Sunday, September 5, 2010

Great Chefs of Baja in 39 Courses: Benito Molina, Javier Plascencia, Miguel Angel Yaques, Martin San Roman

Baja California, only a few hours south of Los Angeles, is the second greatest destination in Mexico for contemporary dining. It is the top wine producing region in Mexico, and has a bounty of local seafood, produce,meat and poultry products.It's gastronomy is a unique mix of European, Asian, and Mexican traditions that are 100% Baja Californio.

After a brief visit back in October of 2009, chef John Rivera Sedlar was eager to get back for some real exploration of Baja's cuisine. In April of 2010, our calendars synched, John, along with my dear friends, Barbara Hansen, Tomoko Kurokawa, And Brian Saltsburg joined for my Great Chefs of Baja California gastronomic tour.

We did street food, tried one of the greatest cevicherias in Mexico, and visited four incredible chefs while savoring the pleasures of Baja through laughter, wine, mezcal, and fine conversation paired with 39 courses of unforgettable bites.

Benito Molina of Manzanilla, Ensenada,BC.

Part 1: El Maestro

Benito Molina truly reflects the freedom, spirit and tranquility of Ensenada. His approach is embraced by many of the local chefs, to just let the ingredients play, because they've got the best. Like his one of his favorite jazz artists, Miles Davis, Benito selects the finest ingredients available, and gives them the opportunity to shine. Just a touch of seasoning here, a dab of sauce there. I once had one the best ceviches ever at Benito's Muelle Tres, "It's a nice bonito fish, so I just put some sea salt and lime", he said in his mid-afternoon narcosis.

Benito comes from Mexico City and brings that energy along with the influences of world travels into his Baja kitchen. Manzanilla with its bordello by the sea vibe, is the meeting place for Baja's wine and food industry. It's here, where at around 2AM, the post dinner crowd comes in and Benito holds court. It's in the after hours when Benito, with his sinister waxed tipped moustache, really comes alive.

I remember the first time I met him, we drove through the wine country drinking from open containers in the car, clutching six packs of beer while tasting wine from barrels at Valle de Guadalupe's wine school.Completely loaded he almost swerved off the dusty road in El Porvenir, and just looked at me through dark shades and boozily shrugged,"ooops.......sooooorrrriii!"

On the night of our four hour dinner, Benito was excited about a sturgeon that was caught nearby, rare for these waters, but it gave Benito a chance to do one of his favorite things, to do head to tail cooking.

Course no. 1 A canape of flaked sturgeon with tomato, chile, garlic and herbs reflects the Italian influences in Baja.

Kumamoto oysters from an estuary in Guerrero Negro with a shallot vinaigrette, contrasted with a Pacific oyster with chopped pork feet. Bi-valves are a must at any of Benito's restaurants. He sources from the finest purveyors all over Baja.

The smaller manila clams and a white clam adorned with soy sauce, habanero chiles and lime.

Like a jazz musician taking elaborating on a theme Benito produces a smoked clam with gorgonzola, and an oyster with dripping suggestively with tarragon butter.

Tiradito done two ways, a type of ceviche style, the first with capers, raspberry and onions, the other with green chile,soy sauce, and vinegar. You can learn alot about a Baja chefs style by their tiraditos, about their palates.

Baja has fresh sardines, something I miss here many a night, are served cured in salt, vinegar, ginger and chile verde.Jocoque, cultured cream, made dreamy with cucumber and wild fennel from Benito's garden are about as perfect a bite as one can suppose.

A saliferous salad of grilled mackerel and sardine with mizuna salad, reflecting the Japanese influence in Baja.

A house favorite of Manzanilla, a chowder of manilla clams with smoked bacon, potato and mild saffron.

Just south of Ensenada in Erédira, abalone is harvested as it was by natives more than 10,000 years ago.This artful plating with tomato, onion, serrano pepper,and pasote sauce displays Benito's painter style of presentation. There is interesting art at Manzanilla and usually at least one of Benito's own works is on display.

One of Manzanilla's most fascinating creations is calamari with roasted beets, ginger, orange juice, lime juice, garlic and habanero. This is a dish for the world, opulent, sweet, and ethereal spice, it's Baja's avant garde.

Cabrilla, a local sea bass, lies on a bed of poblano peppers, that are charred and sliced with herbs, garlic and parsley.

A white seabass is garnished with a radish salsa,accompanied by Baja style risotto made with fresh huitlacoche,corn smut.

I believe we had many courses still to come, but our long and overly caloric adventures had left us in no condition to go much longer. So, we only had one non-seafood plate a soulful beef tongue, stomach and hoof stew with a dense and rich chile guajillo stew, topped with fresh pasta.

As our party began to doze off, I listened with forced intensity as the representative of Ramonetti cheese down in Ojos Negros explained in painstaking detail, how the cheese is made. I looked over my shoulder at John, Brian, and Barbara starting to pass out as I struggled to concentrate and keep my eyes open, when I found an opportunity for an out."Well, I can't wait to try some!" An assortment of cheeses from Ramonetti: fresco, basil, pepper, rosemary,and anejo served with a strawberry wine reduction sauce and fruit.

I want to do this tour someday soon, but we had burnt the entire day in food, drink and exploration, and it was time to sleep.

One last sweet memory, a warm chocolate molten cake, a glass of mango with light cream, and mango coulis on shortbread.

Long dinners at Manzanilla are one of my Ensenada traditions, and the after party is worth the stay. Benito Molina is one of the greatest chefs in Baja, and in Mexico. He brings the urban cutting edge of Mexico City,an artist's restraint,and the limitless plenitude of Baja flavors.

Javier Plascencia, of Villa Saverios, Tijuana,BC

Part 2: Smooth Operator

Javier Plascencia is tearing up Baja's culinary scene, a force to be reckoned with. He currently runs Villa Saverios, Cafe Saverios, Cebicheria Erizo,Caesar's restaurant(recently restored birthplace of the Caesar's salad) La Tia, Casa Plascencia,Guiseppe's, all in Tijuana, and Romesco on the other side of the border. And, he's set to open another restaurant soon, where he will be getting behind the stoves to do more of his own thing, free from the successful formats of his other places.

Javier has been a successful restaurateur all of his life, the pizzeria started by his Italian immigrant father, Guiseppe's, still does good business and makes a mean pie.So successful are his restaurants, that he's opened another one just so he can cook just the way he wants.Places like Villa Saverios and Casa Plascencia are so popular among Tijuana residents, that he has had trouble over the years trying to introduce new items to the menus. He sneaks a dish here and there, but has had tremendous pressure to maintain the classics.

So, he opened Cebicheria Erizo and created one of the best ceviche and seafood concept restaurants in Mexico. Now, ceviche has been conquered and he's ready to heat things up with a new place in Tijauna, oh, and he has a seasonal restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Javier is quiet,intense, focused, and constantly moving back and forth across the border in perpetual motion.His restaurants are all of the highest quality, and having dined at just about every restaurant in his portfolio, I'm always amazed on how great these places are.

All this and I can always count on him for a late night hang at one of Tijuana's night spots, partyin' until 4AM, and a cafe de la olla at 8AM before he dashes off to the next gig.

We had Villa Saverios to ourselves on the night of our tasting,10 staff members to us five fortunate souls.Javier likes to start things off with tostaditas, which displays his expertise with the local products.An octopus machaca, spider crab, and geoduck clam with cucumbers and jalapeno, each bite is unique and explosive.

In Tijuana, the chefs like to go big on flavors. A chile relleno stuffed with beef cheeks, arugula, heirloom beans, fig granules, ground cacao, and pickled onions seems certain to be over the top, but it just melts in your mouth, pleasurable moans all around the table.

The duck tacos with cucumber, cilantro, habanero salsa, avocado, and salsa de jamaica are cleverly wrapped in a tortilla of razor thin jicama. It's savory, ambrosial, and lightly stings the tongue.

Then two carts came out and we were the guinea pigs for the new Caesar's restaurant, which wasn't open yet. Javier was training two gentlemen to present their salads, the original Caesar, and the Victor. While the Caesar is a worldwide hit, the Victor was a classic from the same era at Victor's restaurant, the dressing is different, and the bread crumb is rather large. These guys now run a friendly competition at Caesar's restaurant."Which is your favorite...

the Caesar or the Victor?" Both are now served at Caesar's restaurant, located on Av. Revolucion, made table side, just as it was for Al Capone and Bing Crosby, back in the 30's.

A risotto of faro deepened by bits crispy suckling pig, microcilantro, nopales, heirloom beans, morel mushrooms. Risottos are popular in Baja cuisine, using local flavors and style.

