This review of a Cancun restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s famed modernist restaurant, must have employed half a continent’s worth of people given the number of chefs claiming some connection to that now closed Catalan institution. Benazuza is located half a world away in the basement of Oasis Sens, a sprawling oceanside resort in Cancun, Mexico.
Oasis Sens is inoffensive enough once you’re inside, which is more than can be said overall for the strip of resorts in which it’s located. Cancun’s hotel zone, as it’s known, is a strip of monolithic, generic, guarded and gated hotels converging on a roundabout of cheap bars. Here, countless US college students have gyrated and drank their way into a concussion. The entire revolting artifice is enough to turn you into a Communist and a Baptist simultaneously. It’s like Vegas-on-Sea, but with even less class and only slightly more taste.
Being located within the bowels of Oasis Sens can be more of a liability than a benefit for Benazuza though. A poolside hotel crooner belting out butchered cover versions of Queen was audible within the dining room, while the air conditioning (a necessity in the tropics) was on the fritz for the second day running on the evening of my visit. I doubt this was the experience ‘to awaken your senses’ that the chef had in mind.
The tasting menu kicks off with a course of drinks at the bar, whether you want them or not. The non-alcoholic concoctions I imbibed were modestly refreshing at best. Coconut flavoured ice was fine. A shot of peach nectar dotted with rice crackers made to look like worms was meant to evoke mezcal – an odd association to make when serving someone profoundly booze-averse. A tame watermelon cocktail with parsnip crisps on the side was forgettable, save for the mini crisps bag. More memorable was the sharp lime sorbet in an ‘egg shell’ actually made from sugar, as was the curl of apple tinted with beetroot juice and nestled in a rose. Given the lack of air con, this parade of cold liquids would’ve been better appreciated through the meal.
An amuse bouche taco filled with zesty cream and avocado was more like a quirky spring roll, but it did at least pique my interest at what was to come. Sadly, what was to come didn’t live up to its billing.
Tuna wrapped in seaweed and served on a bed of seeds had a vague Japanese quality, but this only left me hankering for proper Japanese sashimi.
Crunchy corn crackers filled with a zesty cream seemed like an unnecessary repeat of the first taco.
A little more distinctive, if no more successful and quite cliched to boot, was an oddly doughy disc topped with foie gras and salty, creamy caviar. The two fine dining cliches were somewhat complimentary, if ultimately too transient to leave much of an impression.
Foie gras turned up again, this time at the centre of a taco. The morsel of foie was too minuscule to make an impact, even as an amuse bouche, while the mini tortilla was oddly reminiscent of the pancakes served with Beijing roast duck. At least the avocado tempura was pleasing – crisp then creamy, with no excess oil.
I’m not sure which was odder – baby corn served with an oddly spiced cream or the the mini bao-style pork bun. Both were bland and left me filling that I’d left out of a particularly hilarious in-joke.
Foie gras turned up again, but this was the least successful attempt yet with the liver overwhelmed by sweet mango jelly and nutty almond. Thankfully, this was the last foie gras dish of my meal – misconceived or otherwise.
An egg shell came filled with something that I could finally get my teeth into – grainy and gritty Oaxacan sausage morsels provided a pleasing contrast in texture to the starchy potato foam.
A green pepper jelly accompanied by onion foam and corn cream was just one blob of incoherent wispiness too far.
Sizzling mini steak and pepper tacos were playfully presented with the fluffy and nutty tortillas served on the side, while the fillings were arrayed like a mini multi-coloured piano. It was one of the most satisfying dishes of the evening and at its heart, not coincidentally perhaps, one of the most traditional too.
Buttery salmon tartare was neither elevated nor brought down by its ‘cannelloni’ vegetable wrapping. The modestly smoking chipotle sauce was an odd choice and didn’t really suit the fish.
Shorn spears of white asparagus had a pleasingly yielding give and bite, but the tamarind sauce was surprisingly dull.
Although wrapped in what looks like Rorschach paper, the tuna actually came covered in inked filo pastry. The filo was neither here nor there though and the fish was overwhelmed by the distinctive sweetness of the sweet potato purée.
Moist, pink and tender lamb partially made up for the crimes committed against the tuna, even if the generically moreish blobs of sauce seemed like a missed opportunity.
Oddly herby jelly was probably intended as a palate cleanser, except my palate was thoroughly bored at this point. And I’m still befuddled as to why the jelly was presented in clam shells.
Bread pudding arrived covered in a dome of aniseed foam that, sadly, receded quickly – I was hoping for the compulsive gastronomic equivalent of popping bubble wrap. Although soft and somewhat chewy, the bread pudding was overshadowed by a sweet mango sorbet.
A caramel chocolate lollipop was remarkable not for its taste, but for its cherry-like appearance. The accompanying white chocolate lollipop, a sort of mini Magnum, didn’t stick in the mind either. Neither were bad, just unexceptional.
Sprite in a test tube may have a somewhat quirky and fun appearance, but it’s still just Sprite in a test tube. More interesting was lime jelly on lime ‘skin’ – a sharp, gelatinous pairing that was one of the few enjoyable things I had all evening.
The biggest crime that Benazuza’s tasting menu committed against my palate and sensibilities wasn’t that it was systemically misconceived and often only pleasing at the superficial visual level. It’s that it was dull. Boring. Unremarkable. Tepid. Limp. If this is the best an alleged graduate of El Bulli can do, then remedial lessons are clearly in order.
Address: Oasis Sens, Boulevard Kukulkan km. 19.5, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Phone: 0052 998 891 5000
Opening Hours: seven days a week 07.00-22.00
Reservations: yeah, if you want
Total cost for one person including soft drinks but excluding tip: MXN1000 (£40 approx.)