Think about visiting Cancun and what comes to mind – Impossibly blue ocean water and bathtub warm, white beaches, tall hotels, wickedly fun nightlife? Did you know that the peninsula perch is home to many flavors of Yucatan culture?
I’ve visited the area as a scuba diver several times, always focused on spending as much time in the water with its corals, turtles, rays and whale sharks, as possible. Food on a dive trip is not much more than a necessity – fuel to keep blowing bubbles. So it was with particular relish that I dove into exploring the fine dining options and more urban pleasures on a Summer Tasting Tour of Cancun luxury.
My first stop close to the downtown, nightclub district was at the five diamond Fiesta Americana hotel, the Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa. Once I stepped into the lobby with its sweeping atrium it was easy to forget the intense heat and gritty street a block away. The hotel is a graceful sweep of towers and one of the more majestic properties in the area, which is a nod to the perfectly picturesque location – just steps from a daily boat to nearby Isla Mujeres with a lighthouse on the other side of the bay.
The rooms are all suites and while most of the local hotels have become all-inclusive resorts, the Coral Beach Cancun offers more individual options for dining, spa services and recreation. The lobby opens to gardens that step down to a chain of pools and waterfalls that curl like a turquoise necklace just feet from powdery sand beach and cabanas.
Dinner on my first evening was in the elegant Le Basilic restaurant where each course of our dozen tastings was a revelation of French inspired craft and fresh local ingredients under the care of chef Henry Charvet. The restaurant is known also for the artist León Alva’s work, which cover the walls. We watched his, “Art Come to Life”, as he created a whimsical masterpiece while we dined.
Each dish was a more delicious and intriguing presentation than the last. I only wished I were sitting at a table window, being catered to while a sunburn warms my shoulders and toasting to the good life with my sweetheart. He’d love this style – a far cry from the usual buffet fare that other hotels offer.
The next afternoon we had dinner deep in the lower reaches of the hotel, stepping into the tasting kitchen where the chef serves sample menus for corporate events. Our lunch was a series of exquisite discoveries each featuring authentic Yucatan spices and preparations. This was nothing like what passes for Mexican food back home in the states.
Dishes included a delicate stack of Nopales, a curl of grilled octopus and slices of fish, as well as pork along with an artistic take on the indigenous barbequed beef stew. Mango and Tamarind Margaritas flowed pre-meal and Mexican wines were poured for each course.
The next evening we ventured to the Ritz-Carlton Cancun for tastings in two of their finest restaurants. First, we were led past the ballroom and down a long hallway to the Viking Culinary Center, built for guests interested in exploring how to create some of the local dishes. The chef works at his own cook-top while cameras capture each slice and sweep of his spoon. Four cooking stations ring the room; each full of everything necessary to master a meal. Of course table settings waited on the counter and a sommelier hovered near to pour – all of it just steps away from the glimmering Caribbean sea.
A few sips later we slid into elevators to the relaxed and rarefied atmosphere of the Club Level. An open bar and appetizers tempted and each room, remodeled in soft colors and sleek lines, opened to ocean views.
A few minutes later we were ushered into the Club Grill, a Jazz and Supper Club where a pianist stroked a baby grand to life. The old world paneling and proportions of the dining room lent an English, hunting club ambiance and I learned that the Club Grill is considered the more masculine of the two fine dining restaurants at the Ritz.
Executive Chef Tyler Thaxton presented us with an Amuse Bouche of Iberian ham, house mustard and tomato jam. The second course included Arbequuina olive oil and Heirloom vegetable Escabeche before serving white broad beans and grilled tuna with Valencia orange sauce.
The culinary artistry didn’t end there as we were next led to Fantino, the more feminine, Mediterranean-inspired, dining counterpart for a small soupcon of seafood risotto, herb crusted lamb loin with seared vegetables and a Chocolate and cherry ‘delicia.’ This summer tasting menu couldn’t have been more delicia-ous.
Our last two meals on the tour demanded a bit of travel outside of central Cancun. A short boat ride from the high rise district is petite Isla Mujeres where we slipped past the tourist center to dock near Zama beach resort, not far from the Mayan temple ruins at the southern tip of the island.
As a diver I’ve been alarmed at the rapid spread of Lion Fish in Caribbean waters. The invasive species has no natural predators in the area so I was heartened to hear that Lionfish tiradito (a local preparation) is also one of the favorite items on the menu. It was light and tasty.
Our meal, in the shelter of a giant Palapa, was a tour de force of local spices and dishes. One course included Tikin-Xic – a hefty fillet of fish in an axiote sauce wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Various spices are traditionally drawn from the jungles nearby. A trio of pastes flavored many of the dishes with tantalizing complexity. My favorite was octopus grilled and blackened with Recado Negro – a pungent, almost smokey paste.
The final meal of the tour required that we drive about an hour south along the Riviera Maya. If you’ve ever been on the highway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen (Party town and launching point for Cozumel,) you’ve passed towering edifices and gateways that announce the entrance to different resorts dotting the coastline.
