Manzanilla- Ensenada, Mexico

On a recent culinary adventure down to Baja California with my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I was introduced to a whole new world of Baja food culture that centers around fresh seafood unique to the 2 beautiful bodies of water that flank the peninsula.  Sea urchin tostadas topped with freshly shucked pismo clams, smoked marlin taquitos, manta ray and tuna fin soup, chocolate clam shooters, smoked oyster with chipotle sauce, abalone chorizo sopes and octopus carpaccio are just a few of the sensational dishes that changed not only the way that I view Baja cuisine, but also my life.  My mind was opened to a myriad of new flavors that I had never tasted before, and through meaningful interaction with the various people who prepared my food, my soul was graced with a newfound appreciation and respect.

Of the people that I met on this trip, none peaked my curiosity and interest quite like Chef Benito Molina, an eclectic individual whose signature long curly mustache, reminiscent of Salvador Dali, left just as strong of an impression on me as his cuisine.  There are many fine and distinguished chefs who are leading the gastronomic movement in Baja, but of them all, Molina is a contemporary artist who is way ahead of our time.  Similar to Basquiat’s graffiti or Warhol’s silkscreen pop art, Molina’s avant-garde food art grabs your attention with its bright splashes of color and bold presentation of forms.

His restaurant in Ensenada, called Manzanilla, is like a hidden artists’ loft tucked away on a dark and quiet industrial street across from a shipyard.  There is no sign outside, only a wooden fence, but once you step through the large doors it’s a sexy and mystical warehouse space that looks like a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie.  A long beautiful wooden bar with vintage decor and intricate carving occupies almost half of the main dining space, illuminated by chandeliers that give off eery red lights.  Large contemporary paintings and sculptures by local Mexican artists decorate the space in such a way as to make me think that I’m just a pawn in a large surrealist installation.

Chef Benito Molina runs Manzanilla with his wife Solange Muris, also a chef.  If you’re a Bizarre Foods fan, you may recognize Chef Molina from the recent Baja episode with Andrew Zimmern, and his wife who took Zimmern through Mercado Hidalgo.  Molina is originally from Mexico City but did his culinary schooling and training on the East Coast where he worked at Todd English’s original Olives restaurant.  Perhaps this is his inspiration for naming his place Manzanilla, after the Spanish olives that were served as an appetizer.  Molina and his wife welcomed us with open arms to their dramatic restaurant that was packed with diners.  I instantly fell in love with the artwork and the seductive restaurant decor, and I knew that we were in for a fantastic dinner.  When I looked into Molina’s kind but intense eyes that sparkled with a tinge of mischief and burned with fiery passion, I was certain that it was going to be an experience of a lifetime.  Fresh local seafood and meats prepared with dynamic seasoning and presented with innovative artistic expression were paired with local wines from Valle de Guadalupe for a memorable tasting dinner.

Light flakes of sturgeon mixed with tomatoes, garlic, chile and herbs were served on crispy toasts as a lovely warm canapé.

A Kumamotor oyster garnished with shallot vinaigrette looked longingly across the vast burnt salt bed in hopes of being reunited with its companion, a Pacific oyster topped with soft gelatinous chunks of chopped pork trotter.  Unfortunately for the oysters, we gobbled up these briny little treasures in a matter of seconds before moving on to the next dish.

Small but intensely sweet Manila clams and a larger White clam were served raw on a bed of ice with soy sauce and habanero on the side and a few lime wedges to heighten the fresh flavors.

More bivalves arrived at our table, this time a duo of oyster and littleneck clam both smoked to order and still bubbling at the edges from the oven heat.  The smoked clam went surprisingly well with Gorgonzola cheese, and I was impressed with the pairing of tarragon butter with the locally grown Kumamoto oyster.  A fruity bottle of 2008 Viñas Pijoan Silvana, a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc blend, went particularly well with this dish.

During a pre-dinner kitchen tour with Chef Benito Molina, we saw one of his chefs filleting a sturgeon, apparently a catch quite rare in these areas of the water so he bought it at the fish market without hesitation.  It was amazing to be able to see the whole fish first before savoring its flavorful meat in a tiradito prepared 2 ways- one with capers, onions and the distinct tart sweetness of raspberry vinegar, and the other with chile verde, soy sauce and ginger.

When I tasted the fresh sardines, cured in salt and vinegar and topped with chile verde and ginger, my taste buds immediately recognized the flavor as being distinctly Japanese.  The side garnish of cultured cream, cucumber and wild fennel from Molina’s garden injected Mediterranean influences into the dish.  Chef Molina later told me that he learned how to make the sardines from a Japanese chef.  Sardines spoil easily, and it’s difficult to master the art of curing them, but Molina did a fantastic job.

Continuing on with Asian flavors native to my tongue, Molina served a plate of grilled mackerel and sardine on a bed of baby mizuna freshly picked from his garden in Valle de Guadalupe.  The crisp sharp flavors of the mizuna greens were the perfect complement to the smokey fatty flavors of the fish.  I almost wished that I could eat this dish with a bowl of white rice, but instead I enjoyed it with a glass of 2008 Estación por Venir Palomino blend.

Clam chowder was reinterpreted Manzanilla-style in a dish of Manila clams with smoked bacon, potatoes and saffron.  I loved this classy version where the intense appetizing aroma of saffron and bacon perfumed my nasal passages.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was a powerful composition of thinly sliced 3 year abalone, lightly grilled in the wood-fire oven and splayed dynamically across the plate with a tomato, onion, serrano chile and pasote sauce.  A distinct appetizing smokey aroma wafted up from this masterpiece that seemed to explode with life and vigor out of the shell right into my mouth.

