Should a restaurant be an expression of the food culture around it? The question is a uniquely modern one—certainly the Victorians would have snorted at the idea. On the Italian and French Rivieras in the 19th century, wealthy English travelers existed in the world’s first holiday resort bubble. Leery of foreigners who reeked of garlic and pastis, the English created the genteel Victorian equivalent of Biosphere 2, only stocked with roast beef, toast, and high tea. Even today it’s possible, in the budget beach towns of Spain, to spend every night of a week's holiday pissed on pints of Boddingtons, wolfing sausage rolls and chips. A bloke never even has to face bottarga.
In the early 21st century, though, many of us expect restaurants of a certain quality to be rooted in some general understanding of “terroir.” That means not only reflecting nearby ingredients, but also operating as bona fide expressions of local food culture, from the Nordic broodings of René Redzepi’s Noma to the Southern vernacular of Sean Brock’s Husk.
But on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a pair of Brooklyn émigrés are stubbornly resisting their surroundings at a beautiful outdoor restaurant in the Tulum jungle named Hartwood. Earlier this month my husband and I faced each other across one of Hartwood's hard wooden tables on a warm January evening. Under a black sky pricked with stars, with what must have been every song Bob Marley ever recorded seeping through crackly speakers, we capped off a two-week vacation that had taken us to Mexico City and Mérida, eating as far off the tourist circuit as we could.
It's a lovely place, Hartwood, with its oil lamps, its palapas painted some Hamptons shade of white, its Swiss Family Robinson meets Apartment Therapy aesthetic. The crowd that night included an extravagantly blond, Converse-shod family speaking French, and a table of sunburned, fedora-wearing Brits and Aussies recalling the Bali beach wedding where they’d all previously met. A middle-aged woman who looked as if she’d been draped by Stevie Nicks’s stylist spent most of the evening texting, her face glowing above her phone's illuminated screen.
Hartwood owners Eric Werner and Mya Henry are New York “refugees,” according to the New York Times T magazine, who’ve fashioned a “rustic cocina on the Mexican coast.” (Werner previously cooked at Peasant in Manhattan and Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn; Henry worked at the Soho Grand Hotel.) In July, Bon Appétit called Hartwood “the beach restaurant of your dreams.”
That depends, of course, on how large local flavors loom in your dreams. While Hartwood does offer the kind of agrestic, dirt-in-your-toes experience that can only properly come at the end of a four-hour flight, the food turned out to be vaguely Mediterranean, not at all Yucatecan, and only Mexican to the extent that the drinks menu offered a margarita with chile-infused tequila and a dozen Mexican beers and wines. It all seems about as Mexican as, well, the name Hartwood.
While Werner sources ingredients nearby (at a farmers’ market in Valladolid, Bon Appétit says), he’s turning them into rather less polished versions of things you can get at bistros in New York or San Francisco, at prices that match. Last year, a commenter on TripAdvisor blasted Hartwood’s owners for asking 60 pesos (about $4.50 U.S.) for their bottled beers, double the price of a cerveza in Mexico City. Perhaps because of the criticism, a Negra Modelo seems to have settled on a less gouge-y 40 pesos. But still: At a loncheria in Valladolid you can get a trio of amazingly crisp and chewy panuchos, dripping orange fat from the delicious cochinita pibil on top, for 42 pesos (about three bucks). Meanwhile at Hartwood, a dish of rather heavy octopus and white beans cooked in Werner’s outdoor wood oven will set you back 275 pesos (about $21 U.S.).
Of course, at the loncheria you can’t sit under the stars, can’t chill to “No Woman, No Cry,” can’t take a semibuzzed walk (after the last spoonful of Werner’s corn ice cream drizzled with honey) along a Caribbean beach at night. Is it also fair to ask Werner—moving around his jungle kitchen in full Brooklyn beard—to pay homage to Mexico with his cooking?
Back home in the Bay Area, I put the question to a restaurant critic friend. He mentioned a restaurant in San Francisco that took pains to describe its food as somehow capturing local terroir—by referencing the Mediterranean, some 6,000 miles away. Clearly, our notion of "local" is complicated.