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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.

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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.

 

Casual Restaurant Critic re-visits Peruano

Just a quick update on this great Santa Lucia restaurant, in the heart of Merida – it’s still fabulous as of this writing. Don’t miss the ceviches – on this occasion we had two different tuna ceviches and one warm shrimp ceviche – and drink a Pisco Sour or two: refreshingly delicious but strong, so don’t be getting into your car after this!

Highly recommended!

Tuna ceviche I

Tuna ceviche II

Warm shrimp ceviche

Pisco Sour

Hamachi Sushi. Yes, more Sushi.

The Critic is aware that for many people the thought of sushi in Merida is somewhat disconcerting. A lot of these people also think that Starbucks ruined the local coffee culture to which the Critic can only snort in derision at the mere idea of a coffee culture in Merida back in the days of melamine plastic cups served with hot water and a spoon alongside a jar of instant. Nescafé if you were lucky.

But the Critic digresses.

The newish sushi place Hamachi is Japanese owned and features a chef imported all the way from exotic Cancun for the express purpose of putting Miyabi on alert as they may soon be ousted from their premium spot on the list unless the latter becomes a little less complacent and makes an effort to be more professional when it comes to service.

The nigiri or sushi by the piece is scrumptious, with generous portions of fresh and cold fish on perfectly cooked rice. Cream cheese is notably less in your face in comparison with other Merida sushi restaurants and that is a relief. What little there is on the menu can be left out, at diners requests. The unagi is delectable, warmed and again, generous in portion size when ordered as a piece of sushi or as part of a sashimi platter.

The scallops (cooked) on the appetizer menu sound great but while the texture is fabulous, the flavor is to subtle and after a few pieces, it loses its appeal. Dip it in soya sauce for a little extra salt. An appetizer that consists of the cheeks of the robalo fish (fried, you basically get the head to pick at) was better than expected.

Service is superior to Miyabi (not hard to accomplish) and friendly. Prices are up there, but the quality of the fish and an interesting menu make Hamachi worth it.

Fish cheeks

Fish cheeks

Rolls

Rolls

Salmon, tuna and hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi

Salmon, tuna and hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi

Unagi

Unagi

Casual Restaurant Critic at Mi Gusto Es…

Quick review this time of the Casual Restaurant Critic and Better Half’s visit to the new seafood restaurant Mi Gusto Es, located in the same new ‘luxury’ plaza as the previously reviewed Tony Roma’s, where the waiter did his best Mr. Bean impersonation and cemented in the Critic’s mind why he should never return to this ridiculous ribs restaurant.

Feeling like seafood, Critic and BH ascended to the second level (of the shopping center that only features eateries, which will promptly be reviewed and either praised or destroyed, según) and a smiling hostess took them to their table or rather, accompanied them to a table of their choosing that was on the sunny side of the restaurant as the initial table offered was between the bathroom and the entryway to the centrally placed island cold kitchen.

The waiter, not a Yucatecan (just sayin’) was very professional, prompt and suggested several great options. The Critic ordered the seafood soup, always hopeful that ONE day a soup will arrive at the table that rivals even remotely the soup made by his brother in law, who, for the purposes of this review will remain nameless. BH ordered several tacos. For starters, cucarachas. That’s right, cockroaches. Brown, fried to crisp shrimp, marinated in something that turned them dark brown and by golly, they really do look like giant bugs. They are to be eaten, eyes, feet, tails and all and are delicious. Highly recommended. Have your friend take a photo of you with one sticking out of your mouth, with its black beady eyes staring out from between your lips.

When the busboy or waiter in training came out with BH’s tacos, the waiter actually discreetly sent him back to the kitchen to keep them warm and not bring them out until the soup was ready also. DID YOU READ THAT? This was an absolute FIRST in Merida and impressed both the Critic and Better Half to the point of mentioning it to the waiter and later inflating his tip.

The verdict? The food was great. Marlin taco (middle one) not too special, but the cheesy Sinaloa taco was scrumptious. The soup was absolutely filled to the brim with all manner of detritus from the sea, and worth every penny of its $133 peso price. It’s all about the broth, and this soup has a delicious, rich and flavorful broth that will surely to make your taste buds dance.

Service was, dare I say it, very good. The only fly in the ointment was the pair of servers who surreptitiously had someone’s (a diner’s) leftovers on a tray and were eating them in a secretive fashion with their backs turned to the restaurant. Unfortunately they were only a few feet away from the Critic so he couldn’t help but notice. Um… GROSS? But then, why waste some premium seafood, right? Just do it in the kitchen. Out of sight, out of mind.

Definitely worth trying if you are looking for some Pacific style fish tacos and cocktails (along the lines of Pez Gordo whose owners have split up (how rarely does THAT happen)  and the Pez Gordo is now El Pez something else).

Enjoy the photos.

Cucarachas

Cucarachas

Cucarachas, again

Cucarachas, again

Tacos

Tacos

Seafood soup

Seafood soup

Inside that taco I

Inside that taco I

Inside that taco II

Inside that taco II

In the soup

In the soup

Casual Restaurant Critic at AOKI – Yet Another Entry in the Sushi Category

Just when the Critic thought that is was not possible to find yet another sushi restaurant in Merida, another one popped up on the radar thanks to Better Half’s socializing and lunching ways.

This one is AOKI and if you have been to the great Beer Box store you will know exactly where it is; if not, you won’t. It’s right next door. Maybe it helps that there is a glorieta with five avenues emanating from it, and in the area is the the Chevrolet Monte Cristo dealership, the Super Deli store which is more super than deli and the Jarochita fruteria where you can get the best, freshest fruit in the area.

But who cares about all that.

The fact that the hostess (who turned out to be our waitress as well) told us to just go ahead and sit wherever we wanted seemed like a rough start. The Critic has become accustomed to having someone show him to his table and maybe that’s just ridiculous, but if you are coming to someone’s house, wouldn’t you want to make them feel welcome? If you’re already at the door and have nothing else to do, take your guest to a table, make her or him feel like you’re glad they’re there.

A look from the back towards the front. Soy soaked serranos on the table.

A look from the back towards the front. Soy soaked serranos on the table.

CRC and BH chose a table along the wall, you know, the kind that have one long bench along the entire wall that serves various tables. The Critic only brings it up because when you sit down on this vinyl stuffed bench, you feel the wood and uneven filling under your butt. This is common in Merida restaurants and one day the Critic will dedicate a whole article to it. Is is possible that the owner or designer has never parked his butt on these uncomfortable homemade booth seats? If you’ve been to Brians and plopped yourself on one of those comfortable looking booth seats and felt your tailbone crush on the hardness of it all, you know what this gripe is about.

Bitch, bitch, bitch.

Well, guess what, dear Reader! Things got better after that, and the food was ordered from the initially shy waitress (note to self: another article on shy and intimidated acting wait staff in Merida restaurants) who opened up, cracked a smile or three and brought all the goodies to the table.

If you are ordering rolls, make sure to notice that all of them contain cream cheese, as seems to be the custom in Merida. If this is the custom in other parts of Mexico, please can a reader enlighten the Critic on the origins of this practice and the reasons behind it? Thank you.

Niguiri pieces are rice-heavy but the fish is cold, delicious and the portion is a welcome fat chunk, not a thin excuse carefully applied on top of the rice. The stuffed squid is delectable and beautiful and for the amount of work involved in preparing this dish and the presentation, the price was ridiculous on the cheaper end of the spectrum. The tempura entree with the funny black noodles sprinkled with nori was just alright. The rolls were excellent.

Would the Critic return? Yes! Better than Miyabi? Food-wise, AOKI is a noodle below but at least they don’t have the Valium Crew waiting on tables, so big plus there.

Felices comidas!

See how fat those slices are on top of the rice. Excellent.

See how fat those slices are on top of the rice. Excellent.

Tempura Noodle Combo

Tempura Noodle Combo. Those noodles are cold.

Stuffed little Squid

Stuffed little Squid

Roll with Spicy de Atun

Aguacate and Cuke Roll with Spicy de Atun and some masago for fun

Tempura Noodle Combo IMG_3806

Tuna on the outside. It comes w cream cheese but you can ask to have it left out

Tuna on the outside. It comes w cream cheese but you can ask to have it left out

 

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits SOMA. In Chelem.

shameless borrowed from their Facebook page

A quick internet search for SOMA will result in websites for lingerie, drugs, a record company and a magazine, among others but to find SOMA the restaurant you will have to go to Chelem. Yes, Chelem, right here in the Yucatan.

The Casual Restaurant Critic had heard about this restaurant from some food-loving NYC refugees who now make their home in Chuburna and so, in the company of his lovely Better Half visited SOMA after a day of lying around the beach in Chuburna.

Located discretely in Chelem, just a block or two from the TacoMaya and Bullpen restaurants behind the baseball field towards town (how is THAT for an almost address-like description) the SOMA restaurant is one of those really weird experiences, very similar to when the Casual Restaurant Critic first found real Thai food in the tiny village of Baca, about 40 minutes outside of Merida. “What the hell is this!” thought the Critic while relishing a curry; “this is the best Thai food I have had in a long time and it’s in BACA?”

This same feeling came back last night, when the Critic and Better Half received a bread basket with crunchy/chewy real bread, heated and served with a pat of fresh butter in a colorful little dish, followed by the appetizers.

