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.
Teniente Azueta #139
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
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.