A Re-Visit to Merci

Merci on a Sunday is guaranteed to feature a wait and sure enough, when the Critic and his Better Half arrived this past Sunday to have breakfast, several people were parked on the bench outside the door. Dalia – next door and on the Critics list based on Better Half’s recommendation – was the backup plan and it was evident that tables were available there.

Nevertheless, a table for two was not a problem and Critic and Better were seated upon arrival. Brunch is available on Sundays from 8:30 to 4:00 and features breakfast items as well as more lunch-y options.

The Critic opted for chilaquiles, served up here with a sunny-side-up egg, a longaniza tomato sauce, avocado, some cheese, and fresh radish garnish. And a smattering of shredded chicken to round out the caloric intake. Better Half ordered what appears to be a sort of Croque sandwich which, she assured the Critic, was delicious. Coffee (latté) was great, as was the almond and pepita croissant and home-made papaya jam.

Recommended? You bet.

Two café lattés and the day’s agua de naranja con mango

Le croissant

L’autre pain whose name the Critic cannot recall. But it was flaky and deliciously warm and with some butter… yum

The chilaquiles rojos

Le sandwich d’oeuf

Customer Service Tales

In a short span of two days, I had three memorable customer service experiences which I think are typical of Merida, a city not known for its outstanding customer service whether it’s retail or restaurant. Perhaps some of you have had similar experiences? Read on.

The Dry Cleaners

Pre-wedding (not mine, one I had been invited to)  and I had some shirts to clean so I stopped at a previously unknown-to-me dry cleaning operation at the Uptown shopping mall. I stopped there because I rarely if ever visit the dry cleaners and so my criteria for selecting one is if I see it on the side of the road or not. This one was there, with a parking spot to boot, so I stopped.

In I went, holding my two items of clothing and standing behind a woman who was in the process of leaving her clothing. No one looked up or acknowledged my presence in any way. The space was small, so the young woman behind the counter knew I was there, I was sure, and the other lady who was wandering around behind the counter unsmilingly definitely looked my way at some point before quickly looking away without so much as a growl.

I was there for a while, while the counter lady and the customer lady negotiated what was cleanable and what was not. I was growing increasingly impatient as one does when one is ignored, but finally, after what seemed like a Pleistocene length of time, customer lady departed leaving me face to face with counter lady. She looked up and then at my shirts.

Digame?” she asked, finally acknowledging my presence.

¿Digame? What is she? A Venezuelan phone operator?

I asked her if she had any idea of what it felt like to be invisible. Her response came in the form of a bovine stare and silence.

“It would have been nice if at least you had said hello when I came in” I remarked.

Es que estaba atendiendo a la señora

Of course, I hadn’t noticed. Silly me. And imagine the effort and coordination it would have taken to continue attending one client and saying hello to another! I ask too much. There wasn’t much more to say so I left my shirts, took my receipt and left.

Thank you, Tintorerias MAX. Never again. Well, one more time, to pick up the shirts.

The Camera Store

It had been almost a week since I left my Canon camera to be repaired and maintained. When I went to pick it up, the person behind the counter informed me that unfortunately, it was not ready.

I was more than a little mortified since it was my daughter’s wedding and I kind of needed to have the camera that night, but I held it together as best I could.

“Is there nothing that can be done? I had hoped it would be ready for tonight. It’s my daughters wedding you see.”

Déjame hacer una llamada” the employee said and went into the back room.

Although I have been coming to this place for many, many years now and know the owner quite well. I could understand that things were what they were and if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready.

Le vamos a prestar una cámara” I was told when the employee emerged, smiling, from the back room.

Once I picked up my jaw from the floor, I thanked her profusely and signed the receipt for 20,000 pesos of camera that they were lending me in order for me to be able to take photos at my daughters wedding. Who does that anymore? I was impressed, big time.

You have my business for life, Victor and Digicentro.

Home Depot Stop

I have 10 minutes to run in and buy a faucet, a simple garden-type faucet, as there is one at the house which is not closing properly and so, water is running all the time, which means the pump comes on all the time… but I digress.

10 minutes.

I rush in, only to find that the aisle that has the faucets is closed, as a forklift is working in the next aisle over. There is an employee standing next to that little fence they put up.

