It was kind of funny how many Canadian connections I came across in my trip to Mexico last week. (Eek, only last week? Seems like a dream from here!) From the New York blogger who was born in Canada to the general manager and head chef at one of the hotels we visited to the chef who just won the Hot & Spicy Food Festival competition at the Harbourfront Centre, there seemed to be lots of Canadian connections.
Before we left, I took a minute to sew a Canadian flag patch on my camera backpack, which I often use as a day bag as well. I wondered if people still do that. It was the thing to do when I was backpacking in Europe in the 1990s. It had the same effect in Mexico that it did in Europe, though — when people noticed the Canadian flag, they often mentioned it to me, from the hotel staff to people hanging out in Puerto Morelos.
I don’t know whether it was my Canadianness that endeared me to the (Canadian) general manager at the Azul Fives hotel where we had lunch one day in the Arezzo restaurant, or whether he’s just an incredibly nice guy. We were having a four course lunch (which is just what you need mid-day when it’s 47C with the humidity and you’ve just spent the morning tramping around Mayan ruins) and it was a spectacular meal. We had a choice between lobster with goat cheese pasta or marinated angus beef pasta as an entrée, and I was wavering between the two. I settled on the beef with some regret, but when the entrées came out, I was given the lobster and goat cheese instead. There was a few minutes of confusion (I didn’t want to take someone else’s entrée but would have been completely happy with either choice) and even as I protested that the goat cheese and lobster would really be quite fine, my beef entrée arrived. Mario, the general manager, who happened to be sitting at our table, said a brief word to one of the servers, and a minute later there was a half-serving of goat cheese and lobster pasta at my elbow as well. “You should try both!” he said with a smile. “Vacations are not for tough choices, they’re for indulging.” (And then they served up a dessert with not one, not two, but three variations of creme brulé. It’s okay, you can hate me.)
I thought this little exchange exemplified the attitude of all the staff at the Azul hotels we visited. From the housekeeping staff to the crews who cleared the seaweed from the beach to the wait staff and chefs to the concierges to the management – to a person, they were welcoming, friendly and seemed to really want to make sure we had the best possible experience. The idea of “gourmet inclusive” (meaning that every detail is attended to with care, from food to service) seems to be ingrained into the daily life of all the hotels. It was actually a bit of a letdown to come home to Ottawa and not be greeted with a friendly “Hola!” by everyone who passed within greeting distance.
And the food! Did I mention the food? Oh my bulging belly, the food! I may have eaten my body weight. Daily.
In addition to the Arezzo’s amazing Italian dishes, we enjoyed meals on the open-to-the-sea-breeze patio of Blue Restaurant, which has a little bit of everything and all of it looks delicious. How can you not love a lunch that looks out on this view?
And if you like dining al fresco, how about a Mayan feast on the beach for dinner? Shoes optional.
How cute are the linen napkins with the Fisher-Price Little People embroidered on them? Again, the attention to detail was so subtle and so impressive.
We enjoyed sushi and tempura one evening at the Asian-inspired Tainan, where the sushi floats by on little boats. I was hoping for a little (lot!) of spice in my meals, being in Mexico and all, but it wasn’t until the last evening’s feast (and truly, you can’t call it anything but that) on the Chil terrace that I got my wish, in the most amazing tortilla soup I’ve ever eaten.
But really, if I’m going to talk about the food at the Azul hotels (and clearly I am, at some length, too!) I have to tell you about the 12-course “Molecular” lunch at Azul Sensatori’s award-winning Le Chique restaurant, truly the dining experience of a lifetime. We’d received an itinerary a few days before the trip, and this one had caught my eye. My mother and I joked about a 12-course lunch. Seriously? How could you possibly digest a 12-course lunch? I know there have been a lot of superlatives in this post, and they’re all well-earned because there was not a bite I ate the entire trip that was not head-and-shoulders above what I would usually eat on a vacation, but the food at Le Chique is in a class by itself.
Okay, so a bit of a confession here. I am not an adventurous eater. I am not exactly closed-minded about new tastes and new foods, but I prefer the known to the unknown. At my favourite restaurants, I always order the same thing because that’s what I like. The idea behind molecular gastronomy flies in the face of that. Have you heard of it? Here’s the definition from MolecularRecipes.com:
Molecular gastronomy or molecular cuisine is the science of cooking but it is commonly used to describe a new style of cuisine in which chefs explore new culinary possibilities in the kitchen by embracing sensory and food science, borrowing tools from the science lab and ingredients from the food industry and concocting surprise after surprise for their diners.
What this means is that the menu is the strangest-sounding one you’ll ever read, and the meals are prepared with exotic and extraordinary tools like smoke, syringes, liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide. You end up with what looks like maraschino cherries but which are actually liquid-filled creations that burst when you bite them. You have bite-sized balls that look not entirely unlike baked hummus balls but actually taste like a plate of the best nachos you’ve ever eaten. It was a truly extraordinary meal and I savoured every bite.
And really, how can you not love a culture that serves guacamole and salsa with breakfast? Really, it’s a wonder I got on the plane to come home at all. Actually, what’s a wonder is that they didn’t have to haul me onto the plane using the cargo loader after eating like that for four days!
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