Thursday, October 28, 2010

Baja Chefs at Test Kitchen Tonight: The Young Lions of Baja Cuisine Show Promise for the Future of Mexico's Culinary Hot Spot

Tonight, the young lions of the Baja kitchen are at Test Kitchen. Their appearance at LA’s pop-up of note was somewhat of a surprise. Quietly, they were dropped in as a last minute fill-in for La Casita Mexicana, whose schedule couldn’t accommodate this run at Test Kitchen to celebrate the Mexican Bicentennial, as curated by Bricia Lopez. Joshua Gil, the new chef for Bricia’s contemporary Oaxacan venture, Mitla, which will debut at Test Kitchen on Friday and Saturday, frequents Baja and called up his friends, Diego Hernandez, Guillermo Barreto, and Ismene Venegas to come and cook for a couple of days.

The three young chefs are part of the fascinating culinary movement going on in Baja California. The position of having the best seafood, the top Mexican wine region, a broad range of food products grown locally, and special foods that are only available in Baja has made this region ground zero for Mexico’s contemporary dining scene. Baja California is home to Baja Cuisine, Baja-Mediterranean Cuisine, Valle de Guadalupe cuisine, and a range of regional cooking styles that are the playground for some of the best chefs in Mexico. Miguel Angel Guerrero, Benito Molina, Javier Plascencia, Martin San Roman, and Jair Tellez have been at the forefront of Baja’s culinary dynamism.

Diego Hernandez(2nd from left), Guillermo Barreto(far right), and Ismene Venegas(4th from right) are part of the next generation of Baja chefs.They are working with their good friend Joshua Gil(3rd from right) of the new Mitla restaurant.

Diego has worked in some of the most famous kitchens in Mexico, Guillermo Gonzalez’s Pangea, Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, and Benito Molina’s Manzanilla before opening his first restaurant with a partner in 2008, Restaurante Uno. He is set to open his first restaurant by himself this coming January, Estado 29, and he’s barely 27 years old.Chef Diego Hernandez has been a student of the vanguard cuisine of Mexico, and Baja’s ingredients are what has kept him around.

Still only in his early 30’s, Guillermo Barreto, a Baja native, is already an accomplished restaurateur, with a successful Italian restaurant in Mexicali called La Piazza. When he first came to Ensenada to launch his newest venture, El Sarmiento, he still favored his Italian style of cooking but soon fell under the influence of Benito Molina, and Jair Tellez. Currently, Guillermo’s approach to cooking could be called Mex-Italian.

Ismene Venegas is a genuine Baja Californian, and deep roots in Baja’s wine industry. Ismene is the daughter of one of the famous women of the Tres Mujeres winery in the Valle de Guadalupe, Eva Cotero. Tres Mujeres Winery is a collaboration of three female Baja winemakers, Eva Cotero, Ivette Vaillard, and Laura McGregor. They produce one barrel a year, each woman takes turn making their wine, which are highly sought after by enthusiasts in Mexico City. Ismene grew up with Mexican food and Mexican wine, and the Baja aesthetic. She worked with Benito Molina, and then alongside Jair Tellez at Restaurante del Parque, before he went off to open MeroToro in Mexico City.

Last night I was in to sample the cooking of these three young lions of the Baja kitchen. I had been to La Contra where Ismene was cooking when Jair was still there, and I’m happy to say that she has changed the menu to incorporate more Mexican ingredients. I met and dined with Guillermo one night at Manzanilla, but hadn’t been to El Sarmiento, and Diego, I knew of his restaurant, but he closed before I was able to stop by Restaurante Uno. These are the first Baja restaurants that got to me before I got to them.

Bar Bites

The tostada of steak tartar with an Asian mignonette and guacamole sauce was nice, and displayed one of the biggest influences in the Baja kitchen, the flavors of Baja’s Asian immigrant population.

The wood fire grilled octopus had just enough of a citrus sauce, also Asian themed, to enhance the fine texture of the octopus. This is typical of the Valle de Guadalupe kitchen.

My favorite of the three bar bites, the pizzadilla with Oaxacan chile de agua, quesillo(Oaxacan string cheese), baby heirloom tomatoes, and onions was robust, savory, and a delicious Oaxacan sting at the end.

The Tasting

Local scallops were used for the first course. They were flash cooked in citrus, and covered with an onion and almond pesto. Pickled onions and pickled radishes lightly accented by chile habanero gave this dish a splendor and refinement. Baja style ceviches and crudos are creative, while always staying true to the Mexican practices of raw seafood preparation.

Baja is home to a variety of fresh vegetables, and many chefs keep their own gardens. The heirloom tomato salad with a slice of hamachi was a fine example of Baja’s Mediterranean and Asian leanings, with a drizzle of Baja Californian olive oil brought by the three chefs, and seaweed. This is a bright salad, bursting with lively fruit, an interesting salad that I would gladly order again.

One of my favorites of the night the manila clam soup is a dish I first tried at Benito Molina’s Manzanilla.

Ground chicharrones, agave worm salt, manila clams and basil were presented with a tableside pour of a saffron laced broth. The dish was clean, balanced and deeply delicious.

A rib-eye steak was topped with a salsa macha adorned with sesame seeds, and paired with a black bean esquite (street corn style), an emulsion of corn, guacamole, and salty cotija cheese. This is a deconstructed taco of carne asada, alta cocina style, the contribution of Diego Hernandez.

Chef Ismene brought some fresh walnuts grown at her mom’s winery that they harvest each year to make chiles en nogada, and 3 month aged cow’s milk cheese from Rancho Cortez, located in Ejido El Porvenir in the Valle de Guadalupe. This cheese is mild, and dreamy, the kind you want to want to remain in your mouth for as long as possible, ’til just the last impressions remain, and then wash it down with glass of wine.

he tasting ended with a simple lemon crepe paired with a coconut sorbet.

This was a great tasting, and a chance to see what the next wave of Baja chefs have in store. This is an exciting region, and an inspired trio of young chefs still developing their respective styles of Baja cuisine. Come catch them if you can grab a seat tonight at Test Kitchen. Walk ins are welcome, just call Test Kitchen at 310-277-0133 to see if there’s a spot.

Stay tuned for Joshua Gil and Mitla at Test Kitchen.

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