“Can I just rush in and get this faucet?” I ask, showing him the one I had brought from home.

No, porque están trabajando al lado” replies the employee.

I point to another customer, in that very same aisle, looking for something.

“What about him – does he have magic powers or something?”

No, de hecho le estamos esperando para trabajar.

OK, while you work/wait could you perhaps pop in and get me one of these? You know where they are, it’ll only take a minute.

He does. Comes back with several models.

Tengo este que es cromado pero es de medio, el suyo es de tres cuartos. Tiene que comprar un adaptador. Y tenemos este otro de tres cuartos que no necesita nada.”

I don’t like the 3/4 inch one because it looks like a gas valve shutoff thing. OK. I am ready to buy the adaptor and the half-inch version, in chrome.

Miraculously, the forklift stops working in the next aisle and I am able to enter this one to peruse the faucet offerings. I quickly find exactly what I am looking for and am in the cashier line-up, not before showing the employee what it was I had been looking for. He shrugged and said “Oh” and that was that.

Home Depot, no worries and as the Terminator said, I’ll be back.

 

 

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos, the latest entry into the expensive and hipster steak restaurant category has the distinctive pedigree of being owned by the same folks that own and presumably operate 130 degrees, where the Critic once had the most expensive meal ever in Merida, is now open in what used to be the Tony Roma’s restaurant spot, near the periférico and across the road from City Center (Walmart). Whether or not this opening caused the demise of the Gloria Cantinera directly in front remains – at the time of this writing and to the author of said writing – a mystery.

Cienfuegos (literal translation; a hundred fires) is a beautiful restaurant. Potentially award-winning interior design and details abound that make the space very photogenic indeed. If you pick up on some similarities between the newest Miyabi restaurants and this place, it is probably because the same architectural firm designed and executed this. CHECK THIS

Besides the great room, you want to hear a bit about the staff. The hostess was on her cellular when the twenty-something MiniCritic arrived, ignoring her at the door for some time as she finished up with her phone call. The Critic, being a 50-plus male, had no waiting at the door.

The Mini Critic and Better Half had arrived before the Critic and so when the Critic sat down, brought in by the hostess, he expected a waiter to pop by to see if he wanted a drink but alas, this was not to be. The Critic flagged down what turned out to be the waiter and asked if a drink order was possible. The waiter seemed a little upset and perfunctorily answered the questions without much in the way of friendliness. Throughout the lunch, the service was lacking and every time something was needed, Critic and Co had to flag someone down. At one point the Critic stepped outside for a phone call and when the waiter also stepped outside, there was not a flicker of recognition on the waiter’s face as they crossed paths.

Now it may seem petty and trivial to narrow in on these details but when you see how much money they have invested in the decoration and architecture, this lack of training by management is unforgivable in the Critics never humble opinion.

The food, including some XXX and a rather massive cowboy steak (it was the Critics birthday) was excellent and cooked to order as asked. There was a lost sales opportunity in that the waiter did not mention the sides that were available. These were on the menu, but the wait staff should – again in the Critics never humble opinion – reinforce these options and make the effort to get the sale.

The Moscow Mule was great and did pack a kick, as it should, but here, no one came around to ask if another drink was desired. Another missed sales opportunity.

In the appetizer department, the bone marrow topped with escamole or ant eggs (popular in Oaxaca) won the Most Exotic prize, while the pear carpaccio with goat cheese and other curious ingredients, took the award for most surprisingly delicious appetizer. The dry noodles were tasty but eat too much of this and you will not have room for your main course.

All in all, the restaurant is a beautiful place and is new, which means it is full of the young rich hipster and NiNi crown who have more money than you probably do and can afford such luxuries without having the neurotic demands that someone like the Critic manifests in his picky observations. The food is good, albeit expensive. The service, like so very many restaurants in the formerly white city, is not at all commensurate with the quality of the food and beverages and the decor. It seems that Merida restaurant owners are not too concerned with providing a quality experience in every aspect and frankly, the clientele apparently attaches precious little to the concept of being served decently.

Tal para cual.

Tuna, crusted with pistachio

Ceviche with fried calamar

Here you can see a little of what they have done with the ceiling. This is wood.

