Inspired by the intrepid art and colors of Mexico, Cantina Kahlo, at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, showcases a refined take on the country’s celebrated culinary traditions with the ambience to match.
Mexican cuisine is much like the country itself: vibrant, colorful, cheerful and spicy. Ancient Aztec traditions and the eating habits of the Spanish conquerors merge into a potpourri of culinary delights. The kitchen is arguably the most important part of any Mexican home, and its food plays a critical role in defining the cultural identity, customs and traditions of this fervid Latin American nation.
Mexicans are judicious when it comes to their cuisine, and understanding its many facets is a matter of national pride. Mexico’s well-to-do and famous are no exception to this rule. That’s why Frida Kahlo’s family was so embarrassed when she married muralist Diego Rivera at the age of 22 — she didn’t know how to cook. It is well known that Rivera was an avid gourmand who favored dishes from the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Kahlo, on the other hand, was not a passionate eater, preferring small portions to whole meals and indulging in snacks, desserts and sweets instead. She was known to carry treats in her handbag to give to children she met and especially loved meringues, nougats and creamy candies because they reminded her of her childhood.
To learn how to cook the rustic fare her husband loved so much, Kahlo borrowed inspiration from the cookbook she inherited from her mother, and whenever the couple hosted at the Blue House, the entire household was enlisted to help with the preparation of true Mexican feasts. The tables in the kitchen and dining room were filled with huge clay pots of pork stew, nopales (cactus leaves) in green sauce, and large plates of chicken and pork feet. There were also salad bowls with beans, radishes, cheese, tomatoes and avocados. Various tables would be decorated with arrangements of pears, grapes, bananas and oranges, and adorned with bright paper napkins to accentuate the colors of the fruit. Of course, tequila, pulque (a milky alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant) and Mexican beer were served to everyone. Kahlo would not have known it then, but her native country’s spirited cuisine so loved by Rivera — and indeed all Mexicans — would later conquer the world.
The Kingdom of Bahrain could not be farther away from Kahlo’s birthplace, but it is here, on the edge of Manama Bay, that a zealous team is paying tribute to Mexico’s culinary traditions and diverse offerings.
“Every region in Mexico has its own history and distinct set of flavors,” says Cesar Daniel de Leon Torres, the former head chef of Cantina Kahlo at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, who concepted the menu, opened the restaurant in 2016 and led its talented team. Taking into account a bounteous gastronomic heritage that goes back thousands of years, Torres set out to map the country through original interpretations of its food.
“At Cantina Kahlo, we want our patrons to embark on a culinary journey of Mexico,” says Torres. “If they’re unsure about what to order, or unfamiliar with our menu items, we sometimes decide for them, making choices that will open their taste buds to a completely different experience that goes far beyond just tacos or guacamole.”
Working with his fully committed team of sous-chefs, Torres composed a menu that explores local flavors from north to south. Cantina Kahlo’s kitchen team was carefully selected, bringing together members with varying backgrounds — from tequila distillery experts to assiduous front-of-house staff to, of course, knowledgeable chefs — from different regions of Mexico in order to create an all-around winning team. In total, seven Mexican nationals work the kitchen at Cantina Kahlo, and the same team has been on board since the launch.
Torres himself started cooking at the age of 14 in Punta del Este, Uruguay, later getting a degree in gastronomy followed by a master’s in culinary arts at the Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía. “I first fell in love with Mexican cuisine’s alluring mix of flavors, colors and techniques when I traveled there on vacation as a teenager,” Torres says. “I have visited many countries in South and Central America, but have never found any food that exudes the humble sophistication of Mexican cooking. Mexicans cherish their rich culinary traditions and preserve them over generations,” he adds.
In a nod to authenticity, the team at Cantina Kahlo works primarily with ingredients imported from Mexico. Avocados, cilantro and other ingredients such as the all-important Mexican chilies are all sourced from home.
To that point, the restaurant’s menu is a cornucopia of Mexico’s greatest culinary hits — with an exuberant twist. There’s its interpretation of sopes, a wonderfully dense, fried corn cake originating from the central and southern parts of Mexico, which is prepared with tender Wagyu short ribs; artisanal tacos served with homemade tortillas (try the Alambre taco with flank steak or, as a vegetarian option, with field mushrooms, zucchini flower and Serrano chili sauce); and ceviches presented in high-top glass bowls, like the hamachi with zesty lime, coriander, red onion and just the right level of spice from jalapeños. Seasonal plates include sea bass cooked a la manera de Veracruz and octopus with kale and guajillo chili.
Delicious food aside, what really sets the restaurant’s version of Mexican fare apart is the presentation. Expertly plated dishes burst with color and texture, exemplifying not only the team’s technical skills but its vivid and artful imagination as well.
Color and texture also play an important role in Cantino Kahlo’s décor, which is inspired by the vibrant Mexican art scene, with a nod to legendary artists of the country’s past. Its interior has been designed in bright, saturated colors reminiscent of a jewel box that seems to transport guests to the hustle and bustle of Mexican cities. The main dining space opens to an alfresco deck resting under a set of large trees. At night, guests rendezvous under the lanterns until late, enjoying tequila cocktails or Mexican beers to the beat of a handpicked playlist of Mexican pop, some folkloric tunes and the odd Luis Miguel hit thrown in for good measure.
The popularity of Frida Kahlo’s compelling life story has steadily increased as she has become more than an artist in our collective imagination. The same is true for the traditional flavors of Mexican cuisine, and Cantina Kahlo creates a menu that surprises and delights while staying true to its roots. This tiny slice of Mexico in the Middle East is a soulful labor of love from a passionate team that understands the art of Mexican cooking. Kahlo herself would approve of the décor, and her husband, Rivera, indeed of the food.