As it turns out, the best restaurant on my escape from New York was owned by two New Yorkers. The chef, Eric Werner, is formerly of Peasant and Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill House. Werner’s wife, Mya Henry, runs the front of the house.
At Hartwood, Werner has created what could only be described as primal fine dining. All of the dishes are cooked in either the massive, roaring 900-degree wood fire oven in the center of the open kitchen, or in a nearby 600-degree grill. (The prep work is done with knives and a blender – powered by a small generator.)
The primal, bold flavors from wood fire at high heat make the dishes seem like they’ve been made for generations in the Mayan riviera. Contributing to the primative experience, the wooden tables in the open air dining area are lit only with small twinkling oil lamps, creating a transporting feel.
The primal feel – and taste – is further enhanced by the use of large portioned, unbutchered proteins, and whole fish, vegetables, and fruit. Everything would be recognizable to our ancestors; it’s just so much better.
Like at other restaurants in Tulum, the food menu is written on a freestanding wooden board that is brought around to each table by the waiter. While you wait, order from Hartwood’s impressive collection of cocktails, all made with squeezed fresh juices and infused spirits.
Keeping up with the Brooklyn connection, the drinks are served in mason jars. The best was a pineapple habanero margarita with a powerful, sweet pineapple flavor followed by a strong hit of spice and tequila. The chili salt made it even spicier.
Hartwood prides itself on its daily caught fish, going so far as to include a humorous photo montage of various staff members holding fresh-caught fish on its website. Naturally, when we saw the mahi mahi ceviche at the top of that night’s daily changing menu, we had to order it.
The beautiful dish had large pieces of roughly cut mahi mahi with paper thin pickled cucumbers, radishes, and jalapeños in a just ever so slightly too acidic broth. The bright dish nevertheless showcased the abundance of the Yucatan – and some impressive knife work.
Next came the ribs (costillas al agave), which our waitress told us was the house specialty – and for good reason! These were quite possibly the best ribs I’ve ever had.
An impressive amount of tender meat with a sweet agave barbecue glaze sat atop just two long bones. The glaze clung and permeated the meat without it being sticky or heavy handed. A side of pickled jalapeños provided some heat, and a crunchy crackling on top was, well, a delicious crunchy crackling. A completely unnecessary cabbage slaw rounded out the dish but failed to detract from the perfect piece of meat.
We also ordered a special Mexican whole fish, similar in taste and appearance to a red snapper, that was stuffed with just the right amount of basil, orange, and sea salt, and then cooked in the wood oven until it was nice and smoky. It was perfectly seasoned and well cooked. A side of chaya, or Mayan spinach, helped absorb some of the flavors. A wood-roasted red pepper came alongside too, which was served whole.
Hartwood’s pesca del dia changes daily, and they offer fish large enough for up to three people.
Also served whole was an incredible plantain side. Roasted whole in its skin in the wood fire oven until smoky and soft, but not too soft, the plantain was then dusted with fresh-grated canela, or Mexican cinnamon, which has a softer, smoother taste than the cinnamon we have up north. It was a simple yet novel way to serve plantains, showcasing the fruit whole while being perfectly cooked and seasoned.
For dessert, there was one offering: creamy and delicious corn ice cream served in a clay bowl. The ice cream had a strong taste of cornmeal, almost like very creamy polenta.
Keeping up with its Brooklyn heritage, Hartwood does not take reservations. As a result, long lines form along the beach road well before the restaurant’s first seating at 6:00 p.m. If you don’t want to wait, arrive before 6:00, or try to get in at the second seating around 7:30, when the first seating’s diners are just finishing up. Annoying, yes, but with food this good, it’s more than worth it.
Carretera Boca Paila km 7.6
Zona Costera, Tulum 77780, Mexico
Recommended dishes: Everything, especially the ribs and the whole fish. Dinner for two with drinks will cost around $125, so it’s New York prices.
P.S.: Remember to bring bug spray.