Way Down Deep, in the Middle of the Jungle

Hartwood l www.hartwoodtulum.com/ l Carretera Tulum Boca Paila 7.6Km, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico l info@hartwoodtulum.com l Visited June 2017

There’s a lot to be said for mystery and intrigue mixed with a reputation, to wet an appetite. Tulum, you see, is Mexico’s picturesque jungle town, full of backpackers and people who have gone to escape modern city lives. Many, we found out, have never gone back.

Down every main road is a street to wander off. A litany of alleys that hide entrances to small beach bars or candlelit, seaside restaurants. In fact, one road of 5 or 6 miles along the beach must lay claim to hundreds of such enclaves. All to be heard about by word of mouth, or to be stumbled upon unknowingly. And if there’s one restaurant that’s thrived on the former, it’s Hartwood.

Hartwood has a reputation as a bit of a foodie hotspot across all of Mexico, it’s cited as a must visit. So where has the mystery and intrigue come from if everyone’s already said it’s good? Well for a start, there’s no menu. The style of cooking is meat and seafood, cooked simply on a wood-fired grill. Everything is freshly sourced from the Yucatan peninsula during the week. They build a menu from what they can lay their hands on at local markets.

Add to that that 90% of the year you can’t book in advance (Luckily we could in June), and it’s only open Wednesday to Sunday. I’m even happy to overlook ‘locally-sourced’ and ‘sustainable’ buzz words. All I know is, I was desperate to go.

Hartwood Tulum menu

Decisions, Decisions – The ever changing Hartwood menu

The actual restaurant only adds to the atmosphere, with an outdoor dining room in the middle of the jungle trees. At night, dancing flames from large candles providing the only lighting of glamorous diners tanned faces. It’s wood benches and tables with a hut style bar. It’s ramed at one end by the white, roped entrance and the other by the shimmering flames and commotion of the grill.

A polite lady with a clipboard at the entrance asks if we have booked and my mind immediately darted to the poor people who come outside of June and can’t book, risking the experience being snatched away from them. It’s how some people must feel about gigs or expensive nightclubs.

The cocktails we have while we wait for our table are refreshing in the jungle humidity. A take on a gin and tonic, green with herbs and a tropical cocktail that has a real bite of ginger. They’re good, although the drinks menu as a whole feels like a little bit of an afterthought. But Tulum has plenty of places to drink cocktails, this is a destination for food.

So what of the menu? Our waiter puts a chalkboard before us, lit by lantern, takes a knee, and proceeds to talk us through the whole thing. Usually, this would be my idea of hell, here it’s done succinctly and with charm. No attempt to ram the providence down your throat. In fact, the only problem I have is, I want it all.

Grouper fish at Hartwood

Grouping Together – Grouper fish with beans, jalapeños and cauliflower

An understated ‘vegetable dip’ and grilled prawns arrive and lantern-lit grins stare down. 4 large, plump prawns are still tender and charred on the outside. Perched atop a fruity, but still savoury, papaya sauce. The dips should have been written in bold or given more celebration than the name suggested. Crisp, blistered flatbreads, served with a duo of chunky vegetable ‘dips’: a grilled aubergine jumble, and a spicy pepper salsa. With the final cream-like pot being filled with a salt fish dip that provided an intense savoury and umami flavour.

The main look of surprise as the menu was outlined to us was from across the table as I skipped over the steaks, and made an out of character octopus selection. Usually, I would never order octopus, something that often comes tough like old rugby boots, and even less attractive.

Octopus at Hartwood

Day of the Tentacle –
Charred Octopus with roasted new potatoes

The mystery and intrigue got to me, or maybe it was the sun, but I couldn’t resist. And although curiosity killed the cat, it rewarded the hungry diner. It might just have been the best seafood I have ever eaten. Still soft and tender but the outside grilled to give a really intense, sugar-like caramelisation, the type that slightly sticks to your teeth. Served with crisp, roasted new potatoes and a light herb dressing. I ate slowly, desperately trying to avoid sharing. It’s the kind of dish that you want everyone to try, but don’t want to give a mouthful away.

A Grilled, whole grouper fish with jalapenos, beans & greens and perfect charred cauliflower, was expertly cooked and the best side of not overly complicated. A whole roast beetroot with creme fraiche and a sticky-like-jam baked sweet potato rounded out the gluttonous bounty.

Sure I could point to the set custard-type dessert as not overly inspiring or the wine list that even the waiter admitted a few of the selections were a little ropey, but these are washed away by the rest of the food and the experience. The bill is the upper end of meals we’ve had for in Mexico, at around £160 for two with wine and cocktails. But it’s this meal, shrouded in the aura it’s rightfully created, that I will remember long after the tan has faded.