Deep in the heart of the jungle darkness, there is The Kitchen Table.
The hands of the restaurant’s Mayan cooking staff move like brown shadows. Illuminated above by lights strung on a dangling, wooden, beam, the team prepares a garden of earthly delights – grilled avocado stuffed with chunky, chipotle sauce, and roasted red peppers.
“It is simple food made well,” said Inacio Lamas, Chef-Patron of The Kitchen Table. “We don’t use many sauces.”
Travel Deep in the Heart of Roots Cooking
An opportunity to create a unique “roots cooking” concept is one of the reasons that brought Lamas to Tulum. He is Portuguese, graduated in 1997 culinary school in Lisbon, worked at a host of top restaurants before opening Kitchen Table in 2015.
Burrowed underneath a canopy of trees, the Kitchen Table is located on Boca Paila Beach Road near Tulum National Park. It was built using reused and natural materials native to Quintana Roo, the Mexican state of which Tulum is part. Solar panels generate the energy for the lights and music in the restaurant, though a backup generator is on hand.
The gastronomic approach of Kitchen Table is both intentional and improvisational.
It has a template of the usual menu suspects. But the ingredients changes, depending on fresh produce bought earlier that day and stored on-site in ice boxes.
“You have to scavenge,” Lamas said. “To find fresh fish is difficult. It’s difficult to find a consistent supplier. We find the best ingredients we can and then improve on it.”
Savor an Exciting “Inside-Out” Culinary Adventure
Unlike most restaurants at which the kitchen staff is tucked away, Lamas puts his on full display. You can watch a staff member adding flour as he rolls the dough for the tortilla while waiting for your Watermelon Mint cocktail to arrive.
“I like to make the experience as ‘inside-out’ as possible,” Lamas said. “People like to see people focused and doing something interesting. That’s why they watch sports. At the end of the day, it’s also a more visual experience because everything is there for you to see.”
Lamas describes the menu as a combination of Portuguese gastronomic techniques and local ingredients.
“Portuguese cooking is a mish-mash of influences from ex-colonies in Africa, America, South America, India, and Indonesia.”
Appetizer examples include Arugula salad with grilled fruit and blue cheese, crispy shrimp, and a Quesadilla de cuitlacoche con flor de calabaza. “From the fire” come Umami tofu steak, Tempura vegetable tacos, Ahi tuna steak, and Arrachera Angus. Chocolate ginger ganache and salted caramel pot were the dessert offerings.
Seasonal lobster and Pan-Roasted octopus were freshly caught by a local fisherman and whisper a subtle Caribbean influence. Caribbean and Mexican influences intertwine in the restaurant’s signature cocktails and variety of top-notch, mescal offerings.
A Raw, Real Experience of Eating
I dined at the Kitchen Table one evening in early December during the twilight of low season. That means I could still find decent parking on the jungle road. The restaurant was busy, but not overly crowded. Such a relaxed atmosphere gave me the space to inhale the experience of eating there.
Each bite of the roasted red peppers served with flatbread was a seductive confluence of sweet and salty. Mexican red peppers have a sweetness, almost innocence to them. The cooks didn’t try to tart it up in an effort to be ironic. They let the sweetness of the peppers linger.
My main course was the “Costilla de cerdo” or pork ribs served with leafy-green swiss chard. Pork ribs are as native to the Yucatan region as hamburgers and French fries are distinctly American. It must be nearly impossible for chefs to devise innovative ways to cook such a staple dish.
Again, the cooks didn’t try to dress up the food in a sequin of sauces. Instead, the pork ribs, Lamas said, were prepared with salt and noisette beurre, which is a technique that “toasts the solids of the butter to give it a nutty flavor”. The simplicity of the cooking allowed me to experience its succulence and tenderness like an embrace.
I loved the swiss chard like hipsters love kale. It was an orgasm with every bite – a bit of garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper. “Simple food made well.”
For dessert, I indulged in the chocolate ginger ganache. Chocolate (or cacao) is a Mexican staple. Therefore, I expect local restaurants to get it right. The Kitchen Table exceeded my expectations. The ganache was creamy, but not too sweet. Bits of ginger careened on the palette on an unexpected road of flavor. Discovering the ginger in a bite of chocolate ganache was like when you are lost on a desert road at night and suddenly you look up at the sky and see a dome of stars.
The final verdict is yes, of course, go to The Kitchen Table for dinner. So many restaurants cloak the mediocrity of their food in a novel concept. Lamas pulls back the cloak and allows the food to be naked, raw, and real. “It’s honest,” he said. And he’s right.
What You Need to Know
Reservations a maximum of one week in advance are strongly encouraged for the restaurant’s two seatings at 6:00 and 9:30 p.m. Otherwise, it could mean a lengthy wait.
Parking is abysmal, especially during the high season (November through January). You may have to park in the jungle and walk on the paved road to the restaurant. Consider it part of the adventure.
The Kitchen Table • Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila 1.5 km Tulum, México • Tel: 52 984 188 4924 • Cash and Bitcoin Only • Reserve online at https://www.kitchentabletulum.com/