When I first visited San Miguel de Allende twenty-five years ago it was an idyllic but gastronomically challenged destination. Then, a few years ago the ‘Pueblo Mágico’ effect began–the town exploded. Upscale visitors from Mexico City arrived in droves. Although the powers that be insisted it be renamed a “city”, the dining scene remained provincial. Umpteen foreign-food restaurants and a few stalwart venues for ‘greatest-hits’ Mexican fare fed visitors from all over. Charmed by lovely colonial patios and panoramic views, it was easy to imagine you were eating well. Locals who knew better stayed home. High-aiming, but ultimately mediocre establishments, failed to disprove the maxim that “you don’t go to the provinces to eat.” Other than in Jalisco, the north-central area of Mexico (known as el Bajío, which also comprises Querétaro, Guanajuato and Aguascalientes) is not known for its cuisine. There are exceptions – great barbacoa and carnitas can be found if you know where to look. So recently, armed with enthusiastic recommendations but still cynical, I sat down to comida in San Miguel’s newest fine-dining locale, Áperi.
Áperi is Latin for ‘open’, and this new spot certainly opens the door to a new level of sophistication in town. On many counts it is the best kitchen in the area. Young chef Matteo Salas has an impressive resume, starting with his place of birth, Milan. From apprenticeships in several Spanish, French and Italian foodie hotspots, to his last gig as chef de cuisine at the much touted (but now defunct) Oca in Polanco, chef Salas has worked his way up the ladder of culinary success.
The food at Áperi is contemporary, worldly, carefully crafted and honest. Fashionable cooking techniques such as al vacio (aka sous vide), smoke and foams are used, but prudently. The moderately sized menu is well planned, leaning toward the pan-euro, but never turning its back on the homeland.
Because San Miguel doesn’t produce a cornucopia of goods, “local” and “market-driven” are not the main themes here. The best our land has to offer is brought in (fish from Ensenada, for example) and the seasonal is acknowledged (artichokes are currently featured.)
As a starter, a deceptively simple salad is artfully presented. Small, mildly pickled beets have been whisked by the grill to add greater dimension, and served with caramelized pecans, sweet beet foam and a light horseradish cream. The whole thing is blanketed with delicate baby spinach leaves. Sweet, salty, sour and umami beautifully intermingle – and it’s lovely to look at, too.
Pork belly (aka panceta) seems to be everywhere these days. Here, it’s offered as an entrada, which, considering its richness is just as well–a little goes a long way. Cooked al vacio for 36 hours, it’s buttery tender, perfumed with black truffle oil, and a surprising hint of mustard seed. Blue corn kernels and a few lentils provide a welcome textural contrast to the slightly gelatinous star of the show.
The lines blur between starters and mains: it doesn’t really matter. The brief selection of platos fuertes includes a masterfully seared Baja tuna whose light herb and cream sauces let the fish stand ahead.
A plate of house-made ravioli filled with sage-scented mascarpone is a creative variation on the classic Italian burro e salvia; the pasta is correctly al dente.
A thick magret (duck breast), seared to seal in the juices, is bathed in a pretty mixed-fruit sauce that is just sweet enough, without going overboard. I loved this dish, although I could have done without the strawberries–a fruit that tends to cloy and therefore hold center stage.
Desserts also celebrate and elaborate on their main ingredients, be they chocolate or almond or pear. They’re worth saving room for.
Áperi’s décor is simple and modern, wood setting off stone, the outdoor patio a peaceful respite from the bustle of town center. Music is mercifully low key, the staff hip, friendly and knowledgeable. Prices are comparable to those in the city for a place on this level: expect to spend $500-700 per person. It was a long wait, but the door has opened to fine, fine dining in San Miguel de Allende. Kudos to Chef Salas.
Inside Hotel Dos Casas
Quebrada 101, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
Tel: 415 152 0941
Open Monday – Friday 8 a.m.- 12 p.m., 2 – 4 p.m., 6 – 9 p.m.