Appetizer one was a salad – what a miserably sparse word for the work of art that appeared on the plate. An assortment of lettuce(s), some baby/cherry tomatoes, a touch of cheese and a rasher of pork belly fried bacon-crisp on top not only looked beautiful but each mouthful was an experience.  Appetizer two was grits. Now, to a former Canadian who is not accustomed to such delicacies, the thought of grits was less than appealing, especially after having seen pans of unappetizing-looking grits in Houston restaurant buffets , but thanks to the mention of this particular appie by a certain New Yorker, the Critic said what the hell. And these are not bland, gunky grits. They come with a sprinkle of smoky chorizo and a quintet of perfectly grilled shrimp lying suggestively on top of those grits. The combination is remarkable as the  creamy texture below combine with the chorizo and the shrimp. Thumbs up for the grits!

lemonade

grits n shrimp

that's pork on that there salad

The Critic and Better Half looked at each other and thought – are we in CHELEM?

The main courses were as good or better than the appetizers. Better Half ordered a grilled chicken which, when ordered anywhere else could have been a dry lump of white meat, charred to the point of dried boredom, was instead perfectly seasoned, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, and accompanied by a little pot of home made macaroni and cheese, which would make Kraft blush in embarrassment. The Critic ordered the fish (esmedregal en español) filet, perfectly cooked atop steamed fresh asparagus and served with crunchy baby potato halves. Scrumptious.

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At this point, there was no going back and the Better Half and Critic decided that of the two dessert items on the menu… both had to be tried. The chocolate chip cookie is unbelievably perfect: crunchy and chewy and hot as in fresh baked right then and served with a little bowl of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. The other option was a cheese-cake with cherries – in a glass! Delicious as well and washed down with a real cup of coffee and a cup of hot chai latte.

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As it was Saturday, the restaurant was full and there was live music to entertain diners – a guitarist accompanying a husky voiced woman singing romantic songs in a parse, jazzy style that made the evening perfect.

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So how was the service, you ask? Excellent. Lindy, the gracious owner personally looked after her guests with help from a pleasant young man and young lady while her husband/artist Alberto worked his magic in the kitchen.

There is no liquor license and yet, the other tables were enjoying glasses of wine from bottles that mysteriously appeared from knapsacks and coolers they had brought along.

Ladies and gentlemen of the readership, you must try this new restaurant, and pronto. You will not be disappointed! Highly recommended. Hours vary, please check with Lindy and the restaurant at their Facebook page (link here) and for those of you always moaning 🙂 about a lack of addresses, here you go:

SOMA Restaurant
Calle 17 No. 77A
Chelem Puerto
(at Yeyo’s Hotel)

Phone: 999-348-0985

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Puerta del Mar

At the time of the year corresponding to the visit of the Easter Bunny and all that hype, many locals like to enjoy a seafood meal at the beach. If you are not able to get all the way out to Progreso or Celestun or some of the other popular Easter break destinations, there are plenty of seafood options in the city of Merida to satisfy your craving for something shrimpy; one of these is Puerta del Mar, located almost across from the Bancarios sports center, somewhere between Plaza Fiesta and Altabrisa, on that bumpy stretch of avenue called Avenida Correa Rachó after a well know and loved PAN party mayor of Merida.

It is a modest-looking palapa and inside, it continues to perpetuate that impression with plastic chairs and tables and the obligatory television showing some inane sports event.

But, the beer is cold and the seafood is fresh tasting and comes from the kitchen quickly. A nice touch is a complementary tiny plate of mixed seafood ceviche placed on your table as you sip your drink and wait for your lunch. Service ranges from the “I couldn’t be bothered to welcoming you to the restaurant” to extremely efficient and fast once you are seated.

The dishes pictured below, are, in order of appearance:

1) Complementary seafood ceviche mini platter. Tasty, a little too lemony for the Critics taste, but fine when you are hungry. To be eaten with their excellent corn chips. It’s hard to screw up corn chips, but VIP’s manages on a regular basis so it is nice to have these be crispy crunchy, and not all limp and gross.

2) Chilpachole de Camaron – a spicy shrimp soup that the Critic absolutely adores. Unfortunately, this one is not great; the broth is far too reminiscent of tomato paste and lacks real flavor. Mildly spicy and plenty of fresh shrimp in there though.

3) Pan de Cazon – dogfish or shark meat cooked in a tomato mixture and then served between layers of corn tortillas and black refried beans. Covered with more tomato sauce and that garnish is NOT a little bell pepper, it is an habanero and so don’t just scoop it up and toss it in your mouth. A Yucatan classic (or is it really a Campeche classic?) and the Critic thinks the version served at Colonos in the Colonia Mexico is better. Still, not bad.