Another shot of the pistachio-crusted tuna

The cowboy steak, a bone-in rib eye cooked to perfection, no sides and no distractions

Cowboy meat and fat close-up.

Bone chunks (marrow inside) topped with escamole ie ant eggs. Really. Quite Decadent. (appetizer)

Fideo Seco, or Dry Noodles (appetizer)

Pear carpaccio (appetizer)

 

A Second Visit to Maya de Asia

The Critic loved that duck so when another opportunity arrived to go eat at Maya de Asia, well, he was all over that idea. This time with the MiniCritic and BetterHalf to better sample more dishes (besides the aforementioned duck) the late lunch early dinner was great.

With the first-date wow factor somewhat diminished, the Critic had time to notice other things besides the mostly spectacular food. The waiters are somewhat professional and friendly enough but they don’t seem, well, happy. Perhaps they get shat on a lot or they are practicing their all-black-uniform ‘cool’ thing, but they don’t seem to be having a particularly good time. Yes, it’s a job, but in a nice place with a great kitchen and whatnot, you would think a few more smiles would grace the faces of these servers.

The other thing the Critic took notice of was the weird bathrooms on the second level. The restaurant is so expansive and grandiose, that these mini bathrooms seem like an afterthought. It’s almost like – as Mini Critic pointed out – that perhaps the architect was so concentrated on creating an award-winning design and interior treatment that he or she forgot about the bathrooms and this was the only space left. Who knows.

Enjoy the photos and don’t let potentially sad wait staff or a climb to the bathroom put you off. Try this place and enjoy the experience, which is totally worth it.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Maya de Asia

The Casual Restaurant Critic was proud of the fact that he has been able to avoid entering the new Harbor mall, not being a fan of malls in general and malls in Merida to an even lesser degree. However, dinner at the relatively new (the mall did just open a short while ago after all) and quite spectacular Maya de Asia may mean that the Critic make his way into this labyrinth more often.

Try to forgive the planners the tiny, wormhole tunnel that is the confusing underground parking and find somewhere to park near an escalator. Maya de Asia is located on the first floor, near the Macaroons kiosk (these are amazing too by the way) and Forever 21. is it true that Forever 21 has closed stores and so is not as Forever as the name would imply?  The Critic digresses.

Maya de Asia is a gorgeous room with an ample terrace overlooking the water feature and lit sign for The Harbor. You could imagine you were in Miami, which is the ultimate compliment for Yucatecan designers intent on re-creating exotic locales and discarding anything and everything that is from the Yucatan. However, and in an unexpected turn of events, in this restaurant Mayan and Yucatecan elements from the culinary world have been taken and slapped onto Asian food and the results, at least from a preliminary visit and in most cases, are quite spectacular. As in delicious.

The Critic, fan of all foods Asian, and his lovely Better Half had a Pad Thai, the Panang duck, a chaya humus and to make it complete, a Sikil Roll. The Pad Thai was fantastic, with surprising bits of what seemed like longaniza thrown in. The duck did not have anything Yucatecan in it that the Critic could immediately identify, but it is very possible and highly likely that there is a local ingredient mixed in there somewhere. The chaya mousse was excellent and the warm bread that accompanied the dip so very good. The Sikil Roll was a fat, cold, fresh roll with a solid fish, none of that awful cream cheese and a brown dollop of a rather liquid sikil pak (traditional local pumpkin seed dip) on each piece. This, to the Critic, seemed unnecessary and the flavor combination was nothing special. Fresh fish, rice and pumpkin seeds. It could also be that the Critic was absolutely stuffed by this point.

No room for desserts, coffees or other distractions. The place definitely warrants a second visit and there will be another post, very soon!

The ceiling decor. Can you tell what those wooden elements are?

Room, with a view of the kitchen to the left

The menu

Humus, featuring local superfood chaya

The absolutely spectacular duck

Pad Thai

Sikil Roll with its fish and its pumpkin seed dip on top

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Bistro Cultural

It was their anniversary, it was very busy and the Critic won’t pass judgement on the experience he had this morning with the Better Half and several other, local guests. Breakfast was long, leisurely (not for the two waitresses desperately working the entire restaurant inside and out) and the food delicious. Good coffee too.

The space is cozy and attractive and chef Yohann kind in his attention to his guests.

