I’m Fine, Thank You…But no, I don’t like ice in my beer.
Sometimes I find ice acceptable in a Michelada Obscura, but even then, a good cold beer is really all that is necessary as a starting point. Good beers were never intended to be diluted with melting ice. They become sodden and weak by the third sip. And yes — I sip — I don’t guzzle. Thank you for asking.
Honestly, I really don’t.
This has been a week of visits, traveling, and restaurants. Actually, it has been a couple of weeks of visits, but that is another story. It was great in many ways and I enjoyed the people I met, but then there were the episodes in restaurants that think well of themselves and those occasions when I crossed into the land of commercial homogeny. I don’t go there very often anymore and it is just as well.
It all started when I took my clients from Tabasco to Restaurante LU here in Morelia. I’ve heard good things about LU for quite a while and I have always wanted to try it. The location is great, right in the heart of Morelia Centro with a beautiful view of the Plaza Las Armas from the vantage point of a table in the Portales. The concept is spot on, putting the traditional dishes of Michoacán front and center with innovative touches. You would think in a city like Morelia, we would have a lot of elegant restaurants serving the best of Mexican cuisine, but frankly we don’t. Instead, the best places to try the special little things that make our region unique are more modest establishments. When you think about it, it makes sense. Morelia doesn’t have a lot foreign tourists. If you are a Mexican, even someone from out of town, the chance of you desiring an expensive meal that sounds like something your mother would make are small. So, when LU came along, it was to fill a special place.
I don’t want to seem too critical. What Restaurante LU did was re-establish the simple fact that there is a market for gourmet Mexican cuisine in Morelia. But to a degree, despite the best intentions of its executive chef and staff, the offering has now become mechanical and monotonous. At its heart, LU started as a stylish concept, but unfortunately, concepts can get stale when they are repeated over and over and over…
My specific example is the chile relleno con uchepo I ordered. My companions chose more conventional (and perhaps wiser) standard grill fare — arrachera and rib eye steak. Their meals arrived on wood platters with modest accompaniments. My chile arrived on a platter. The presentation was simple, perhaps a bit too simple, but that is not a problem by itself. I don’t need my food gussied-up, just well-prepared and good. But this was a poblano chile on a bed of mole negro with a topping of crema [period]. It wasn’t just simple, it was unimaginative in a high concept restaurant.
Ok, be that as it may, I had heard it was good and I wanted to try it. Traditionally, an uchepo is similar to a tamale except they are smaller, made with masa from fresh field corn and wrapped in green (not dry) corn husks or banana leaves. The masa dough is sometimes stiffened with a bit of masa harina, can include cheese or chiles, but uchepos don’t have fillings in the center like tamales often do. They are usually served with a bit of crema or tomatillo salsa but are not swimming in sauce. So, at LU, the dish I ordered is a fusion of an uchepo and a chile relleno with the chile serving in place of the fresh corn husk wrap and the ochepo taking the place of the traditional relleno filling.
As interesting as the idea might sound, this time the implementation was something else. Like many restaurants do, instead of roasting the poblano individually over an open flame to char and loosen the skin, they chose to use the deep fryer. I don’t fault the idea — it is a practical adaptation for commercial cooking — but then the chile was washed. I know this because it was tasteless. Normally, we wipe the skin and seeds from the fried green poblano. Washing or soaking just takes all the favor out of the chile and runs it down the drain. Then, there was the uchepo filling. It was a large mass that was dense, heavy and totally lacking any evidence of the cheese listed on the menu. I’m not sure how it was steamed, but if it was made from fresh corn masa or contained any, I couldn’t see any evidence of it. And finally, the filling was only warm and actually cold at the stem end. Sitting in a somewhat bland mole negro with copious quantities of crema on top — the favor was as featureless as the presentation.
I’ve had better, more traditional versions of uchepos at Mercado Independencia for a lot less cost. I was very disappointed, but my companions were happy, so I paid my bill and didn’t complain. I truly hope Restaurante LU will refresh its menu again soon and regularly there after. The concept is something we need, but when it becomes a mechanical exercise for the staff, the results are predictable.
The following weekend, I had to go to Leon for a meeting with a client. Leon has about the same population as Morelia, but spreads out across a plain instead of being restricted by surrounding hills. This results in a city that is large and has many small districts, each with its own character. My client was on the side of the city near Plaza Mayor, so I decided to stay at the Crowne Plaza.
The Crowne in Leon is a beautifully designed hotel with a stunning atrium in the center. I was impressed as I went to my room that Sunday evening. It was late to look for a place to eat, so I went down the restaurant on the ground floor. It is an airy space in the atrium with lots of tables, white tablecloths and a sushi bar off to one side. The menu was international with Mexican and Asian dishes. The list of options was huge. This is never a good sign in my experience. Too many dishes and too wide a span usually means it is difficult for the kitchen staff to be successful at anything. On a Sunday night, I had my doubts, because I knew the kitchen would be lightly staffed. I was the only guest in the restaurant.
