We were not planning to do any ‘fine dining’ during our vacation in Mexico, as we were expecting that the ‘regular’ restaurant food would be special enough. But when we realized we were staying close to number 29 on Latin America’s 50 best restaurants and that we could still book a table for the next day (albeit at 5:30pm), we decided to go for it. And so we ended up at Arca in Tulum. The Mexican-American chef Jose Luis Hinostroza has an impressive resume, which includes not only Noma but also El Celler de Can Roca (my personal best restaurant in the world), and De Kromme Watergang. The restaurant has an open kitchen with a wood fire that produces a lot of smoke. The kitchen staff shouts out now and then for extra effect.
We were really looking forward to the 12 course chef’s tasting menu that was listed on the website. However, although this was not mentioned on the site, the tasting menu had to be pre-ordered. So we had to choose à la carte. There were 14 dishes to choose from, with prices around US$ 30. The advice was to share the dishes, and order 4 of them. The wines were expensive, with the least expensive bottle starting at US$ 90. We ordered a blend of Xarello, Chardonnay, and Muscat from Mexico that was quite nice (but not worth the money).
The first dish was scallop ceviche with basil and coconut salsa verde, and scallop chicharrón. Chicarrón is the Mexican name for crackling, and this was a scallop cracker that was very tasty. The whole dish was very nice.
Next was soft shell crab in amaranth tempura on a hoja santa leaf as a taco, with grilled hoja santa leaf and a pickled habanero salsa. Very tasty and nicely crunchy.
Striped sea bass, seared on the skin, with a charred poblano and tomatillo mole, and a fresh coconut and daikon salad. The fish had very nice texture with crispy skin and unctuous flesh. The mole was very nice, although a ‘brighter’ flavor would have been nice. The salad was mostly about the texture.
Octopus al pastor, guajillo adobo, lentil puree, and lentil granola. The crispy lentils were great and the guajillo very flavorful, but the octopus was a bit bland and seemed overcooked.
For dessert we had avocado icecream with sponge cake and something that looked like avocado skin. Nice presentation, but lacking in flavor.
In the introduction I mentioned that we were not planning to do any fine dining. The question is, was this in fact fine dining? Judging by the price tag, it certainly was. There was also something pretentious about everything, like that the restaurant refers to the menu as “micro seasonal”. Some of the dishes were really great and worthy of one Michelin star (there is no Michelin guide in Mexico). The atmosphere was not fine dining. The outside seating amid palm trees is very nice though. The service needs a lot of work to be worthy of a Michelin star or to be ranked on the 50 best restaurants. If you offer a chef’s tasting menu that has to be pre-ordered, that should be clearly noted on the website. The serving staff was constantly cleaning the table (wiping it down with a cloth) and even changing our plates or cutlery while we were still eating. But n the other hand not consistently changing the cutlery between courses. The white wine was served at room temperature and thus needed a lot of time in the ice bucket to cool off. This was remedied by pouring some (very nice) sparkling Mexican grenache rosé on the house. In other words, the serving staff does not have a similar resume as the chef.
Altogether we had a nice dinner with some excellent dishes that show a lot of potential. We will be back, making sure to book the tasting menu well in advance…