The sand is powdery soft and brilliantly white, it gets into everything and that is totally fine by me. It sticks to my feet, my coral-colored toes extremely happy in nothing but flip flops these wonderful, gloriously long, 10 days. I know you’re chilly as you read this and I am truly sorry. The wet Sonoma winter already seems long and here it is still January. I was cold, too. The Florida girl in me needed to escape the incessant rains and Mexico was sounding like just the spot to do so.
I wandered across a snapshot online a couple of years back. It was of a dreamy looking, thatched roof, beach bar and restaurant, complete with wood burning oven where whole snappers roast and a pastel rainbow of local, tropical juices in thick glass bottles grace the bar. I saved the image to my desktop and every so often I pulled it up, gazing at it longingly, vowing that I would find that beach bar and one day I would sit there. I would eat that whole fish. I would drink that pale pink cocktail. I would be warm.
As it turns out, that beach bar is in the tiny Mexican beach town of Tulum. About an hour south of Cancun, the Caribbean Sea here gently undulates in shades of turquoise and emerald, and feels ridiculously good, just warm enough this time of year to languish in, but cool enough to stave off the strong rays of the hot Yucatan sun.
I am a few years late discovering Tulum, it seems. Throngs of European hippies and hipsters got here first. Topless models strut about as if on the catwalk and fedora-topped, über artsy folk lounge dramatically on the endless rows of wooden daybeds that dot the wide, white beach in front of their ‘eco chic’ hotels. Speaking of hotels, don’t expect air conditioning or even round-the-clock electricity. What you can expect is so much better: soaring, palapa-style cabañas perched right on that powder white sand.
I woke each morning to a tranquil hush, heavy in the early morning air for the exception of the strange, hypnotic songs of a jungle-dwelling black bird. I ogled the rising sun from my bed as it cast faint copper hues on the sea, witnessing the beach awaking each dazzling morning. And, I was warm…oh, and a bit mosquito-y.
We sip on something all day. At breakfast; dark, rich, hot coffee which arrives in chunky ceramic mugs, little pots of brown sugar and thick, steamed milk on the side, and then just-picked and just-squeezed juices of every possible tropical variety. Coco frio — whole, young coconuts hawked by strolling beach vendors, hacked open amazingly with the thud of a dull machete — are fun and refreshing, particularly as the salt bakes on our sun-warmed skin.
I’m immediately addicted to my afternoon go-to; a Viennese-style café frappé. I haven’t had one of these yummy concoctions since a twenty-something stint in that elegant European city. The best one in Tulum town (as opposed to Tulum beach) can be found at Le Bistro, an excruciatingly atmospheric café on a dusty side street owned by a charming French expat. I am afraid once stateside I will crave this desperately, potent espresso shaken assertively with crushed ice and milk, a frothy, icy concoction that was especially tasty when I allowed a heavy-handed drizzle of Mexican chocolate.
As the sun sets each evening, the sky is streaked in soft hues of pale pink and dusty orange and then is set afire in waves of burnt amber. The decision to then sip either tequila and just-pressed passionfruit juice or the coldest glasses of amazingly good, white wines from Baja is the most difficult choice I’ve struggled to make that day.
As if Tulum couldn’t be more of a paradise, the food here is extraordinary. My first bite was of a simple beet. With only that bite I knew that me and Tulum would be getting along just fine. The beet in question just so happened to be found at the aforementioned beach bar, interestingly named, the Hartwood. So, this super talented chef from New York City decides to up and leave his post at some fancy city spot to open what is easily the most achingly beautiful restaurant on the planet. Oh, and grow a very long beard.
Never before have I dined in a more enchanting space. It is nothing more than a wide-open kitchen flanked by an imposing stone oven, but each detail has been meticulously devised. The scene is movie set perfection. Wooden crates are piled high with unusual fruits and vegetables, twinkling candles are everywhere, long tapers sunk in sand, shielded from the breezes by thin glass hurricanes. There is no roof. There are no walls. There may not even be refrigeration, but there is food that will literally blow your mind.
The menu at Hartwood is artfully written on a tall slate board, most of which changes daily with the whim of the chef and more than likely with what the small fishing boats pull from the Caribbean. Each dish we gobble is more shockingly delicious than the one before it and solely worth the trip to Tulum, even if that sexy, green-blue sea weren’t right there. A dish so ridiculously delicious we ordered it several times, was a platter of tender octopus. Its skin so charred in the wood-burning oven that I coined it “pulpo perfection.” Those beets were nothing but simple roasted beets, but – oh my – they were so earthy and so unbelievably sweet. I had summer-in-Sonoma flashbacks when digging into a salad of heirloom ‘Indian’ tomatoes, salty Cojita cheese and tiny radish sprouts. An amazing treat since it has been nearly three months since a tomato has passed these lips. This food somehow manages to be American in its sensibilities, but somehow manages to feel authentically Mexican here.
To read part two of my adventures in Tulum, tune in next week.
Inspired by the Hartwood
Put all ingredients in a shaker, and shake together. Strain into a large stemmed glass filled with ice and garnish with sprig of fresh mint.
On the Menu
The Oxbow Public Market is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a five-day party from January 21 to January 25, and everyone is invited. Enjoy daily $5 merchant specials, live music, and drawings for great prizes nightly from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The week culminates with a birthday party bash on Friday, January 25 featuring complimentary birthday cake and ice cream from The Model Bakery and Three Twins Ice Cream. For all the details visit oxbowpublicmarket.com.
Visit LaSalette for “Crab Steusday” each Tuesday evening. It’s a complete crab dinner for $35. This special meal will include a hearts of romaine salad, garlic buttered penne pasta with Topo cheese, Mom’s amazing Portuguese spiced crab stew, garlic bread and a choice of their house made ice creams or sorbets. The crab is made fresh and in limited quantities. If interested, it is highly recommended that guests call 938.1927 and make a reservation.
Napa’s The Kitchen Door hosts another craft beer dinner with 21st Amendment Brewery on Monday, February 11, at 6:15 p.m. Each of the five-courses will be paired perfectly with a different beer and there will be a discussion on each. The cost is $70, inclusive of gratuity. Seats are extremely limited. Reservations can be made by calling 226.1560.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected].