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Food for Both Body and Soul

Published Feb 13, 2006 - (Updated Dec 19, 2012)

Puerto Vallarta is a sensualist’s dream. Neither sight, sound, touch, smell nor taste is ignored in the natural and man-made beauty that surrounds us. The surf’s symphonic rush, the sun’s majestic descent, and the flora’s amazing spectrum of hues combine with palate-titillating cuisine and soul-stirring works of art at several of its finest restaurants to delight even the most seasoned epicure. Just as the oceanfront Malecon enables those strolling it to enjoy the beauty of the sculptures installed there, restaurants incorporating the work of accomplished artists simultaneously minister to both body and soul. Even more exciting, many of these beautiful pieces by revered Banderas Bay artists are available for purchase.

In the recently renovated Bianco overlooking the Rio Cuale, four of Patrick Denoun’s signature nudes grace the plush red-velvet walls of the chic upstairs dining room. When co-owners Carlos Obando and Louis Dorfman purchased the restaurant in January of 2005, they were intent upon adding warmth and vitality without losing Bianco’s sophistication or compromising the significance of the restaurant’s name, which means white in Italian. Having seen and loved Patrick’s work in Galería Pacífico, Carlos commissioned the French-born artist to create four one-meter-square canvases, implicitly trusting that he would produce something magnificent and perfectly suited to the restaurant’s unique ambiance. Carlos was not disappointed.

For Bianco, the black and white nudes - each strikingly punctuated with a delicate, but vibrant and artfully positioned blossom - are dramatic and erotic, lending intimacy to the dining experience by replicating the subtlety and beauty of the culinary offerings. These particular Denoun works also help unite the dining room with Bianco’s lower-level lounge, where two exquisite large-scale nudes by artist Juan Carlos Manjarrez grace the walls.

Like a luxury property, which may not necessarily be overtly marketed or even actively for sale, there is no indication that the Denoun nudes are available to buy. First and foremost they are part of the decor and an integral component of Bianco’s identity, “where style and culinary art meet for five-star dining.” However, should a patron wish to acquire a painting, each valued in the $6,000 USD range, Bianco would replace it with another Denoun.

Whether fine cuisine on your plate or masterfully rendered paint on canvas, it is art, Carlos maintains. And when created with love, both art forms provoke the senses and are a means to a spiritual connection.

On the Isla Cuale, the River Café enchants diners with elegant cuisine served in a peaceful open setting enhanced by distinctive works by Vallarta icon Marta Gilbert, a long-time friend of owners Margarito Larios and Eva Sanchez. A few years after the restaurant opened, Margarito asked Marta to lend her artistic magic to it and the result was “Blue River,” a vibrant large-scale canvas that is the dramatic focal point of the restaurant’s private salon.

Margarito has always been enamored with the people depicted in Marta’s work. Not only because they are visually exquisite, but their perfect bronze skin, flowing ebony hair and enigmatic eyes are an emotionally charged reminder of Mexico’s Indian heritage. And “Blue River” has special significance: Marta painted her signature indigenous subjects in a verdant jungle setting to simulate River Cafe’s lush, riverbank ambiance. While Margarito would never part with this painting, he has sold other tableaus previously hanging on River Cafe’s walls. While his intention is always to keep what he purchases for his own personal collection, when a diner at his restaurant falls hopelessly in love with Marta’s art he occasionally relents.

As many as eight Marta Gilbert pieces have graced the River Cafe at any given time, but only a couple are on display at present, along with one by Carlos Cuevas. Some were sold over the years and others found a new home at River Cafe’s recently opened sister restaurant, Mestizo, a quiet respite in a quaint colonial home in the heart of town. Colorful depictions of charismatic indigenous people engaged in their daily routines amidst native flowers, fruit, pottery, corn and other cultural symbols are the perfect compliment to the restaurants’ traditional and contemporary Mexican cuisine.

For the past seven years Marta has exhibited at one gallery exclusively, Arte Latinoamericano, the pieces displayed at the restaurants broadening the reach and impact of her work, which Marta believes has the potential to heal. Although not everyone has the resources to own art, everyone can experience the pleasure and spiritual nourishment inherent in it. And her hope for those who have purchased a painting they particularly cherish is that its power translates to their home and life.

Belying its current elegant ambiance, EI Centro’s Trio had humble beginnings. In August of 1997 when the eatery first opened, white plastic chairs served as seating, the bar consisted of a meager 16 bottles, and the plates were on loan from renowned Chef Roger, whose namesake restaurant was closed for the summer. Then, shortly after its inception, two of Trio’s patrons offered co-owner Chef Bernard Guth a large-scale painting rendered by the couple’s artist relative, whose work was well known in the US. And with the installation of that one piece, the whole restaurant blossomed, Bernard recalled. Before long, other local artist friends who regularly dined there, including Judith Ewing Morlan and Angeline Kyba, offered to lend the restaurant some of their pieces, which were quickly joined by those of Edith Palombi, Bella Rish and Kathy Von Rohr, among others. To help inaugurate the new works of some of their beloved artist patrons, Trio soon began hosting festive opening parties on the restaurant’s second level, which was under construction at the time.

