool.

Food with a view at Tentaciones. 

At sunset, it was as a view to remember, and so was the tasting menu that began with small lobster turnovers and finished with a thermonuclear dessert, a “dulce de leche and chocolate tart with espresso foam and berries compote.”

The price was fourteen hundred pesos per person, not including tips or drinks. It was pricey but worth every peso.

There are plenty of very good restaurants in San Miguel, but to bump a few of them up from B-plus into the A category, I would dispense with the hifalutin choreography and international culinary pretensions. 

To start with, stick with Mexican cookery, which with all its regional variations is every bit as complex and tasty as any of its “global” or “international” counterparts.

In San Miguel we have eaten several times at Nómada, a new restaurant run by a young Mexican couple that offers a tasting menu with mostly Mexican ingredients and tastes that go far beyond the old enchilada with the green stuff, the usual huevos rancheros with the red stuff, or the arrachera, medium, por favor.

Cafe Muro’s owners also know far more about Mexican cuisine than they put on the menu, perhaps for fear tourists wouldn’t be willing to try it.

On a weeklong trip to Mérida, with its broiler-like climate, Stew and I ate at four or five restaurants serving Yucatecan cuisine, each more terrific than the one the day before. One small, inexpensive eatery—El Manjar Blanco—was singled out by famed Chicago chef Rick Bayless as one of the best Mexican restaurants he’d ever visited.

And of course, Oaxaca, where despite constant teacher strikes and earth tremors, you can find  different moles for each day of the week, and all sorts of other extraordinary concoctions. “You can’t have a bad meal in Oaxaca,” Stew once said, and I agree.

In Morelia and Pátzcuaro too, we have had some very good and very Mexican meals.

So I’d say, forget the all-black getups for the waiters, the oversize china, and all the other pissiness, or as the French might say, prétensions, and stick with extraordinary Mexican food that might merit extraordinary prices.   

17 thoughts on “Fed up with faux haute cuisine

  1. Anonymous

    I doubt that restaurant will ever see many return customers. There cannot be that many anorexic diners in all of San Miguel.Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  2. I have often found that the “trendy” (and expensive) places that people rave about are big disappointments. And I certainly don't want to pay a fancy price and leave the restaurant hungry. I did have a bad meal in Oaxaca at what is supposed to be one of the city's best restaurants. Well, it wasn't so much a bad meal, as a lackluster meal at a very high price. The most memorable thing about it was that we had to take turns holding a flashlight to see what we were eating.


  3. When my then-husband and I first encountered nouvelle cuisine (small plates, small servings) in San Francisco in the late ‘80s, his first reaction was “toy food.” Apparently some things don’t change.


  4. Anonymous

    We have had more bad meals than good in Oaxaca. Some were at highly rated restaurants. But having been married for 40 years to a Mexican woman who is an incredible cook and extremely knowledgable about her native cuisine, we hold restaurants to a high standard. I truly feel you can get far, far better authentic Mexican cuisine in Guadalajara or Mexico City.


  5. “…black uniforms, suggestive of a joint operated by the Viet Cong.” Good one. Did you know it's against the law for restaurants to add tips to bills in Mexico? You can report it to Profeco.


  6. Our best meals in Oaxaca restaurants, as recently as last January, have been inexpensive to moderately priced. A few were dull but most were decent. But we avoid pretentious, expensive restaurants anywhere.Saludos, Don Cuevas


  7. We love visiting San Miguel but there are just some things that the locals do so much better. Over the years we have found that fancy isn't always good. It's always nice to go out with friends and chat and share food but the bigger SMA gets the more it seems to lose it´s original flavor.We'll stick to the local markets, small mom and pops as well as the sidewalk cafes on San Antonio.


  8. Robert: You'd be surprised. I know some people that keep going there ever after having lousy meals because it's supposed to the the “in” place to dine. Go figure.al


  9. What did you find with the flashlight? Grasshoppers maybe? They have them in big buckets at the Oaxaca central market. We had some in Merida, but they were ground up, rather than whole. And actually they were quite tasty, salty/peppery. In Peru however we ran into some guinea pigs, splayed out on the plate, complete with little legs, eyes and ears and we took a pass on those. Too much cuisine verite for us. al


  10. There's something else called “molecular cuisine” which involves lots of tiny portions of food with extravagant ingredients and preparation. A young nationally renowned Chicago chef named Grant Achatz is one of the champions of this trend. Not going there. Meals can cost $200 or $300 per person. A.


  11. In Mexico City try “Dulce Patria” which I thought it was fun, not cheap, restaurant in Polanco specializing in Mexican food. A much more celebrate and expensive place called Pujol, however, didn't do much for us. Al


  12. I think you are right. The more San Miguel grows—and it seems to be on a major growth spurt right now—and more glitzified, the more it loses its original small-town flavor. I don't know how you fix that when tourism is the main industry here.al


  13. Anonymous

    Don't seek restaurant referrals from wasp waisted girls. Ask a hefty truck driver. They always know the best places.Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  14. Anonymous

    I've always found foreign food to be an iffy thing in Mexico. Yes, you can occasionally get good foreign food, but usually that's not the case. Sounds like your dining experience is best described by a bit of American slang: total ripoff. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CaWhere our expectations of restaurants rise exponentially with their prices.


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