Calamares Manchez is a signature Benito Molina dish, one that has been enjoyed and written about by many who have been struck by its dramatic display and delicate flavors.  Grilled calamari was body painted in bright red with a concoction of roasted beets, ginger, orange juice, lime juice, garlic and habanero for a dish that tickled my taste buds with alternating sensations of sweet, tart and spicy.  Around this time, a bottle of 2007 Viñas Pijoan Domenica, a blend of Grenache, Petit Syrah and Cabernet, came to our table for the last portion of the meal.

Cabrilla sea bass, with perfectly seared crispy skin, was flavored with garlic and herbs and served on a bed of Swiss chard and poblano chiles.

Tender smokey white seabass was excellent with a garnish of radish salsa, but the table unanimously swooned over the rich and smokey huitlacoche risotto, a rendition of risotto so sexy and delicious that all future risottos that follow in its footsteps will never satisfy me.

If we didn’t give Chef Molina the red light on our meal, he would have gone all night, effortlessly pulling ideas and dishes out of his bottomless magic hat.  Our minds wanted to continue on with the Manzanilla dinner extravaganza, but our stomachs were feeling full and heavy and it was time to call it quits.  As if to remind us of how full we were, he finished our savory meal with a hefty serving of stewed offals cooked in chile guajillo and garnished with a sheet of homemade pasta.  Many diners have a separate stomach for desserts, and I have one specifically for offals.  I was the only one at the table who not only finished the dish, but also savored every bite of tender tongue, stomach and hoof.

We had the pleasure of having cheese maker Marcelo Castro Chacón of La Cava de Marcelo sit with us through our dinner.  He’s a fourth generation cheese maker from a family who has been producing cheese for 130 years in Ojos Negros.  He took his time in explaining the intricacies of cheese making and how he develops the unique flavors for his products that are loved by local chefs.  We got to sample 3 queso frescos with basil, pepper and rosemary, and 2 creamy and luscious añejo (aged) cow’s milk cheeses, aged 4 and 7 months.  Strawberry wine reduction and sliced green apples were paired with our fantastic cheese plate.

Even after all of this food, we somehow managed to squeeze in warm molten chocolate cake, mango coulis on shortbread cookies and mango flavored cream.

By the time that we were winding down from our dynamic and artistic Manzanilla journey around 12am on a Saturday night, the restaurant was just starting to fill up with local diners who were sitting down for dinner.  This isn’t Madrid, this is Ensenada- who starts dinner at midnight in Baja, I thought.  Turns out that the place was packed with local chefs like Guillermo Jose Barreto from El Sarmiento, wine makers like Hugo D’Acosta and the 3 women from Tres Mujeres, seafood distributors, vegetable farmers and the artisanal cheese maker that we had already met.  Benito Molina has a charismatic personality and magnetism that I found hard to resist, and the very fact that everybody in the industry came to Manzanilla to spend their Saturday night with him showed that they too were drawn to his allure and his food.

Manzanilla
Teniente Azueta #139

Zona portuaria

Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico

52-646-175-7073

Open from 12pm – 12am, Wednesday through Saturday

Random trivia: Did you know that abalone are hemophiliacs, meaning that they have no blood-clotting mechanisms, so even a small cut or puncture wound can be fatal?  For this reason, it is impossible to culture an abalone pearl, as the process may kill them.  If you see an abalone while diving, do not try to pry them off of rocks, as the smallest tear in their muscle will kill them- simply observe this beautiful creature from a distance.

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RH at the Andaz West Hollywood Hotel- Los Angeles

There’s something very alluring and irresistible about hotel dining- it defines elegance, romance and prestige.  The magic begins the moment that you step into a hotel lobby where you get the same feeling of excitement and anticipation as when you transfer through a beautiful airport, like Madrid’s Barajas airport or Malaysia’s KL Airport, en route to your vacation getaway, but you don’t have to travel so far away from home.  Hotels boast majestic lobbies, unmatched hospitality and level of service, romantic views often with rooftop pools and bars, gallery-worthy artwork and internationally acclaimed restaurants, creating a unique destination experience.  World class hotels are the perfect venue for special occasions and anniversaries, and we chose the RH at the Andaz West Hollywood Hotel for an exclusive fine dining experience to celebrate a friend’s birthday recently.

The hotel on the Sunset Strip originally opened in 1963 as the Gene Autry Hotel, and has gone through many incarnations as the Hyatt on Sunset and the Hyatt West Hollywood, but regardless of the name, it has built up a reputation for being the ‘Riot House’, after which the restaurant is named.  Due to its proximity to legendary music clubs like Whisky-a-Go-Go and the Roxy, the hotel has become the preferred hang-out for famous rockers like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne.  Jim Morrison used to call this hotel home, Keith Richards threw a TV out the window, John Bonham drove a motorcycle through the hallways and Corey Taylor tried to jump off the 8th floor balcony.  This legendary joint has seen it all, and it was time for a much needed make over.  After a face lift orchestrated by designer Janson Goldstein, the hotel reopened in January 2009 as Andaz, the second hotel in the new luxury brand from Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.  The hotel’s famous balconies have been replaced with glassed-in sun rooms and the minimalist lobby has been given a splash of sophisticated yet understated glamor that reminded me of a tame Philippe Starck.

The lobby flows into the front part of RH restaurant where two marble communal tables with bar stools welcome you to the large restaurant space.  A private dining room to the left with an entire glass wall of wine bottles boasts elegance and sophistication.  The bar in the far corner invites warm rays of sunlight through its large windows in daytime and transforms into a sexy sanctuary illuminated by candlelight at dusk.  Every seat at RH has a unique charm, but the best place for dinner is in the main dining room by the dramatic open kitchen where you can see your food being prepared from start to finish.  Many restaurants advertise an open kitchen where diners can feel close to the action, but none have impressed me like the one at RH, open on 3 sides with low marble counters to make you feel like you’re a chef at the stoves.  The fourth side of the kitchen is an entire glass wall of walk-in coolers, displaying stainless steel baskets of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Heading the beautiful open kitchen is French chef Sebastien Archambault, former executive chef at Le Pirate in Corsica where he earned a Michelin star.   His menu is inspired by the landscapes of Southwest France and reflects the authentic flavors of his grandmother’s Périgord heritage.  Foie gras, duck, sausages and truffles are prepared together with local organic produce for an inspiring menu.  Archambault wasn’t in the kitchen on the night that we went, but his sous chef Pierre Gornes, hailing from Toulouse, was there to make sure that the rich and rustic flavors unique to Southwest France were properly translated in the food.