Some serious swinging music in the garden

Some serious swinging music in the garden Part II

The garden patio, full of happy eaters

Inside

View to the street, from the inside

Pretty flowers as centerpieces throughout

Creme brulee

Isla flotante

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Soberana Steakhouse

The discrete Soberana restaurant, tucked into the bottom of the Santa Lucia hotel, might be overlooked with all the more visible eateries in the Santa Lucia square across the street (60) but it shouldn’t be.

Chef Andrés Zapata has created a meat-lovers menu and even sells some of the rubs that have made him somewhat of a local legend in the local culinary scene. That and his personality which displays none of the dickiness of other more diva-like chefs, make him one of the most sought-after personalities when it comes to events featuring barbeque, grilling and the like.

On this visit, the Critic had been invited to sample the new menu and in the absence of a recuperating Better Half, the Critic invited a second critic to help try the new meat offerings.

Frijoles Puercos

The first item to grace the table was a small bowl of beans, cooked non stop and served with black corn chips. The thing that makes these beans decadent (they are called Frijoles Puercos) is that when cooking up meat in the kitchen, the pot is always on the back burner and chef Andrés throws in whatever meat juices are bubbling up and left over, resulting in extremely flavorful and deliciously fatty beans. Cholesterol warning in effect.

Chef Andrés taking a momento to crack a joke. This Critic has never seen Andrés in a bad mood, ever.

Rubs to take home

Soberana’s take on Mac & Cheese

The Critic let the chef decide, although anything off the menu was available to try. First up? The Mac and Cheese. It could use a tiny bit more cheese but the creaminess and the addition of caramelized “million dollar” bacon was amazing.

Smoky fish tacos on Panela cheese tortillas

The second appetizer was smoky fish tacos served on panela cheese “tortillas” Anyone familiar with dieting and panela cheese knows that this is a cheese-like substance, far removed from anything resembling tasty cheese. An interesting and probably healthy concept, but as far as flavor goes, eat the topping, skip the cheese.

Salsas

Main course – picaña steak, prepared tableside by the master grill chef himself.

For the main course, and to share, the picaña beef steak, cooked to perfection. The flavor of this cut was truly mouth watering and this is the steak the Critic highly recommends you order. Andrés will prepare it with it’s juices , at your table.

Preparing the Picaña

Delicious!

Prices are reasonable and this is a good alternative to mix things up a little in Santa Lucia. You can eat in the restaurant or enjoy a limited menu on the park itself, where there are some tables and chairs set up so you can have your conversation drowned out by the musical acts, if that is your thing.

Casual Restaurant Critic at Pan & Kof.fee

OK thanks very much – the anticipation of going to Paris and sitting in a sidewalk cafe, munching on fresh baguettes with butter is now a thing of the past. It appears that the folks at Pan & Kof.fee are trying to discourage travel to France with their most amazing baguettes, croissants, and pain au chocolat.

The Critic has not tried bread this good since discovering Monique’s sourdough and Petite Delice’s pastries, so whenever you are downtown, do stock up. Recommended are the baguettes and the ciabatta as the loaf had too much air in it and the butter and jam went directly through the holes in the bread and onto my plate.

The restaurant – it is a restaurant as well – is drop-dead gorgeous and you can see the bakers in action with their ovens on the second floor, which is clever. Staff are beyond friendly and completely bilingual, at least the ones that looked after the Critic and his Better Half.

Located on 43 at 58 more or less behind the Palacio Canton museum or whatever it is this week.

Sublime, Stimulating, Serene. Kayaking in Progreso

deck view with mangroves

This is the dock from where you will depart into the mangroves. This is on the leeward side of Progreso, just off the highway to Yucalpeten/Chelem, the bridge and the marinas.

Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t go to Brazil this year, but I found a recent trip through the mangroves by kayak to be a mostly relaxing and somewhat challenging adventure that reminded me much of what I miss the most about Amazonas.

The water is shallow, there are birds to be watched and the single-person kayak was easy to handle, even through the cramped tunnels of the mangrove forest that are literally meters away from the Progreso-Yucalpeten highway (you can hear the cars) but it seems like you are in another world entirely. In fact, you can imagine being in one of those cars speeding along and looking at the bush on the side of the road and not even thinking that there could be this whole other environment just inside.

