By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Restaurant reviews generally focus on the food, service and atmosphere. Two ingredients usually not considered are the company and conversation. The most delectable meal can be spoiled by a whiny, picky-eater companion. In our experience, some of the most memorable dining experiences we’ve had were with other contributors to The Eye in restaurants where the staff encouraged our always long and fascinating discussions.
One top-of-the-list get-together was with Alvin Starkman and his wife Arlene, in the not-to-be-missed Origen restaurant in Oaxaca City. The meal was a prix fixe Valentine’s Day dinner. Multiple courses, beginning with foie gras, were paired with mezcal. Readers who have read Alvin’s many articles on mezcal can imagine the education we received as Alvin rated each sample, punctuated by our raving about the food. The conversation ranged far beyond food and drink, and rather than interrupting us, the wait staff effortlessly matched the service to short breaks in our conversation and then described each incredible course. Lingering over the last bites of our desserts, we noticed that we were the last people still dining. But the gracious staff in no way made us feel rushed. Needless to say, we’ve returned to Origen each time we’ve visited Oaxaca.
Another memorable holiday meal with The Eye colleagues was a New Year’s Eve dinner at Café Juanita in Huatulco with Erin Vig and Kary Vannice. Juanita’s dinners are always delicious, but the New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu – from the cocktail to the incredible dessert – are something to text home about. The setting in Marina Chahue with balmy breezes and the view of sailboats and yachts was magical. Both Erin and Kary have led fascinating lives and both were in the process of deciding on future endeavors and adventures. The wine and conversation flowed, the courses kept appearing and almost four hours later, after planning our lives for the coming years, we were surprised by the proximity of midnight. We sipped champagne as we watched the fireworks lighting up the sky. What a wonderful way to start a new year!
The Eye editor and chef extraordinaire Jane Bauer barely has time to breathe much less to have long conversations at her own restaurant, so a lunch or dinner with Jane at another restaurant is always a pleasure. She joined us and another friend for a celebration of Jan’s birthday at Azul Profundo on Tangolunda Bay in Huatulco. This restaurant provides an opportunity to dine right on the beach without getting sand in your shoes. The waves lapping on the shoreline and the romantic lighting are very relaxing. Although in the past we’ve had mixed experiences with the quality of the food there, that evening it was tasty and the presentation creative enough for Jane to photograph several courses.
As mezcal is to Alvin, so is dish preparation to Jane, so we savored first bites until we could identify the individual ingredients. We share a passion for international travel and films and the hours flew by until we realized that one of us needed to arise early the next morning for work. A most satisfactory birthday celebration with food and friends.
The time we spend in Mexico City grows longer each year, in part so we can explore more restaurants with Carole Reedy, the incredibly prolific book reviewer for The Eye. We almost always allow three hours for dining, since Carole provides a fascinating review of books she’s read long before the descriptions are published. Our mutual love of opera deserves at least thirty minutes of rehashing the latest offerings the three of us have seen, streaming live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to Carole in the National Auditorium in Mexico City and to us wherever in the world we find ourselves.
Our restaurant venues with Carole are never the same twice, and have included three very popular Mexican restaurants, El Bajío in Polanco, Restaurante El Cardenal next to the National Museum of Art, and Azul Histórico located in a charming courtyard a few blocks from the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Since these restaurants don’t take reservations, we’ve learned to put our names on the waiting list and explore nearby museums or simply relax and watch the always interesting mix of tourists and locals passing by. Once seated, Carole and Marcia are likely to share exotic house specialties such as tongue tacos while Jan sticks to more dependable fare, such as dry noodle soup. And of course, the mole preparations are delicious.
Three restaurants in Polanco for which we were able to reserve tables included the cebichería Agua y Sal and Casa Portuguesa. The former, as the name suggests, has a long list of ceviches to share. And the latter specializes in bacaloa, the salt cod stew that can be nasty if ill-prepared but always delicious in this charming restaurant. For the third, we thought we had secured a reservation for the three of us and a friend at the Spanish Restaurante Asturiano nearby a performance at the National Auditorium; the production was longer than we expected and when we arrived we were told the deadline had passed and we had lost our table. Fortunately, our friend who was born and raised in Mexico City was very persuasive. After a thirty-minute wait we were seated and served a meal worthy of Madrid’s finest.
The internationally acclaimed Rosetta restaurant in the gentrified Mexico City neighborhood of Roma Norte was one of the longest of our many meals together. Dinner reservations must be made many weeks in advance, but Carole knew the secret – tables for afternoon comida are much more likely to be available. Housed in a charming townhouse, the three of us settled in for a meal that did not disappoint. We all ordered different dishes so we could create our own tasting menu. The bread and pasta were memorable and the fish dish, robalo, was heavenly.
One of the major perks of being a contributor to The Eye is getting to know the other contributors – and sharing wonderful meals with them. Our editor, Jane, is always interested in finding new writers. So, if you’d like to join us, let her know … and if in addition to a passion for writing, you’re a ‘foodie’ who loves fascinating conversations in great restaurants, you’ll definitely fit in our inclusive group.