Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hotel Esencia Estate, Riviera Maya, Mexico

I'm at my desk, looking out at the jungle of the Riviera Maya through a plate glass window the size of King Kong's palm. The Esencia Estate near Tulum? Pretty awesome.

The in-room speaker system is playing a mix of Euro-chill, Feist, Aretha Franklin, Missy Elliott, indigenous folk, Madonna, Nina Simone, and jazz via iPod playlist. Note the enormous pocket doors to my private palapa porch. Sweet.

My giant bathroom features a giant pocket door, which leads out to my private soaking tub. Beautifulness.

Although I will complain that my tub never got truly warm until the last morning I was there, despite repeated requests to have it turned on and left on for specific periods of time. Weird, because the service at Esencia is otherwise amazing.

Terrific selection of useful things, left for guests' use, in one of the guestroom cabinets: snorkel hoses, bug spray, big flashlight, and incense burners.

Next to my computer, on which the wireless is working beautifully, there is a glass of Don Julio tequila and soda on ice, procured from the pool bar without need for cash or credit card, 'cause they know my by my room name, Mentha (mint).

This is what breakfast at the pool bar looks like, btw.

This is what it feels like. 

Over on the bar above the fridge stocked with complimentary beer, water, juice and soda, is a bottle of great Ikal malbec and a a little tray of fruit, brought to my room as a welcome gift shortly after checking in. 

Never mind the icy glass of lemonade handed to me as I was given a tour of the premises, part of the check-in process. Which went like this:

The private car I hired from Cancun turns into driveway for Esencia, whose entrance is decidedly not bombastic, monstrous, or ostentatious like most of the overdone resort entrances on highway 307 from Cancun to Tulum. It's just over an hour by car from Puerto Juarez to Hotel Esencia.

USA Transfers is a great private car company recommended by Mapchick, and they gave the best price of 4 different companies from whom I requested quotes via email. My driver was super nice and the trip felt faster than it was.

The car is stopped at an unassuming checkpoint, and my name is confirmed against a guest registry by a smiling lady. Car proceeds down a jungly driveway, arriving at the opening to a jungly path. If you're lucky, you'll spot a sereque, a lovely local critter that frequents the jungles of the Riviera Maya.

Porters take my luggage, a staff member escorts me down this jungly, delightful path, and I am handed off to a member of the reception team who speaks terrific English. I attempt to practice my Spanish on him and it is inwardly very hilarious for me. He takes it super gracefully as we walk down beautiful, manicured -- but not too manicured -- paths through the estate.

I am taken around the property to the different resort elements. First, the Aroma SPA, housed in a giant palapa with no sharp corners, only rounded edges on the walls within to maximize energy flow. Do I care if this is hokum or not? No. I prefer to believe that it is real. That is my privilege as a snooty spagoer. You either believe the hokum or you don't. Me? I'm a Mulder. I want to believe.

Then, I'm led to the main house of the estate, which was owned by an Italian duchess at one point. Oh man, is it private here. Long, jungly paths; lush, green expanses of lawn; a sizeable garden which supplies the spa with aloe, citrus, and more; and a colonial Spanish-looking center of activity, which houses a large living room, a smaller TV lounge, a veranda, and a concierge desk.

We walk out to the main lawn, where there is a yoga tent to the left, two swimming pools out by the beach, a pool bar, and little private mini palapas with nice, solid beach loungers on the beach.

Only the kids' pool is heated (pictured). The adult pool is not. It's January.

Why isn't the adult pool heated? That seems crazy to me at a resort this fancy. Still, it's very, very beautiful. And there were a grand total of two -- just TWO -- children the whole 3 days I was there, and they were probably the best behaved little nuggets I've ever seen (aside from The Shop Tart's children, who are the most well behaved on earth).

Ceviche. Margarita. View. Boom.

Dinner at the highly atmospheric restaurant, housed under a grand palapa, is fairly top notch. Much better than the resort norm, and definitely more like fine dining in a major city. Live music. Friendly, professional servers. Fantastic cuisine.

Except the wine list is terrible. I don't know how they are getting away with that. Columbia Crest? Seriously? Hence the Modelo beer with this excellent dish.

The crescent-shaped beach at Esencia, with super soft sand, personal palapas + sunbeds, is sweet. Very few other hotels nearby, so it feels remote in a good way. A little rocky in the water, though. Not as swimworthy as Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, for example. The sea at Xpu-Ha is really quite fierce compared to the calm, tranquil waters of Playa Norte.

More time to chillax in your palapa, I suppose.

Monday, January 7, 2013

El Varadero Cuban restaurant, Isla Mujeres

Our dinner at El Varadero is going to haunt me. And not just because the owner's name is Superman and he makes the best mojitos on Isla Mujeres.

