Escape from Cancún | Mexico
When I mention Cancún to my 23-year-old stepson, he pumps the air with his fist and says, "Señor Frog's! Spring break! Party, dude!" He is referring—jokingly, of course—to the bar that's the Mexican nexus of Girls Gone Wild, the reason many sane people run screaming when someone mentions "vacation" and "Cancún" in the same sentence.
Cancún, however, is also home to a stretch of luxury resorts designed to shield grown people from girls (or anyone else) going wild. In fact, Cancún's hotel zone—a 13-mile-long coastal island across a causeway from the fairly dispirited downtown—can sometimes seem like the world's largest gated community. Often there is an eerie hush to the streets near the resorts, as most of the tourists stay on the fortresslike properties all day, lounging by the pool or on the gorgeous beaches, until the sun goes down and it's time to go to one of the chain restaurants, like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the Hard Rock Cafe or even Señor Frog's. The good news: With the arrival of Fiesta Americana's new Grand Aqua resort, everyone's dining prospects are much improved.
Set atop a steep driveway, Aqua is making a clear bid to be the new king of the hill. It announces its themes the moment you enter: It is about water, luxury and service. An army of waitstaff in white tunics stands at attention in the marble lobby. Large windows provide a stunning view of the sea and many infinity pools (cool, warmer, warmest). Outside, the white beach is immaculate and never overcrowded, even in high season. Shaded cabanas with double beds are tidy, inviting and always stocked with fresh towels. On the hotel's plaza, a tai chi instructor goes through his slow-motion dance. Two scarlet macaws fly from the arms of one trainer to another's. In my room, a card informs me that there are eight kinds of pillows for my sleeping enjoyment (including the several nice ones already on the bed). I need only dial a few numbers to have them, or pretty much anything else I should desire, delivered. My husband and I almost didn't leave the grounds, but in the end we couldn't be this close to Chichén Itzá and not go see the Mayan architecture from circa A.D. 900. But we followed that five-hour round-trip excursion with a run right home to those pillows.
Aqua's real coup, however, was snagging two renowned chefs for its restaurants. As a result, the resort offers something relatively rare in Cancún—serious eating. Siete is the province of Patricia Quintana, one of Mexico's best-known chefs and cookbook authors. This is the only place outside of her Mexico City restaurant, Izote, where you can taste her wonderful osso buco (in this case, served with a red pipián sauce and polenta). Most of the other dishes were tasty, if unspectacular, perhaps because Quintana has toned down dishes in her desire to introduce tourists to her native cuisine. Seven floor-to-ceiling columns feature images of modern Mexican icons such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the soaring windows, with their ocean views, infuse the place with a sense of privilege and serenity.
The second chef is Michelle Bernstein, formerly of the buzzy Azul at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami, who has opened what she is calling her signature restaurant, MB. (She plans to launch another restaurant in Miami next year.) Inside are black-granite floors and the kind of flagstone wall and oval amber lights you might have found in Frank Sinatra's house in Palm Springs. At MB, we knew we were off to a good start when we tasted the consommé. This golden brown broth with bits of foie gras and duck contained a lovely surprise in almost every spoonful—sprouts, watercress, lemongrass, a hint of mint, caramelized shallots. A crispy snapper with pickled ginger and basil was set off by the heat of kimchi and the kick of fish sauce. Bernstein's desserts are perhaps more standard. Chocolate with 3 Textures left us speculating about which slice of chocolate was which texture, and when you're playing guessing games with dessert, you are not being transported by what you're eating.
Leaving Cancún, we headed south, stopping after an hour's drive, in Playa del Carmen, a smaller seaside resort town on a much more human scale, though with a slightly cheesy style. (That's soon to change: Mandarin Oriental and Fairmont are both building luxury hotel properties nearby.) Another hour south down the coastal road is Tulúm, still a dusty, provincial town despite its lovely coastline and popularity with American yoga students and serenity-seekers. (If you live on the west side of either Los Angeles or Manhattan, you may well run into someone you know in yoga pants at one of the little thatched bungalows that dot the beaches.) The Mayan ruins here, while not as impressive or written-about as those at Chichén Itzá, near Cancún, are still spectacular, set high on cliffs overlooking the sea. It's possible to stand among them and imagine what it must have been like to see the Spanish fleet approaching in the 16th century.
Though it may seem strange to anyone who's been to Tulúm, which is emphatically not known for good restaurants, our real reason for coming was to eat dinner. We were looking for a place called Hechizo (Spanish for enchantment), which we had heard was sensational. Finding the restaurant turned out to be a bit of a task. It was dark when we got going, since Hechizo does not begin serving till sunset. The already humble road became a rutted dirt path. Every half-mile we ran over a handmade speed bump in the form of thick cords of manila rope laid down by the locals. The road got funkier—more like a washboard—and darker. Had we passed the restaurant? We were looking for the private road into Rancho San Eric, a small community of private-estate houses right on the beach. We were driving truly off the grid, into a part of town with no electricity, where everyone who wants light owns a generator or makes use of solar or wind power. Finally, we found the road, parked in sand and followed a path lit by bulbs in conch shells. We couldn't see a sign for the restaurant. By the time we reached the dining room and saw the welcoming lights (inventively made of bulbs in candy jars and old glass buoys), it was clear that Hechizo is the sort of place that achieves its magic not through scads of money but purely through the ingenuity of its creators: chef Stefan Schober, 30, and his wife, Ying-Hui (known as Hui), the pastry chef, 29.
Stefan, born to Austrian parents, was raised in Mexico City. While still in his teens, he went to Salzburg to study cooking. He eventually wound up in Singapore, at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia, where he worked with Hui. After they were married, they moved to Tulúm, where Stefan's parents live. With his parents' help, the Schobers designed and built nearly every part of the restaurant themselves, from the glowing bar (lit by lamps made from glass buoys that Stefan and his mother found on the beach after a hurricane), to the irregular wooden beams that hold up the roof. They opened on Christmas Eve 2003.
There is no menu; instead, Stefan comes to each of the nine handmade tables, kneels on the floor and tells his customers what he's cooking that night. He offers up some signature dishes, such as a watermelon and mild Mexican goat cheese salad. Stefan makes a lighter version of the classic Mexican pork and hominy soup, posole, using fish stock and lobster; shredded lettuce and sliced radishes cut through the heat of the habanero chiles, as do the hominy and soothing strips of tortilla. He tops another dish, prawns seared in olive oil, with a brilliant pepper sauce made of demi-glace, soy sauce, black pepper and butter. ("An idea Stefan stole from a Singapore dressing for crab," says Hui.) For dessert, we were floored by Hui's pineapple soup—white discs of fruit in a cool coriander broth. Watching Stefan, the lone chef, and the quality of his intense concentration as he chops, spices and fries in his open kitchen is almost like observing something private; you think you should look away.
There's a beautiful sense of isolation to Hechizo that permeates everything. Each day, Hui makes her desserts early in the morning while Stefan leaves at 6 a.m. to drive to Playa del Carmen or Cancún to buy his fish—up to a four-hour round-trip. He comes back and gets to work in the kitchen while she sets the tables. If a curious beachcomber should look in, Hui goes out to tell him or her about the restaurant, to spread the word. The night we were there, one couple had come from Miami to celebrate their 30th anniversary. At another table, a couple was dining there for the fourth night in a row. And though we were flying home the next afternoon, we knew that one day we would be coming back as well. This is the kind of restaurant where, at the end of the meal, you can't bear to think it will be the last time.
Laurie Winer is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times food section.