Restaurant Review: Sayulita, Glastonbury

All images courtesy of Sayulita

★★½  [Very Good-Superior]

Years ago when contests involved describing a product or service in 25 words or less, I won prizes—once a car, another time a vacation at a resort hotel. I was thrilled with both. The car was a Hillman Minx convertible. The resort was in Puerta Vallarta where Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner were co-starring in Night of the Iguana. I was a film critic at the time and a foodie who had yet to sample Mexican cuisine in situ. We hopped the next plane.

I loved Puerta Vallarta, the palms, the beach, the sea and the Mexican food—not in the hotel dining room but at a small inn a short walk away. Memory may romanticize but the food at that little mom-and-pop place seemed fresher, more vibrant and somehow more uninhibited than anything I had encountered at Mexican restaurants in the U.S. 

The dishes on Sayulita’s modern Mexican menu may bring back memories but they are not exact replicas. In the culinary world what goes around often comes around in very different ways, be it reflecting a healthier lifestyle, taking advantage of newly available ingredients or sometimes because chefs just like to have fun.

That pretty much describes what Sayulita’s owner Bill Driggs says he had in mind when he opened a Mexican restaurant in Glastonbury and named it for a fishing and surfing village about 25 miles from Puerta Vallarta. The vibe he says he’s aiming for is beachy, laid-back, relaxed, sand-in-your-sandals, with the food equally free-wheeling, Mexican-inspired and prepared by a savvy, sophisticated chef. This we have to see.

We arrive early on a Sunday evening. At the door we bump into a long-time-no-see acquaintance rushing out. Greetings and salutations and how was the food? Terrible. Everything. Inedible. Even my husband couldn’t eat it. Stunned, we watch her drive off—presumably to Taco Bell.

The dining room is wall-to-wall with people. So much for terrible.

Housed in a 1790 colonial building, which from the outside gives no hint of the Mexican fiesta within, Sayulita’s rustic-chic interior—like the food on its menu—honors the past while resisting cliché. No stucco arches, piñatas or sombreros. No blockbuster burritos smothered with cheese. Instead, a handsome bar made from a centuries-old oak tree serves Sixpoint Sweet Action cream ale in a sleek room with a black ceiling and four TV screens, while waitresses in jeans serve lobster tacos with black truffle shavings in a dining room furnished with whitewashed pine booths, nostalgic posters and vintage photographs.

The wait for a table in the dining room is indeed long, but the staff, young, solicitous and informed, finds us a seat on the patio and attentively deals with a too-small table by moving candles, bottles and glasses around and diligently removing and replacing plates.We start with a few rounds of what the menu calls snacks before moving on to heartier fare. Ceviche de Playa (above) is so beautiful we almost don’t recognize it. Forget ceviche in an oversized martini glass and behold a palm frond created with paper-thin slices of avocado on a narrow white china plate decorated with a jewel-bright dice of scallops, tomato, jicama, lime chili and cilantro, and punctuated with tall plantain chips like double exclamation points.

Heirloom salad is equally exuberant with thick slices of prize tomatoes—yellow as a fire hydrant, magenta with almost purple skins, topped with watermelon, asparagus, arugula, radish slices and candied pepitas—a large, filling portion and a vegetarian bargain at $9. It’s worth noting that prices at Sayulita may be higher than at a run-of-the-mill tacos bar because every ingredient is top-of-the-line. The scallops in the ceviche are Bomster, the chicken is antibiotic-free Bell & Evans, the beef is natural grass-fed. Not to mention the fact that the chef is Texas-raised Van Hurd, familiar to TV fans for his appearances on shows like Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and also known for his expertise in fine dining at venues including the famous French Room in Dallas. At Sayulita he says he has fun “getting a little fancy” with some of the old standbys and sending them out as specials. Duck confit with Luxardo cherries, a white clam quesadilla and bacon-wrapped Tijuana dog tacos are recent examples.Personalized choices are also offered at Sayulita. You can top your salad or fill your taco or fajita with vegetables, shrimp, chicken or steak.

We order a steak fajita and marvel at what arrives: Flavorful strips of sizzling hot grilled skirt steak piled on a mountain of sautéed onions, squash, chilies and poblano peppers served with pico de gallo, Mexican créme, guacamole, Chihuahua cheese and flour tortillas. We eat every bite.

Like many dishes, buttermilk fried chicken is available as a taco or an entrée. With its tissue-thin film of golden crust and trendy accoutrements (bacon-sautéed kale and maple aioli), it’s my new love. More Dixie than Mexicali but so delicious it’s hard to care.

Not everything works. The bartender says she can’t serve us a mojito. What? The skirt steak is a tad overcooked for my taste and as of this writing, Sayulita is not taking reservations so when it’s crowded it’s unpleasantly cramped and the noise level sometimes rises so high it’s hard to carry on a conversation. But Sayulita is not for intimate tête-à-têtes. It’s a party.And what’s a party without dessert? The kitchen delivers in an unexpected way. The list is short: Tres leche cake (left), flan, chorros. But the chef turns same-old into a delight, embellishing the cake with strawberries and prosecco sabayon and the flan with coffee, caramel, blackberries and vanilla bean chantilly. Then, in a surprise throwback to Mexico’s most iconic food, classic churros arrive in the traditional brown paper bag. We plan to take some home but end up eating all of them because they come with two luscious dipping sauces and we can’t resist.     

                   

Sayulita

865 Main St., Glastonbury

(860) 430-9941, cantinasayulita.com

Open daily 4:30-9:30 p.m. (Fri. to 10 p.m., Sat. 1-10 p.m., Sun. 1-9 p.m.). Price range: snacks and salads, $6 to $14; entrées, $16 to $26; desserts, $8. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

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