This is Superman.

We first heard about El Varadero from a millionaire stock trader-turned-yacht owner from NY, who gave us a ride in his golf cart from the Fenix bar to Fayne's on Hidalgo one night last weekend. (His stories were excellent. We 100% do not care if they were true.)

He's been coming to Isla for over a decade. Over cocktails at Fayne's, a place where the partyrific retiree set goes to get obliterated on 2 for 1 drinks, we asked Mike about his top 3 restaurants on Isla Mujeres.

After citing Casa Rolandi (liked it) and Lolo Lorena underground restaurant (loved it), thus confirming that he had good taste, Mike told us, "Ohhhh, and there's this AMAZING Cuban place on the island, but it's down a dirt road." 

Did he know how to get there? 

"Oh, I could find it on my golf cart, but I couldn't tell you where it is from memory." 

Great. How were we going to find the awesome Cuban place down the dirt road? 

Soon thereafter, from a totally different source, we heard about -- yes -- a Cuban place, down an old dirt road, on the water, called El Varadero. It was posted in the Hollyeats restaurant review site, and we had also heard recs from some very awesome fellow diners at the Lolo Lorena supperclub the other night.

Note: this is a different place than El Veradero de Oscar, about which I posted last year!

First, I present the amazing Torta Cubana at El Varadero. It was a towering, glistening, crunchy pile of awesomeness that cannot be described adequately.

The chicken fricassee was amazeballs.

It's on the menu under the Pork Chonks.


There's a reason Superman is known for his mojitos.

Who do we run into at El Varadero? None other than Chef Lolo of Lolo Lorena Supperclub.
That's Lolo on the right. She likes to party.

Spicy shrimp, recommended by Lolo, did not disappoint. Would love to be eating another pile of these right now.

Could it get more charming? Right on Makax Bay, a secret hidey sliver of sea protected by mangrove forest.

Derek and Debi with their vacation game faces on.

That's a big oven that makes delicious things come out of it.

Can't wait to sit by the bay and  put the hurt on some more mojitos next January!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cochinita Pibil & Tortilla Factory, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

This morning, we kicked off day three of the Flock and Rally Annual Winter Company Retreat on Isla Mujeres, Mexico with a trip to the cochinita pibil man at the public market. First, we took a company photo to commemorate the occasion. That's Cancun in the background. We are far from there, on lovely Playa Norte, on an island whose southern tip is the easternmost point in Mexico. Super rad.

The cochinita pibil vendors are only at the public market on Sunday mornings, although the breakfast and lunch places out front are open daily. Our favorite cochinita pibil vendor is from Valladolid, the original home of the sour orange + achiote suckling pig, roasted in banana leaves, that is such a Yucatecan culinary standard. Cochinita pibil is basically pulled pork, but the juiciness and savoriness are far beyond most Carolinian varieties. Sorry y'all, but it's true.

Rick Bayless may be too famous a chef to have any hipster cred, but I did a big Mexican recipe project for a client in the mid-00s, requiring me to review a lot of his recipe work, and I learned that his recipes are pretty authentic, almost on par with the demi-goddess of Mexican recipe writing for Anglos, Diana Kennedy.

Here's Bayless' recipe for cochinita pibil:

The guy at the Isla Mujeres public market is the o.g., and if you don't get there by 9 on Sunday morning, you're SOL. Last year, we got there at 7:30am and had unlimited pork magic access. This year, we got there on the late side and were able to get plenty of tasty, tiny tacos from the magic man -- but there was not enough pork to get a kilo to go.

No fear! Across the hall is the way less popular cochinita pibil vendor, who still had plenty. Honestly, it's still really quite good. We got a mess of fixins and fresh juices from the jugo ladies, from pineapple-chaya leaf to carrot-beet-apple to grapefruit, so we can make palomas and grapefruit-cilantro-tequila margaritas, modeled after Josh at Motor Supply and his killer cocktail recipes. Our haul:

Oh, and those tortillas? So hot and fresh from the tortilla press that they were uncomfortable to hold in one hand for very long. Props to Debi's man Derek for carrying them back to the condo at Ixchel for us. Loud machine, cheap tortillas! Our stack, above, cost 10 pesos (that's 8.5 cents at the current exchange rate, roughly).

Now that we've had tacos, we're getting some work done. Our penthouse roof garden makes a swell office.

This is where we hang out at night. Big ups to Rod at the Ixchel Beach Hotel for helping us select the unit with the new hot tub, which actually gets hot up to 100 degrees -- unlike pretty much every other hot tub on the island.

Roof access via spiral stairs.

Time to start on some of those fresh juices. With a little Corralejo reposado tequila thrown in. After all, it's 5 o'clock somewhere.