In two weeks in Tulum, Mexico, never did we have to queue for a meal. Until now. With a no reservation policy Hartwood was recommended to us by several friends. Opened in 2010 by New Yorkers just two months ago interest reached phenomenal levels with the release of a New York Times profile. Expectations were high.
Leaving our hotel at 5:30pm for a 6pm opening we queued with 40 or so others anxiously waiting to be seated. You could feel and hear the nervous anticipation as we waited. At opening we watched people seated group-by-group until it was our time and we were given the final available table nearest the kitchen. The disappointed others either waited in the small section near the entrance.
The decor is predominantly bright white and gives an upmarket Caribbean vibe, the small white beach-style cocktail bar on the right and on the left a larger white cabana under which we were seated with its rustic dark stained wood benches. The restaurant is almost completely open to the elements and down the middle sits another row of tables, the third alongside the bar. All of this sits on a bed of a white quarry stone floor.
The far end houses the open kitchen under its dark wood frame and thatched roof, right from 6pm the American Head Chef, Eric Werner, is a man in the zone, occasionally directing in short bursts of Spanish. Around the kitchen frame sits huge watermelons, hanging bunches of bananas, pineapples and firewood stacked in front of the main preparation bench. Head Chef stands with his back against the colossal open stone oven. A hint of marine theming is shown with ropes and a pastel green anchor draped on the cabana frame.
Intrigued by the Spanish menu on chalked blackboards we ordered the Ceviche de Marlin (Marlin Ceviche) and Calamari Salad for starters and the Pesca del Dia (Fish of the Day) and Pork Rib for mains. Other options included an Octopus platter and filet steaks. The staff were relaxed and personable, dressed in white tee shirts, some American looking like they had stepped off a beach model shoot. Our drinks waiter had bundles of character, a Mexican dopple-ganger of legendary guitarist Carlos Santana or for the soccer fans, madman Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita. We did wonder whether there was a lookalike competition in Tulum that night as waiting for a table stood what I thought was Boris Becker and a man the double of Andy Murray.
The drinks menu is punctuated with cocktails and a handful of more traditional Mexican beers such as Victoria, Negro Modelo and Modelo Especial. I went with the signature cocktail ‘The Hartwood’ a refreshing concoction of Jameson, soda, fresh ginger, lime and cucumber and my wife a spicy, chili Pina Habanero Margarita in handled jars. When the food arrived we marvelled at how fresh it was. The grilled calamari salad in bite-size portions and the ceviche zesty.
The main dishes confirmed our theory that the restaurant takes simple food and cooks it perfectly combining with great salads or accompaniments. The slow cooked overnight pork ribs broke apart with the slightest touch, its skin charred and the inside packed with juice. Red cabbage and diced yellow chilies gave a crunchy, punchy contrast. I said at least three times, “This is the best pork I’ve ever had.” The whole Sea Bass was just as impressive stuffed with limes and seasoning. The fish teamed with juices sided with cooked limes, chunky onion and peepers and a heap of garlic spinach.
Considering the demand at no point were we rushed out to make way for eager diners, if anything it was completely the opposite. It was now dark with just a handful of candles and small industrial bulbs lighting the scene. As the soft tropical soundtrack played away in the background we bypassed the dessert of fresh homemade fruit ice cream and finally made way for equally grateful and eager customers. With it’s rightful acclaim earned the next challenge for Hartwood will be to keep delivering what it is an outstanding dining experience, something they appear to be more than capable of.
Cost – $1605 Pesos / US $ 124 (inc. 15% tip)
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