The Casual Restaurant Critic at a Xcanatun Wine Pairing Event

Hacienda Xcanatun, one of the Critic’s favorite go-to options when you want to eat in a civilized manner, without crowds, without downtown traffic (bonus: no retenes! for after-wine driving peace of mind) just the other day had an interesting event featuring some of their typically fabulous food paired with some delicious wine from Baja California, part of a collection called The Four Seasons by Proyecto Vinícola de México (links at the bottom of the page) On this occasion, three of those seasons were presented to the folks attending.

Since wine is such a subjective topic, we shall leave the flowery descriptions to others far more qualified than the Critic. Nevertheless, there was one fine Chardonnay (Spring) accompanied by both a home-made duck paté as well as a terrific no-lime esmedregal ceviche and one very rich red blend (Fall), the latter a favorite at the Critic’s table, with definite notes of forest fire and earthiness. ‘Velvet’ was was another term that came to mind after some serious consultation and mouth swirling with the Critic’s always entertaining table neighbor, the Sculpting Critic and her husband, the Eagle Scout. That’s some pretty flowery wordplay right there…

As usual, a terrific experience at Hacienda Xcanatun.

The menu, with what appears to be one unfortunate typo

A delicious meaty paté

Spring, one of the four seasons collection – a Chardonnay – presented this evening

Hearty meat dish with grilled veggies to accompany the smoky Fall wine blend

Fall, which you might do after having too much of this delicious wine

Fall, again

Part of the fun was trying to figure out what the medallion around the sommeliers’ neck was all about. “Lemon squeezer” was one guess from the Critic’s happy table partners

Scrumptious chocolate cake to accompany the Winter wine, a South African dessert wine made especially for the Mexican label

The dessert wine Elefante sparkles on the left and the sultry Fall wine rests sullenly on the right. The angle of the photo was seriously affected by wine consumed up to this point

Links for more info:

Proyecto Vinícola de Mexico

Hacienda Xcanatun

The Casual Restaurant Critic at La Galeria Cantina Artesanal

The Casual Restaurant Critic and his Better-than-Ever Half, had the opportunity (by invitation) to visit this cantina/restaurant and sample some of their amazing food very recently. With expectations not really high nor low but somewhere in between, both the Critic and BH were blown away by the food, which is on the level of some of the best they have tried in Merida, and if you are fan of Mexican food prepared with imagination, creativity, and attention to detail, you are in for a treat.

The room itself is a mixup of an art gallery – there is all kinds of art on the walls – cantina and restaurant. Real tables and chairs, cool and dark, and music videos on the television monitors.

Service is a little distracted until Salvador, one of the owners, shows up and then things improve dramatically. When asked what beers they had, the answer was “Sol y Lager” and when asked for more detail and what other beers there were, as in artisanal beers, the information became a little more detailed. La Cantina offers a chocolate stout and an IPA by Tatich, a local craft beer. The Critic ordered the dark which was a delicious accompaniment to the food that followed.

Salvador told the Critic that the idea of the restaurant/cantina is to provide guests with a relaxing space where the beer is cold and not expensive (at $25 pesos it’s much cheaper than other places that serve free botanas) but with excellent food also at a reasonable price. A place you can visit 2 or more times a week and not break your pocketbook. And the food, dear readers, is truly amazing! Ingredients and recipe ideas from all over Mexico -guacamole w mezcal anyone? – are combined with Yucatecan influences to create original, delicious dishes that are generously portioned and extremely satisfying. You will not feel you are in a normal cantina; this is a much more gourmet experience and will please the most ardent foodie.

Enjoy the photos and come to eat here soon! La Galeria Cantina Artesanal is located on the corner of 54 and 35, very close to the CMA hospital just down the street, and open from 1-11 PM. Credit cards and cash are accepted.

A dark cool place to escape the midday heat

Blue corn chips for scooping up these delicious lentil and bean dips

The room. Plenty of art everywhere

Castacan con pulpo salad. This dish is gigantic and can be shared among many. Not to be missed!

Real mushrooms, real gouda cheese, looks as good as it tastes!

 

Poc chuc

Octopus tacos and grilled tuétano!

