by Marc d’Entremont
Slow braised, banana leaf wrapped Angus beef short ribs, or vegan tofu and hazelnut stuffed beetroot to fresh shucked oysters topped with raw quail egg, caviar and sea urchin, the Festival Gourmet International showcased Mexico’s new world cuisine. For twenty-two years Puerto Vallarta – a food tourism powerhouse – has hosted the festival attracting an eclectic and enthusiastic mix of international and Mexican chefs eager to turn the nation’s premium food products into culinary art works. Among many highlights in the 2016 festival were high profile vegan events and fine wines from Baja’s Valle de Guadeloupe.
Unlike most culinary festivals, Puerto Vallarta’s Festival Gourmet International stretches over eleven days with dozens of events including one-time themed dinners and brunches, wine and tequila tastings to cooking classes and lunches with quest chefs. Participating restaurants throughout the city offered nightly festival menus ranging from Pakistani to vegan prepared by guest chefs.
More than one first time visitor to Puerto Vallarta and the festival commented on how they had “no idea” cuisine in Mexico was so varied. The name of one popular American icon of Tex-Mex food was often cited. Like an amuse bouche, here are highlights that ought to entice you to attend the 23rd festival in November 2017.
Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel
It’s cocktail hour at Puerto Vallarta’s Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel and mixologist Aaron Pantoja knows that a good chocolate martini begins with chocolate. Carefully hand coating the inside of a chilled martini glass with semi-sweet melted chocolate is typical of the attention to detail that hallmarks Puerto Vallarta hospitality.
Villa Premiere, a major festival sponsor, hosted two guest chefs: Dante Ferrero from Argentina, now Monterrey, and Tomas Fernandez Cortina from Guadalajara.
Chef Dante Ferrero, born in northwest Patagonia, has lived in Monterrey, Mexico, for over a decade and owns four Argentine Mexican fusion restaurants. His classic open fire outdoor asado of beef (slow grilled) was a true example of nose to tail preparation. Villa Premiere’s themed grill and beach festival evening paired an array of small plates with flickering candles illuminating the waterfront.
For the Villa Premiere‘s ocean front La Ceiba restaurant, Chef Tomas Cortina created the festival’s first special breakfast menu. From over a dozen offerings available during the festival, grilled prosciutto with peppered melon was a nice balance of salty, sweet and spice as well as attractive to the eye on a black slate plate. Papaya gazpacho with melon, passion fruit and strawberries topped with candied lemon zest and lemon marmalade was an inspired variation on the traditional fruit plate. A breakfast dish worthy of an international food festival – I had it twice – was a benedict of poached eggs over crab with paprika sauce topping a flaky biscuit on a bed of baby spinach, pepper salad and accompanied by half a fried soft shell crab.
Besides creating a mid-Europa inspired festival menu, young German guest Chef Andreas Fischer mentors culinary student interns from Universidad Techologica at Deux Mec. In all of Swiss owner/chef Michael Ferrari’s Puerto Vallarta ventures, his mantra is local ingredients, European cooking techniques.
Chef Fischer imparts his own distinctive flavor note in his Deux Mec festival menu. His dishes are recognizable ingredients with complex flavor layers that contrast yet ultimately meld giving new definition to a taste experience. Take the sweetness of thinly sliced cold roast veal loin on coarse pumpernickel bread with tart pickled cubes of beets. Mild asparagus and white fish filet napped with hollandaise sauce topped bitter arugula salad.
Each of the five courses was paired with a Mexican wine chosen to compliment the contrasting flavors. An extraordinary Monte Xanic cabernet franc from Mexico’s Valle de Guadeloupe was smooth and dry with notes of sweet tobacco and ripe red berries. It blended the sweet and piquant flavors of chef Fischer’s oxtail and cabbage rolls.
El Dorado Restaurant & Beach Club
El Dorado Restaurant & Beach Club’s Chef Memo Wulff and guest Chef Sonia Montaro showcased an amazing array of northwest Mexican coast seafood at the themed brunch for the closing event of the 22nd Festival Gourmet International. Both the Bahia de Banderas and Baja’s Gulf of California are supermarkets for fresh fish and seafood. The El Dorado featured dozens of dishes including oysters (raw and grilled) octopus (grilled and in empanadas) marlin tacos and a variety of fresh ceviches.
I never liked margarita cocktails until traveling to Puerto Vallarta. In Mexico they are true adult drinks rather than alcoholic sugar syrups over shaved ice. The world’s leading tequila distiller and major festival sponsor, Patron, consistently projected a sophisticated image for Mexico’s national drink. At the El Dorado a dash of floral notes in the French liquor St. Germain, distilled with elderflowers, paired well with Patron Silver tequila and fresh lime.
Restaurant Coco Tropical
Chef Heinz Reize has owned the beautiful oceanfront Coco Tropical on the Malecon for years and is a co-founder of Puerto Vallarta’s Festival Gourmet International. Coco Tropical guest chef Luis Noriega’s international career has taken him from Acapulco, Europe, Chef/Professor and owner of Restaurant La Guia in Zihuatanejo. Chef Noriega conducted a daytime cooking class and lunch at Coco Tropical, one of a dozen such daytime festival events hosted by leading restaurants and hotels.
The inspired festival menu for Coco Tropical included grilled oysters over wilted spinach with chipotle hollandaise sauce. Seared sesame crusted tuna topped peppermint scented vermicelli. Angus beef short ribs were dry rubbed with chilies and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and slow braised until fork tender creating its own sauce from the natural juices. This rich dish deserved a new world cuisine accompaniment of whipped yellow sweet potatoes infused with orange zest.
The dish was superbly paired with a Spanish petit verdot imported by Va de Vinos. This new import company is quickly adding to Mexico’s reputation for embracing fine wines. The deep berries of the petit verdot melded with the rich natural sauce of the braised beef.
Café des Artistes
Chef Thierry Blouet is one of the original founders of the Festival Gourmet International. This multi lingual Puerto Rico born French expat has made Mexico and Puerto Vallarta his home for decades. The quality of his restaurants have justifiably gained Chef Blouet celebrity status leading with his flagship Café des Artistes located in the heart of historic Puerto Vallarta. For the festival Chef Blouet gave center stage to vegan cuisine.
Swiss guest chef Christian Krebs took on the challenge of uplifting vegan dishes from boredom status. Smiling broadly he said with great conviction that all foods taste interesting with a good recipe and well prepared. Chef Krebs uses multiple ingredients creating layers of flavor in recipes such as a sushi roll with quinoa, papaya and avocado and pairs this with a wasabi scented soya based panna cotta. Delicate rice flour crepes held a fragrant filling of sautéed tofu and spinach seasoned with vegetable and herb reductions. Thin slices of sautéed eggplant, onions, tomato and herbs were arranged in individual timbale molds and baked melding the flavors into an eye-appealing dish.
Preceding lunch was a tasting of four excellent Rivero Gonzalez Valle de Parras (Coahuila) Mexican wines all 100% varietals – white cabernet sauvignon, syrah, red cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These and a selection of Spanish wines imported by Va de Vinos graced the tables at Cafe des Artistes festival dinner.
Under the magical glow of twinkling lights in the outdoor jungle garden room, Puerto Vallarta dined vegan at Café des Artistes themed event dinner. To top an evening that included live opera, festival sponsor Petron ended the dinner by offering all attending a glass of the world’s most expensive tequila – the silky smooth, brandy-like Gran Petron Burdeos.
Mikado at Casa Magna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa
Chef Hiroshi Kawahito of Restaurant Zoku in Mexico City epitomizes the international trend in Mexican cuisine. Born in Japan, grew up in Los Angeles, Chef Hiroshi returned to his home country after university studies in architecture. Drawn to Japanese cooking he honed his skills over a decade and a half before returning to Los Angeles.
Despite a successful Los Angeles restaurant experience, Mexico attracted Hiroshi, and Zoku offered a venue for his imaginative new Japanese cuisine. During the festival, he was quest chef at the Japanese/pan-Pacific Rim restaurant Mikado. The up-scale hibachi design of the restaurant allowed workshop participants an up front and close experience of Chef Kawahito’s imaginative preparations.
A Wagyu beef (raised in Durango, Mexico) rib eye was seared, thinly sliced and topped by raw sea urchin drizzled with truffle oil. Crispy panko crusted giant shrimp from Baja waters rested on a tartar sauce seasoned with Japanese 7 spice. My personal favorite was fresh-shucked local oysters topped with raw quail egg, caviar and sea urchin. All were paired with premium sakes.
Food & Art Fest at Grand Velas Resort
Smoked vegan sausage made from garbanzo beans tasted just like a meat version down to the texture thanks to brilliant vegan chef Miguel Bautista co-founder/owner of Vegan Planet Mexico, Cancun. It topped savory sauerkraut and pear compote. It was a standout on the five-course new world cuisine menu created by four chefs. Chef Miguel Bautista is an energetic proponent of a plant-based diet and a firm believer that the dishes need to be full of flavor.
Chef Claudio Hotter’s intense freeze-dried raspberry vinaigrette gave sparkle to the milder flavors of artichoke and foie gras timbale. Chef Xavi Stone paired braised lamb with savory fruit compote. Chefs Jesus Reynosa and Raul Santana laid out a dessert buffet which certainly defined the evening’s theme: food & art.
Restaurant Kaiser Maximilian
Named after the ill-fated brief reign (1864 -1867) of Austrian born Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, restaurant Kaiser Maximilian has been a fixture of old Puerto Vallarta’s restaurant community for decades. It unabashedly maintains its Austrian middle-Europa culinary influence.
Renowned Austrian guest Chef Martin Sieberer of Hotel Trofana Royal created a six-course festival menu redolent of flavor. The earthy roast quail topping creamy risotto with foie gras was outstanding. The deep berry notes of a dry Austrian pinot noir melded the rich flavors.
Such a dish was balanced by a carpaccio of paper thin ahi tuna, and a porcini mushroom broth that extended the earthiness of the risotto. Austrian wines paired each course, except for dessert when Veuve Clicquot champagne accompanied chocolate mozartkugeln with berries.
Alsatian born chef/owner of old Puerto Vallarta’s well established Trio Restaurant, Bernhard Guth, and guest Chef Carlos Espinosa from Guadalajara showcased Mexican new world cuisine in their festival menu. Duck with a pink mole sauce, pumpkin seeds, ricotta cheese and figs were a perfect pairing of Mexico’s indigenous and Colonial food influences. Slow roasted rabbit was accented with roasted pineapple puree. Large local Pacific shrimp were lightly coated with a chicharron (pork rinds) crust – a twist on surf and turf.
Wine selections were decidedly based on taste with a lemon herbal semi-dry Valle de Guadalupe white pairing well with octopus and scallop cocktail. The rich flavors of the duck were enhanced by an Australian shiraz’s mild acidity.
Chef Carlos Espinosa said Puerto Vallarta took risks in the early 1990s fusing Mexican ingredients with international culinary trends. The risk taking worked as Puerto Vallarta is on the center stage of food destinations. Preparations for the 23rd Festival Gourmet International in November 2017 are already underway, but many thousands of annual visitors can revel daily in Puerto Vallarta’s bounty from taco stands, dining on the beach to 21st century cuisine.
Web sites of featured restaurants and hotels:
Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel http://www.premiereonline.com.mx/default-en.html
El Dorado Restaurant & Beach Club http://www.eldoradopvr.com/
Restaurant Coco Tropical http://cocotropical.com/
Food & Art Fest at Grand Velas Resort http://velasresorts.com/food-art-fest/
Restaurant Kaiser Maximilian http://www.kaisermaximilian.com/
Trio Restaurant http://www.triopv.com/en/
Hotel Boutique Cathedral http://www.hotelcatedralvallarta.com/
When you go:
Puerto Vallarta International Airport (PVR) is served by many international airlines from major cities worldwide.
For the 23rd Festival Gourmet International in November 2017 check the web site: http://www.festivalgourmet.com/en/
Special Thanks to the “godfathers” of Puerto Vallarta’s Festival Gourmet International – Chefs Thierry Blouet, Heinz Reize & Roland Menetrey for their hospitality and access to all festival events. Elvira Moncayo & many others at Visit Puerto Vallarta for attentively covering all the details! Angelica Garcia, the entire staff/management at Villa Premiere, and Carlos De Leon and staff at Hotel Boutique Cathedral for their generous hospitality during the festival.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the 22nd Festival Gourmet International, Puerto Vallarta Tourism, the restaurants and hotels featured in the article.