I didn’t want to leave Mandarina, Hotel Casa Tortuga’s restaurant. I went on my last night, after my travel companion left, and sat under the palapa, on the rooftop bar with a mezcal cocktail and read 50 Shades of Grey (nope, still don’t get the hype) by the light of hanging lanterns and the full moon. I went again the next day and sat on a plush white couch facing the ocean, and enjoyed a green juice and a salad. It was a glorious return to raw vegetables (onion and cilantro taco toppings aside) after two weeks. But dinner was the meal that really knocked my flip-flops off.
I don’t eat a lot of fancy meals in Mexico. Which doesn’t mean that I have something against Mexican food in a fine dining context like some taco-heads do. It’s just that in the Bay Area the options to eat fresh, affordable food in an unpretentious environment are few in far between, while in Mexico they are everywhere. But we were lucky to meet the team behind Mandarina over a beer on the beach, and decided we were due to comb our hair and put on real clothes anyway.
Chef Jorge Melul opened Mandarina in 2011 after selling his Italian-Argentinian restaurant in Buenos Aires for a turn at island life. The food is a blend of the chef’s upbringing in his mom’s kitchen, the hotel owner’s Italian roots, and Holbox’s seasonal ingredients. It’s mediterranean meets the Caribbean. Picture papaya jam with homemade pastries for breakfast, shrimp tacos with plantain-tortillas for lunch, ravioli stuffed with chaya (a Yucatecan green) for dinner.
Typically “fusión” in Mexico is Spanish for don’t eat at this place. Mexican food is already a fusion of old and new world ingredients. I think that by going deeper into regional cooking traditions a chef would ultimately reveal just as many interesting combinations and flavors as they would reaching outward. But if anyone can convince me that there’s room for both it might be Chef Melul, armed with his huitlacoche brioche.
The brioche, a starter on the dinner menu, was crispy on the outside and almost bread pudding-like inside, filled with huitlacoche (a corn fungus considered the Mexican truffle), mushrooms and covered with truffle sauce. I’ve never had anything like it. The pescado al pastor with a surprisingly tasty side of pineapple-mashed potatoes was another well-played medley.
Mandarina is one of the few places on the island with organic cuisine, and is currently building an organic farm for the restaurant. “What I’ve learned in my four years on the island is how to make high quality meals sourcing only from the ingredients we have here,” he said. “I’ve learned to really cook with lobster and octopus. I go buy fresh fish every morning and talk to the fishermen. Sometimes I get fish that they say no one buys, that’s ugly or there’s no market for, but I come back and cook it, and then other restaurants catch on.”
The service here, headed by Gonzalo Dayo, is top notch. Our food was paced expertly, a hard task after starting with something so rich. Dayo, originally from DF, said it would be difficult to imagine going back to work in a fine dining establishment in a city, and it’s not hard to see why. I would much rather eat truffle sauce facing the beach, served by a guy in cut-offs and flip flops.
Upstairs there’s a cold bar and terrace offering sushi, and a mezcal and tequila bar. I found the drinks upstairs to be much more interesting than downstairs. The view of the beach is spectacular from any seat.
Call or go by to make a reservation.
Hotelito Casa Las Tortugas
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