A crudité of farmer’s market vegetables with herbed yogurt came to our table for nibbling while perusing the menu to decide our course of action.  The purple cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, celery and carrots were sweet and snappy, but it was their freshly baked bread, huge soft mounds of buttery heaven that were molded into the shape of duck legs, that caught my attention.

We indulged in a cheese tasting of 5 spectacular cheeses which came with perfectly paired condiments.  Crottin de Chavignol, a nutty aged goat cheese with a crumbly soft interior layer, was paired with walnuts.  Locally made triple cream Mt. Tam, luscious with a distinct flavor reminiscent of Camembert, went wonderfully with grapes.  The mild flavors of Tome de Chalosse were given a kick with dried Mission figs, while Tome d’Aquitaine, made with goat’s milk, had a sweet and fruity flavor that harmonized with dried apricots.  The table favorite was the Fourme d’Ambert, one of France’s oldest blue cheeses, that was simply heaven in a bite with the sweet drippings of honeycomb.

Hudson valley foie gras terrine served with plum marmalade, fig chutney, arugula and homemade brioche was one of the best foie gras terrines that I’ve had in Los Angeles.  The pairing of luscious and fatty liver with sweetened fruits is perhaps the most enlightening of all culinary discoveries, and RH did its part in continuing this legacy.

Lompoc Farm grilled spring vegetable salad was full of vibrant green vegetables at their most ripe and sweet state.  Broccolini, artichokes, arugula and frisée came tossed in a tangy sage vinaigrette and topped with generous dollops of fresh Cabécou goat cheese.

Vegetable sides include choices of sautéed field mushrooms, organic wild rice, mashed potatoes, artichoke hearts and triple fried french fries, but we went for the cauliflower gratin, a hearty dish served straight out of the oven in a cast iron baking dish with ample cheese, cream and butter.

The braised monkfish with white beans, La Quercia chorizo and sautéed squid sounded like a seafood wonder but ended up being a complete disaster.  I couldn’t tell whether I was eating overcooked beans or overcooked fish, as they had the same soggy texture, and the chorizo did nothing to boost the tastelessness of this disappointing dish.

RH came back strong with their rolled fillets of 12 hour-cooked boneless suckling pig, served with golden Yukon potatoes in a rich, dark and zesty shallot jus.  The meat was cooked to absolute perfection, and pork never tasted so tender and juicy.

Homemade Hudson Valley duck confit was certainly a delight with its crispy skin that crackled under my bite into a savory pool of liquid fat, but I’ve had better ones in my lifetime where the moist meat squirted an equal amount of saturated duck essence into my taste buds.  Still, short of taking an 11 hour flight to France, this is as good as duck confit gets in the US.

More than the pork or the duck, RH came strong with their slow braised beef cheeks, a dish so fantastic and awe-inspiring that every person in the world should have the opportunity to taste it.  The intricate marbling of connective tissue in beef cheeks renders this cut of meat gelatinous and extremely tender when braised for hours, and somehow RH sprinkles their magic to make their version unbelievably so.  The button mushrooms and rainbow carrots were well coated with the delectable red wine sauce that made this dish unforgettable.  It is without a doubt the best beef cheek dish that I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating, and for $24, this plate of perfection and bliss is a bargain.

With wonderful and tasty food, gorgeous hip interior design, unlimited refills on their amazing baked bread, hotel hospitality from the service staff and front row orchestra seats to the RH open kitchen conducted by a handsome and friendly chef, my friend’s birthday dinner was an absolute success.  Fine dining in a reputable hotel restaurant is almost fool proof for such occasions where you’ve got to make every magical and memorable moment count for somebody you love.  Which is exactly why we went hotel hopping onto The London Hotel down the street for a 4 course dessert tasting with a bottle of champagne by their rooftop pool.   Hotel dining…isn’t life grand?

RH at the Andaz West Hollywood

8401 West Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069-1909
(323) 656-1234

Random trivia: Did you know that broccolini, a vegetable crossed between a broccoli and Chinese kale, is also called and sold under the name ‘asparation’?

Bar 210- Los Angeles

Imagine yourself in the middle of the vast landscapes of Burgundy where rows and rows of lush green grape vines in the middle of summer extend far beyond your visual field, interrupted only by quaint farm houses and rolling hills.  You pop open a 1971 Romanée-Conti, swirl it around in your glass, and savor it in your mouth as you bask in the warm sunlight.  You make love to every molecule of this elegant vintage wine with your palate and appreciate life for getting you to this moment.  Now imagine dumping that same bottle of wine into a styrofoam cup and drinking it at a rowdy state fair where screaming kids in overdrive terrorize their parents.  Does it still taste as good?

High quality ingredients, excellent seasoning, exciting flavor combinations and proper preparation define good food, but ambiance and atmosphere can make or break it.  Oceanfront views, romantic candlelight, crackling fireplaces, water fountains, perfectly dressed servers and gorgeous interior decor attract diners who want a relaxing and pleasant dining experience.  Patrons are more likely to revisit a restaurant with mediocre food but beautiful atmosphere and professional service, than one with the opposite combination.  When your sense of sound, sight and smell are pleasantly stimulated, your food will naturally taste that much better.