4) Seafood Stuffed Shrimp –  Yes, that is what the menu said. Each of the shrimp is cut and stuffed with a minced seafood mixture that is borderline inedible. To make matters worse, the shrimp are bathed in a mysterious cream sauce that is both tasteless and yet somehow rather nauseating. Not recommended.

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Traveling to Chetumal? The Restaurant Critic Recommends…

There’s not a whole lot to motivate you to want to go to Chetumal, the capital city of the neighboring state of Quintana Roo unless you have business with the state government there or are enroute to points further south via Belize. As a city, it has a somewhat provincial feel completely unbecoming a state capital. Everything there revolves around government jobs, real and imagined and the economy is based on the circulation of  government money. Also, as part of the now historic so-called zona libre, exempt from taxes levied against consumers back in the day, Chetumal became synonymous with cheap imported stuff that folks from Merida would drive hours for to buy and smuggle back into the Yucatan. Smuggle, because there was an actual border checkpoint on the Chetumal and Cancun highways where these entered the state of Yucatan. Cheeses from Holland, candies from all over, cookies from Denmark and butter in blue cans from New Zealand all became staples in the Yucatecan diet in the 60’s and 70’s, long before Costco, Sams and Walmart. Or Pacsadeli.

Enough with the history already!

Nowadays Chetumal will remind those who have lived here for some time, of a late 70’s, early 80’s Merida. There is nothing historical to look at really, except for the occasional wooden house, a tradition that made the place charming but wiped out by a hurricane in the 1950’s and never rebuilt. Everything is modern, square, unimaginative concrete with garish paint and horrific signage everywhere. There seems to be a problem with providing folks with garbage containers and so garbage can be seen most everywhere, including among the mangroves at waters edge. Chetumal is a popular place for folks from Merida to go when they head over the border into Belize to buy inexpensive Chinese junk and for Beliceños who want to step up and out from their border area to see something more modern. Granted, the state of Quintana Roo is one of the newest states in the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico did you know) but still, and for the same reason, you would think a somewhat more dignified city would carry the label of state capital.

On that 70’s-80’s theme, the fancy restaurant described a continuacion, is very much like what the Critic recalls from fancy restaurant experiences in Merida 30 years ago. The formal service, the elegant table-side dessert and salad preparation, the hygiene-challenged, poorly lit and charmless bathrooms completely at odds with what is happening out front, is a throwback to an earlier, less sophisticated time at least in terms of restaurants.

El Faro

El Faro, which means The Lighthouse, is undoubtedly one of Chetumals’ better restaurants. Ask a local which place is the best and the name will come up. Featuring formal service, lots of glassware and cutlery, real tablecloths and the stuffy feel of a tropical restaurant gone formal, the food is presented in a way suggesting that the chef or whoever is in charge of the kitchen has seen a few magazines and websites. It is good without being great and combined with the attentive yet cool service, the experience is decent enough.

Bucaneros

Bucaneros surprised the Critic because not only was the food great, but also the service was the friendliest experienced at any commercial establishment in Chetumal. Highly recommended for fun ambience and tasty, generously-portioned seafood creations including seafood-stuffed queso relleno!

Pimienta – Good Seafood-y Pasta

The Casual Restaurant Critic had driven by the restaurant called Pimienta, located just a few blocks beyond the Consulado de los Estados Unidos de America, when heading south-north, just before the street opens up to reveal the estadio Salvador Alvarado on the left.  The Critic had also heard some rumors and whispers that this little restaurant was actually pretty good.

So, upon hearing that dear friends were going to visit and were requesting the dubious pleasure of the Critics company, he dusted off his dancing shoes and took the Better Half along with Miss Tenerife and joined aforementioned DearFriends for dinner.

And what a surprise! Pimienta, whose owner was on hand to welcome the group, is indeed a little gem of a restaurant with great food, an elegant room and a waiter with a personality.

As far as food goes, there was pasta had by all. From green linguine buried in a delicious red sauce that the BetterHalf raved about the next day to the scallops in the Fruti di Mare pasta had (for the first time ever) by Miss Tenerife to the Mona Lisa had by the Critic to the pasta with shrimp and an appetizing chunk of meat whose names escape the Critic as usual; all were delicous!

Appetizers included tender, zesty flavored mushrooms sauteed with guajillo chile and sprinkled cheese on top and bruschetta.

Desserts were had as well, although there was absolutely no need to subject the groups digestive system to such abuse; a homemade Tiramisu, a light, just right lemon mousse and a dark chocolate pyramid.

Service was friendly and for the most part right there when needed (ocasionally he could have been a little more attentive) with the only quibble being that the he could have ironed his shirt to be more in keeping with the rest of the dining room which was impeccable.

All in all a pleasant surprise. Recommended!