Blue corn tortillas

The men’s bathroom is worth visiting, truly

Entry to the bathrooms; if you’ve had too much to drink, you might find all the glass and mirrors somewhat disorienting. But this is the nicest baño you will ever find in a cantina, guaranteed.

More art on the walls!

The bar

Piece de resistance: pork chamorro bathed with home-made mole sauce

Roasting those bones

Chef Miguel Uicab at work

The Man behind the Magic, Miguel Uicab

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Pueblo Pibil

It’s new! At barely three months old, this latest and impressive entry into the offerings of real home-cooked Yucatecan food in the nearby town of Tixcocob, is already causing a stir among foodie Instagram users (hashtag: foodporn) as well as all lovers of great food who are not afraid to hit the highway to discover these out-of-the-city gems.

Chef Silvio has run a food counter in the Tixcocob market for years, and now he has, in conjunction with several partners, opened this elegant alternative for those seeking his deservedly famous ‘sazon‘ in a more formal setting.

The restaurant is beautiful, the air conditioning more than adequate on a hot pre-April firestorm temperatures kind of day and the service is gracious, if a little uneven in some spots. A friendly hostess opens the door and welcomes you into a calm, cool room from the overheated effervescence outside. An outside terrace is available for those who enjoy sweating while eating, or for those who want to have a quick smoke before or after lunch. There, you can also see the pits that give the restaurant its name: Pibil. Almost all the food is cooked in the traditional underground pit oven (the pib) and the results are impressive.

The Critic, accompanied by the Better Half, Mini Critic and almost a dozen others, visited for lunch and sampled many of the dishes available on the small but varied menu and everyone was most impressed with the quality and flavor of each beautifully presented dish.

The Critic had, as usual, the Queso Relleno, which was very satisfying and cooked to perfection. This was immediately after a starter of Sopa de Antaño (soup from yesterday, as in yesterday from grandma’s time, not actually yesterday), consisting of a black frijol broth with short pasta noodles and spiced up with a condimented tomato sauce.

Also on the table were an order of smoky crisp longaniza, generously stuffed papadzules, a relleno negro to die for, brazo de india (reina) and a spicy mondongo soup. The tortillas were thick, handmade and piping hot each time another batch arrived at the table.

At about 2000 pesos for a group of eleven, this was not at all a luxury lunch but it felt like it, given the quality of the room, service and of course, the food.

The photos will speak volumes and give you an idea of what you are in for if you head to Tixcocob for lunch tomorrow. NOTE: If you go on a Monday, you will be able to sample Chef Silvio’s frijol con puerco, which was not available on this Sunday outing and will surely be motivating this Critic and his Better Half to return, ¡pero ya!

The room is beautiful, the flowers are real and the hostess is smiling

The bar

Brazo de India

Longaniza

 

Papadzules

Relleno Negro

Mondongo

Queso Relleno

 

Canada’s has a gender neutral national anthem. Here’s what’s missing.

In the current climate of political correctness, many well-intentioned people are heartened by the recent change in Canada’s national anthem to make it gender-neutral. Personally, speaking as a white, Canadian male with obvious privilege issues, I am ambivalent, but this is the state of the world today and while it was probably a step in the right direction, there remains much to be done to make the song, most often heard at hockey games and the winter Olympics, more inclusive.

The one (just one!) line that changed went from this:

“True patriots love, in all thy sons command”

to this:

“True patriots love, in all of us command”

a line which doesn’t make much sense to me but what do I know about archaic Canadian grammar. It could just as easily have been rewritten as:

“Blue farts and doves, in all our pants demand”

and still make the same point which is … who knows.

In any case, more changes absolutely need to be implemented as there is a plethora of other terminology that could be deemed discriminatory. For example:

“With glowing hearts we see thee rise”

This is obviously a very serious snub to the sight-impaired formerly known as the blind, who can’t see anything rise, let alone the ambiguous non-visible concept of a country called:

“The true north strong and free”

North? What about the southerners? Most Canadians live in the southern part of Canada given the country’s hostile climate. Are those people to be left out? This is not good and the good folks from Vancouver to Toronto will most certainly feel left out. I see a lawsuit coming.