From Villa Saverios' wood fired oven, a cazuela of baked lamb shank, with chochoyones (masa balls), onion, and thyme.This is a young lamb, called borrego primal, very popular in many restaurants in the area. The cazuela is for making yur own tacos. The tender lamb three month old lamb is so delectable, and has a great mouth feel with the masa.

Dessert number one,Javier's pizzetina of quince, Real de Castillo cheese, fig syrup,and pomegranate seeds. These could be a closer for any meal, quite delicious.

Homemade pistachio ice cream with a rosemary twist.

And,the fine cheeses of local producer Ramonetti,a cow's milk aged 12-14 months accompanied by mission figs, pine nuts, and basil. Ramonetti is a Baja California cheese that you must try.

Part 3:The Hunter

Miguel Angel Guerrero Yaques is Baja’s own Man vs. Wild. He hunts, scuba dives, and fishes for his restaurant’s menu items. All the Baja chefs are so fortunate to be able to create such menu items with all these amazing products, but Miguel takes it a step further. There’s something exciting about the process of dining on fresh kill, and a chef that stays with the animal from life to death to table.

Although he definitely has had some training, Miguel doesn’t like to indulge in such conversations, or talk shop. It’s about creating and being in touch with Baja. Thousands of years ago Kumiai people’s hunted, fished, and dove for their meals in the area, a tradition that continues here at La Querencia.

Miguel is another one of Baja’s restless souls, always moving, searching, and engaged. He patented the term Baja Med, to describe the Baja cuisine that blends flavors of Asia, Mexico, and the Mediterranean. Others have followed this trend, taking advantage of Baja’s Mediterranean climate and great wines to drive their recipes.

His style of food is rustic, ultra-layered, and primal. I often look at his dishes thinking, this isn’t going to work, there’s too much going on here. But, the busy plates fall into the simplest of dining sensations, that of deliciousness.

Baja wines Maat, and Diosa VIP. Baja's wine industry keeps on growing, adding new labels constantly.

Liz and Emma showed up from Cotuco, thanks guys, you can rest from now on, just send the girls!

Party in the Zona Rio!

The shot almeja is Sea of Cartez chocolata clam served with vodka, and Sriracha chile sauce. This is a Baja style seafood cocktail for the aficionado. A swank seafood cocktail for the leisure class, I can't go to La Querencia without having one of these.

There are several excellent carpaccio's at Miguel's restaurants, but the beet carpaccio is just clean and with a nice salty-sweet balance from the crumbled goat cheese.

A pair of kumamoto oysters, one raw in with wasabi, lime peel, and sashimi salsa of chives and dried fish, the closer a smoked oyster smoked with a chipotle sauce. The chipotle sauce all but shuts down your voluntary movement in a blissful pause. That's a first date oyster, baby.

The next course,deer salami, deer carpaccio and duck paté was highly anticipated. I love this sort of indulgence and finished off any neglected bits.I follow the three minute rule on this one, if someone hasn't gone in in the last three minutes, take it. These are all animals felled by Miguel's hands. If there's deer in the house, he just got back from hunting.This is also a native Baja tradition, hunting and feasting on deer.

A fresh marinated tuna was served as a tostada with avocados, leeks, shiitake mushrooms and garlic chips,drizzle of aromatic oil infused with toasted garlic and leeks.

La Querncia has great tacos,rabbit en mole negro,and duck meat taco with fresh crisp lettuce from Miguel's farm.

Baja style surf and turf,grilled mero, a type of local seabass, on a bed of risotto with a mound of crunchy fried lamb meat.

The last savory course,braised short ribs were marinated for 8 hours then cooked in a white wine broth until it fell helplessly off the bone.The beef was tossed with thyme, guajillo pepper and oyster mushrooms and served over linguine. This is Baja Med.

An assortment of house made desserts:gingerbread cake, layered crepe cake, nutty pound cake and a chocolate cake.

Part 4: El Primero

Martin San Roman, on the right, and his staff at RIncon San Roman.

Martin San Roman was perhaps the first Baja chef to make a splash and has been an accomplished chef for quite some time. He graduated at the Ecole Lenotre Paris in 1983, competed with team Mexico at the Bocuse D'Or in 1995,and is a member of the Academie Culinaire de France. He had job offers all over the world after he graduated from culinary school, but chose to come back to Tijuana, lured by Baja’s playground of fresh ingredients.

