Noshing in Nayarit
Sure, it’s got stunning beaches, but the vibrant food scene, sustained by local producers, is the best reason to eschew that Puerto Vallarta all-inclusive in favour of Riviera Nayarit.
The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort
Barbecued fish on a stick was considered an indulgence when I last visited Puerto Vallarta, little more than a decade ago. I stayed with my aunt who’d ditched life in Canada to pursue her dream of being an artist. Her studio was a rustic hut where we dined by torchlight above a secluded beach. Today Puerto Vallarta is a city of almost a million, and those seeking seclusion head north to Riviera Nayarit.
Privacy is assured here, but the real buzz is about food. Tasting menus at innovative new restaurants are fast replacing the beach fare of the past. It’s no accident that this 140-kilometre stretch of coastline extending from the airport to San Blas is host to one of the hottest food cultures in Central America. The small Pacific state of Nayarit boasts Mexico’s most diverse range of agricultural gifts, and local chefs take inspiration from the bounty.
“Unlike in other resort areas, where up to 80 percent of the food is imported, I spend much of my time exploring the countryside and discovering new ingredients,” says chef Yann Giacomoni, whose work I sample at the St. Regis Punta Mita. It occurs to me that chefs in Cancún probably don’t spend their free time that way.
At Nayarit’s northern outpost, chef Betty Vasquez, who worked under Spain’s Juan Mari Arzak, provides my introduction to the Riviera’s sizzling scene at Hotel Garza Canela’s restaurant, El Delphin. Vasquez’s culinary philosophy – seasonal Mexican ingredients prepared with classic European techniques – remains constant, but her dishes are always evolving. I opt for tuna carpaccio, topped with lacy fried parsley, and an apple and arugula salad with goat cheese and caramelized onion. So far, this most remote corner of the region remains unspoiled, the exclusive preserve of the few foodies willing to make the three-hour pilgrimage from Puerto Vallarta.
San Francisco (San Pancho)
This coastal town was first in line to cash in on Riviera Nayarit’s newfound cachet. The trailer parks are long gone. The wine lists are as impressive as some of the best in PV – or north of the Rio Grande, for that matter – and designer handbags are now more numerous than the chickens that still wander the sandy streets. New boutique hotels crop up here almost weekly, but I’m just passing through, so I fuel up on fair trade espresso and spelt pancakes topped with grated Mexican cinnamon at Hotel Cielo Rojo – owned by two designers from L.A. – and continue south.
With art gallery openings having joined full moon parties as after-hours entertainment, this hippie haunt is maturing fast. Even Don Pedro's, founded by two surfers 15 years ago, has been transformed from a backpackers’ cantina into a stylish dining experience. Chef Nicholas Parrillo’s Mediterranean specialties are highlights. And the bohemian vibe isn’t entirely lost; the palapa-shaded tables are just the spot for watching the surfing action. For a more down-tempo experience, Haramara, a hilltop yoga retreat, attracts celebs like Jennifer Aniston with delectable vegetarian cuisine.
At the end of my culinary odyssey, I arrive at Punta Mita, 20 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. This former fishing village is now a gated luxury enclave. At the Four Seasons, chef Jorge Gonzalez’s five-course tasting menu – a journey through chocolate and chili – features beef tenderloin accompanied by garlic potatoes enlivened with guajillo chili jus.
As torches are lit around the resort, the scene hearkens back to my simple fish-on-a-stick meal from a decade ago. But this time, it’s gone upscale and I enjoy an Indo-Latino tequila-flamed shrimp that’s as rosy pink as a Bahía de Banderas sunset. I guess the more things change…
(Michele Peterson is a Toronto-based writer who recently traveled the French Caribbean rum trail for onAir).
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