Chef Marcel Vigneron is no newcomer to the culinary scene- we know and lovingly hate him from his notorious Top Chef days when he shined on screen as the nation’s new villain with knives.  He seemed to have found the perfect home in The Bazaar where his molecular gastronomy skills were given an extra coat of polish.  His solo venture at the Hatchi Breadbar dinner sold out to satisfied diners who swooned over his adventurous and delicious creations.  This classically trained chef’s latest gig comes as a surprise to me, a rowdy and pretentious bar called Bar 210 in the former Trader Vic’s space in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  The 7,000 square foot space also houses Plush lounge where young party-goers can dance the night away in stilettos and boots.  Hanging gold chains against a background of more gold add extra bling to the dimly lit Bar 210 space where the scantily clad (but beautiful) waitresses in one shoulder minis try their best to hear your order over the loud music.  It’s a sexy establishment, but hardly the right venue for Vigneron’s innovative culinary art.

Marcel, as always, was a gracious host, welcoming us to his new crib and coming out to present each plate to us.  But even this bigger-than-life chef seemed painfully out of place at Bar 210 where the other patrons in flashy garb and here-to-be-seen attitude were more interested in the overpriced cocktails.  The Global Tastings concept that we saw in his Hatchi dinner back in December 2009 where he married international spices with modern interpretations is continued in the small bites menu at the bar.  We settled into our uncomfortable bar stools for our tasting dinner that kicked off with a momochan amuse with mint and saffron yogurt powder.

The Ahi tuna tartare plate was a breathtaking bouquet of vibrant colors and sensational flavors.  Tender chunks of meaty tuna over crunchy biscuits topped with an artistic palette of ponzu gel, pineapple, jicama, nasturtium flowers, avocado cream and wasabi tobiko excited my palate with each successive bite that introduced a new medley of textures and flavors.  As I desperately tried to block out the annoying music from my aching head, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the tartare would have tasted in a proper restaurant environment.

Compact but meaty Kusshi oysters were served on a salt bed with grains of paradise seasoning and citrus dashi air.  As always,  Chef Marcel’s presentation demonstrated elegant beauty with a touch of playfulness- these pearls of the sea looked like they had been swept up by the ocean breeze and miraculously washed up onto a white sandy beach.

Speared tails of plump succulent shrimp with Thai tom kha flavoring were curled up over a carpet of white coconut milk powder and covered with a blanket of basil seeds, crispy ginger and Thai herbs.  It was a wonderful dish of tantalizing textures and fragrant aromas, but I much preferred the more intricate version of langoustine ravioli with tom kha foam and avocado wrapped mango that he presented at the Hatchi dinner- but the theme at Bar 210 wasn’t elegant cuisine, it was simplified bar food.

Yogurt, caramelized walnuts, celery and microgreens stayed afloat in Wally boats of purple endive while a walnut shipmate shouted ahoy from an apple raft nearby.

Leave it to Vigneron to interpret and twist classic concepts, like the Cobb 2010 which offered a modern presentation on a traditional salad dish.  Cobb salad ingredients were mixed together in bite-sized rolls and topped with small portions of the individual ingredients- bacon bits, avocado cream, tomato caviar, quail egg and blue cheese.  Just picturing the mischievous look on his face as he invented this dish made me smile, and it left me longing to see how far he could stretch the potential of this concept.

A familiar face from The Bazaar came by to say hello- boneless chicken wings brined for 24 hours, then confited, deboned, breaded and fried.  Only this time, instead of a green olive purée, they got a face lift with micro celery and a butt job with blue cheese injection.  Although the cheese was a bit overpowering, the incredibly tender chicken, barely able to contain its savory and rich juices, was electrifying.  Knowing the unbelievable amount of painstaking preparation and thought that went into this chicken, it bothered me even more to see it underappreciated in this bar environment.

Tuscan style potato cubes were deep fried to a perfect crisp exterior and steamy moist interior, going well with the creamy chlorophyll mayo.

In an unexpected potato stand-off, I preferred the velvety wrinkled skin of the Canary island potatoes with chlorophyll mayo, a joyous encore dish from The Bazaar.

Yogurt seems to be his thing right now, as it appeared in numerous dishes including the gravlax on toasted bread with kalamata olive dust, pickled ramps and dill.  The fatty and luscious cut of salmon practically melted in my mouth, but a boost of acidity or salt to counteract the mellow yogurt would have perfected this dish.

Modernized banh mi sandwiches came in the form of pork belly sliders with red onion, shaved carrots, green beans and daikon slivers.  This was the perfect bar food that made you want to reach for a glass of ice cold beer.

There were too many salty components in the short rib sliders with tomato confit, arugula, black olive aioli, brie cheese and caramelized onion purée but the meat was juicy and tender, making for a satisfying bite.

I was ecstatic to see another encore from his fantastic Hatchi dinner which also happened to be my favorite dish from that event, Vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, lavosh, za’atar, mint, cucumbers and preserved lemon.  It’s obvious that sliced meat would never taste as good as meat served on the bone, but given that the original lamb chop made such an impression on me, I was even more saddened to see this less inspiring rendition at Bar 210.

The chef finished our tasting with a dessert plate of liquid brownie sticks, chocolate covered strawberries, blueberry tarts and macaroons.  The cold ice cream brownie sticks with crunchy rice puffs made me feel like a kid again.

Although I appreciated the beauty of each dish and how much preparation went into them, it was difficult to live in the moment and savor each bite with the loud music and atmosphere obstructing my dinner.  It also bothered me that no matter how good the food was, the crowd that this bar attracted would never fully appreciate it, as they were less likely to be interested in his work and more likely to be keen on their waitress’ hourglass figure.  But it’s a bar, after all, and people don’t come here for the food- they come here for the scene and the scenery.  Considering that Chef Vigneron had to simplify his dishes from fine cuisine to finger food in order to cater to this younger bar crowd, he maintained his style and flair as best as he could.  Still, the usual explosion of creativity and vivacity that I’m used to seeing in this chef’s work was regretfully muffled.   Just like a good bottle of wine deserves to fall upon the lips of an appreciative gourmand, Chef Vigneron’s food deserves an environment which is more fitting and worthy.  It’s a good thing that he’s pursuing his passion in his upcoming SyFy network show, as his personality and stage presence is too perfect for TV, but the real next step is to open his own restaurant where we can see, smell and taste the true soul of this outstanding chef.

Bar 210

9876 Wilshire Blvd

Beverly Hills, CA 90210

(310) 887-6060

Random trivia: Did you know that chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants that aids in photosynthesis, acts as a deodorizer that eliminates bad odor, and is therefore routinely added to chewing gum?


Bouchon- Los Angeles

Welcome to Bouchon, the most anticipated restaurant opening in Los Angeles this past year.  Los Angeles is fast becoming the dining capital of the US, and the best chefs in the world have all got their eyes on this City of Angels.  Wolfgang Puck got his start here and José Andrés descended upon our land with mucha energía; Robuchon got rejected but Rick Bayless came through.  When Thomas Keller came up to bat, we all welcomed him with open arms with the grand opening of Bouchon in the heart of Beverly Hills.

As always, I waited a few months to check out the new restaurant, as it takes a while for restaurants to work out their kinks and find their rhythm.  Many of my chef friends have always advised me on this golden rule of a minimum 3 months wait before dining at a new restaurant.  I almost broke the rule with Bouchon, as this wasn’t Keller’s first restaurant, or even his first Bouchon, but the perfect opportunity came this past spring when I found myself at this beautiful and majestic venue with 4 handsome French men in the food and beverage industry.  A chef, a sommelier, a mixologist and a vodka rep, wining and dining me at this lovely bistro that might as well be in the 1er arrondissement overlooking the Jardin de Tuileries.

Bouchon Beverly Hills follows a similar menu to its other restaurants in Yountville and Las Vegas.  Hearty and classic French bistro fare abound on the trademark printed paper menu that comes neatly folded around each napkin, like steak frites, croque madame, soupe à l’oignon and confit de canard.  A raw bar offers freshly shucked oysters, mussels, shrimp, clams, crab and lobster.  Domestic and French cheeses can be had individually or as a tasting plate.  The dessert menu has classic French sweets like profiteroles, pot de crème, mousse au chocolat noir and ile flottante.  Charcuteries and patés made by chef de cuisine Rory Herrmann are there for your ultimate pleasure, bien sur.  So what sets this French bistro apart from the others that have been feeding LA residents with good old comfort food?  Other than the Keller name, it’s the distinctly un-bistro price tag (for $135, you can indulge in a 50 gram sampling of Californian caviar and your croque madame will set you back $17.95) and the astonishing interior of this grand establishment.

There’s a casual café downstairs called Bar Bouchon which is perfect for al fresco terrace dining by the beautiful green park with water fountains, but Bouchon’s allure and beauty rests upstairs in the fine dining area designed by Adam Tihany.  Tile mosaics lay the groundwork of the grand hall where hand-painted murals decorate the walls and classic globe sconces cast soft illumination on the crowded tables.   Stunning high ceilings barely contain the lively sounds of clinking wine glasses, silverware on plates and engaging conversation.  With French speaking dining companions at my table, I sometimes had to remind myself that I wasn’t in Paris, and that it wasn’t a lovely Parisian dream.

What better way to celebrate a bistro dinner than with a terrine de foie gras de canard served with toasted baguette. Bouchon’s version is light and delicate due to a labor intensive process of curing, poaching and whipping, but it’s almost too delicate and fine, as it can’t hold its form for more than a few seconds on the toasted baguette, and melts into liquid.  It’s organ meat after all, and it’s meant to be robust and hearty.  5 oz of fragile and unstable foie gras served in a glass canning jar goes for an unbelievable $48.50, making me appreciate Chef Nyesha Arrington‘s amazing foie gras mason jar with port wine gelée for $12, perhaps the best in LA, even more.

Moules au safran came with a basket of delicious frites with crispy potato skin and a generous sprinkling of salt to pucker my lips.  Maine bouchot mussels steamed in a heavy cast iron dutch oven with white wine, mustard and saffron was good, but a smidgen too watery and diluted in flavor.

Have you ever dreamed of the day when you could have the perfect excuse and enough courage to order a Grand Plateau de fruits de mer at a restaurant, that luxurious and grandiose tower of mollusks and crustaceans at the center of every diner’s desire?  Have you ever wondered what it would even be like to order a miniature version in a Petit Plateau?  French men know how to enjoy life without so much as a grain of guilt, and I was happy to oblige to their order of Bouchon’s Grand Plateau de Mer, a 2 tiered seafood extravaganza for $110- 1 whole lobster, 16 oysters, 8 shrimp, 8 clams, 9 mussels and Dungeness crab came with all of the appropriate fixings for the highlight event of the evening.  Life can be grand, n’est-ce pas?

Truite aux Amandes, a pan-roasted trout fillet with haricots verts, almonds & beurre noisette was perfectly cooked and elegantly flavored.  The brown butter, lemon and parsley sauce was surprisingly light, making it easy to enjoy and digest this delicate dish that was saturated with a lovely toasted almond fragrance.

Gigot d’Agneau, roasted leg of lamb with Swiss chard, pommes boulangère & lamb jus was a textbook meat dish with perfect execution and delivery although I was hoping for something more exciting.

Boudin noir, blood sausage with potato purée and caramelized apples, was sensational.  This is the type of food that defines bistro fare- hearty, rustic and loud but comforting and flavorful.  The blood sausage was packed with dense savor with a hint of pleasant iron finish unique to this type of charcuterie.  The classic pairing of boudin noir and sweet apples, as always, hit the spot.

There are many accompagnements to choose from at Bouchon, like butternut squash with poached prunes, sautéed spinach, potato purée and brussel sprouts, but we opted for a champignons des bois of fragrant and earthy sautéed forest mushrooms that were plump and fully saturated with French butter.

Bouchon in Beverly Hills is truly a magical and enchanting restaurant, one with the allure and power to make any who step through their entrance believe that they are in Paris.  It’s easy to forget the passage of time in this elegant vortex, especially when you’re engrossed in your glass of champagne with fruits de mer over laughter and engaging conversation with beautiful friends.  Still, many of their dishes can use some tweaking to be worthy of the Keller label, and bistro-friendly prices would entice me to visit more frequently.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit Bouchon yet, it’s a must-go for its sophisticated ambiance and charm.  Many may agree that it’s the most beautiful dining room in Los Angeles, set on a pristine block of the infamous Beverly Hills zip code.  Their kitchen, unlike any other, is quite epic too, with floors so clean that you can eat off of it and cookware meticulously and impeccably polished to where it looks like it’s never been used before.  Large heavy doors line a rear hallway, each an entryway into a different Bouchon world of ‘jardin’, ‘poisson’, ‘dairy’ or ‘viande’ with every container clearly labeled and signed.  There’s a separate kitchen just for chocolate and ice cream, and of course a busy boulangerie to churn out his signature epi bread.  A large plasma screen TV in the middle of the busy kitchen broadcasts live stream with Keller’s numerous other Michelin-starred restaurants on both coasts. If they started charging admission for kitchen tours, I would gladly pay to relive the experience of walking through that impressive and mind blowing factory that belongs in the Smithsonian.

Bouchon Beverly Hills

235 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, California 90210
(310) 271-9910

Random trivia: Did you know that almonds are not nuts, but are in fact stone fruits- like peaches, plums and cherries?

Cebicheria Erizo- Tijuana, Mexico

If you’re down in Tijuana or Ensenada, your journey is not complete until you’ve sampled the fruits of the Baja ocean, whether it’s geoduck and chocolate clams from the Sea of Cortez, or sea cucumbers and marlin from the Pacific side.  There are many places to enjoy fresh Baja cuisine, like La Guerrerense on the streets of Ensenada where Sabina will serve you sea urchin tostada with heaps of avocado and freshly shucked pismo clams, or Mariscos Ruben where Mirta will create a special shrimp and scallop aguachile just for you.  Another such establishment can be added to your list of epic seafood places to visit now- Cebicheria Erizo, run by my favorite Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia and opened almost a year ago in Chapultepec, Tijuana.   Erizo in Spanish means sea urchin, and although a tower of spiny urchin shells greeted us at the counter, they were out of the buttery ocean treasures on the day that we went.  However, Plascencia and his right hand man Chef Manuel Brato made me forget about that crucial absence with what would end up being one of my most memorable meals in Tijuana.

Cebicheria Erizo, in close proximity to his other restaurants Cafe Saverios and La Tia, features a long menu of ceviches, or ‘cebiches’ as it’s called in Peru, tostadas, grilled seafood and fish stews.   You can get all of the ocean’s jewels right here in this clean and brightly lit space, from clams, crabs, shrimp, abalone and oysters to locally caught fish and squid.  Although everything on the menu is freshly prepared and deliciously seasoned, if you’re lucky enough to have Javier Plascencia give you his recommendations like we were, you’ll have an unforgettable meal that will blow you away.

What better way to start our cebiche feast than a toast with a classic Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour?  On this particular hot day in Tijuana, the ice cold passion fruit pisco sour with an airy egg white foam really hit the spot.

A dashing plate of vibrant colors and geometric shapes kicked off our cebiche extravaganza in an octopus carpaccio with crunchy sliced nopales, cherry tomatoes, avocado, red onion, ponzu sauce and an earthy chile oil.  Round wheels of compressed octopus legs cut transversely looked like beautiful ocean flowers blossoming under the bright assortment of garden vegetables.  The natural gelatinous coating around the octopus legs held the delicate pieces together in this dish that we all enjoyed.

Cebiche verde de camaron, a shrimp cebiche dish with green tomatillo, diced cucumbers, red onion, cilantro, habanero chiles, serrano chiles and buttery avocado slices was refreshing and sensational.  The raw shrimp was so fresh and juicy that it practically snapped and burst with audible popping sounds inside my mouth.

Cebiche de tres almejas, a remarkable medley of 3 of Baja’s most representative and popular clams, was presented in a green cebiche dish with chopped cucumbers, onions, avocado, cilantro and lime.  Thick wedges of geoduck generosa clam were crisp like summer cucumbers, and pismo clams had a clean lettuce finish while the more briny chocolate clams brought a deeper intensity to the mollusk fiesta.

Petroleo cebiche, a cebiche of shrimp, squid and corn nuts darkened with a splash of black squid ink, was surprisingly light and mellow despite its appearance.  The presence of squid ink brought a distinct black sheen to the seafood while imparting a velvety and briny flavor that brought body and fullness to the dish.

An aguachile de callo made with 2 types of fresh raw scallops, garra de león and callo de hacha, was prepared with serrano chiles, garlic, onions, lime juice and cilantro with crispy wedges of cucumbers.  The meaty and succulent scallops were the perfect vehicle for the exhilarating aguachile marinade that I happily drank with my spoon.

One of my favorite dishes at Erizo was the garra de león scallop tiradito, an elegant and alluring plate of tender scallops embellished with green salicornia sea asparagus stalks, avocado slices, red onion, vivid orange kumquat slices and sprinkles of black volcanic salt.  It wasn’t just the simple beauty and artistic expression of this scallop carpaccio but the celebration of colors, flavors and textures so well thought out and orchestrated to perfection that put a genuine smile on my face.

