I have no trouble recalling my first deluxe restaurant experience. It was at Las Mañanitas sometime during the mid-1950s, shortly after it opened in Cuernavaca, an hour's drive south of Mexico City. My parents, American expatriates, lived in the capital and rented a weekend house in Cuernavaca--back then a small, provincial town, and now a city of more than 500,000 inhabitants.
Las Mañanitas made no lasting culinary impression on my eight- or nine-year-old mind. What dazzled me were the exotic birds--several varieties of cranes--strutting around the expansive lawns in front of the dining terrace. I also recall the rich aroma of cigars, because my father identified the smokers as what sounded to me like another exotic species--politicos.
As a globe-trotting journalist, I have since had ample occasion to encounter cranes and politicians in their natural element. While they are still present at Las Mañanitas, it's the food that keeps me coming back. There are a wide assortment of European dishes, as well as Indian, Canadian and Mexican offerings, and a decent list of French Bordeaux and Spanish Riojas. But the inter-national cuisine doesn't distract me from the gourmet Mexican specialties: a red snapper ceviche or feather-light corn tamales for appetizers; then, a chilled avocado or spicy tortilla soup; for the main course, a sea bass grilled with garlic oil, or chicken enchiladas basted with tomato mole, or, if I'm lucky enough to be here during the summer months, chiles en nogada (large green peppers stuffed with meat and slathered with a creamy walnut sauce sprinkled with pomegranate kernels); and for dessert, a guanabana mousse pie.
But I get ahead of myself. Las Mañanitas, one of only two establishments in Mexico to gain a coveted entry in the Relais & Chateaux hotel guide, demands that the senses be teased and pampered before the banquet. Even if a reservation is made--and it is necessary on weekends--one must be prepared for a 30- to 40-minute pre-meal ritual. This involves a stroll around the gardens, inspecting the voluptuous sculptures by Francisco Zúñiga (one of Mexico's modern masters) and the serene Japanese-style pond bordered by reeds and irises. Trailing at a discreet distance are a dozen black cranes, pink flamingos and white peacocks, the latter occasionally emitting loud, jittery screeches.
Then it's time to settle into a wicker-back chair, under a jacaranda, royal palm or hibiscus tree, and peruse the large blackboard menu while enjoying a drink. This is a good occasion to discover the pleasures of unadulterated tequila. Skip the lime and salt, and instead take turns sipping shot glasses of aged, slightly amber tequila and a spiced-up tomato juice chaser called sangrita.
If little has changed over Las Mañanitas' four decades of existence, it's because the establishment, founded by the late Robert Krause, an Oregon-born lawyer, had the good sense to stick with a winning formula. Krause sought to create a Spanish colonial-style architectural setting with lush gardens and exotic birds to take advantage of Cuernavaca's year-round spring climate. The restaurant is now co-owned by Krause's widow, Margot, and Rubén Cerda, who began as a busboy and rose to manager.
Over the years, the guest list has drawn the likes of Prince Philip and the Shah of Iran, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But informality still reigns. At sunset, with a mariachi band playing in the garden, guayabera-clad politicos and business people light up cigars and sing along. Out of nostalgia--and with a bit of prodding from my friends--I decided to attempt a mariachi cry: Aaaaaaaah, ha ha ha oooooo!!!!!
Everybody agreed it was a passable imitation of a panicked peacock.
Jonathan Kandell is a former Latin American correspondent for The New York Times who is now living in New York City.
Ricardo Linares 107
Dinner: $40 per person, with wine or beer