It's not uncommon to dine at a buffet on holiday in the Rivera Maya. But those lines are about to get much shorter. Mexico's Caribbean coastline is experiencing a much-needed culinary renaissance, treating guests to buzzing concept restaurants and talented, emerging chefs cooking up more than a taco platter. In fact, the flourishing food scene has had such an overhaul that the inaugural Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival took place this past March luring foodies with legends like Ferran Adria (chef of former world's best restaurant elBulli). Needless to say, the Riviera Maya is back on the map as a dining destination. And here's how.
Region's First Greenhouse at El Dorado Royale
El Dorado Royale in Riviera Maya, decided to redefine all-inclusive dining by focusing on fresh, local foods. This spa resort by Karisma built the region's first hotel greenhouse two-and-a-half years ago. At a whopping 100,000 square feet, all hydroponic produce now goes directly to the kitchens of not only El Dorado Royale but to all of Karisma's eight properties in the area for their Gourmet Inclusive Collection. Guests have the opportunity to walk through the greenhouse for educational tours and can even pluck fresh vegetables and herbs right off the vines for tastings.
Seeing Michelin Stars at Paradisus Playa Del Carmen
Over-the-top, gourmet dining in the area has largely meant listening to club beats while dining on sub-par Mexican (-inspired) dishes. But Martin Berasategui, the Spanish chef who's racked up several Michelin stars (including three for his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, Spain), brings his whimsical Basque flavors to the hip Paradisus Playa Del Carmen resort. Open just a few months ago, the swanked-out restaurant gives a distinctive spin to local seafood (try the slow-cooked sea bass with mushroom butter).
Molecular Gastronomy on the Beach
The highbrow among us can experience curious-looking plates of molecular gastronomy at several all-inclusive resorts, including Grand Velas and Royal Hideaway Playacar, but other properties are starting to embrace the movement. This wave of experimental food science takes guests on an innovative experience, now a popular option at Le Chique at Azul Sensatori Hotel in Puerto Morelos.
The 27-year-old prodigy in the kitchen, Jonatan Gomez Luna, has worked at top restaurants like Alinea in Chicago and Le Cirque in New York City (he's also a disciple of Ferran Adria), so you can expect fine-dining techniques with an inventive tasting menu (ie: gazpacho sphere with spicy chili oil, fried sushi, and the 'cotton candy tree' are hits).
Over at the new Sandos Resort, Seasons restaurant is making a big splash with French-trained chef Edward Cupul's tasting menus.
Beyond the Hotel Zone at Cocina de Autor
Take a break from resort dining and head to Cocina de Autor, one of a few gourmet restaurants outside the hotel strip. Famous Argentine chef Cristian Morales opened up shop two years ago in a former mansion that brings to mind popular restaurants in Buenos Aires, like Milion. Open for dinner only, Cocina de Autor is the only Argentine-Mexican fusion in the mostly residential area.
The elegant restaurant sparks romance with lit candles, long-draping curtains, and crystal chandeliers. There's only a handful of tables with the option of dining outdoors, so reservations are a must. Opt for the degustacion menu, which features the oft-sought rack of venison.
Going Organic at Gardenias Inn Tulum
Tulum may be known for its iconic, sandy-white beaches, Mayan ruins, and bohemian flair but at the new Gardenias Inn Tulum, it will be all about the food. Opening in October, the resort will feature visiting chefs from Riviera Maya, the Yucatan, and surrounding states of Mexico who will concoct dishes with what they find in the hotel's organic garden. The resort has plans for a Mayan-style oven pit to slow-roast fish in banana leaves and toast Tandoor bread, and to grow exotic produce like Persian limes, chaya (Mayan spinach), and Thai baby eggplant in the garden.
Fairmont Mayakoba Lures with Craft Beer
Fairmont Mayakoba always has something up their sleeve when it comes to dining. From sustainability efforts (guests have the chance to get close to the catching and farming of Caribbean spiny lobster) to a Mayan-inspired menu using only local ingredients in honor of the Mayan Calendar (the tasting menu debuts June 1, 2012), the five-star resort in the heart of Mayakoba is a one-upper. Thanks to the craft beer movement, Fairmont has revamped their beer selection by offering an artisanal Mexican beer menu, the only hotel to do so in the region.
Note: It is always well-advised to be cautious at all times when traveling to Mexico in light of ongoing safety concerns for Americans.
Thinking of a trip to Mexico's Caribbean Coast?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our Caribbean Coast Travel Guide.
Photo Credits: El Dorado: Courtesy of El Dorado Spa Resorts & Hotels; Gran Velas: Courtesy of Velas Resorts; Cocina de Autor: Courtesy of Chef Cristian Morales; Fairmont Mayakoba: Courtesy of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts