Cooking at home with octopus

As much as I love dining out and fully surrendering myself to professionals for an exquisite restaurant experience, I would choose to be on the giving side any day.  Cooking for friends and loved ones and bringing everybody together for a fun meal is how I love to enjoy life.  Food, wine and laughter are my joie de vivre, and I am fortunate to be able to have such experiences with my friend Haru Kishi, the Executive Chef of Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

Our mutual love for cooking and entertaining has culminated in many wonderful dinners shared with our ever expanding community of good friends.  We choose a theme ingredient for our dinners and get inspiration from the farmers market to construct a seasonal menu around it.  Black truffles, white truffles, lobster, lamb, duck and suckling pig are some of the themes that we have tackled, all ending in delicious memorable fêtes.  This time we chose octopus, and as usual Chef Kishi took charge of the theme ingredient while I filled in with other courses.  Although he hadn’t finalized his octopus dishes until the morning of the dinner, I started planning the other courses around a Spanish theme, our inspiration being pulpo a la gallega, a popular traditional Galician dish of tender octopus with paprika, olive oil and salt.

We found some beautiful purple potatoes and heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market that morning to complement the 3 octopuses that we got.  In addition, a visit to Wally’s Cheese Box, which is right around the corner from where I live, turned out an exquisite selection of cheeses to serve to our gathering of chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists and musicians who all brought delicious wines for the dinner.

The cheese board featured Fol Epi, Gres des Vosges, Mini Epoisse and a delectable Gorgonzola Dolce generously drizzled with truffle honey, one of my all-time favorite pairings that I frequently serve at parties. Accoutrements of Creminelli black truffle salami, farmers market nectarines, seedless grapes and fig & olive crackers went fast as the wine and conversation flowed ever so freely.

Kalamata olives rings were balanced on top of flattened cut ends of purple seedless grapes, then tressed with dollops of marinated feta cheese and parsley leaves, a painstakingly precise micro operation that took a lot of patience.  The end result was an army of beautiful little savory soldiers, standing at attention in perfect rows and saluting our guests of honor.

I also made little pintxos of Idiazabal cheese and pearl onions caramelized with Marsala wine, assembled on skewers and drizzled with a warm saba reduction.

Meanwhile the octopus, which had been braising all day to absolute tenderness, was quickly pan seared and cubed in preparation for Chef Kishi’s first octopus dish.  Half of the purple potatoes were cubed and seasoned with pimenton dulce, while the other half was puréed with cream, emulsified with olive oil and loaded into the spuma gun for a warm potato foam.

Skinned and apple balsamic vinegar-marinated cherry tomatoes were tossed with tender octopus and purple potato cubes, then topped with the luscious creamy purple potato foam and a sprinkling of pimenton dulce for an amazing dish of complex flavors and textures.  Chef Kishi’s modern take on pulpo a la gallega was an inspiration, and we all dug our spoons into the warm potato foam and noshed in unison.

Jamon Serrano chips were made the night before by dehydrating them very slowly over 3 hours in the oven at low temperature.  The crispy savory ham chips, with a wonderful concentrated saltiness, were the perfect garnish for the Canary melon gazpacho dish served with a dash of Piment d’Espelette powder.

Simple is best when it comes to good quality ingredients, and the juicy pineapple and green zebra heirloom tomatoes were arranged on a long platter with basil leaves and fresh creamy burratta.  Large pyramid shaped crystals of black volcanic lava salt, aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil were all that I used to bring these beautiful flavors alive in the vibrant salad dish.

Braised octopus legs were tightly rolled together in saran wrap and set in the fridge to glue them together.  This octopus sausage of sorts was thinly sliced to make axial wheels that resembled geometric flowers.  Chef Kishi constructed a gorgeous octopus carpaccio course using these octopus wheels, fresh dorade ceviche, yuzu juice, sudachi juice, puréed plums, apples, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro and olive oil.  Colorful bite sized arrangements of carpaccio were served on a Himalayan pink salt tablet that was chilled in the freezer, itself imparting a subtle saltiness to the food as it slowly melted.

Left over dorade trimmings and bones were made into an elegant and richly flavored fish broth with cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, star anise and bay leaves.  The clear warm broth was served in small shot glasses- a warm, inviting and comforting moment of solace before the final octopus dish by Chef Kishi.