Peruano Mixto, a cebiche of shrimp, octopus and white fish with lime, cilantro and red onions, saluted the Peruvian history behind this glorious and idiolized dish by featuring fresh corn and cancha corn nuts.

Cochinita pibil, a classic Yucatan suckling pig stew made with annatto seeds and citrus juice, was interpreted in Baja style with local swordfish in Erizo’s cochinita de pez lopada pibil. With a hint of pineapple sweetness and acidity infused into the rich broth and tender fish, we were ready to get our hands dirty in some taco making.

Diced onions, chopped cilantro, creamy avocado guacamole, pickled red onions and pico de gallo with bright and dangerously hot habanero chiles were brought to our table for fish taco assembly.

There’s nothing more satisfying than chomping on delicious food that you assemble yourself and eat with your hands, and with ingredients made by Javier Plascencia and crew, you couldn’t mess it up no matter how hard you tried.  The rich seductive earthiness of the pibil broth fully saturated into each tender fish fiber, juxtaposed against the sharp acidity of the pickled onions, all coated within a soft blanket of creamy avocado nirvana with stabs of crisp radish tartness in a toasty corn tortilla that you stuff in your mouth- it doesn’t get any better than that.

A blue bucket of red birria fish stew arrived at our table for more taco pleasure.  The Mexican fish bouillabaisse was full of earthy essence and firey spices with a light layer of savory oil on top to round out the flavors.

Sopes de chorizo de abulón, abalone chorizo made in-house at Erizo from abalone caught off the Island of Cedros, was topped with shredded lettuce, carrots, avocado, red onions and cilantro.  It was my first time trying abalone chorizo, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dense flavors and spices packed into the light and tender medium.

Toritos, chile rellenos stuffed with shrimp and crab and deep fried to a crunchy puffy exterior, were served with a smokey soy chile sauce.  These big puff balls were filled to the brim with tender warm seafood that sang to my soul.

We were just hoping to sample a few bites of cebiches here at Erizo, but when Javier Plascencia came by to say hello, we didn’t expect him to pamper us with all of these extra hot items.  The icing on the cake came in a grand finale of big mouth seabass, or callo de lobina, baked in a coarse salt crust and served tableside by a skilled server.

We crowded around our server like eager little children on Christmas morning, snapping away with our cameras at this majestic fish with the determination and fervor of Hollywood paparazzi.  He carefully lifted the whole salt crust away from the fish, then proceeded to remove the skin to unveil perfectly cooked steaming flesh stuffed with citrus and herbs.  The fish was amazing, but the bright yellow sauce made with garlic, ginger, aji amarillo, citrus, butter and white wine that it came with was beyond words.

Although we were so unbelievably full from our wonderful meal that we were practically on the floor paralyzed with pleasure, we still had room for dessert.  In Japanese, they say that everybody has a betsubara for dessert- a separate stomach.  The Killer de Chocolate rich chocolate cake didn’t end our lives, but it ended our meal on a delightful high note.

…as did the torta de guayaba, guava tart with vanilla bean ice cream.

Although I’ve only had the pleasure of dining at 3 of Chef Javier’s restaurants in his large empire, Cebicheria Erizo is hands down my favorite for its fresh seafood and Baja treasures that you can’t savor anywhere else in the world.  He keeps things simple, but combines ingredients in just the perfect ratio to create complex and enriching flavors.  If you haven’t been to Tijuana recently, then Cebicheria Erizo can easily be your sole reason to pay a visit.  In fact, the octopus carpaccio and scallop tiradito dishes alone are worth the drive.

Cebicheria Erizo
Ave Sonora No 3808-11
barrio Chapultepec, south of Agua Caliente

Baja California, Tijuana, Mexico
Tel 686-1564

Random trivia:  Did you know that salicornia, or sea asparagus, is a halophyte, or salt tolerant plant?  Salicornia can grow in inhospitable desert soils on ocean salt water alone.  It can produce biodiesel and it tastes good too.  This plant could potentially solve world hunger and slow global warming…

Villa Saverios- Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana is no longer a place of cheap booze and juvenile festivities- it’s quickly emerging as a new landmark for fine dining and sophisticated continental cuisine.  A visit to Tijuana’s Gastronomic District will quickly prove that talented local chefs and their distinguished restaurants are capable of challenging and taking down any of its counterparts in Los Angeles or New York.  Grabbing the reigns of the Baja culinary movement with full force and steering it into the future is perhaps the most hardworking and dynamic of them all, Chef Javier Plascencia who runs 6 restaurants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  It started as a family business for Chef Javier when his father, Juan Plascencia, founded Baja’s first pizza parlor back in 1967.  But it’s not just his family history and pedigree that made these restaurants a success- Javier Plascencia, who did his culinary training at San Diego Mesa College and the CIA, has real skill and unparalleled talent.  On my recent culinary trip to Baja led by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I had the opportunity to sample exciting cuisine prepared especially for us by numerous distinguished chefs, from Chef Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës at La Querencia to Chef Martín San Román of Rincón San Román to Chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla.  Each chef had a unique, innovative and delicious take on Baja cuisine, but it was Plascencia’s food that made me purr the loudest.

On one of our evenings, Javier Plascencia greeted us at Villa Saverios in Tijuana for a special chef’s tasting dinner.   This restaurant, unlike his others, serves ‘Baja Med cuisine’ which melds fresh local Baja foods with the best of Italian, French, Spanish and Mediterranean flavors and traditions.  One step inside this beautiful restaurant space and you will be transported to a rustic Tuscan villa with a winding staircase that leads to a private banquet room and a wine cellar downstairs that can host a private dinner.

As the charismatic and handsome chef welcomed us at our table and explained what he was planning to prepare for us that night, we sipped on a fabulous tamarind martini made with Beefeater gin and mashed tamarind pulp.   The whole tamarind pod, fully infused with liquor essence and oozing with juicy sweetness, was ripe and ready for enjoyment.