But wait, there’s more:

“Oh Canada we stand on guard for thee”

Here we are leaving out those who, for lack of a better term, can’t stand. What if you are in a wheelchair? What if you’re bedridden. You can’t stand so you’re not included? Shameful.

“God keep our land…”

The whole mention of God raises all kinds of red flags. Which God? Whose God? Also, atheists, of whom there must be a few in the far and wide land, should – and rightfully so – feel left out. A major re-write is necessary here as well.

The challenge is enormous and to really bring Canada into the PC world of today, the entire antiquated anthem; this relic from another, more innocent and homogenous time, needs to be consciously examined.

I suggest a Royal Commission. You can contact the prime minister’s office here:

https://www.ourcommons.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Justin-Trudeau(58733)

The Starbucks Incident

My driver Jorge and I picked Jim and Donna up at the Progreso shuttle drop-off area; a parking lot converted into a makeshift market that effortlessly manages, in spite of the trinket stalls, vendors and t-shirts, to continue to exude the charm of what it is in real life: a dilapidated Mexican parking lot. Surrounded by concrete block walls featuring painted signs scrawled over barely-covered chipped paint advertising in a chicken scratch font that newcomers to the area find ‘charming’ and long-time cynics like me find downright ugly, the space is a study in the third world aesthetic. The nearby, partially completed Hotel Jose looms over one side of this mess, the first thing tourists see when arriving in Progreso from the luxury accomodations of their cruise ship. This is what is condescendingly called “the real Mexico” on travel forums where heated discussions take place regarding the inclusion of this port as a stop for the Carnival circuit out of Mobile or New Orleans. Real, indeed.

Leaving the charms of Progreso behind as quickly as possible, I chat with Donna and Jim as we head towards Merida and our days destination: the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, some 90 minutes away. Donna is an IT person in a web design company, while Jim is a consultant for AT&T and an accident has left him in a wheelchair. I ask them if they are coffee drinkers; they both enthusiastically nod and so we make a beeline for the Starbucks near the Gran Plaza mall.

Back on the road, vanilla mocha cappuccinos in hand and with trusty Jorge at the wheel of the car, I give them a little background on the history of the Mayans, the Spanish, the henequen industry and other Yucatan related subjects and we chat about life in Merida vs. life in the U.S.A.

At some point, between the tricycles and market bustle of Uman and the green hills of Muna, the coffees long since finished, the subject of a bathroom comes up. Jim, who is in the front seat next to Jorge, taking in the view such as it is, mentions that he needs to stop to relieve himself. I ask him how much time we have.

“How many minutes have we got, Jim?”

“None” he replies drily. I assume he is joking, as most folks can hold it in until we get somewhere. Jorge mentions a bathroom at Yaxcopoil, but then realizes that the wheelchair will make that option difficult. I say nothing, thinking that when we get to Muna, the Pemex gas station will be a good place to stop.

Jim breaks the ensuing silence. “Pass me one of them Starbucks cups”. Donna chuckles, I am at a loss for words and Jorge’s expression, which I see in the rearview mirror changes from placid to one of horror. Jim is not joking. I hand Jim an empty cup, taking off the plastic lid first.

Jim takes the cup as Jorge desperately tries to look elsewhere unwilling to believe what he is about to see. Donna has seen it all before, but Jorge and I have not and are not prepared for what happens next.

Bending over in the front seat, Jim lifts his left pant leg, positions the cup and opens a valve and begins draining what Donna explains is a bag. Jorge and I are somewhat relieved that we are not being treated to another kind of display and Jim is evidently more relieved than both Jorge and I. As Jorge eases the car to the side of the road, Jim opens the door and I tell him to just go ahead and dump the Starbucks cup there. It’s the rainy season so the underbrush is green and creeping up to and onto the shoulder and, as usual, there is trash strewn liberally in the vegetation. Jim empties his cup and then, turning back to me, offers to hand me the cup. I tell him that since there is already a lot of garbage on the side of the road, one Starbucks cup won’t make a difference; it’ll be alright. Jorge quickly adds that it is biodegradable, not to worry. Jim tosses the cup and we sit in silence for the next few minutes as Jorge once again gets us on our way. Donna breaks the ice and explains that this is a normal procedure and we all have a little – albeit nervous – chuckle.