The highlight for me was the relief of paddling in open water after the twisting and manoeuvering of the tunnel which presented multiple challenges to get the kayak through; in one case having to charge at full speed to go OVER a large mangrove branch, which our guide thankfully helped with.

The water is shallow, so you never feel you are going to drown, and unlike the Rio Negro, there are no piranhas to nibble on your fingers when you are pulling the kayak along using roots, branches and fallen debris, the paddle having become totally useless and stuck between legs and arms, along the length of the kayak.

Progreso has more to offer than cantinas and cheap massages on cruise ship days. Kayaking in the mangroves is definitely one of the more sublime and rewarding activities you can undertake, to work up an appetite for your freshly fried fish lunch at one of Progreso’s seafront restaurants a little later in the day. Enjoy the photos!

Thanks to SEFOTUR for the heads up and invite on this, the idea being to better get to know what sorts of activities there are for visitors to the Yucatan coast. This one is highly recommended!

reception desk, kayaks, Progreso

Here is the reception area where you will pay and decide what it is you want to do. There are night kayak tours and motorized fishing tours also available.

A look at the mangroves

These usually mark a natural fresh water spring many of which sprout up in the salty sea water, creating the brackish environment that birds love (think food)

Local celebrity Andrea from Yucatan Today, accompanying our little group on what was an official FAM trip

Into the tunnel

Traffic jams in the mangroves

Mangrove roots

More traffic

On this little island you can see birds (if you come early or late) and enjoy sinking into thick muddy quicksand up to your waist. It’s also nice to walk around for a bit after the mangrove tunnel kayak experience.

 

What is That in There?

Refrescos

Unmarked mysteries in the fridge

What the Hell is That?

Explaining some of those mysterious things lurking in that fridge.

If you are traveling in the Yucatan, and stopping here and there, especially in the smaller towns and villages along your route, you will perhaps see unusual things (along with the usual assortment of commercial brand soft drinks) in the corner store refrigerator that you might not have at your Seven Eleven back home. Here is an example (photo) of such a fridge and a brief explanation of what it is you are looking at, top left to bottom right.

Top Shelf

  1. Flan Casero. This means home-made flan and when I asked the young lady what it all had she said “huevo… y no sé que otra cosa” which means that she knows it has eggs in it, and that’s the extent of her knowledge of this version of flan. Flan is flan, so no need to go any further with the explanation, I think.
  2. Flan Comercial – this is flan from a box. Jello brand makes a flan that you add water or milk to and voila. That’s what’s in this larger cup.
  3. Those white liquid bottles are horchata. More on that when we get to the main horchata section.

Second Shelf

  1. Jamaica. Pronounced hah-MY-cah, this is an infusion made from a plant very similar to rosehips but much stronger. With fantastic diuretic and antioxidant properties, jamaica, along with its pale cousin horchata, are the most commonly found drinks along with sodas, in any self-respecting taqueria. Note that it is sweetened, as the original version with no sugar will make your tongue curl.
  2. Cebada. Cebada (seh-BAH-dah) is a drink made with barley. It’s kind of a strange, acquired taste kind of drink and those barley bits are a bit like bubble tea with the rubbery tapioca balls, and personally I am still struggling with it. But hey, it’s a drink with a source of fiber built-in.

Bottom Shelf

  1. Horchata. The rice (and sometimes almond) drink that accompanies jamaica in every fridge where Mexican food is served. There will be sediment on the bottom, which is a good thing. Give it a shake or two and enjoy it’s almond/cinnamon taste. Again, very sweet and most times made from concentrate. If you find the home-made version, marry whomever it is that made it because this is a true delicacy and becoming more and more rare in the world.
  2. Tamarindo. The fruit of the tamarind tree is a paste and it is extremely sour. Mixed with sugar, it becomes an excellent base for sherbets and drinks. Mixed with sugar, salt and chile it becomes the ubiquitous Mexican candy that will certainly give you the runs when you first try it.

There are other things in the fridge as well. In this case, as it was a taqueria, there was a giant tub of raw meat on the floor of the fridge. Do not be put off by such apparent disparate refrigerator ingredients and be thankful that you don’t live in a land where nanny-state laws prohibit such practical solutions to every-day restaurant problems.