Think about visiting Cancun and what comes to mind – Impossibly blue ocean water and bathtub warm, white beaches, tall hotels, wickedly fun nightlife? Did you know that the peninsula perch is home to many flavors of Yucatan culture?
I’ve visited the area as a scuba diver several times, always focused on spending as much time in the water with its corals, turtles, rays and whale sharks, as possible. Food on a dive trip is not much more than a necessity – fuel to keep blowing bubbles. So it was with particular relish that I dove into exploring the fine dining options and more urban pleasures on a Summer Tasting Tour of Cancun luxury.
My first stop close to the downtown, nightclub district was at the five diamond Fiesta Americana hotel, the Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa. Once I stepped into the lobby with its sweeping atrium it was easy to forget the intense heat and gritty street a block away. The hotel is a graceful sweep of towers and one of the more majestic properties in the area, which is a nod to the perfectly picturesque location – just steps from a daily boat to nearby Isla Mujeres with a lighthouse on the other side of the bay.
The rooms are all suites and while most of the local hotels have become all-inclusive resorts, the Coral Beach Cancun offers more individual options for dining, spa services and recreation. The lobby opens to gardens that step down to a chain of pools and waterfalls that curl like a turquoise necklace just feet from powdery sand beach and cabanas.
Dinner on my first evening was in the elegant Le Basilic restaurant where each course of our dozen tastings was a revelation of French inspired craft and fresh local ingredients under the care of chef Henry Charvet. The restaurant is known also for the artist León Alva’s work, which cover the walls. We watched his, “Art Come to Life”, as he created a whimsical masterpiece while we dined.
Each dish was a more delicious and intriguing presentation than the last. I only wished I were sitting at a table window, being catered to while a sunburn warms my shoulders and toasting to the good life with my sweetheart. He’d love this style – a far cry from the usual buffet fare that other hotels offer.
The next afternoon we had dinner deep in the lower reaches of the hotel, stepping into the tasting kitchen where the chef serves sample menus for corporate events. Our lunch was a series of exquisite discoveries each featuring authentic Yucatan spices and preparations. This was nothing like what passes for Mexican food back home in the states.
Dishes included a delicate stack of Nopales, a curl of grilled octopus and slices of fish, as well as pork along with an artistic take on the indigenous barbequed beef stew. Mango and Tamarind Margaritas flowed pre-meal and Mexican wines were poured for each course.
The next evening we ventured to the Ritz-Carlton Cancun for tastings in two of their finest restaurants. First, we were led past the ballroom and down a long hallway to the Viking Culinary Center, built for guests interested in exploring how to create some of the local dishes. The chef works at his own cook-top while cameras capture each slice and sweep of his spoon. Four cooking stations ring the room; each full of everything necessary to master a meal. Of course table settings waited on the counter and a sommelier hovered near to pour – all of it just steps away from the glimmering Caribbean sea.
A few sips later we slid into elevators to the relaxed and rarefied atmosphere of the Club Level. An open bar and appetizers tempted and each room, remodeled in soft colors and sleek lines, opened to ocean views.
A few minutes later we were ushered into the Club Grill, a Jazz and Supper Club where a pianist stroked a baby grand to life. The old world paneling and proportions of the dining room lent an English, hunting club ambiance and I learned that the Club Grill is considered the more masculine of the two fine dining restaurants at the Ritz.
Executive Chef Tyler Thaxton presented us with an Amuse Bouche of Iberian ham, house mustard and tomato jam. The second course included Arbequuina olive oil and Heirloom vegetable Escabeche before serving white broad beans and grilled tuna with Valencia orange sauce.
The culinary artistry didn’t end there as we were next led to Fantino, the more feminine, Mediterranean-inspired, dining counterpart for a small soupcon of seafood risotto, herb crusted lamb loin with seared vegetables and a Chocolate and cherry ‘delicia.’ This summer tasting menu couldn’t have been more delicia-ous.
Our last two meals on the tour demanded a bit of travel outside of central Cancun. A short boat ride from the high rise district is petite Isla Mujeres where we slipped past the tourist center to dock near Zama beach resort, not far from the Mayan temple ruins at the southern tip of the island.
As a diver I’ve been alarmed at the rapid spread of Lion Fish in Caribbean waters. The invasive species has no natural predators in the area so I was heartened to hear that Lionfish tiradito (a local preparation) is also one of the favorite items on the menu. It was light and tasty.
Our meal, in the shelter of a giant Palapa, was a tour de force of local spices and dishes. One course included Tikin-Xic – a hefty fillet of fish in an axiote sauce wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Various spices are traditionally drawn from the jungles nearby. A trio of pastes flavored many of the dishes with tantalizing complexity. My favorite was octopus grilled and blackened with Recado Negro – a pungent, almost smokey paste.
The final meal of the tour required that we drive about an hour south along the Riviera Maya. If you’ve ever been on the highway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen (Party town and launching point for Cozumel,) you’ve passed towering edifices and gateways that announce the entrance to different resorts dotting the coastline.
Our destination was the Cocina de Autor, a five diamond restaurant, where the chefs search for new techniques and technology. Science and taste delivered.
The effects were mesmerizing and have led this restaurant, ensconced in the Grand Velas, Riviera Maya, to be recognized by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the “100 Best New Food and Drink Experiences in the World.” After sampling each bite, sip or swallow I couldn’t agree more. It was an evening unlike any other.
That’s just an introduction to what waits in Cancun when you reach beyond the prix fixe, buffet tables. If you’re able, spend the time and money to have one of the best meals of any vacation at one or all of the restaurants described. I won’t hesitate to visit the area again.
If you’re truly dedicated to exemplary dining consider coming to the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival. There’ll be more than 25 gourmet events, including gala dinners, cooking demonstrations, a tasting village; sommeliers will pour from over 50 wineries and celebrity chefs are coming from Europe and across the Americas. Find out more at CRMFEST.com
This post was inspired by the Summer Tasting tour that I attended as a guest – all opinions are my own.