Café des Artistes can be a gastronomic adventure

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO — Even from the back seat of a van full of sunburned travel writers, Puerto Vallarta entices at night.

There’s a carnivallike atmosphere along the famous Malecon promenade near the center of town. Turn inland a few blocks, and the quieter, narrow streets yield boutiques, art galleries and eateries that beg to be explored.

I felt like I was finally in “real” Mexico when we passed the ornate Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. The doors were wide open, and dim golden light spilled onto the sidewalk along with voices from the small congregation inside, participating in a Mass.

Then came the best surprise of all — well worth an hour’s ride from Punta Mita, indeed worth a trip from Houston: a religious experience of the culinary kind at Thierry Blouet’s stylish Café des Artistes compound, carved out of a century-old home on the hill above the Malecon.

Comprising several “concepts” that have evolved over 16 years, Café des Artistes is a gastronomic adventure zone. The friendly, French-born Blouet — one of Mexico’s top toques — delights in exotic ingredients.

In the main restaurant, Café des Artistes Gourmet Bistro, you’re likely to find roasted sea bass consorting with spinach mousse and an eggplant marmalade; giant grilled scallops cavorting with a melt-in-your-mouth huitlacoche and potato Parmentier. Or Kobe beef with a pasilla chile sauce sharing a plate with a potato and bacon terrine, fried goat cheese and black beans. The cocoa and spice-spiked roasted piglet with a “hibiscus confit turnip” is another winner.

I could go on, but I’m getting hungry. Entree prices range from about 160 Mexican pesos ($14.50 U.S.) for a “Grand Vegetable Symphony” to 495 pesos ($45) for a 14-ounce rib-eye steak. A three-course, prix-fixe menu costs about $34, plus about $40 for house wine.

We were served (and served, and served) a tasting menu that would take pages to explain, each with its own wine — and I lost track of it all after the mirrored tray of a dozen or so deserts arrived and Blouet cheerfully brought out his best liqueur.

Although Blouet’s meticulously-styled dishes clearly mark him as the “artiste” of the house, contemporary sculpture plays out the theme in several inviting environments. (You’ll have to visit more than once to enjoy them all.) We ate under the stars in the lush, multilevel tropical garden. Another room is all candlelight, crystals and white walls. The Constantini Wine Bar, where 350 bottles are available by the glass, has a cool modern vibe.

Then there’s Thierry Blouet Cocina de Autor, a stunning upstairs room that feels like the inside of a terrarium. Here, the chef and his army of sous-chefs whip up three-, four- and five-course tasting menus nightly that range in price from about $53 to $68 U.S. To finish off the evening, you can choose your own music in an intimate new Cigar and Cognac lounge.

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