Deconstructed fajitas. A “pinata” filled with guacamole. Foie gras posing as roasted baby corn. A beautiful seascape where the “starfish” draped over the reef are meant to be eaten. An edible garden as dessert. An invisible margarita.
Such are the descriptions we were given during our extended tasting menu at Benazuza, and each time I felt myself breaking into a wide grin before considering the beautiful presentation in front of me. If the dishes sound off the wall, that’s because they’re designed to engage all of your senses and go beyond even that – to envoke a sense of playfulness, of whimsy and delight. It was truly a meal unlike any I’ve ever had.
Like many foodies that I know, I was shattered when the fabled restaurant El Bulli in Spain closed its doors in 2011. Chef Ferran Adria is known as the founding father of molecular gastronomy (or as he preferred to call his style of cooking, “deconstructivism”) and it was with a heavy heart that I took El Bulli off of my culinary bucket list – a destination restaurant worth traveling for.
Fast forward to the day that I received my itinerary for the Culinary FAM trip that I’d signed up for and been accepted to (yippee!) for after the TBEX conference in Cancun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and as I scanned down to the names of the restaurants we’d be visiting, I began plugged them into Google and almost fell out of my chair!
Benazuza, the fine dining enclave in our host hotel, the Oasis Sens, was listed under the direction of Spanish Chef Rafael Zafra, who happened to be a disciple of the legendary Ferran Adria and had worked with him at El Bulli. My molecular gastronomy dreams had come true! It was likely the closest that I’d ever get to experiencing El Bulli in person, and Chef Zafra had an impressive resume all his own, including two Michelin stars. I couldn’t wait!
Breakfast at Benazuza
As we checked in to the hotel I realized that, although most of our itinerary was accounted for, we had one meal that hadn’t already been scheduled – breakfast on our second morning. We were slotted to dine at Benazuza that evening, but without hesitation I quickly booked myself for the breakfast tasting menu there that same day. As soon as I got back to the group to tell them of my plan for double Benazuza exposure, they quickly followed suit and signed up as well – these were obviously my kind of people!
So, the morning after our luxurious dinner at Ramona four of us stumbled downstairs to Benazuza, which was empty save for two other tables. We busied ourselves with reading the faux newspaper articles (many of which connected Chef Zafra with El Bulli and touted his other two Michelin stars) and taking in the ambiance of the restaurant, bathed in the warm morning light reflecting off the ocean on the horizon.
When booking, we were advised to allow three hours (!!) for breakfast, and our tasting took just about that entire time. While it may seem a bit overkill going through multiple courses for your first meal of the day, with the relaxed pace of the meal and detailed instructions from the servers, I found myself happily appreciating each bite as they came.
Simple, elegant presentations for breakfast at Benazuza
We began with a cafe de olla and a trio of fresh juices served in glass shot glasses – fresh orange, watermelon with hibiscus, and grapefruit/guanabana with rosemary, which was my favorite.
Next, a basket of toasts with a variety of spreads – marmalade combos like mango with a spicy chipotle chile for heat, strawberry marmalade with a hint of tequila, cream cheese with jalapeno and butters savory (truffled) and sweet (vanilla) to round things out. Then came a few other sweet courses: perfect little brochettes of melon layered with honey the consistency of jello, yogurt with strawberries, and white chocolate foam with chocolate puffed rice cereal sprinkled atop.
The savories are always my favorite and I loved the playful way they used Mexican flavors, like a foam made of potatoes with warm seasoned beans below. My absolute favorite bite of the morning was the small dish of an earthy “cuitlacoche” (which is actually a fungus that grows on corn, sometimes known as Mexican truffle) sprinkled around a perfectly poached egg then draped with a rich, creamy sabayon.
As the servers brought out the final course, a basket of house-made baked items and a luxurious cup of hot chocolate, I looked around and saw that everyone else looked the same way that I felt – ready for a nap! If this was our warm up for the evening, then we were definitely in for a treat.
Dinner at Benazuza
Dinner was, of course, an entirely different experience from the very moment that we took our seats around the bar. Take, for example, the presentation of the “invisible margarita”:
You can’t help but laugh, right? We all waited for the punch line – it turns out that the “cocktail” was in the straw that was later placed into each glass. Likewise, we each got a piece of sugarcane to chew with the liquor infused into it and later a shot molded into a sphere served in a clam shell with a slice of lime. It set the tone for the evening, capturing our attention, yet reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously.
As we moved to a private dining room in the back, I truly wanted to pinch myself in anticipation for the rest of the meal. Service was attentive and each dish was explained in detail as it wasn’t always apparent how a dish needed to be eaten – how exactly does one eat a “pinata”? (Answer: crack open the outer shell to reveal a mound of delicious guacamole inside, which can be scoooped out with the pieces of the shell!)
Edible starfish (flavors of seaweed and spicy chipotle)
One of our first courses had a liquid nitrogen component, with the white smoke spreading out over the table – in the dark room it almost felt like we were spectators of a magic show. (I suppose, in a way, we were.)
Small bites and snacks came out one or two at a time, including edible starfish crackers, popcorn, and playful takes on mexican street food, like foie gras shaped to look like roasted baby corn (which totally threw me off, in a good way, texure-wise) and REAL baby corn served with a vanilla butter. We had a beautiful “deconstructed” fajita, where each veggie component was cooked and served on a wooden dish as a separate, colorful line, which we then tucked into warm, mini tortillas.
foie gras masquerading as baby corn
The cuitlacoche dish from breakfast reappeared (yippee!) and then a few savory “entree” type dishes like a mole (done in a light and dark style) before we headed into the desserts.
The desserts were gorgeous, of course, and fun! One was presented to us as a big white sphere, one for every 3-4 of us at the table. We all looked around, puzzled, until mini baseball bats were then placed on the table. One of the girls took a whack! at the sphere and we all laughed as the inside was revealed. Another pinata!
The final dessert was made to look like a garden, with beautiful flowers, cherries, carrots and of course, dirt. None of it was what it seemed and we all enjoyed trying to guess what flavor would greet us before we popped the components into our mouths. At this point, Chef Zafra came out to chat with us for a few minutes and I felt sad that the experience was coming to a close. But I suppose after 26 courses (-ish? I lost track!) it was time to call it a night.
Just a few of the many highlights from dinner at Benazuza
>> For more photos and video of our experience at Benazuza, click here.
Benazuza @ The Oasis Sens
Blvd. Kukulcán 19.5 Zona Hotelera,
Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Reservations: (998) 891 5000
Benazuza Facebook Page
Disclosure: My stay at the Oasis Sens and meals at Benazuza were sponsored by the Cancun CVB as part of our culinary-themed press trip. I was not otherwise compensated for this post and the opinions are, of course, my own.