While all 3 interpretations of octopus were amazing that evening, my favorite was Chef Kishi’s octopus bolognese, a hearty pasta dish made with finely chopped octopus to mimic the ground meat texture of traditional bolognese ragu.  Octopus trimmings, mostly from the head, were finely chopped and pan fried to give it a quick sear and a deep roasted flavor.

The octopus was combined with a base of chopped garlic, onions and olive oil, and reduced with cava that one of the guests brought.  Sun dried tomato paste and grated Roma tomatoes were added, then reduced on the stove to concentrate the flavors.  Tossed with squiggly radiatori pasta, the perfect medium for this hearty sauce to cling to, the bolognese was served family style in a deep dish Dutch oven.  With the texture of bolognese and the flavor of vongole, this final entrée by Chef Kishi was the stand out dish of the evening.

We concluded the meal with dulce de leche ice cream served on a carpet of chocolate crumble, with sweet farmers market raspberries and ginger vanilla bean crème brûlée, all made the evening before for easy assembly. The intense smokey caramel sweetness of the ice cream with the crunchy dark chocolate crumbles was a great combination to end this spectacular meal with.

Empty wine bottles and plates licked clean may signify a good meal, but my barometer for a good party is different: when strangers meet at the beginning of the evening with handshakes, and leave with hugs and exchanged contact information.  When old friends make deeper connections over wine and intimate conversation.  When everybody roars with laughter over funny jokes.  When we make toasts with every new bottle of wine that we open.  When we all take out our planners to see when we can do this all over again.

What will our next theme be?  I hope you will be joining us for dinner.

Random trivia: Did you know that some octopuses, when under attack, can perform arm autotomy? This is a form of self amputation of one of their 8 arms to serve as a distraction to predators.  They are able to regenerate this part of their body.

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12 sensational dishes of 2010

The food and beverage industry in Los Angeles saw its share of culinary trends in 2010, from pop-up restaurants, a return to good butchery, local sourcing of food (locavorism), Asian comfort food, a celebration of bacon, mezcal cocktails, house-made charcuterie, head-to-head competition on TV shows, good old fried chicken, snout to tail diningwholesome pies in lieu of cupcakes, celebrity chefs opening up shop in tinseltown, and food and restaurant wars.  It was a busy but fruitful year for me, navigating through these food trends and traveling around the world in search of delicious nibbles.

Through it all, there were 12 dishes that left a strong impression on both my palate and my heart.  I had many delicious dishes this year, but these 12 dishes that I selected had something else that made it truly special.  Food is an expression of a chef’s love and an extension of a chef’s soul.  When a chef cooks from the heart with genuine care and intention, that essence comes through in his or her food, and speaks directly to the diner.  Through personal interactions with these special chefs, I was able to taste, smell and see the beauty of their creations with a higher level of respect and understanding.  Behind each dish was a talented chef with a radiant smile that I will never forget.

Deep fried fugu- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

Despite its 2 Michelin star status, there is no pretentiousness or attitude at this humble 39-year old restaurant in Tokyo.  I have been coming here every year for the last 6 years, of course looking forward to the meticulously prepared food, but more eager to see Chef Kenzo Sato’s lovely smile.  His warm hearty laugh and funny stories are the finishing spices to each delicate dish that is prepared in front of me in the open kitchen.  There is a special comfort and security in coming here, for he knows my likes and dislikes, and prepares a sensational omakase meal according to my palate.  I never have to order or remind him of what I want- it is already understood, and the highlight of each experience comes in my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, the deep fried puffer fish dish, which he saves for me.  It goes without saying that it requires a special license and tremendous skill in preparing the poisonous puffer fish, but it takes special love and thought to prepare this simple but comforting dish of fugu.  The best pieces are from the head, with thick wedges of white tender meat juxtaposed against gelatinous jiggles of fat fugu lips.  Chef Sato smiles as he watches me attack this dish, waiting to resume conversation until I am done licking my fingers clean.