His style of cooking is labeled international due to his mastery of French technique, he had a critically successful French restaurant called Tour de France some years back, but now has Rincon San Roman at the Real del Mar golf resort just a short way down highway 1, past Playas de Tijuana.

Martin has cooked for former president Bill Clinton, and was hired to cook at Anthony Quinn's 80th birthday. He, as all the other chefs here cook the way they want, and although he doesn't usually incorporate many things like chiles and other recognizable Mexican ingredients, his cusine is also Baja Californian.

For this tasting, he opened his doors just for us, and even through in some more Mexican touches for this extravagant lunch.

Martin San Roman, Rincon San Roman, Tijuana,BC

Our dinner included a new red wine from the catalog of top Mexican wine maker, Hugo D'Acosta ,Jardin Secreto from Adobe Guadalupe winery, Valle de Guadalupe.

Martin started us off with a tuna tartar,sweetened by smoked apples, and Baja red wine jelly.

Baked New Zealand mussels, the only non-Baja product on this menu, with corn husk, lobster sauce and marjoram pico de gallo. Martin's flavors are refined, and balanced. I think he'd be a great tutor for non-Mexican chefs trying to play with Mexican ingredients, he can put himself in both worlds.

Fresh mixed lettuce plucked from a hydroponic garden with a divine hibiscus vinaigrette.

Filet of sole with wine leafs, and locally caught marlin with scallop sauce, a fantastic combination of flavors. The marlin takes the lead here, tempered by the scallop sauce givin it a more urbane flavor profile. This is not your typical marlin taste you get at the seafood shacks, that's for sure.

Beef medallions, always doen so well at Rincon San Roman, with a green pepper corn sauce, guava, and fragments of chicharron. Martin delivers simple elegance, with precision in cooking and flavor. It's amazing how many fine restaurants miss with this type of dish, but you can order beef medallions,or other similar types of beef plates here with confidence

For dessert, Martin served his contribution to the Baja repertory, his white chocolate mousse crepe cake, an original Baja creation by chef Martin San Roman. This cake is served in many Tijuana restaurants, it's a classic. I've always enjoyed this cake and was delighted to know that Martin created this little temptation.

The culinary scene in Baja is beyond compare, from iconic local street food to its fine dining establishments.For contempory Mexican seafood, it is the top location in Mexico. Mexico city's Contramar, regarded as the best seafood restaurant in the capital, has Baja catch shipped in, and follows Baja's lead in its dishes. A friend just told me of another Baja style restaurant that just opened up, and of course, Baja wines are the rage in DF's upscale restaurants and wine bars, with devotees clammoring for the lastest releases, and cult labels.

Deer, quail,duck,lamb,and other great products give Baja chefs an endless range of elemets in which to indulge.

Just two hours south of Los Angeles lies a foodie paradise, where quality and service are at you every whim. Whether it be Baja cuisine, Baja Med, or just Mexican cuisine, these restaurants, these chefs, are doing something new, something exciting, and are part of vital Mexican culinary movement. Join the rest of us who daydream about these meals, and can't wait to return.

This is Baja California.

All the great photos, courtesy of Tomoko Kurokawa, of Tomo Style Blog

Teniente Azueta #39
Ensenada, BC
Wed-Sat 12PM-12AM

Rincon San Roman
Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

La Querencia
Av. Escuadron 201
Tijuana, BC
Mon-Thurs. 1PM-11PM
Fri-Sat 1PM-12AM
closed Sun

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada Esq. Escuadron 201
Tijuana, México
(664) 686.6442


glutster said...

bad ass epic roundup as always.

Thanks for all the stomach work.

Lets come back soon, I have much to learn (taste) ha ha.

pleasurepalate said...

These meals sound amazing and I'm glad that I can speak from experience (thanks Bill!) that Benito Molina, Javier Plascencia and Miguel Angel Yaques are truly great chefs, not just in Baja, but on par with other great chefs from around the world. I only wish they'd open restaurants in LA. :)

streetgourmetla said...

Glutster-Thanks. Of course.

Abby-You're correct Abby, these are great chefs of Baja, Mexico, and of the World.

Well, at least we'll have one at Test Kitchen, maybe more?

bradvr said...

Not often do my taste buds rattle when I read food reviews but this one sure did. Certainly a food adventure to remember. Thanks for the virtual invite. Keep them coming.

streetgourmetla said...

Bradvr-You're welcome Brad, and that's what it's really all about. I hope you get to Baja soon.