When the topic of my upcoming trip to a food festival in Mexico came up in conversation over the past month, a lot of people—respectable, intelligent, New York tough people—tended to jump to wild conclusions about not only safety within the country (see: swine flu, testy drug lords), but the country’s culinary sophistication—or lack of it. Sketchy street tacos, tequila and neon wrist bands is all I heard. Oh, and, “stay the fuck away.” America’s unofficial ambassador to Mexico Rick Bayless, god bless him, has a lot of work to do.

But after spending a couple days at the 17th Annual Festival Gourmet in and around Pacific Ocean kissing Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit, I’m happy to report two things—which I will be CCing to all the doubters. Hi mom.

1. I did not see or experience (thankfully) any of the widespread health concerns, nor did I feel unsafe or encounter any drug cartels. (Though, at the resort that put me up, Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, I saw a couple of beyond-baller presidential suites fit for a CDS summer holiday). 

2. The few traditional Mexican dishes I encountered were unbelievably good. A story about a woman cooking the richest chicken mole on a side street in Sayulita will be covered in my forthcoming love letter to the town’s vibrant food culture. But, more so, I was treated to inspired cooking that thought well outside the tortilla shell.

Getting there
After a layover in Mexico City I flew into the Puerto Vallarta airport, landing just after dark. The trip from the East Coast can be a little daunting—there are very few direct flights available. It’s better if you’re located on the Western parts of the United States, with many direct flights available from San Diego and Los Angeles to Houston. My trip was nine hours in total, but well worth it after digging into the culture and cuisine of the Riviera Nayarit—marketing parlance for the 200 miles of coast from Vallarta to Playa Novilleros.

Gourmet Safari
As part of the 10 day festival, local restaurant fans and many more tourists were sent on “culinary safaris” around the city. Each highlighted 3-4 restaurants, with the house chef and a guest chef preparing 1-3 dishes each. After a quick cerveza yanked from the mini bar, I boarded a trolley with some journalists and some drunk Canadian expats who really wanted to talk about the plating techniques that she had been watching on the Food Network.

The chef at Epazote at the Grand Luxxe Nuevo Vallarta did a nice smoked bean soup with foie gras. Later at Frida back at the Grand Velas, chef Xavier Perez-Stone breaded a grape in a mixture of breadcrumbs and lamb as a man played Metallica and The Who covers on a 12-string guitar nearby. We finished with a spoon of chocolate, olive oil, cranberry and dill. Team Labatts really loved that one. At La Casona at the tony Villa La Estancia, chef and master mixologist Junior Merino was flown in as guest chef and paired a sesame-crusted tuna steak (sided with sea urchin risotto) with a shaken cocktail that mixed habanero-infused tequila, sweet corn syrup, pineapple and ginger. Bonkers drink. We closed with desserts on the roof of the Insu Sky Bar. There was fire involved in one of them.

Sayulita, Punta de Mita, Polo in San Francisco
As mentioned, boho surf town Sayulita will be covered in an upcoming story. In just 90 minutes I hit the farmer’s market, the taco lady who will live in my dreams and a tortilla factory. It’s a cool spot. While noshing on greasy minute-old tortilla chips from factory, we drove 20 minutes to Café des Artistes Del Mar in Punta de Mita. The area is known for it’s secluded enclave, housing the Four Seasons and St. Regis hotels—and celebrities like Jennifer Aniston who like to vacation at secluded enclaves. The restaurant’s menu revolves around local seafood—red snapper, oysters, giant prawns, lobster. The group loved a playful spin on chili rellano. It was served as a soup.

Our final stop of the day was at a polo club in nearby San Francisco (also known as San Panco), which is a major sport in Mexico and much of Latin America—to the puzzlement of the group of journalists who only knew the sport as an event in the summer where you get to drink a lot of free Champagne and coo at a hot guy named Nacho. 

I found myself cooing at the many bottles of mescal that the bartender freely poured for me. I was most interested in the Los Danzantes reposado, which originates in the state of Puebla and drives to the back of the throat with a smoky, fiery and damn memorable finish. I think I might pick myself up a bottle.  So here I was, warmed up after a couple of glasses of agave’s true nectar and watching a bunch of Mexican and American businessmen knock around a ball in the scorching tropical sun. It was cool. And then a platter of rolled chicken tequitos topped with fresh guacamole appeared and things got even better.

There’s a really fine French restaurant located in Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, the luxury all-inclusive hotel I was staying at. This was unexpected, given the obvious: I was in Mexico and staying at an all-inclusive resort, both of which were sort of not on my to-do list before visiting. Food has become the focus of today’s traveler—a fact I was reminded time and time again when talking shop with the tourists I came across: I found myself talking about hot NYC restaurants and Mexican microbrews with random strangers as if it were the Mets hot stove moves. This food thing is getting big. The folks at Grand Velas go this when they decided to recruit Austrian-born chef Claudio Hotter to run their flagship restaurant, which would do well in Paris or Zurich or side by side with the big guns at the Bellagio. During a tasting he a refreshing pea soup with mini ravioli. It was one of the better bites I had all trip—similar to vichyssoise, but with a hint of cilantro. A nod to the local herb, but not in a forced way.

Grand Valas Riviera Nayarit Av. Cocoteros 98 Sur Nuevo Vallarta, Riviera Nayarit, México, C.P. 63735 vallarta.grandvelas.com