Monday, May 05, 2008 11:47 AM
Hechizo - Culinary Enchantment in Tulum
Tucked away at the southern end of Tulum's world famous beaches, perched on the edge of the Sian Kaan biosphere, the more intrepid traveler will find Hechizo, a restaurant certain to cast a powerful spell on even the most discriminating diner. On a lush oceanfront parcel known as Rancho San Eric, Chef Stefan Schober and his wife and pastry chef, H ui have created out of their collective imaginations a remarkable dining experience unparalleled in all the Riviera Maya. Stefan, born to Austrian parents and raised in Mexico City, met H ui while they were both working in the world class kitchen of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Singapore and, eventually, brought her back to Mexico, to the beaches of his childhood. The restaurant is of their own design and sits amidst tropical palms and flowering plants on the property owned by Stefan's parents. Although, on good advisement from local message boards, we scouted out the location in advance in the light of day, our 8:30pm reservation would still bring us crawling at a snail's pace down the dusty Boca Paila road in the pitch blackness, eyes pealed for the small sign marking the entrance. Under a blanket of a billion stars, a long winding path, dimly lit by conch shell luminaries, brings you to a small walkover bridge spanning a delightful man-made pond and its colorful aquatic inhabitants. The dining room itself, punctuated by an enormous fresh water aquarium, is rather sparse in appearance. The table arrangements are all different but each has a distinct asian influence, perhaps a reflection of H ui's heritage or of the couple's time spent together in the East. Each element of the decor has been carefully selected and the tables set well apart from one another to ensure an intimate experience for each party.
There are no printed menus, save one, a list of available wines and spirits. Instead, Chef Stefan kneels at each table and regales his guests with his offerings for the evening. Although, it is clear given Stefan's extensive training at the Culinary Institute of Austria, that each dish has been masterfully orchestrated, he will let you know that ingredients and preparation can be "open for negotiation". I was disappointed when the young chef rebuffed my invitation to simply present us whatever dishes were to his particular liking but we had no trouble making our selections from the 5 or 6 starters and entrees prepared for this evening's guests.
An "amuse bouche" of fresh mozzarella dressed with extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper, topped with a marinated tomato and basil salad.
Mild Mexican goat cheese served atop a crisp, juicy rectangle of seedless watermelon on a lightly dressed bed of watercress and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and a sweet balsamic reduction. This is Chef Stefan's signature appetizer and with good reason. The creaminess of the goat cheese, the crisp sweetness of the watermelon and the peppery bite of the watercress all playfully meld together without losing their individual attributes. It's a remarkable combination.
Sweet and savory. Oven roasted beets topped with supremes of fresh manadarin orange, watercress and a generous slice of Danish blue cheese all drizzled with the sweet balsamic reduction. This is where Stefan shows his maturity as a chef. Rather than preparing dozens of sauces in an effort to dazzle diners with an extensive repertoire, he focuses on using the finest, freshest local ingredients, presenting them simply in a variety of settings, each meticulously designed to show off both flavors and textures.
Seated within view of the kitchen, we could observe the chef in his natural habitat, testing temperatures, tasting and re-tasting every sauce, every dressing before it went in front of the guests. This attention to detail and relentless pursuit of perfection seems certainly a result of his strict European culinary training and his Austrian heritage. I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the servers who are among the best I have ever seen and inarguably complete the most professional restaurant staff in this region. The timing from the kitchen was impeccable and the waiters worked together seamlessly, each movement deliberate and purposeful yet unobtrusive.
Roasted sea bass perched on a bed of wilted chaya and oven roasted potato all dressed with a dollop of truffle cream was my entree of choice. The silky smoothness of the truffle cream was a perfect enhancement for the mild, moist sea bass. The sauteed chaya, a spinach-like green had just the slightest twang of acidity, perfect to cut through the fatty goodness of the fish. My husband chose the lamb osso buco which was cooked to perfection and slid off the bone with just the slightest prodding. Full of flavor from a braising liquid made of only the finest ingredients, the lamb was succulent and tender and served with simple elegance in a large white ceramic bowl with creamy mashed potatoes laced with nutmeg as an accompaniment.
Out on a brief leave, celebrating the recent birth of their second child, H ui was not in the restaurant on this evening to present her dessert creations. Chef Stefan graciously filled in and our selection, a cracked black pepper cheesecake with macerated strawberries, was the perfect finale to this extraordinary meal. We paired the dessert with a 10 year old port and a late harvest gewurtztraminer, each bringing forward different nuances in flavor from both the creamy cheesecake and the fruit.
Dinner for two, with martinis before, wine by the glass and after-dinner drinks totaled $150 usd before adding gratuity. My only recommendation: Provide a greater selection of premium spirits. The only vodka available to us this evening was Absolut. A restaurant of this caliber should have an equally distinctive list of cocktails, wines and cordials.
Hechizo, Spanish for spell, enchantment or charm, lives up to its name and all the fine press it has received to this point. Impressed by the simplicity of the decor, the lack of pretense from either the young chef or his cuisine and the noteworthy level of service, we highly recommend Hechizo as a premier destination dining experience on the Riviera Maya. We too have been charmed and look forward to sharing this magical place with family and friends.
Hechizo: Tulúm, Quintana Roo – Cuisine: International/Fusion. Restaurant Open from mid-November through mid-May, three dinner seatings daily: 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30pm. Closed Mondays. Directions: From Highway 307, turn east onto the road that leads to the beach. At the end of this road, turn right. Drive south on the beach road for several kilometers. When you pass “Amansala’s Casa Magna”, be watching for a small sign that says “Rancho San Eric” and “Hechizo” on low stone wall to your left. Turn left onto the drive. Follow the glow of the lights until you come upon the restaurant. (If you reach the arch for the biosphere, you have gone too far. The entrance is a few 100 meters back.) Reservations required. No Credit Cards Accepted. Telephone: 52-1-984-100-0710 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org To inquire about bungalow rentals at Rancho San Eric visit www.ranchosaneric.com.