Our destination was the Cocina de Autor, a five diamond restaurant, where the chefs search for new techniques and technology. Science and taste delivered.
The effects were mesmerizing and have led this restaurant, ensconced in the Grand Velas, Riviera Maya, to be recognized by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the “100 Best New Food and Drink Experiences in the World.” After sampling each bite, sip or swallow I couldn’t agree more. It was an evening unlike any other.
That’s just an introduction to what waits in Cancun when you reach beyond the prix fixe, buffet tables. If you’re able, spend the time and money to have one of the best meals of any vacation at one or all of the restaurants described. I won’t hesitate to visit the area again.
If you’re truly dedicated to exemplary dining consider coming to the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival. There’ll be more than 25 gourmet events, including gala dinners, cooking demonstrations, a tasting village; sommeliers will pour from over 50 wineries and celebrity chefs are coming from Europe and across the Americas. Find out more at CRMFEST.com
This post was inspired by the Summer Tasting tour that I attended as a guest – all opinions are my own.
Hi Elaine! So nice to read about your culinary experiences here in my hometown Cancún! Please don’t take it in a wrong way if I correct you in some things you wrote: the name of the artist painting live at Le Basilic is León Alva, the fillet of fish in an axiote sauce at Zama Beach is called Tikin-Xic and the grilled octopus is blackened with recado negro (a Mayan spicy). 🙂
I hope you noticed that there are several other excellent gourmet restaurants here, although you only had time to discover these ones right?… Big hug!
Miriam, thank you for the comments and corrections. Although every effort is made to spell check and verify using web sources and some of the collateral collected during my trip, certain cultural refinements suffer by translation. I appreciate your authentic parsing and only wish I were well versed in Spanish to make my own. Also, you are so right that there are many excellent gourmet dining options throughout the Cancun region. I look forward to returning to experience more and always to dive the gorgeous waters. The natural beauty, extraordinary food, accommodations and diving will bring me back again and again.
This is the only thing I’ve ever read which would make me reconsider Cancun/Riviera Maya. Yum, yum, yum, particularly the dish from Cocina de Autor.
I love Cancun. I haven’t been for about five years, but I used to go at least once a year. I have a difficult time finding friends to accompany me anywhere in Mexico because they are afraid. I miss it especially after reading your post. I’m not sure that I would try the octopus being a vegetarian, but that dessert looks heavenly.
I know what you mean about finding friends to travel to Mexico. One consolation is that the Cancun area has been spared the upheavals and violence of the past decades. That octopus dish was so tender and tasty, I’m sure you’d have enjoyed it. So much depends on the chef’s skill, so go with a good recommendation. Being a vegetarian is admirable. I’ve become more of an omnivore over the years – there’s just such a bounty of great, regional cuisine! Thanks for the comments.
Perfect! We are in Cancun right now, thanks for the ideas.
Hope you enjoyed the great food and if you’re looking for a more modest dining option, try Navil’s on the lagoon in Cancun.
I haver never been to Cancun, but it looks quite luxurious and the food looks amazing. Your trip is exactly something I would love. Thank you for taking me there and for the gorgeous photos!
So happy that you enjoyed the post. The Riviera Maya is a special place and I’m glad you joined me vicariously!
We spent several vacations in the Cancun-Playa del Carmen-Akumal area over the years and finally started our nomadic wandering lifestyle in Play del Carmen for a few months. We love this area but never did experience this exotic level of dining. Too bad because your photos and descriptions have my mouth watering!
Hi Anita, How lucky you are to vacation regularly in Cancun/Playa del Carmen and Akumal. I plan on returning to dive the waters there often. This culinary trip was a trip of a lifetime and I’m glad you enjoyed it vicariously. I look forward to exploring more dining options there when I return. Happy wanderings.
Those sound like fabulous food experiences! I had a similar dinner as the one you describe at Le Basilic restaurant in Cancun. Mine was in Riviera Maya at The Chef’s Plate at the Royal, http://travelswithcarole.blogspot.com/2012/09/great-sleeps-royalplaya-del-carmen.html
Mexico is quickly becoming a gourmet destination.
Thanks for the note about the Chef’s Plate at the Royal. I’ll put it on my list when I return and yes, Mexico has much to offer gourmets. My next step will be working some of their more complex spices into recipes at home. Wish me luck!
I’ve been to the Cancun Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival but never to the summer one. Looks like it was great!
This was a special culinary trip hosted by the hotels. I look forward to attending the big festival this winter. Hope to see you there.
Although I have never been to Cancun, I also wouldn’t ever have guessed it was just a culinary hotspot. Sounds like you need to keep active to burn off all the meals but probably no time for scuba diving on this trip.
I tell you, I’m still working off the extra pounds from the tastings tour but it was worth every bite. Thanks for stopping by.
That dish with the octopus is visually stunning and I’m sure quite delicious – this is the type of foodie tour that I am totally into…wow!
It was a WOW trip from beginning to end, indeed.
Thanks for stopping by.