A trio of miniature tostadas commenced our fantastic tasting dinner, from a creamy spider crab tostada topped with cherry tomatoes and a crisp and fresh geoduck clam tostada with cucumbers and jalapeños in the center to a succulent octopus version topped with savory and smokey Sonoran dried beef machaca.  I was hooked on the surf and turf tostada for its stellar combination play of tender octopus legs in contrast with the slam dunk spice of picante beef.  Each tostada was bursting with fresh and vibrant ocean flavors, showcasing the diversity of the local Baja waters.  The tostadas were paired with a fruity 2009 Sauvignon blanc from La Niña L’ Blanc with pleasant citrus and peach undertones.

Plascencia’s version of chile relleno, an earthy and seductive pasilla chile stuffed with beef cheeks and topped with heirloom beans, arugula, fig granules, ground cacao and pickled red onions was sensational.  The hint of  cacao flavor with the subtle sweetness of figs and beans pulled all of the different elements together for a rustic and memorable dish, beautifully paired with the balanced sweetness of a 2008 Villa Montefiori Sangiovese Rosado from Valle de Guadalupe.

My favorite dish of the evening came from a surprise twist on Peking duck rolls in Plascencia’s interpretation through a duck, cucumber, avocado and cilantro taco wrapped in an almost translucent yet mouthwatering and crisp sheet of thinly sliced jicama.  With a bit of habanero salsa to raise the heat factor and dark magenta hibiscus flowers bringing both honey-like sweetness and a vivid splash of color to the plate, each precious bite of the Mexican duck taco introduced me to a new level of fascinating flavors and sensations.  Paired with a 2007 Mariatinto red from Valle de Guadalupe made with a Cabernet, Petit Syrah and Grenache blend, this delicious dish was one that I will never forget.

2 well-suited servers pulled up to the side of our table each with his own cart stocked full of bowls, bottles and utensils.  One mashed a couple of fillets of anchovies with a flattened fork and whisked in some finely chopped garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, olive oil, Maggi sauce, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a coddled egg yolk, pepper and parmesan cheese to make a classic Caesar salad.

We watched in awe as his rival made a classic Victor salad with equal skill and finesse.  Anchovies, coddled egg yolk, mayonaise, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, A1 steak sauce, parmesan cheese, ground pepper, vinegar and corn oil went into the terracotta pot to be whipped up into a creamy dressing with the speed of a mechanical whisker and tossed with whole Romaine lettuce leaves.

As many of you may know, it is said that Caesar salad was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 when restaurateur Caesar Cardini improvised with these ingredients when he was low on food supplies and had to make do with what he had to accommodate a party that arrived at his restaurant at Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolución.  The Victor salad is its rival, also born out of a legendary restaurant in Tijuana, although both institutions have since closed down.  Although the Victor salad was delicious,with strong acidity and tartness from the addition of vinegar, I have to say the creaminess and distinct anchovy umami of the Caesar salad was the clear winner.  It probably helped that our Caesar salad maker was a true professional in this art- he worked at the original Hotel Caesar’s and has been making this legendary salad for 17 years.  Javier Plascencia is taking over the old hotel space and reviving the legendary Caesar’s back this weekend .

A stunning dish of farro that Javier’s grandmother used to make for him was reinvented at Villa Saverios with savory chunks of crispy suckling pig, micro cilantro, heirloom ‘eye of the goat’ beans, morel mushrooms and raw cured nopales.  The distinct chewy texture of the farro reminded me of the most perfect bowl of udon noodles with an elastic koshi texture, forming a wonderful canvas upon which the salty pork crisps, crunchy and slightly slippery nopales and spongy morels could shine.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that paired well with the 2007 Tramonte Tempranillo/Cabernet blend that we had.

Meanwhile, Chef Javier Plascencia was busy tending to our final meat course in the wood-burning oven, a perfectly prepared 3 month borrego primal lamb shank cooked in lamb jus and wine with onions, thyme and an indented masa dumpling called chochoyones that was just starting to soak up the beautiful sauce.  The juicy lamb was heavenly, having been cooked to a perfect sear near the crackling flames.  This dish was paired with a 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel, an interesting red blend including Syrah, Grenache and Viognier with distinct notes of pepper.

12-14 month aged Ramonetti cow’s milk cheese came decorated with mission figs, pine nuts, a drizzle of honey and basil ribbons.

Thick chunky pistachio ice cream stood out in its minty green hue, accented by a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to enhance the nuttiness of this fabulous dessert.

The Plascencia’s got their start in the business flinging pizza dough into the air, so it only seemed right to end our chef’s tasting dinner with an unusual but heavenly dessert pizzetina topped with quince, Real del Castillo cheese, fig syrup and crunchy pomegranate seeds. 

It wasn’t just the romantic restaurant setting or the flowing wines, but the meticulously prepared and exquisitely flavored cuisine from this seasoned chef that made me an instant fan of the Plascencia legacy.  It’s obvious that Javier Plascencia understands food and how to create magic with it- there wasn’t a single dish that flopped and every bite awakened my senses to a new level of understanding and inspiration.  On a subsequent visit to one of his other Tijuana restaurants Cebicheria Erizo, and a recent one to Romesco in San Diego, I reconfirmed the mastery and savvy of this amazing chef.  Tijuana should be proud of its magnetic culinary representative who is revolutionizing the food culture and reversing the reputation of this once feared city with his bare hands.

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada
Esq. Escuadron 201
22320 Zona Rio Tijuana

Baja California, Mexico

Phone Number: 0 11 52 664 6502

Random trivia:  Did you know that tamarind pulp, when mixed with salt and rubbed directly onto the object to be polished, is an excellent  brass and copper polish?

Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

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

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.