October 30, 2006

A ridiculous tasting of California Cabs, and an impromptu coffee sauce

pan-roasted pork tenderloin with rosemary
nutty brussel sprouts, potato-apple puree, fig, coffee-soy-caramel pan jus

Thanks to Mr. G.H., I had the opportunity to participate in a blind analytical tasting of nine ultra high-end California Cabernet Sauvignons with the good folks of FOG. Check out this lineup, listed in order of my ranking:
  1. 2003 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains (1,500 cases, $120 group rank: 8). Not popular with the group, but my favorite because of its distinctive earthy, somewhat green acidity. It makes sense that this one stood out from the pack, with the completely different climate and soils of Santa Cruz. I thought this had the best potential for food pairings because of its lively, bright palate.
  2. 2003 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Reserve, Napa Valley (7,043 cases, $125 group rank: 4). A very balanced, well-executed wine; some thought it was too middle-of-the-road.
  3. 2003 Dalle Valle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (800 cases, $110 group rank: 1). I have always wanted to try this wine, ever since passing up on an incredibly well-priced bottle of Maya at a charity auction a couple of years ago. Amazing, cool core of full-bodied fruit, balanced by somewhat aggressive, warm tannic structure.
  4. 2003 Spottswood Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Vineyard, St. Helena (3,700 cases, $110 group rank: 2). An elegant, floral cabernet, exhibiting finesse and complexity, like a field of violets, lavender and light herbs. An eye opener for me
  5. 2003 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain (1,000 cases, $65 group rank: 3). One of my favorite wineries. Herbaceous undertone, with bright cherry and juniper berry (I think).
  6. 2003 Harlan Estate, Napa Valley (1,827 cases, $250 estimated group rank: 6). One of Napa's exclusive cult wines; very difficult to get one's hands on a bottle... I can't believe I got to taste it blind. Surprising bitter notes in a very powerful wine.
  7. 2003 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (2,500 cases, $85 group rank: 7). Remarkably smooth, silky and plush, almost to a fault, because it muted any distinctive characteristics.
  8. 2003 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Georges de Latour, Private Reserve, Napa Valley (14,000 cases, $95 group rank: 9). Light and almost watery.
  9. 2003 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Selection, Napa Valley (9,800 cases, $136 gropu rank: 5). A montrous amount of new oak for my taste, with a burnt smell. Seemed to have the longest finish of all, approx. 35-40 seconds.
How incredible to have so many exclusive wines at one tasting! Nearly all of them were absolutely delicious, with the rankings only separating stylistic preferences (at least for me). By the way, it's no easy task to try and stay fair and precise in your tasting notes with this many powerful wines coating your taste buds.

We were also fortunate to have Wilfred Wong (BevMo's buyer) on hand for this tasting. No way! Wilfred's capsule reviews helped make new and different wines a bit more accessible and less intimidating when I first started buying wine, so it was a real treat for me to watch him taste and listen to some of his comments. A very nice fellow. Also, props to Steve P. for organizing a great tasting.

After I got home, I prepared a late supper for me and Lav. On the BART ride, I was trying to think of some flavor combinations for an intensely flavored pan sauce to accompany pork tenderloin. I ended up getting fixated on incorporating a coffee reduction to play off of the roasted characteristics of the pork and the coffee.

To comprise the reduction, I started with a cup of coffee, then added sugar, a splash of mirin, soy sauce, and balsamic vinegar. I used the resulting liquid to deglaze the pan once the tenderloin had been seared and finished in the oven, and polished it with a tiny dab of butter. The result was much better than I had expected; each of the disparate elements came together in a synergy of deep and brooding flavors, adding just the right dimension to the dish. The recipe could use just a bit of tweaking to bring even more of the coffee flavor out, but I am really happy with the result already...

