Forget everything you think you know about Mexican food – it’s heavy, it’s fried, it’s fattening – and come with me to discover new, sophisticated Mexican cuisine in the history heart of the country. These are colonial cities – UNESCO World Heritage Sites — which are safe, prosperous, easily accessible via Aeromexico, and welcoming to tourists. The focus on elegant and light cooking using organic products in amazing ways is being led by a young generation of chefs who are passionately promoting locally-sourced ingredients and recipes drawn from the diverse traditions and regions of Mexico. Last week we wrote about Mexico City and Queretaro. This week the spotlight is on San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. Next week, we will focus on Chefs Ada Valencia and Monica Solis.
San Miguel de Allende
This was my second visit to San Miguel and, for my money, it’s still the most visually captivating Colonial city. A magnet for artists, musicians and writers, its hilly, color-drenched cobblestone streets, Baroque/Neoclassical architecture, narrow uphill climbs, and enchanting, well-preserved historic center (a World Heritage Site) personify Mexico’s unique charm.
Beginning with U.S. soldiers studying on the G.I. Bill after World War II, large numbers of foreign retirees have been coming to San Miguel to study Spanish and Art or to take cooking lessons. In fact, San Miguel boasts the 2nd largest ex-pat American community in Mexico, perhaps, in part, because the weather is perfect year round. For visitors, it’s a great place to shop. There’s a wonderful farmer’s market (where we saw a pig munching in the back of a pickup truck), a vast craft market, and a variety of upscale boutiques. Behind its colonial exterior, it’s a sophisticated little town. And that includes its food. These days, locals, visitors and “snowbirds” regularly beat down the doors to the restaurants of two noted chefs who are turning out world-class cuisine in the kitchens of two luxury hotels.
Casa de Sierra Nevada
Casa De Sierra Nevada, redolent of old Colonial Mexico, is an Orient Express Boutique Hotel located on a small street just off the central square. It offers magnificent, high ceilinged suites, spa services. courtyards and terraces, and a master in the kitchen, Executive Chef Felipe Ramirez Gorosica. In his restaurant, Cactus, he creates elegant, Yucatan-inspired cuisine.
The night we dined, every dish was outstanding, including: his rich, velvety Saffron Pumpkin Flower Cream Soup with Scallops; his light Plantain Wrapped Tuna, with Pickles, Quince, Watercress and Passion Sauce; his amazing Smoked Duck Breast over Mole Confit Duck Tamale with a roasted asparagus and rose petal salad; and his amazing chocolate medley – a perfect Chocolate Fondant, Chocolate Ice Cream and Egg Nog Cream. It was a meal the equal of any world-class restaurant in New York, and the castle-like, candlelit setting, grandly romantic in a uniquely old-Mexico way. The hotel offers a Table Top Cooking School from Tuesday to Friday, which includes a market tour, lesson and traditional national dish. For more information on the hotel, restaurant, lessons and spa services, go to www.casadesierranevada.com
Six months ago, the upscale Rosewood Hotel & Resort Group (it owns the Carlyle Hotel in New York), opened a full-service hotel and condo complex – with meeting rooms, wedding facilities, a spa — located on a hill about eight minutes from the heart of the city. Built to resemble Colonial architecture, with three swimming pools, spectacular terrace views and a wine cellar where $120 wine-and-food pairing dinners are offered, Rosewood’s Chef Carlos Hannon presides over a modern open kitchen with a farm-to-table philosophy. Dedicated to Mexican products, he draws on the freshest organic produce from nearby farms, offers seasonally changing menus, and creates meals as beautiful to behold as they are delicious. (Cooking classes are held in the kitchen in the afternoons.) Our lunch personified the new Mexican cuisine and it was a knockout.
The watermelon salad with organic arugula, watercress and artisan goat cheese was a perfect summer starter, light and refreshing. The salmon atop creamy black risotto on sautéed baby vegetables with micro-greens was impeccable, and the artisanal chocolate with a dollop of sea salt ice cream was spectacular. The best dessert of the trip. In the bread basket was a wonderful selection of home made rolls including one delicious concoction that oozed cream cheese in the middle. Oh my. And that was lunch. For more information, go to www.rosewoodhotels.com
Perched atop one of San Miguel’s many steep hills is a small, charming hotel – the first boutique hotel in Mexico — whose pools, terraces, and courtyards are hidden away amidst lush plantings of bougainvillea and a profusion of tropical foliage. Built in 1992, it’s a popular choice for weddings, honeymooners, and small business conferences. As with Rosewood, a van is available to transport you to the city’s center. www.lapuertecita.com
Hotel Tip—Casa De Los Olivos
If you are seeking a tiny and most charming hideaway in the heart of the city, you might consider Casa De Los Olivos. With only two suites, three deluxe rooms and absolutely amazing views from its rooftop terrace, it’s a little jewel. www.casadelosolivos.com
Guanajuato at night is a magical place with a distinctly European feel. When the city’s imposing colonial mansions, government buildings, Juarez Theatre, Baroque Basilica and central plaza are lit up, it almost looks like a stage set. A World Heritage Site since 1988, Guanajuato, nestled in a valley of the Sierra Mountains, is a long, narrow city with winding streets, unusual underground alleys and tunnels leading into downtown, and houses that climb up both sides of the valley. It is best explored on foot. Guanajuato’s history is closely intertwined with its silver mines. They drew Spanish conquistadors to the area in the 1520s. One mine alone, during its peak period, accounted for two thirds of the world’s silver production. Now a capital city, where Volkswagen, Mazda and Nissan have opened manufacturing plants, and home to the University of Guanajuato, its streets are crowded with over 30,000 students. In the evening, the city throbs with music, dancing, people, cafes, boutiques and nightlife. It also hosts an annual International Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) Festival, which draws thousands of visitors and artists from around the world who take part in recitals, plays, concerts, dance, opera and art events.
Guanajuato is also home to the workshop of Gorky Gonzalez, whose stunning Majolica pottery, is world-renowned and can be shipped home.
As a major industrial, tourist and convention hub, Guanajuato boasts an array of upscale hotels, above the city’s center, some with spectacular views of the entire valley. That includes the boutique Mision Casa Colorado Hotel, with only six suites. In the 1970s, it was the home of the President of Mexico, and its large rooms exude refined luxury.
Quinta Las Acacias is another unique, multi-level hotel, built alongside a lovely, residential park. Inside, it looks like a Victorian boarding house. Originally a French-styled 19th century private home, it still retains a homey feel, even though it is fully-modern in its amenities. Each room is different; many have a private Jacuzzi.
Camino Real. At the other end of the occupancy spectrum, with 105 rooms and seating capacity for 600, is the five-star Camino Real, part of a well-known Mexican hotel chain that is a major conference center and wedding destination hotel, Camino Real. Though this handsome, Colonial style hotel opened in 2007, it is built on the foundation of an old Hacienda with 16th Century roots. Among the many vestiges of its origins is an 18th Century chapel where the original owner baptized his local workers. Several years ago Camino Real inaugurated a Regional Menu and brought in Chef Heriberto Frias to execute its vision. He produced a beautifully-balanced meal beginning with the stunning-to-behold Stuffed Ancho Chile Relleno, followed by a melting Beef Tornedos Filet with a Tamarind Sauce, paired with an excellent Casa Madero Cabernet, and for dessert, a light Cream Cheese Tart with strawberries – appropriate for a region that is the strawberry capital of Mexico – topped with a guava sauce.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag.
Read the other parts of Eleanor’s Mexican adventure: Part I: Mexico City and Queretaro and Part III: Chefs Ada Valencia and Monica Solis.