Sea urchin tostada with pismo clams- Sabina Bandera Gonzalez, La Guerrerense (Ensenada, Mexico)

To this day, that life-changing satisfying bite into the crunchy tostada generously topped with sea urchin, heaps of freshly shucked pismo clams, avocado and home-made ‘Chilito Exotico’ salsa, haunts me.  My body craves it, my mind obsesses about it, my dreams are dominated by it.  Matriarch Sabina Gonzalez, who has been operating out of a small food cart on the street corner of Ensenada in Baja Mexico for more than 30 years, creates each tostada to order, smothering it with fresh offerings from the local Baja waters and topping it with motherly love.  It’s a family affair, and her daughter comes down from San Diego on the weekends to shuck clams and oysters as the master cocktailer.  Each bite releases a splash of ocean breeze inside my mouth before the distinct savory spices of the pineapple salsa kicks in.  This is pure Baja, and it doesn’t get any better than this tostada, followed by a big hug, both from Sabina.

Octopus carpaccio with nopales- Chef Javier Plascencia, Cebicheria Erizo (Tijuana, Mexico)

Photo of Javier Plascencia courtesy of Barbara Hansen, of Table Conversation

It wasn’t just the fun geometric shapes or the vibrant color palettes in this octopus carpaccio that won my heart, but the innovative concept of compressing octopus legs into round sausages and slicing them thin to reveal wheel-like cross sections that impressed me in the cebiche themed restaurant of accomplished Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia.  The gelatin coating around the octopus legs acted as a natural food glue to keep the circles together.  The tender octopus slices in ponzu sauce were given a unique Baja twist with the contrast of buttery avocados and crunchy, slimy nopales.  A refined and beautiful dish with unforgettable textures and delicious flavors is sure to be an industry secret, I thought, but I was struck by Chef Javier Plascencia’s openness about sharing his secrets.  ‘Shoot me an email and I’ll send you my recipe’, he told me, ‘and let me know when you come down to Tijuana, I’ll make sure to be there for you’.  Really?  The amazing thing about this incredibly handsome and kind chef is that he actually means every word that he says.  And with 7 amazing restaurants under his belt and a highly successful run at Test Kitchen where his fig leaf wrapped short rib dish was deemed one of the best dishes of the year by Jonathan Gold, he still maintains the same level of approachability and humility.

Chocolate, cassis, vanilla and passion fruit macarons- Thomas Haas, Thomas Haas Patisserie (Vancouver, Canada)

As a fourth generation German Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was genetically destined to become a sensation in the pastry world, and his talent is evident in every tasty morsel of chocolate ganache and chewy caramel.  At his namesake patisserie in Vancouver, he creates a peaceful haven of sweets where one can enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea with sandwiches, tarts, cakes and chocolates while shopping for hot chocolates and cookies.  I went in for his famous chocolates, but was swept off my feet by the perfection of his macarons, especially the passion fruit macaron.  A perfect crunchy outer shell that gives way to a soft moist merengue, leading right into the flavorful center filling- the textures and flavors were spot on in these delicate little bundles of joy.  Despite being a world-renowned patissier and busy restaurateur, Thomas Haas was behind the counter, packaging chocolates to order, working the cash register, giving advice to customers and even cleaning tables.  I had met him the night before at a restaurant in Vancouver, and he welcomed me with a bright smile to his patisserie, bringing over these wonderful macarons with a pot of tea to my table.  With such a hands-on approach to running his patisserie, I knew that he personally made these macarons by hand, which made them taste even better.

Scrambled eggs with black truffle- Chef Haru Kishi, my house (Los Angeles)

How do you honor an aromatic, majestic piece of black truffle?  Leave it to talented Chef Haru Kishi, formerly at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood, and now executive chef of Chaya Brasserie.  Perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, patiently prepared at low temperatures, made fluffier with soft boiled egg whites passed through a fine sieve, spooned over a bed of asparagus and bacon, and garnished with dramatic shavings of black truffle that release its pungent aromas with each passing across the sharp blade of a truffle slicer.  The delicate crunch of asparagus, the smokiness of bacon, the soft pillowy texture of warm fluffy eggs, the final strong hit of truffle essence that spreads inside my mouth and permeates up into my nares- a decadent, rich and unforgettable experience worthy of a final meal.  Life is perfect at that moment, and nothing else matters. Everything that this talented chef makes is amazing, and I have personally seen the tremendous amount of thought that he puts into his work.  As a close friend, it makes me happy to see him blossom through his various struggles and finally come into his element at Chaya Brasserie, a most fitting location for his Japanese and French background.

Venison tenderloin tartare, macadamia nuts, beet chips, wasabi cream, lavender- Chef Marcel Vigneron, Venison dinner ( Los Angeles)

Marcel Vigneron has become a household name since he became famous on Top Chef season 2, and currently on Top Chef All-Stars.  Although he has gained a reputation as the Top Chef villain, in real life he is quite the opposite.  Personable, thoughtful, kind and extremely fun to hang out with, he is one of the most hard working chefs in Los Angeles.  He’s obviously talented and gifted with charisma, but behind the scenes he puts in just as much thought and hours into each beautiful and innovative creation.  One such plate that I still think back to is the venison tenderloin tartare with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The venison was prepared perfectly with a fine balance of acidity and flavor.  Scooped onto a crispy red beet chip with a smear of wasabi cream and a hint of lavender aroma wafting from the board, this delectable dish transported me to venison heaven at a private dinner party at Terroni restaurant.  Spending the entire day with the chef, from shopping at the farmers market to prepping in his kitchen, I was able to see an inspiration evolve into an idea, an idea into a sketch, and a sketch finally culminate in the most breathtaking dish.

Kikouchi soba- Soba artisans Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai, Soba Pop at the Breadbar (Los Angeles)

Buckwheat flour and water- there are only 2 simple ingredients in making Kikouchi soba, making it that much more of a complex dish.  Soba master Akila Inouye and soba artisan Sonoko Sakai have been working hard all year to spread the culture of soba in Los Angeles.  Many trips to Japan, many suitcases of freshly milled Japanese buckwheat flour, many soba classes in Sonoko’s house and many long hours of preparation for their pop-up soba event at the Breadbar, all in the name of wanting Angelenos to understand the culture of Japanese soba.  Soba is Japan’s soul food, full of tradition and sacred history.  Thanks to these dedicated soba artisans, I was able to have a taste of home and a moment of peace as I dipped these delicate buckwheat noodles into their homemade bonito broth and happily slurped away.

Potato mousseline, poached egg, chorizo crumble- Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, LudoBites 5.0 (Los Angeles)

Chef Ludo needs no introduction- he took command of the Los Angeles culinary scene with his sensational and popular pop-up events, LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 in 2010.  Every dish was whimsical, colorful, flavorful and creative, delighting diners with his ever changing menu ideas.  There were many favorites, but the stand-out dish for me was the silky potato mousseline over a perfectly poached egg, bursting with warm yellow yolk that melted right into the fatty chorizo crumble.  Every bite made me want more and more.  I wanted to share this wonderful dish with my friends, but I also didn’t want to share this wonderful dish with my friends.  What was I to do?  Order another round, of course, which I did at every visit to LudoBites 5.0, my favorite of the 3 this year.  Ludo’s talent and success got much deserved praise from critics on both coasts, but there were always people who wanted to criticize, scrutinize, dissect and rip him apart.  People love to hate this handsome charismatic chef, but what they don’t know is that behind each artistic and poetic dish was a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally.  Despite a debilitating medical condition that would normally deem a person completely disabled and incapable of working, Ludo fought hard through each day of LudoBites to cook for his dedicated fans.  He gritted his teeth to endure relentless pain and gave his best smile for at least 20 photos a night, but I could see the pain in his eyes. Dedication and hard work never meant more to me than at LudoBites this year, and for that, hats off to this amazing chef.

Quinoa crème brûlée, purple corn- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica (Los Angeles)

Mo-Chica and its star chef Ricardo Zarate are now on Los Angeles’ Best of list, and in the next few months we will be seeing the opening of Mo-Chica’s new downtown location and Zarate’s new anticuchos restaurant Picca, but he almost never made it this far.  In the first year of business, Mo-Chica nearly went under.  People didn’t think to try this new restaurant that was serving lamb shanks and arroz con pollo for close to $10 a plate, when adjacent taco stands in the Mercado la Paloma food court were offering $3 plates.  Zarate had a vision, and he didn’t want to compromise on quality or preparation.  He knew that some day, people would understand his food and how good it was.  Almost a year went by, and he was paying out of his own pocket to sustain the business.  Finally, food critics caught wind of this amazing Peruvian chef, and just like that, the news spread like wild fire and Zarate was well on his way to recognition.  His food is fantastic, each bursting with vibrant flavors, with a delicate sensitivity that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  The regular menu is solid, but every last Thursday of the month he offers a 6 course tasting menu for $30, possibly the best deal in the country.  I have had grilled octopus with cilantro pesto on a bed of aji mashed potato, mackerel tempura on seabass ceviche, and braised short ribs to satisfy even the most stern critic, all memorable and stellar.  However, it was a quinoa and purple corn crème brûlée on one such tasting dinner that made me gasp with delight.  Not too sweet, perfectly creamy, with a beautiful deep purple hue, and most of all a surprisingly delicious way to enjoy quinoa. ‘I was supposed to use kiwicha, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted quinoa at the last minute.  I hope it’s still good?’, the ever so humble, honest and kind chef told me.  Even such accidents, under Zarate’s spell, become a delicious miracle.

Cabrit, goat meat fricassee- Chef TiGeorges, Test Kitchen (Los Angeles)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January, no dish tasted more soulful than the goat meat fricassee that Haitian chef Georges LaGuerre, affectionately known as TiGeorges, cooked for his Test Kitchen dinner.  TiGeorges himself lost his restaurant to a fire while working hard to raise earthquake relief funds, and this Test Kitchen dinner was the first time that he was able to cook for Angelenos again.  Goat meat was baked with key lime, boiled in vinegar, then grilled over a fire and served with a sauce of key lime juice, olive oil and habanero chiles.  The long process of cooking the meat resulted in an incredibly tender juicy plate of meat that fell effortlessly off the bones.  Haiti is a beautiful country that has endured years of foreign occupation, slavery, poverty, corruption and now one of the worst natural disasters that the modern world has ever encountered.  This cabrit dish represented Haitian pride, strength and soul, just like its talented chef TiGeorges.

Winter grain porridge- Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn preview Test Kitchen dinner (Los Angeles)

Michelin starred and Iron Chef conquering female chef Dominique Crenn, who is opening her own restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco next month, graced us with her presence and her sensational talent at the Test Kitchen in Los Angeles for one special evening this month.  After having eaten at more than 12 Test Kitchen dinners this year, I can honestly say that her dinner was the single most impressive and delicious dinner of them all, displaying graceful beauty and culinary elegance.  As a speaker at the TEDx Bay Area Women event earlier this month, she shared her vision of using food as a medium for honoring nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her pledge for caring for our food sources by ‘returning to the soul’.  Indeed, every dish at her 5 course Test Kitchen dinner was a poetic tribute to mother earth and her plentiful bounties that sustain our lives, and was worthy of taking the top 5 places for my best 12 dishes of the year, but one stood out above the rest.  The winter grain porridge, a new type of dessert, that evoked a garden on a sloping hillside with its soft bed of red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, and micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers that sprouted from the soft earth, strewn between orange and green leaves that all together illustrated a portrait of nature.  The textures were soft, light, chewy and crunchy, and I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the earth.  It made me feel happy to be alive.

Seared toro, ankimo, caviar- Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, Urasawa (Los Angeles)

Stepping through the entrance of Urasawa for the second time, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief, for I knew that I could just relax, sit back and get the best food and the most stellar service of my life.  Beer poured in a ceramic beer mug was at the perfect temperature, the cypress countertop sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper was soft and supple, and when I took my camera out of my bag, Chef Hiro summoned his server to lay a white cloth napkin on the counter upon which to place my camera.  It was like being back home in Japan, where attention to detail and meticulous service was the standard.  Here, in this Beverly Hills haven, I had many amazing dishes, one of which was a seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and topped with a heap of caviar.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind added a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, all perfectly presented on a golden ceramic pedestal.  Chef Hiro is a true professional who exemplifies the Japanese culture of precision and obsession.  What people don’t know is that despite Urasawa’s reputation, Chef Hiro doesn’t make much money from his business.  He pays an enormous amount of rent, to honor the same space that his teacher, Chef Masayoshi Takayama of Masa, has given him, and he spends most of his money in preparing the best quality ingredients for his meals.  He lives in a rental apartment in downtown LA, and doesn’t even own a computer.  Oblivious to the fact that Urasawa has been on numerous blogs, he thought about it for a second, and then asked, ‘so…these blogs…it’s like, free advertising?’  Indeed, Chef Hiro, indeed.

Thank you to all of these wonderful chefs for making 2010 a special year for me, and bringing beauty and meaning to my life.  Their dedication and hard work to their craft is admirable, and is reflected in their food.  May 2011 be an equally delicious year for all!

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…