And it's in an all-inclusive resort.

By Katie Chang
July 03, 2019
Credit: Courtesy of Azul Beach Resort Riviera Maya

Tell people you’re headed to an all-inclusive resort for the food, and you’ll be met with confusion. While chafing dishes, heat lamps, and bland buffets may have long been the hallmarks of fixed-price vacations, there’s good news: change is afoot. That’s because a spate of them — like Tennessee’s wellness-focused Blackberry Mountain and Maldives’ super-secluded Constance Moofushi — have recently opened with fine dining squarely in mind.

And that’s certainly the case with Azul Beach Resort Riviera Cancun, a member of Karisma Hotels and Resorts. The family of all-inclusives is the first to offer a “gourmet inclusive experience,” with a flexible, wide range of globe-trotting dining options. “Before, it was all about buffet restaurants, with people eating quickly,” says Jeroen Hanlo, Karisma’s Vice President of Food & Beverage Operations. “We wanted to tell the industry it’s time to have a higher standard.”

At Le Chique, the resorts’s award-winning, contemporary Mexican restaurant led by chef Jonatán Gómez Luna, the standard isn’t just set high — but sky high. Born in Mexico City to a family of enthusiastic epicureans — “I grew up eating like a king, but at the same time, was raised on honest, humble food” — Luna cut his culinary chops in Spain under the country’s brightest chefs, including Ferran Adrià and Joan Roca, before returning to his roots to teach at a university in Puebla. It was there he was discovered by Hanlo during a recruiting trip.

Together, they opened Le Chique in 2008. Reservations are a must, since the kitchen specializes in a signature 20-course tasting menu (priced at a relative deal of $110 for resort guests, and $150 for outside guests) called the “Author’s dinner.” The interiors are cool and crisp, cloaked in a neutral, earthy palette and punched up with organic-leaning accents (like teardrop lighting pendants and a craggy stone centerpiece) to let the chef’s wildly imaginative tasting menus take center stage. “I knew I wanted to cook Mexican, but not the kind of Mexican most people are familiar with,” explains Luna. “The dialogue is all about Mexican food, taking your time, and playing my game of the kitchen.”

Credit: Courtesy of Azul Beach Resort Riviera Maya

Every course is aesthetically strong, thought-provoking, and of course, pleasing to the palate. A sublime example of how everything comes together, for example, is the Golden Margarita, a tiny shimmery orb you’re instructed to eat whole. After biting through the white chocolate shell, which is enrobed in edible gold, you’ll taste a pop of bracing margarita.

Credit: Courtesy of Azul Beach Resort Riviera Maya

There are also whimsical spins on lesser-known recipes across Mexico, like the Smoked Quail Egg and Ha Sikil Pak. An everyday Yucatan condiment of pumpkin seeds, green herbs, and habanero, it’s typically served with eggs and tortillas. Instead, Luna meticulously forms what appears to be an egg — “you need technique, patience, and even the right mold to make this” — filled with the flavorful sauce. Again, it’s intended to be consumed in a single bite. “It might be a traditional recipe, but we’re serving it in a new way,” explains Luna. “We’re going back to our roots, but in a different form.” While each plate was designed to stimulate all the senses, Luna asserts that everything is in service of “flavor first, always.”

Despite being open for 11 years, Le Chique has quietly hovered just under the radar — enough for local critics to heap praise, but not enough to get the attention of many worldly food-focused travelers. Being tucked away in a popular all-inclusive resort may not help, but Luna doesn’t mind one bit. “Our clients visit Riviera Maya for the beach and drinks, not necessarily Michelin-quality restaurants,” he says. “But give me the opportunity to show you how exciting Mexican food can be.”