One of Mexico Cooks!' favorite English-language sayings is, "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." With that in mind, let's start at the finish. This traditional pastel de elote (corn cake) is deservedly the most popular sweet end-of-a-meal treat at Restaurante San Miguelito. Photo courtesy San Miguelito.
Restaurante San Miguelito, open in Morelia since May of 1995, started life as a piano bar in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Servando and Erik Canela, the father and son team who started the venture, soon decided that offering an all-in-one restaurant, artisans' gallery and museum to Michoacán's capital city residents and visitors would be a wiser use of their time. They would incorporate Don Servando's forty years' experience as an art and antiques dealer, his son Erik's experience, and his daughter Cynthia Martínez's extraordinary culinary talents and business acumen into a highly unusual endeavor. Today, Restaurante San Miguelito continues its evolution as one of the most beautiful, most delicious, most spiritual, and most frequented restaurants in central Mexico.
Walk through the door at San Miguelito and your attention is drawn first by the decor, then by the maitre d' who warmly welcomes you, and then by the artesanía (Mexican arts and crafts) that fills every nook and niche. Even after a score of visits to the restaurant, I still spend as long exclaiming over the latest Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead) skeletons, the newest finely hand-woven Michoacán rebozos (long rectangular shawls), and the proudly displayed alebrijes (hand-carved and hand-painted wooden fantasy animals) from Oaxaca as I do studying the wine list and the menu. What beautifully tempting thing to buy! What delicious tempting thing to eat! What a wonderful dilemma!
Salón de las Conspiraciones (the Conspiracies Room), Restaurante San Miguelito. Photo courtesy Guillermo Martínez Acebo. Each section of the restaurant has a theme, and almost every item in the restaurant is for sale. If you like the table and chairs, the glassware, or the plates that you and your guests are using, ask the price: you can treasure them in your own home. Click on any of the photos for a more detailed look.
Mexico Cooks! recently spent a leisurely evening talking with Cynthia Martínez about her philosophical relationship with food, especially Mexican food. Her knowledge of the traditional Mexican kitchen comes honestly: her Oaxacan grandmother taught her recipes and culinary legends while she was a young girl helping out at home. "Growing up in Oaxaca, I milked cows, caught the grasshoppers we seasoned and ate, and nourished a passion for the kitchen. My grandmother always said that behind every cultural tradition you find gastronomy, and I still believe that. The motivation to open San Miguelito was my father's desire to put together a fusion of Mexico's artisan and culinary traditions; my grandfather had the initial dream, and my father kept it alive. He and my brother Erik and I have brought that dream to fruition in Morelia."
El Rincón de las Solteronas (the Old Maid's Corner), Restaurante San Miguelito. Photo courtesy Alejandro Canela.
Arguably the best-known of San Miguelito's several dining rooms is el Rincón de las Solteronas. Dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of old maids single women, the room contains over 500 images of him--every image hanging by its feet. From the ceiling, from wall niches, from mantelpieces and window frames, these upside-down St. Anthonys exist only to hear the pleas for a mate from women of all ages. There's a book to write your prayer (including, if you like, all the characteristics you seek in a mate): the longest petition runs to twenty-five pages!
Ensalada Azteca (Aztec Salad), Restaurante San Miguelito. The salad is a beautifully presented mixture of lettuces, zucchini-type squash, roasted sweet red peppers, tender corn kernels, queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese), and cilantro vinaigrette. Photo courtesy San Miguelito.
"Until very recently--within the last three to five years--it was unusual in Mexico to find a chef in a restaurant. A chef has studied at a culinary school or under a great master of the kitchen, and easily 90% of people working in restaurants here have had no opportunity to study their profession. We Mexicans have usually known to frequent restaurants offering the best food, but until lately, we have not known 'name' chefs. Our restaurant cooks have traditionally been las mayoras, women whose school-of-life experience and whose individual sazón (unique taste in preparing dishes) made them natural leaders in the kitchen. We ate at restaurants where we knew we would have a delicious meal, but we didn't know who was responsible for preparing that meal. Now we have culinary-school graduate chefs whose names are well-recognized and to whose restaurants we flock simply because they are there. But you can't learn sazón in school. Techniques, yes, but sazón? As the saying goes, 'El buen cantante ya tiene voz' (the good singer already has a voice)."
El Altar de las Conversaciones (the Altar of Conversations), Restaurante San Miguelito. Photo courtesy Guillermo Martínez Acebo.
"For us at San Miguelito, the challenge today and every day is consistency. Our clients expect that the meal that they remember eating five days or five years ago, the dish that remains alive on the palate as a fond memory, will look and taste the same now as it did then. We have guests who dine with us as often as two or three times a week, guests who know immediately if we change the brand of cheese in a dish or if we've changed meat purveyors--because the food tastes just a little different. Many of our clients know our staff by name, expect to be seated at 'their' table, and know by instinct if anything from table service to the presentation of a dish is slightly different from the last time they dined with us. Our daily aim is to provide each diner with a delicious meal in beautiful surroundings."
Pescado en Hoja de Plátano (Fish Cooked in Banana Leaf). Photo courtesy San Miguelito. Everything served to you at the restaurant, from the marvelous small bolillos (traditional crusty rolls) to the wine you enjoy with your meal, is chosen with strict attention to quality and consistency.
"Because traditional culture and traditional gastronomy are so closely linked, San Miguelito plans a number of events every year that offer opportunities to enjoy and learn more about both. One of our very popular evenings is a marvelous night that includes the history and uses of Mexico's traditional rebozo (long rectangular shawl). For that event, we showcase weavers and traditional as well as contemporary styles of wearing the rebozo.
"The next event on our 2011 calendar is an evening with Martha Ortiz Chapa, one of Mexico City's most prominent chefs. She'll be at San Miguelito on February 19, preparing a seductive and romantic menu in her own inimitable style. Just in time for el mes de San Valentín (Valentine's month), this evening promises to be extraordinary. If you haven't made reservations yet, don't wait too long; we expect the house to be filled."
Salón con Mural del Lago de Pátzcuaro (room with mural of Lake Pátzcuaro). Photo courtesy Guillermo Martínez Acebo. Tiny lights embedded in the mural create a twinkling illusion of an evening overlooking the lake.
"Aside from the daily challenges of running the restaurant, we also face the challenge of caring for the future of our traditional foods. The advent in Mexico of genetically altered corn would devastate a milennia-old way of eating; globalization has already brought immense quantities of previously unknown 'convenience' foods to this country, and we're asking ourselves who in the new generations will maintain or rescue the old ways. Who will take the time to learn and prepare a grandmother's recipes and write them down for the future?
"Right now, chefs and restaurant owners are in the vanguard of revitalizing the traditional kitchen. But unless today's young people commit to keeping traditions alive in their own homes, Mexico's culinary glories will exist only in our memories and as restaurant-produced curiosities. It's time to put our home kitchens to the test and rescue Mexico's food heritage."
Restaurante San Miguelito
Av. Camelinas at Av. Ventura Puente (across from the Convention Center)
Fracc. La Loma
Morelia, Michoacán, México
Tels: 52.443.324.4411 and 52.443.324.2300
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