Today, an eclectic mix of nearly two dozen works representing the talents of some ten different artists fills the restaurant, lending warmth, color and charm to Trio’s uniquely sophisticated but always welcoming and gracious atmosphere. While savoring one of Trio’s decadent culinary masterpieces, diners can visually relish a broad spectrum of subjects and styles, ranging from impressionistic still lifes in acrylic to realistic sculptures cast in bronze to intriguing mixed-media abstracts. In keeping with the more classic tenor of the main floor, Bernard tries to select more traditional pieces for that space. On the second floor he is less restricted, predominantly featuring one artist at a time - currently Marco Alvarez, exhibits changing three or four times during the high season.

Titles of the displayed art are posted, along with the names of the artists, the galleries representing them, the media used and the prices, which range from $300 USD for a small watercolor into the thousands for larger-scale pieces. Bernard’s personal criterion for selecting the restaurant’s art is deceptively simple Beyond engendering a personal connection, the work must “lift people up ... and say ‘Yes!’ to life.” And although he chooses and exhibits the art, he is neither compensated for nor directly involved in selling it. Should guests express interest in a piece, they are referred to Galleria Pacifico or Galeria Corona, which provide the bulk of Trio’s works, or in the case of an independent directly to the artist.

In the business of creating unforgettable culinary experiences, the four pillars of which, Bernard and chef-co-owner Ulf Henriksson maintain, are food, wine, service and atmosphere that are equally exquisite, they purposely avoid gallery lighting in the restaurant, wanting patrons to feel as comfortable and nurtured as when dining at home.

True to its name, Cafe des Artistes is a sensory masterpiece, where patrons enjoy “a palette of pure pleasure.” One of the world’s premier epicurean environments, this Vallarta treasure is a showcase for chef-owner Thierry Blouet’s award-winning culinary creations, and for the artistic works of such celebrated names as Michael Costantini, Feliciano Bejar and Patrick Denoun, among others. At one time, Cafe des Artistes exclusively featured the work of Jesus Botello, known to the art world as Tellosa. One of his pieces, “Mujer,” a sleek contemporary sculpture of a female nude, has welcomed patrons to the lobby of the restaurant since its inception in 1990. And it is the sole piece of art in Cafe des Artistes that is not for sale.

Over the years, Thierry has purchased an eclectic array of works to help define the restaurant’s three distinct ambiances. At the entrance to the lush multi-level garden an enigmatic Bustamante sculpture fuses man and bird, and a dynamic Tellosa mobile suspended above dining platforms sets the tone for captivating cuisine. In the invitingly sophisticated Costantini Wine Bar, named for the artist whose elegant works grace it, a magnificent large-scale piece intricately hewn from wood suggests a stylized gold forest. In the main floor dining area (the flagship Bistro Gourmet) Luz Elena Moreno’s fanciful “Harlequin,” created for the restaurant’s circus-themed tenth anniversary, lends magic to the fantasy-like setting. And on the upper level, at the entrance to Thierry Blouet Cocina de Autor, the original “Magiscopio” created by Feliciano Bejar and on loan from the Cafe des Artistes Gallery (located across the street from the restaurant) contributes interest through its fascinating reflections and optical illusions.

Inside the signature dining room, where guests are “sumptuously wined, dined and entertained as if favored members of a privileged family,” the artistic centerpiece is Patrick Denoun’s “EI Touareg” (“The Camel”), an imposing 74- by 93-inch work valued at $22,000 USD exuding a seductively exotic sense of power, intrigue, and mastery reminiscent of Thierry’s award-winning cuisine. Now long-time friends Patrick and Thierry are collaborating on an exciting new venture to commemorate Cafe des Artistes’ fifteenth anniversary, a half-dozen pieces unlike anything Patrick has done before. Five are destined for the intimate Cocina de Autor and a sixth will be installed in the clubby Cognac and Cigar Room - a limited and numbered miniature edition of it to be sold in the restaurant’s new boutique. The inauguration of these unique Denoun works will be part of a gala celebration in early 2006, the new collection to replace “The Camel,” which was introduced amidst much fanfare at the opening of Cocina de Autor in 2003.

What more could any self-respecting sybarite desire - five fabulous restaurants where one can relax in luxury, dine lavishly and effortlessly acquire stellar artworks. No wonder they call Puerto Vallarta paradise!

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