If you missed our Tweet-fest the other night, Megan and I were invited to dine at Oh Lala, a local restaurant like no other in Playa del Carmen. Chef Jorge Garcia treated us to four sumptuous courses, which left us wanting more, but also too stuffed to ask.
If you are unfamiliar with this little restaurant, it is tucked away under a blue awning on tenth avenue in Playa del Carmen. Consisting of only five tables and six bar stools, Oh Lala is as unique a dining experience as one can hope to have. Part of its charm is that chef Jorge interacts with his customers every step of the way – explaining what he’s cooking, showing you the ingredients, checking on you throughout your meal.
With a mix of modern design and French cafe, the look is casual yet refined. You know you are going to be taken care of, because so much attention has been paid to your surroundings, right down the to floating glass wine rack, illuminated from below with LEDs.
This night, however, Megan and I sat outside, not wanting to spoil the surprise of each serving.
On The Menu: Tri-Fungi in a White Wine Cream Sauce Served with Pita Bread in a Rosemary Olive Oil, Filet Mignon with Mashed Potatoes and French Beans Wrapped in Bacon with a Honey Red Wine Reduction, Lobster and Fish Filet in a Lemon Butter Cream Sauce, Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream
Without a doubt, one of the nicest dinners we’ve ever had. The Tri-Fungi was incredible. Megan pointed out that, sometimes you go a long time without eating mushrooms (especially if somebody’s husband doesn’t like them) and then you eat something that reminds you of how awesome mushrooms are. There was a moment (several moments, we would soon discover), when we questioned: “Where on a scale of uncouthness would licking our plates land?” We didn’t have long to wonder because the Filet Mignon came next.
While I’m never a huge fan of pre-slicing steak before serving, the way Jorge did it was incredible. The potatoes were braced by the beef slices, on which sat the French beans and bacon. A lonely island atop a sea of deliciousness. At first, we couldn’t believe that we were tasting honey and beef together, but we soon got over it. This was one of those dishes that makes you laugh while you eat it, such was the joy it brought to our mouths.
As amazing as the filet mignon was, the lobster and fish filet was incredible. A lot of times, when a restaurant serves lobster, they do so without attention to the quality of the lobster and to the execution of the dish itself. Jorge makes neither mistake. We were blown away by the blend of flavours – the delicate fish, the buttery lobster, the lemon butter cream sauce … It was all too much, but in such a good way.
(Incidentally, a few tables over, a visiting chef was just finishing his lobster and he was complimenting Jorge in a way that could only be described as effusive.)
To finish us off, Jorge gave us an apple tart with vanilla ice cream. How he makes an apple fall apart like that is beyond me. It wasn’t so much like eating an apple tart as it watt eating the essence of an apple … surrounded by pastry … topped with ice cream. Astounding.
The idea was to interview Jorge while he cooked, but he was very busy that night, so that was another reason why we sat outside. So, our bellies full, we conducted the interview after the dust had settled on the evening. His lovely partner, Mikaela, joined in.
The Sunday Bottles: Tell us about your background – where do you come from and what brought you to Mexico?
Jorge Garcia: I was born in Medellin, Columbia, 1974, but I grew up in the Netherlands. After finishing school, I decided to travel the world and I got this great opportunity to come here to Mexico in 1998. I got an opportunity to become a scuba instructor.
TSB: What role does that play in what you do here?
JG: Lots of knowledge of fish. I’m just kidding … After travelling the world and discovering other cultures … and because of loving international food … that helps me a lot in what I do now, because I know what people are expecting, the quality, the service, and the standards. It is very different from what somebody expects in the U.S. than what they expect in Europe.
TSB: What inspires you to cook?
JG: I see cooking as an art where I can put all my focus and energy to get the result that I have in mind.
TSB: Where did you learn your craft?
JG: Started in the Netherlands. I worked with a French chef — Nobert Tillard, when doing my internship.
TSB: What is the most elaborate dish you’ve ever eaten?
JG: It was also the most elaborate dish that I’ve ever made: Champagne Duck Terrine with violets. That was really awesome. Why this is so special, because it took eight hours to make. When we made the duck terrine … it was inside champagne gelatine, so you could see the duck terrine, in cubes, inside the gelatine, with violets on the top. That was for the family Guerlain, the perfume family. So I cooked for the family. It was an eight course menu, with fresh oysters after that.
TSB: What has been your proudest moment as a restauranteur, so far?
JG: We reached the number two position in less than three months on TripAdvisor. That’s really cool, I think. That everybody leaves with a big smile when they finish.
TSB: In your opinion, what makes a restaurant great?
JG: First of all, the inner warmth that you offer your guests when they visit you, plus the personalized service. And the food. Make people feel welcome when they arrive, and when they leave, as well.
TSB: Why such a small place?
JG: We had the spot already, we live upstairs, and we think it’s a good location.
Mikaela: We wanted to make it unique.
JG: We like the spot. We wanted it to be like home. More intimate.
M: Have it as our kitchen, like we are inviting friends.
JG: Because if you go larger, you lose the touch. And this is our first restaurant.
TSB: Where do you see Oh Lala in five years?
JG: We would like to open more restaurants. Oh Lala is going to have one or two franchises in different parts of Mexico with other chefs running them, but with our mark on it.
TSB: How do you see that working?
JG: In the beginning, we would run those restaurants as well. Have other chefs learn our formula and go with that.
M: But we want to have something particular so that people know that it is from the main chef.
TSB: What role does wine play at Oh Lala?
JG: Wine plays a very important role because our plates are quite elaborate and do need to go together with a nice glass of wine.
TSB: I notice that you’re including more Mexican wines on your list.
JG: First of all, we’re in Mexico … We want to explore the local market first, not to import things from other countries. Because we are in Mexico, I think it’s important that people … they should get to experience something from Mexico. Not from Argentina, or Italy, or France.
TSB: What makes Oh Lala special?
M: I think people can feel at home, to start with, they have a more personalized service … It’s small, it cozy …
JG: The coziness, being able to prepare something for people, so that they can see it, like you do at home. People can be part of it, the whole cooking, if they want to.
A note on the wine: We drank a bottle of Emeve, Armonia de Tinto, Baja California, 2009. We gave it a two bottle rating. Jorge is exploring a wide variety of wines, but his hopes are to have a well-rounded assortment of wines from Mexico and abroad. This particular red has a fruity palette with a tart finish. For a blend, it is very nice, and we would recommend it to anyone looking for an easy-to-drink, go-with-anything wine.