I've fallen in love with Mexico. Beautiful white soft beaches, mysterious Mayan ruins and azure warm seas. What's not to love? Well, if you're staying in an all-inclusive resort, probably the food.
We spent 10 days recently south of Cancun on a blissful holiday. Our first stay was at the Bahia Principe Sian Ka'an, which is the adults only, luxury section of a sprawling resort. It was set amidst the jungle, with easy access to a glorious beach and it was wonderful. We then spent a few days at the lively Hard Rock Cancun, where we were treated like royalty. In both cases, I cannot complain in any way about the quantity or quality of the food we ate. But in both cases, the resort restaurants were out of touch with modern dining and overwhelmingly felt like bland American suburbia. I suppose that's hardly surprising given that American tourists are probably the single largest tourist segment in Mexico. But I was personally disappointed that the food wasn't more modern and more importantly, reflective of Mexico itself. Genuinely, I could have been in any country in the world if all I had to judge on was the food.
One night however, we did leave the seclusion of our resort bubble, and we took a taxi down the road to the town of Tulum, to the internationally acclaimed Hartwood restaurant. And there, next to the sea, under the night sky, we finally got to see something real, something unique and something a little bit special.
|Dining outdoors at Hartwood|
Why all the fuss about Hartwood? Well, it's completely off the grid, with barely any electrical appliances (a single blender) and uses sustainable solar panel powered lighting. Even the adorable bathroom is candle powered. It's owned and ran by Eric Werner, an ex-New Yorker super chef, who decamped to the Mayan jungle with his wife Mya, settling up a wood burning restaurant in an exquisitely charming location that draws in the crowds.
We managed to secure a reservation via email for Tulum, but the majority of reservations are only available on the day, and customers start queuing from early afternoon to secure their slot. The restaurant itself opens at 6.00pm and is rock solid for the rest of the night. Diners wait their turn, sitting in the dark warm night, drinking fiery cocktails from hipster mason jars, watching the food leave the flaming wood-fired oven which is the very beating, primal heart of the restaurant.
|Blackboard menu at Hartwood|
Due to the lack of electricity, the cooking tools at Hartwood could be described as primitive, but the food can hardly be described in such terms. A Yucatan ceviche with lovely white fish and chunks of avocado was fragrant, light and fresh, while langoustine salad was replete with sweet meat and refreshing melon chunks. A third starter of papaya empanadas with local cheese was more substantial and came with a wonderful honeyed puree.
|Ensalada de langosta - langoustine salad|
|Empanadas de papaya|
I had really wanted to try the famous agave sweetened pork ribs, and I was immensely lucky to snag the last portion of the night. A perfect light chicarron came atop a large portion of falling-apart ribs, while another signature dish of grilled octopus was a perfect blend of textures. Tentacles were charred and crunchy from the grill, while the rest remained soft and tender.
|Costillas al agave - agave sweetened pork ribs|
|Platillo de polpo - grilled octopus|
Add in two two fiery cocktails fuelled by tequila and mezcal, and it's no wonder I have such warm memories of Hartwood. However, it's hard to blame it on just the cocktails alone. While I did not think the food scaled the rapturous heights I've read about online, I did think it very good. The real magic of Hartwood comes from knowing that you are dining under the inky nighttime sky, just a few feet away from the warm waters of the Caribbean and enjoying food direct from the area. It's magical.
Hartwood, Carretera Tulum Boca Paila 7.6 km, 77780 Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico