The 80-mile stretch between Puerto Morelos and Punta Allen in the state of Quintana Roo, on the eastern side of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, form the corridor marketed as the Riviera Maya: a coastal strip with fine white sand bathed in every possible shade of water-colour turquoise from the Caribbean Sea. A place for long days on the beach soaking in the sun and nights strolling endless avenues of exotic, local cuisine.
The Riviera Maya’s rapid development can be felt in cities such as Playa del Carmen, where urban sprawl and business growth has effaced the idyllic fishing villages of just 15 years ago, turning “Playa” into the epicentre of the Riviera Maya. New settlers have historically been of foreign origin, with an influx of arrivals from Europe, Canada and Argentina. More than fifteen years ago it was the Italians and emigrants from Buenos Aires who blazed the trail, opening up small restaurants as extensions to their home cities. Places offering local dishes were downgraded to folkloric tourist traps, simple seafood joints or half-hidden premises along the streets branching off Playa’s Fifth Avenue, the city’s only pedestrian walkway.
Playa’s dizzying expansion over the past five years has not only brought in innumerable fast-food franchises, but also sparked a timely reappraisal of local ingredients, and the doors have opened to various new restaurants seeking inspiration from local flavours. The region’s cuisine is inseparable from Yucatecan ingredients such as bitter orange, chaya leaves, and annatto.
The habanero chili pepper, pickled red onion and dark recado - a traditional, heavily spiced Mayan sauce made with dried chili peppers and marinated radish - produce exciting blends by local cooks. The tropical paradise has also attracted celebrated chefs such as Jacques Pépin, who takes refuge in Riviera Maya for a couple of months every year, enjoying cooking and eating like a local. It’s no accident that several of Mexico’s top chefs have also taken an interest in the area. A Caribbean coastline that’s offering new gastronomic horizons.
COCINA DE AUTOR
The whimsical forms and textures of surrounding nature inspire the creative dishes served in this exclusive, reservation-only restaurant, where Xavier Pérez Stone combines traditional culinary methods such as smoking, tatemado (a method of searing the skins of chilies and tomatoes on a hot griddle to remove their skin and to add a delicately charred flavour to the final dish) and marinating, with the more contemporary spherification and freeze-drying techniques. The menu combines fantasy, beauty and precision, clearly drawing inspiration from cutting-edge Spanish cuisine and the fruit of tireless research into local ingredients and techniques. Cocina de Autor has now brought out a tasting menu in two versions—each with eight courses—taking diners on a journey of discovery into a New World of flavours.
Not-to-miss dish: Yellow-Lemon Fish, red snapper breaded with saffron, almond, yellow pepper and lemon; served on a bed of leek, xcatik chili and (finely crumbled) pork scratching. Complemented by a consommé of lemon and yellow fruit tea.
By exploring deep inside the hotel Azul Sensatori to find this restaurant, you will be rewarded with discovering one of the most breathtakingly innovative cuisines on the Riviera Maya. Following the trend of the most complex European restaurants, the tasting menu created by chef Jonatán Gómez Luna offers 20 experiences, from amuse-bouches to main dishes presented with unexpected twists and contrasts, all using the most sophisticated techniques. This season the menu begins with the ‘crackling’ of fish skin with flakes of local avocado and an emulsion of habanero chili oil, rounded off with lemon ash. Other signature dishes include the “Hamachi + Apple” ceviche, given a polar landscape look by the frosting around the plate and a cold consommé based on sea herbs.
Not-to-miss dish: Boquinete + aubergine + chilmole, diners will find it hard to predict the taste of fish impregnated with habanero oil resting on a purée of seared aubergine, served with smoked tortillas and the dark and spicy chilmole salsa.
ALMIRANTE PECH, Playa del Carmen
This beautifully designed restaurant is in one of the most attractive spots on the new, high-end section of Fifth Avenue. Run by the founding members of the now-legendary Santanera nightclub, good music and cocktails are guaranteed. But Almirante Pech is really all about the cuisine, riffing on Asian flavours, with hints of curry and soya, and more local dishes of pork loin marinated in black recado and cooked in a wood-fired oven, a perfect taco filling. Dishes such as ceviche, prepared with the catch of the dayand accompanied with avocado, cucumber, salicornia (or ‘sea beans’), and a salsa made using chaya leaves and bitter orange, or the Thai Pech tuna, prepared with sautéed bok choy and warm carrot sauce, all bear the hallmarks of chef Jair Téllez (Merotoro, Mexico City), the group’s cuisine consultant. And if you get the munchies on a night out, be sure to visit the Santaquera, a taco joint located on the same premises.
Not-to-miss dish: Panuchos, two glorious, inflated tortillas stuffed with refried beans, sautéed crab with pieces of kastakán - Yucatecan-style pork scratchings with some soft meat still attached.
MAIZ DE MAR, Playa del Carmen
This restaurant’s beautiful name refers to the core ingredients of this coastal cuisine: fish and corn. This is the place to come for whitefish, crispy tortillas and a specialty corn-and-seafood pozole prepared here with Yucatecan pork. The local corn variety (maíz criollo) is used even combined with cacao, mint and lemon to prepare the refreshing juices. One of the stand-out items are the seafood cocktails: octopus with annatto and bitter orange, or the tasty scallops with flakes of fresh coconut, grated lemon and dusted in chilli salt. Order several of these dishes to share. Moving onto dry land, be sure to try the skinless pork with orange and tamarind. The restaurant has a fish market-themed interior and terrace design. The celebrated chef Enrique Olvera is the author of the menu and oversees every aspect of the restaurant's activities.
Not-to-miss dish: Fish à la Tikin Xic, marinated in annatto and cooked over burning coals, this is one of the most traditional recipes in the local fishing villages. Normally accompanied by fried plantain, beans and tortillas.
At first glance, this idyllic, open-air restaurant might just seem to be simply another boutique offering along the Tulum strip. However, besides the soft lighting with kerosene lamps, and the aroma of copal incense, its secret lies in how New Yorker Erick Werner and his wife have learned from the Mayan community about local ingredients, crop-growing techniques, functional architecture, and above all, their enthusiasm working with the fertile soil under the hot Caribbean sun. Hartwood, which opened four years ago, is the result of this learning process. Apart from the fresh salads—jícama with toasted pumpkin seed and orange—most of the dishes are prepared in a wood-fired oven to produce smoky flavours and a rich effect of cooking over an open fire. Warner creates an extraordinary balance and subtlety using local ingredients such as the habanero chili to create delicate salsas. Everything here is prepared by hand, a daily challenge, and considering that the restaurant only uses solar energy, supplies are determined by the daily catch. Vegetables come from a farm in the Valladolid hills, a two-hour drive away. A one-of-a-kind experience.
Not-to-miss dish: Barbecued ribs with agave, served on a bed of spinach and pineapple. Accompanied with roasted plantain and local Mayan honey.