The rest of the trip went well, but to this day I will never look at a Starbucks cup the same way again.

Casual Restaurant Critic at Ixi’im, Chablé Resort and Spa

Recently the Critic had the opportunity, thanks to the well-connected Better Half, to attend a sort of ‘fam’ trip to the fabulous Chablé Resort and Spa, recipient of several international awards in the tiny village of Chocholá, Yucatan.

The outing was organized by the Merida-based Club Sibarita, an informal group made up of like-minded people who enjoy great food and wine, spearheaded by Caro Molina and Jean Philippe of Dolce Magazine, who have also organized spectacular dinner events with renowned chefs from the region and Mexico in general, the last one at Merida’s Hyatt. The purpose of this trip was to sample some of chef Luis Ronzon’s culinary creations and take a tour of the former – and extensively, lavishly reconstructed – henequen plantation.

The room at Ixi’im is welcomingly chilled (it’s a thousand humid degrees outside) and gorgeous and you will be impressed with the collection of over 3,000 different types of tequila, and the resort is well on its way to holding the Guinness World Record for largest collection of tequilas in the world. Yes, in the world. It’s not just the bottles though: look up and notice the lamps made with jicaras, the ropes used as a decorative element and take note of the architecture which is glass and steel surrounding and integrated into the original stone structures of the hacienda, which have been left standing and make up part of the innovative and award-winning design.

The food and wine were, in a nutshell, amazing. A light foam to start off and whet the appetite, followed by a very green and very fibre-rich salad of quelites (translated as pig-weed, or amaranth depending on who you consult), parsley and cilantro with an emulsion dressing and some Tabasco queso fresco and roasted green tomato. Very chewy and a good combination with a French 2014 Bordeaux white wine.

Next up, the main course of cordero from nearby Tahmek, where grower Jennifer and her husband are providing the area with some excellent local lamb cuts. This was served in an huasteco adobe sauce that to the Critic, rivaled any cochinita he has ever tried.  This was paired with the robust 2012 Chateau des Tourelles “La Cour des Glycines”. Perfect. A second glass of wine was had and things started to get very pleasant indeed.

Finally, a third plate was the cilantro foam with guanabana (soursop) sorbet and pineapple. Accompanying this dish was a sweet dessert wine: Haut Marin “Venus” 2015. Delicious.

Service was gracious and professional. This was a private event but the Critic is sure that your experience will be equally impressive!

For more information: click here to go to the restaurant’s own website. Wine info at Les Vines de Moliere website. And you can read more about Caro and Jean Philippe’s Dolce magazine here!

Enjoy the photos!

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Katori

Katori entrance

There is yet another new sushi restaurant in town, located right across from the City Center shopping center, where Walmart planted its flag much to the consternation of politically correct ex-pats and the delight of locals who enjoy the shopping experience thank you very much.

The Critic visited the new establishment yesterday, in the company of the always charming Better Half and their friend HC (Houston Critic) who was in town and suffered stoically through the Critic’s taking of photos throughout the meal. “Don’t put your fork in it just yet!” said the Critic, brandishing the very indiscrete Canon he brought along for the purpose of this critique. The good news is that HC is still on speaking terms with both the Critic and Better Half; no friendships were harmed in the making of this review.

This is an ‘upscale’ restaurant and one of their draws is Wagyu beef; there is a Wagyu rib eye on the menu – 200 grams for a paltry $1900 pesos – which on this occasion the Critic and Co did not sample, not having robbed a bank in recent memory. It must be fantastic though.

Front, a lychee mojito. Back, a lychee something or other in a martini glass. Complimentary water bottle is a nice touch

Drinks were ordered and one of these was the somewhat watery lychee ‘mojito’. Not sure what the ‘mojito’ moniker adds to the drink as there wasn’t much to it besides a faint watermelon flavor and presumably some rum. The other drink, whose name escapes the Critics memory this morning, was much sweeter and well, that was about it.

The rolls were fine, the appetizers also, and the standout was the camarones roca which had some sort of extremely thin (asked and were told it was salmon skin) something on top, which actually MOVED as it was set in the middle of the table. It was almost eerie and seemed alive, which apparently it was not; it was a reaction of the heat of the dish or so the group was told, albeit the server also said that the ramen soup had chicken in it so not sure if this was really what was happening with the belly-dancing movements on top of those shrimp.

IMG_3948 (video)

The ramen soup, an eternal favorite of the Critic, was not particularly flavorful, leeching into the bland side of the taste spectrum. No comparison with Miyabi’s chigue-ramen soup which is not only 50 pesos cheaper but 100 times more flavorful. Skip it.

Service was fine, especially since one of the servers knew Better Half, but not particularly fantastic, as a place like this might warrant. The room is attractive, parking is nil (valet is your best option) and the place fills up with locals up for a sushi lunch.

If you want to try it, do. And let the Critic know how the Wagyu beef was, if you try it. But if you are looking for a great sushi lunch or dinner, stick with tried-and-true Miyabi, just a kilometer or so down the road.

Enjoy the photos!

The camarones roca and their interesting belly dancing topping

Menu

Squid appetizer

Ramen soup

Roll 2

Roll 1

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Kraken

Remember the movie with Liam Neeson about the Kraken? The Critic is sure it was a fantastic movie with plenty of Oscar potential but for some reason he never had the opportunity to see it. Of course the Critic is being somewhat sarcastic in his appreciation of the movie’s merits.

Kraken the restaurant, on the other hand, would definitely be an Oscar contender if there was a category for best local seafood.

Chef Eduardo Estrella and his crew have created a restaurant that looks like your average seafood place from the outside, but when you talk to him and try his food, you will quickly realize that he is in another league entirely. He and his family are from Isla Arena, Campeche and if you dear reader know anything about gastronomy on the Yucatan peninsula, you know that the best recipes and most amazing cooks come from the neighboring state of Campeche; Eduardo is one of these people. Not only does he come by his skills naturally, he also formally trained in the US and applied the techniques he learned there, to the abundant local ingredients he can get here.

Chef Eduardo Estrella (middle) and his hard working team

All the seafood is fresh, and brought directly from Isla Arena. He will not purchase frozen seafood from the many suppliers who have stopped by to offer their products – and you can tell when you taste the food.

The Critic and the always amazing Better Half visited Kraken for lunch and it was probably the best seafood either have had in a long while. For starters, the menu was set aside as chef Eduardo suggested that he would prepare a series of plates for the table so as to be able to sample as many different flavors and textures as possible.

First up was a mixed ceviche tostada. Tiny ria (think Lagartos or Celestun) shrimp, literally bursting with flavor, unlike the flavorless shrimp one so often gets in a cocktail or ceviche these days, mixed with fish and octopus. This was glorious.

Next, aguachile in both red (shrimp) and green (fish) styles, with both items marinated in a lemony and very spicy broth, full of flavour. Notice that the dishes are beautiful to look at as well; presentation is top notch.

The third dish was a shrimp broth (caldo de camaron) full of flavor and some larger shrimp along with assorted minced veggies chopped in for texture.

Two plates arrived next, both octopus. The charred octopus is the Kraken octopus and the other was del Capitan. The Critic is not a huge fan of octopus since it is so often poorly prepared and impossible to eat unless you are a cat. These two samplings were perfect.

Then, what was probably the favorite dish of the meal, shrimp wrapped in bacon and cooked to crisp, on a lake of home-made tamarind sauce that was out of this world. The kind of sauce you want to stick your fingers in and get the last drops off the plate. And, something original and unseen in many restaurants, perfectly cooked vegetables on the side. Who does green beans in Merida?? And a black rice cooked in octopus ink. Amazing!

At this point the Better Half and Critic both were thinking that this couldn’t go on much longer as it would be sheer gluttony but there was one more plate to come: a pasta dish, with a cream sauce and fresh crab, baked over with parmesan and panko. This too, proved to be fantastic and was finished to the last noodle, much to the dismay of the ever-expanding waistlines.

Obviously there was absolutely no room whatsoever to even think about a dessert!