Putting my doubts aside, I gazed at the menu and selected what was described as a mixture of seafood and vegetables, teriyaki-style. It seemed simple and unlikely to be a challenge for even a novice staff — or so I thought. What arrived at my table was a platter with a mound of rice sitting next to a large pile of mixed fresh vegetables and seafood, swimming in a deep puddle of soya sauce and water. The ingredients were good, but the execution was just a stir fry with no evidence of even a touch of teriyaki sauce, never mind the fact that it wasn’t cooked teriyaki style. It was late and I was tired. It wasn’t bad food, just bad execution and not what I asked for. I soldiered through it.
So, dinner finished, I asked for my bill. I signed it, put my room number on the bill and got up to leave. The waiter chased after me in a panic, saying I could not charge my bill to my room. Huh? I asked if the restaurant was part of the hotel. Yes, he assured me but I didn’t have a corporate voucher. Huh? In all the years I have stayed in hotels, in México, the US and Europe, I have never been told I had to have a corporate voucher to charge in-house services to my hotel bill. I had put the hotel room on an American Express Card. How could this be? I was tired and decided to just pay the bill with the same card I put the room on. I didn’t bother to tell anyone their rules were as strange as any I have ever heard and costing them a fee every time they ran a card rather than accumulating a bill.
To me, this sort of thing is just foolish. It puts a barrier between your clients and the services your establishment offers. I chalked it up to a Sunday night staff that was uninformed.
The next night, I decided to walk to Plaza Mayor and find someplace for dinner there. The Plaza is several blocks away from the hotel and in the middle of a large parking area that anyone walking has to cross to get to it. As I walked across the parking lot, I passed a Sirloin Stockade. Through the windows, I could see regimented rows of tables and chairs like you might find in a military cafeteria. A few guests were evident and the view was like looking at a version of Hopper’s Nighthawks. But the big surprise came when I walked by the front door. A large sign proclaimed that iPods, cellphones with cameras, cameras, and other digital devices were prohibited and would be confiscated if brought into the restaurant. Clients were to leave all these devices in their cars! Huh? So, if I was to decide to take someone to dinner at Sirloin Stockade (perhaps an appropriate name after all), I should not expect to record the occasion with a photo. It might disturb someone.
I can imagine this happened because someone complained about appearing in a photo taken by someone they didn’t know, that was put on a service like Facebook. Frankly, it sounds like a corporate legal department run amok. Although many people think the proliferation of cameras is something new, we might do well to remember the Kodak Brownie was introduced in 1900 for the princely sum of $1. From that point on, there has been a camera within the reach of everyone. At that time, the pictures usually ended up in a photo album, but in small towns that still meant anyone could find themselves in an album of a friend — the victim of a drive-by photo. Over one hundred years later, we call out the lawyers…
Why do we do these things to ourselves?
But my adventures didn’t stop there. The Leon Plaza Mayor itself is a large mall with many shops. Under a warehouse-style ceiling, the little clusters of shops inside look bare and unappealing. The food court on the second floor is bland and just didn’t make me want to sit there, alone, eating any of the variations of fast food that were offered around the edges. I decided to try Sanborns.
Sanborns is a sort of combination news stand, restaurant and department store. The food, while not outstanding, is at least reliable. I walked through the store and presented myself at the front. The restaurant was nearly empty. This evening was beginning to feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Where were all the people? A waitress came forward. She looked at me for a moment. Then she said, “How many are with you?” I looked around. There was no one beside me, behind me, or anywhere near. “I’m alone,” I said. She asked again, “How many will there be?” Now, I was just dumfounded. What was happening? I repeated myself. She stood there for a moment, the wings of her traditional uniform waggling on each side. She came back with the same question, “How many will be joining you?”
Obviously, she was right. This was wrong. I shrugged my shoulders and walked out.
I gave up. I walked through Sears, across the parking lot and across the busy street that bordered it. I went into VIPS. VIPS is a large coffee shop chain that serves a decent Mexican and burger menu. It isn’t great, but it is (again) reliable. You know what you are getting in the same way you know what you are getting when you go to Dennys. I had gone through enough. I just wanted something to eat and to get back to the hotel and to bed. At least there were a lot of patrons in the booths. It was a promising change.
I looked at the menu. I ordered my meal. The waitress asked what I would like to drink. A beer. I had visions of a cold beer after a long walk that offered little more than exercise. She brought the beer and a glass. She poured for me and walked away. I sipped and pulled it back to look. There, bobbing in the beer like three porpoises, were cubes of ice.
Did I mention I don’t like ice in my beer?
For remainder of the trip, I ate in local establishments. I was happy. I was back in the México I know.