Tulum: Casual Fine Dining Delivered with a Mexican Twist
by Andrew Chalk
As we finally open up, restaurants are starting to strut their stuff again. Tulum, at the intersection of Oak Lawn and Highland Park, is emerging stronger than ever. A major reason is the hiring of José Meza as executive chef and Carlos Rodriguez-Groning as General Manager. It means front of house and back of house work hand in glove to give guests a memorable experience. At a recent media event, I saw José creating telegenic dishes in the open kitchen and Carlos sweating the details such as making sure that the departing guest found the front door held open for them as they left.
Full disclosure: I was already a fan of José Meza’s cooking, having tasted it when he was execuchef at Ramona, the halo restaurant at the upscale à la carte Nizuc resort in Cancun. I knew his resume included...
Pujol, Mexico City. Ranked as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world;
Martin Berasategul in the Basque country region of Spain. 3* Michelin;
Bart de Pooter in Belgium. 2* Michelin;
Noma in Denmark. Winner, best restaurant in the world. 2* Michelin;
And those are just the highlights. In short, this is one of the most stellar chef work histories in a city that has a lot of stars. He came to Dallas to work at Jalisco Norte in a move that looked like the culinary equivalent of Tranmere Rovers signing Lionel Messi. I went to Jalisco Norte a few weeks after its opening and was disappointed to find that, rather than the complex telegenic art pieces that I had found at Nizuc, the menu looked immediately familiar to the Dallas Mexican restaurant visitor. For market acceptance he seemed to have been tethered to the point of undermining the rationale for hiring him. Later meals at Jalisco Norte were more ambitious.
At Tulum he appears to have been given carta blanca to build his own menu. Given that owner Mike Karns (whom I have never met) does not have a reputation for being a ditherer who cannot come to a decision, he must have had huge confidence in the young chef’s ability to pull it off. Upon hiring them, he took Meza and Carlos Rodriguez-Groning down to Tulum, a part of Mexico which he and his wife visit regularly. What the two men found was a vibe where multiple nationalities each contribute their singular culture to a palette that is richer than the sum of its parts. Argentinians serve chimichurri alongside Peruvians offering ceviche, native Yucatans with fish stews and fresh seafood, and an itinerant Mexican American with a history at Alinea, El Celler de Can Roca, and Noma who situated his restaurant in the jungle.
Little wonder that people who have discovered Tulum don’t talk about it.
All this means that Meza brings not a menu of burritos and enchiladas (the menu is devoid of either word), but one in which he takes each Dallas protein in turn (and, for vegetarians, plants,) and subjects it to Mexican expression. Call it Mezification. For example, Tulum, situated across the street from Al Biernat’s esteemed steakhouse, will also offer you a steak ($26). But this Flat Iron is sous vide prepared for 72 hours, and served with charred eggplant purée, Brussels sprouts, tamarind, and pasilla mix. The lamb chops ($32) illustrate the same point. Grilled to perfection and then set, in the manner of Paul Bocuse, atop mole sauce. And mole manchamanteles in this instance. So many ingredients, so much complexity in the flavor. The meek may inherit the earth, but the humble, who were too arrogant to qualify as meek, may wonder if they deserve this.
The ‘catch of the day’ ($26) was a red snapper on our visit. Prep was simple but the finely chopped broccoli, sprinkled like a powder on top, added flavor and texture.
Perhaps the antojitos (appetizers) offer the most stunning creations. Avocado ixchel ($7) is a puréed avocado infused with ginger in a kind of nod to Asian cuisine. Radish spears were provided as edible spoons, a cute idea likely transferable to other dishes.
Also among the appetizers, scallops are presented in a fashion unrecognizable from the usual preparation of sauteing. Aguachile scallops ($12) stuffs scallop tartare in squid ink chicharrons and bathes the result in coconut lemon-grass aguachile processed finer than in some versions of this dish. Chia seeds coat the top. In the aguachile the coconut flavor comes over more strongly than the lemongrass, contributing a hint of sweetness. Maybe the menu spelling of tartare without the trailing ‘e’ helped here too.
Two desserts are available, and one may be destined to become the charity circuit indulgence of choice. Ice cream sandwich ($7) is a ‘pick up with yer hands’ coconut cookie sandwiching homemade sweet corn ice cream. I could eat them all day. Were the ice cream sandwich not so good the other dessert tamal de plátano ($8), would get its due. A kind of riff on bananas foster it puts sweet walnut sauce on a banana tamale with pecans sprinkled on top for good measure. The banana leaf ‘mat’ is an arresting visual gesture on the lighter-toned plate.
As well as impressive food, Tulum has a lively bar and is already attracting a, mainly young, crowd wowed by its cocktails and Mexican wine. The vibe is smart casual with music present but not deafening. Hopefully, pandemic woes are mainly past and the carnage that used to be Dallas’ restaurant industry can re-emerge more popular than ever. When you venture out, Tulum should definitely be on your list.