Dining at Cafe des Artistes in Puerto Vallarta

Café des Artiste’s rooftop garden opens for dining November to May.

The best restaurant in Puerto Vallarta won’t be found in one of the Mexican city’s many luxury hotels. Visitors to the Pacific beach resort must venture into the historic Centro neighborhood to find Café des Artistes, several blocks removed from the main tourist byways.

Within the walls of this elegant restaurant, chef-owner Thierry Blouet has been offering “the magic of French cuisine, inspired by ingredients, flavors and recipes of Mexico,” for more than 27 years.

Had Blouet, a Puerto Rico-born Frenchman, been in business a generation earlier, there’s little doubt he would have inspired many visits from actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who nurtured their fabled 1960s romance just around the corner from this cobbled street.

Owner-chef Thierry Blouet (JGA)

Blouet is renowned throughout Mexico. He is the president of that country’s chapter of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the oldest and largest gastronomic organization in the world. (It was established in France in 1248.) He is the co-founder of the annual Festival Gourmet International, which has brought chefs from 38 different countries to Vallarta every November since 1995.

His Café des Artistes menu, changing twice a year and complemented by specials, is the sort that makes one’s mouth water just reading it. The cream of prawn and pumpkin soup, served tableside from a hollowed jack o’ lantern (without Day of the Dead carvings), is legendary. The gnocchi-style tamale and cactus ratatouille never fails to delight vegans. The pistachio-crusted lamb shoulder is a carnivore’s dream.

Best of all is the seafood. I had giant prawns and stuffed mussels with a yellow plum-and-habañero mole, and I could not have been more delighted.

By Mexican standards, the prices are high. By standards of American fine dining, they are not. Appetizers at the Cafe des Artistes typically run from 145 to 389 pesos (about $8 to $20), main courses 320 to 575 ($16 to $29). My seafood entrée was 485 pesos ($25).

Sharing the love

After a childhood of globetrotting — Blouet, now 56, lived in Spain, Venezuela, Australia and New Caledonia, as well as France and Puerto Rico — he settled in Mexico City at the age of 18 to finish his schooling as a hotelier. Thoroughly trilingual, he began his career with the Camino Real group, progressing to the position of chef at its Puerto Vallarta resort by the time he was 22.

Vallarta became home. He considered moving elsewhere — to Cancún, perhaps, or to Europe or even Asia — but he fell in love with a girl from the inland city of Zacatecas, and they decided to stay in Mexico. Their family of five children, aged 24 to 15, were all born here. A 22-year-old daughter, now in a three-year cooking program in France, is likely to follow in her father’s footsteps.

She could do worse. As the fame of Café des Artistes has grown, so has the demand for Blouet’s skills. His second restaurant, Tuna Blanca in Punta de Mita, less than an hour’s drive north, has done so well that in late 2016, he opened Café des Artistes Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja peninsula.

Prawns in habanero mole (JGA)

The original Puerto Vallarta restaurant seated only 40 to 50 guests, said Blouet, who still does all of his own menu design, chef training and marketing. “The kitchen was so tiny,” he recalled, “we had no freezer. We kept our fish on buckets of ice.” But he made it a priority to create “the first proper wine list in Puerto Vallarta.” The selection still numbers over 200 bottles.

Blouet has gradually expanded Artistes so that it now seats a couple of hundred. The original “old house” now serves as the P’yote Lounge, a piano bar with décor details created by contemporary Huichol craftspeople. The Drops Salon maintains the same elegant mood Blouet envisioned for his restaurant in 1990. There are also a chef’s table and a private space for family gatherings.

Most diners prefer the spacious rooftop garden, open November to May when rain is much less likely to fall. It’s like dining in a subtly lit jungle: Tropical foliage shrouds the terraces, offering not only intimate ambience but also a home to birds, frogs, crickets and other small animals.

Only the best

The chef prides himself on sourcing the finest foods. “Before we opened,” he said, “all restaurants here cooked the same thing. We’ve changed that.”

There are challenges to operating a fine-dining restaurant on this shore. Meat and vegetables must be brought in from outside — beef from ranchos in the state of Sonora, just south of the Arizona border, and produce from farms near Guadalajara and Cabo San Lucas. “The best farms I’ve seen in Mexico are in Cabo,” Blouet said. “They have drier weather, and they produce wonderful organic heirloom tomatoes. We are glad to pay more for what they have.”

But his #1 mission is to offer great seafood, not a problem in Vallarta. The catch of the day might be tuna, snapper, sea bass or dorado (mahimahi) from local waters. The chef finds lobster and shrimp in San Blas, oysters and other shellfish in colder waters near Ensenada.

“We use the best products and the best techniques, both traditional and modern, and we blend them with artistry,” Blouet said. “The presentation is so important. People eat with their eyes and their nose. We want to give them the best possible experience here.”

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