The room is casual; there are two televisions with music videos and a Kraken mural on one wall. The service is laid back but friendly. But the food! It is absolutely worth the drive, for drive you must to this location in Caucel, just past the periferico about a kilometer from the Walmart. The restaurant is located in Plaza Boulevard, behind Lapa Lapa which is what you will see first when you are arriving at your destination.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic Slumming at KFC

With all the culinary options out there, why the hell would anyone go to KFC you might ask. Well, a lot of people do, at least at the one located on the Avenida Itzaes, next door to the Merida’s hospital for the clase acomodada, the Clinica Merida. There was a lineup on this particular day when the Critic made the fatal mistake/decision to stop for lunch.

Interestingly with all the fuss about obesity in Mexico and junk food and the like, the closest restaurants to the hospital, where they must be dealing with a lot of obesity related illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems etc., are Burger King and KFC. And both are packed with folks in regular clothes as well as several mestizas with hipiles, which seems to indicate that this is the informal ‘waiting room’ for family members of patients at the nearby hospital where the cafeteria is probably an overpriced disgusting and depressing option. Just guessing of course.

Anyway, the Critic was driving along and suddenly had a hankering for some crispy KFC.

I don’t know if this is your case as well, my dear 18 readers, but the Critic has fond memories of Kentucky Fried Chicken – remember when the crust was tasty with just the right amount of spice and salt and crispiness, and the chicken inside cooked just right, not too dry and not pink either?

Well, it seems you can’t go back. The food ain’t what it used to be. And service sucked big time.

The cashier was a robot dressed in khakis and a polo shirt embroidered with the KFC logo.

Some sample snippets of conversation from the people ahead of the Critic in the lineup:

“Can I get 3 pieces?”

“Can’t do that. Chicken comes in 2, 4 and 6 pieces.”

“I just ordered two packages of 6 pieces each. Can I change that to the giant bucket with a dozen pieces etc.?”

“Nope. Already rang it into my cash register.”

“OK, I’ll have an orange soda.”

“We’re out of orange soda.”

YOU’RE OUT OF ORANGE SODA!

Someone picks up their tray and the large order of fries is strewn across said tray. No one seems to mind. One of the mestiza ladies asks where her chicken whatever is. The robot answers “you didn’t specify which chicken whatever you wanted” To his credit the robot does change the order for mestiza lady.

Anyway. Critic gets his order – the tray has a mountain of at least 20 small packets of chile, jam and ketchup – and goes to the table. Sits and bites into a piece of chicken which pops open and sprays table and Critic with hot oil. Well, it’s comforting to know that at least the chicken has been cooked recently, as he wipes oil off the various surfaces and items of clothing now permanently ruined.

But the chicken inside is rubbery, soft, like those horrible marinated arrachera steaks that have the consistency of ham, not actual meat. It’s flavorless too. And that crispy, perfectly seasoned crust? Not happening. highly unsatisfying, to say the least.

Ugh.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Shüteln

What a strange name, you might ask. Shüteln means “to shake” in German and perhaps the idea is that the strange and wonderful flavor combinations are created to shake up your taste buds?

But Shüteln is the most amazing ice cream shop. It’s owner has studied gastronomy and specialized his efforts in… ice cream. Really. Going as far as Argentina to find out what makes the best ice cream the best.

The Critic tried his ice cream for the first time at Las Yuyas, where they have the exclusive contract to sell papadzul ice cream. How the hell one can possibly turn this classic Yucatecan dish into an ice cream is beyond the Critics’ comprehension, but it really is the most amazing thing to experience this creamy, sweet, ice cold treat with hints of egg, pepita and even tomato.

And when the Critic visited Radio Station Pizza he was amazed to discover the ice cream shop right next door, which meant leaving room for dessert.

The papadzul ice cream was sampled yet again, along with a most amazingly refreshing red wine sherbet, a goat cheese and strawberry creation and almond-basil. Better Half had the cajeta as well. All of these were truly incredible and it was difficult to pick a ‘favorite’. As comedian Brian Regan would say “they’re all (both) favorites”.

Another winner. This place is also in Plaza Macao, on the Garcia Lavin avenue, between the pocito roundabout and City Center near the periferico. Their Facebook page is here.

Location info