CALL ME SWEET POTATO PRINCESS - I was having dinner with my friend Hunter White the other day, explaining my family tree and he very seriously looked at me and said: “Oh. Yes. I know what...
Monday, February 7, 2011
Mision 19 Cocina de Autor, Tijuana,B.C: Javier Plascencia's Mission
In the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico,FBI Agent Sands,played by Johnny Depp says to El Cucuy, played by legendary Mexican-American character actor Danny Trejo:(Sands)"So--are you a MexiCAN--or a MexiCAN'T?"(Cucuy)"I'm a MexiCAN."
I laughed my ass off when I saw that scene, but--the joke would be on me years later when I began to help spread the word about the incredible culinary movement going on in Baja. I encountered mostly MexiCAN'ts. My beloved Mexico is not progressive and active when it comes to promoting its tourism, and remains entrenched in policies that don't work run by out-of-touch, self-serving entities.
But, the handful of MexiCANS(Mexicans who can-do) are single-handedly lifting Baja out of the ashes and into the spotlight with very little support, not an easy task.
Chef Javier Plascencia is one such MexiCAN in Tijuana actively moving the great culinary city forward. He recently resurrected Caesar's Restaurant, the birthplace of the Caesar's salad, and lovingly restored it to its 1927 slendor. And, last month he opened perhaps the most important restaurant in Mexico right now, Mision 19, in Baja's first green building, the Via Corporativo.This is author's cuisine, but the flavors and techniques are chef Javier Plascencia's own brand of Baja Californian cuisine.
Javier's mission is not just to save Tijuana, but to lead the way in letting the world know, that there has been a shift in convention. Mexico City has always been Mexico's leader in fine dining, but recent trips to Contramar,and Pujol, among others, top seafood and fine dining restaurants in Mexico City, respectively, have led me to a confirmation of what I had already summized: Baja is the new center of Mexican wine, seafood, and contemporary cuisine in Mexico.
Mexico City's traditional cuisine, cantinas,fondas,comida corrida, taquerias, and street food leave all comers in the dust, but Mexico City's fine dining neighborhoods Polanco and Condesa have been usurped by Tijuana, and Ensenada: Javier's Mision 19 and Cebicheria Erizo; Miguel Angel Guerrero's La Querencia; Benito Molina's Manzanilla, Muelle Tres, and Silvestre; along with many others, are creating new dishes and have taken Mexican fine dining to the next level.
Even Rick Bayless himself has kept his eye on this region in recent years. He'll be dropping in soon, oh yeah,straying very far north of his myopically idealized "great cuisines" of Mexico: Mexico City, Oaxaca and Vera Cruz; to give Baja a look see.
At Mision 19, the Mexican fine dining experience has been refined, perfected; it's a farm to table experience that couldn't be accomplished in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York; it is a California mission for the 21st century tending towards a local and sustainable kitchen.
Local produce is used as much as possible, the staff trolls the Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana, but also farmer's markets in San Diego, produce from Milpa Farms in San Ysidro; chef Javier lives in Tijuana and San Diego, physically and conceptually. This is the only farm to table restaurant rooted in Baja and Alta California.
Joining me at Mision 19's chef's table, available for groups of 6-8 diners, were two and a half Boobs, that's Boobs4Food, the volunteer organization that works to fight hunger, Patrica Chen(pictured left),Katherine Chen(pictured right), Jessica Chen, and running buddy, Chuy Tovar of Real de Mexico tequila.We were later joined by a friend in Tijuana, and one of Javier's associates.Couldn't have had a better group of people to enjoy this amzing night in Tijuana, which wouldn't end 'til Chuy and I returned to the hotel, 'round 5AM. Tijuana nights!!
In this green building's foyer, a comfortable lounge for the movers and shakers of Tijuana is the centerpiece for the Mandioka Deli,the Cielo Water Bar and Restaurant, and the Via Gourmet.
Best of all, the Contra wine bar, one of the best wine retailers in Mexico has a branch right in the Via Corporativo. If Mision 19 doesn't have what you need, a top notch Baja wine shop is a hop, skip, and a jump away.
The cieling rose in bluelit Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back-like chasm. This place is ultra hip.
There's even a small art gallery featuring local artists; outside on the court are kumquat trees, and other citrus trees used in Mision 19's kitchen.
The space is the best of all the restaurants Javier has been visiting, contemporary, and sleek. After a relaxed tour of the facilities, it was time to take our seats at the chef's table, for the ultimate Mexican fine dining extravaganza.
Our first would be a slight turn on every day street food charm, an asian pear with Tajin(chili-salt for fruit)and chapulin(known as worm salt)salt. This had the appeal of jicama from a corner fruit stand but with bolder flavor.
Locally grown Kumamoto oyster, a favored component of the Baja kitchen,was grilled and topped with a chicharron of short rib, in a serrano soy with grapefruit. The flavors here sing the virtues of Baja cuisine:a blend of Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean attributes; in this dish we enjoyed textures as diverse as the quiet hills of the Valle de Guadalupe, to the Dr. Suess-like Vizcaino desert, to the cactus bordered, white-sand beaches of Coronado Island off the coast of Loreto. This is some fancy cocktailing, and we loved it.
Locally farmed blue-fin tuna in a parfait of homemade cultured cream(jocoque)Persian cucumber, ponzu gele, a Meyer lemon curd, a playful sting of habanero oil, and chicharrones. Everything is right about this dish, my favorite of the night.
Mision 19 has a sommelier well-versed in Baja wines; he suggested the Roganto sauvignon blanc for our early course, a young, fruity wine clearly set apart from California or other New World sauvignon blancs. Baja wine goes well with the spice in Mexican cuisine.
A pasta-less wagyu ravioli with a pinto bean and sesame oil filling,local shitake mushroom, iced feta cheese(make by polyscience), and plump, heirloom beans known as scarlet runners.
Another candidate for the best bite of the evening was a gossamer thin strip of beef tongue is bursting with Iberian flavors: a warm blood-sausage vinaigrette, beech mushrooms, elephant garlic chips, an pimenton aioli, and arugula.Chewing is hardly required for this delicate plate.
Another Spanish style dish served Baja-style, pinchos(food served on a stick, or spike) of Pacific octopus done two ways, in a croquette and whole tentacle, char-grilled; paired with Tijuana three street-style salsas; tomatillo sauce, a habanero-pasilla romesco, and a Mediterranean jalapeno labne. These couldn't have been grilled better; chef Javier loves octopus, and developed a great range of sauces for this dish.
For the later half of our dinner, the sommelier suggested the Minotauro, a red blend that was new to me, but another outstanding Baja wine that has found a way to turn the inherent mineral flavors of the wine into an asset.
This was a pleasant surprise. Mision 19 succeeds where most fine-dining restaurants in Mexico City and other parts of Mexico, as well as many great restaurants in Baja fail.The wine list focuses on the best producers, there are bottles in the mid-price range that are solid,and the sommmelier knows the wineries, he's up-to-date. The sommmelier at Pujol was a pleasure to talk to and provided professional service, but had never visited Baja. The list was out of touch. Many other rely too heavily on large producers of mediocre to bad wine, and tired labels.
It would be hard to find another restaurant in Mexico right now that does a better job with Mexican wine.
Asado de cochinillo, a Niman Ranch pork butt with Berkshire pork belly on a corn masa crepe, with cilantro, green onion, chile de arbol salsa, and a brown sugar and tamarind salsa. A final garnish of salt-cured cactus give this uptown taco a range of exciting components, which is what tacoing is all about.
Pan seared Sonoma County foie gras was accompanied by a familiar textural contrast by a corn tamale crumble, puffed wild rice; and sweetened by a shaved cone of Mexican brown sugar with chipotle syrup, candied kumquat, and cherry smoke. Oh, spicy-sweet foie gras is amazing, this is a desconstructed dessert tamale, a new Tijuana classic.
Our last savory course was Javier's beef short rib, a stand-out dish at his Test Kitchen run, with masa dumplings, homemade mole negro, raw cacao,Mission figs, and smoke; this time wrapped in a plantain leaf, fig leafs aren't in season at this time.
Dessert was a quartet of Mexican-themed ice creams: vanilla bean with pear poached in Baja Muscat wine, pistachio with a sour cherry compote, nata cream with candied lemon, and my favorite, Mexican chocolate with sweet paprika and bacon.
The cheese service, and other best in show for Mexican cuisine; four Baja California cheese, two from Ramonetti, a top producer of aged Mexican cheeses just south of Ensenada,a pair from Rancho Cortez, and also a couple of Ovejas from the state of Queretaro.
Baja California is making aged cheeses, bleus, and other fine cheeses, so new that a recent book I purchased covering cheese production all over Mexico had no information on Baja cheeses. Only the Baja chefs and their friends in Mexico City know about this stuff. Other Baja restaurants use these cheeses and do proper service, like Benito Molina's Manzanilla, but only a few.Mision 19 is giving Baja cheese a well-deserved showcase, fine Mexican cheeses accompanied by housemade condiments with local nuts and fruits.
To fuel my night on the town with Chuy, I ordered up an expresso, which was prepared at the table with a hand-held expresso machine. The coffee service at Mision 19 was developed by a local barista, Alejandro Ruiz, who sources the best coffee beans from Mexico and beyond. Mision 19 has their own house-blend.
After a grand performance, chef Javier joined us for a Mezcal after our three and one half hour tasting. Arte Mezcal is a blend of agaves from San Luis del Rio,Tlacolula in Oaxaca:Tobala,Tepeztate, Espadin, Other wild agaves, Mexicano,Jabali,and Cuishito. This is a lovely mezcal with an interesting range of flavors.
Javier Plascencia's Mision 19 has brought together all the essential elements:the superior products of Baja California,innovative cooking, excellence in Mexican wine and cheese service, a professional staff, and an incredible setting.This is the flagship restaurant in the Baja fleet, the new reason to cross the border, and exhibit A in the case for a new culinary center in Mexico, Baja California.
Mision de San Javier, 10643
Zona Urbana Rio
011-52-664-634-2493 from the US