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October 28, 2006

Redd's tasting menu in dual preparations... genius!

yellowfin tuna tartare, avocado, chili oil, fried rice
sashimi of hamachi, sticky rice, edamame, lime ginger sauce
* * *
petrale sole, chorizo, manilla clams, saffron curry nage
caramelized diver scallops, califlower puree, almonds, balsamic reduction
* * *
tasting of cold foie gras preparations, pears, pistachios, brioche
seared foie gras with caramelized figs
* * *
glazed pork belly, apple puree, burdock, soy caramel
veal and ricotta meatballs, celery root puree
* * *
prime new york steak and shortribs, black pepper gnocchi, braised romano beans
young lamb tenderloin, fresh shelled beans, olive, pepper, tomato confit
* * *
panna cotta with chocolate drizzle
date beignets with cinnamon ice cream

We celebrated Lav's birthday this weekend with a dinner at Redd in Yountville. I'll never cease to be amazed at the concentration of significant restaurants in Yountville. What a lucky town.

This blog isn't really intended for restaurant reviews, so I'll just comment on some of the successful dishes and/or components that were really spectacular.

The saffron curry nage that accompanied the petrale sole was fantastic. The nage was done in the style of a loose foam, incorporating the alluring earthiness of saffron with just the lightest hint of curry in the background, all accented by the fresh flavor of the sea. The nage must have been made, in part, by the juice released by the clams -- the aroma was like a savory whiff of ocean air... just perfect for the sole.

We both thought the glazed pork belly was the dish of the tasting. The rich, mouth-coating flavor of the pork was made even more interesting by the crispy texture of the meat. The apple puree and soy caramel had sufficient sweetness to pair beautifully with the unctuously prepared pork.

Lastly, we enjoyed an exquisitely prepared, tiny portion of New York steak, paired with a braised shortrib. The slice of New York strip was richly flavored, yet remarkably tender... seared to form a perfect crust while remaining just under medium-rare on the interior. The shortrib was meltingly tender, complex and earthy in its velvety decadence. The miniscule portion size for this course was ideal... just enough to be able to compare the contrasting flavors and textures of the two different cuts, made with two different preparations. I've never seen a dish come with exactly two micro-gnocchi as accompaniment (until now).

Excellent service; clean, modern design (nifty sinks)... a very enjoyable restaurant. The best part about the meal was the execution of the tasting menu in dual preparations. Since Lav and I each had different courses which shared some broad thematic similarity from course to course, it was like having a progressively designed 12-course meal. Really fantastic... an unexpectedly gracious service element that captures the restaurant's admirable focus on the diner's experience.

Redd Restaurant
6480 Washington St
Yountville, CA
(707) 944-2222

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October 25, 2006

a successful, simple foam and a better articulation of flavor combinations

gamay risotto
sweet onion, andouille, mushroom, peas, chevre, pecorino foam

double-cut niman ranch pork chop
cayenne-allspice rub, baby kiwi panzanella, roasted brussel sprouts, thyme-butter pan jus
About three weeks ago, I had a glass of Beaujolais Villages at COCO500 that completely blew me away. Unlike the light, fruity, thirst quenching style of Beaujolais Nouveau, the glass of wine I had was deep and dense, evocative of a brooding but acidic Pinot Noir... really incredible stuff. It was the first time I'd ever had Beaujolais of this style, and I was completely captivated. That weekend, I picked up this bottle of 2004 Jean-Paul Brun L'Ancien old vine Beaujolais (notice it is only 12% alcohol). This wine didn't have quite the depth or core of dark fruit, but instead struck a more even balance between ripe, mature fruit with a sturdy backbone of acidity. Very low in tannic structure, and with a lightly floral accent... a versatile wine that works well with or without food. And a good value for $15.

Tonight, I had two specific things I wanted to try: pecorino foam and a panzanella spiked with little bits of baby kiwi.

For the pecorino foam, I first made a red wine risotto with some of the Beaujolais. This was originally going to be a regular risotto, but when I was in the middle of sweating the sweet onion, I realized we had no chicken stock or broth on hand. So I went with the red wine to add more depth of flavor to the dish... turned out to be a good call. The fruit driven tang of the red wine paired beautifully with the sharp but creamy flavor of the foam. I made the foam with a simple emulsion of scalded milk and shaved pecorino, aerated by an immersion blender. I think it was stable because of the temperature and the milk solids. Not as refined as a gas cartridge-based foam, but more than sufficient.

The panzanella with baby kiwi would be served alongside a beautiful double cut Niman Ranch pork chop (which we shared... man that's a lot of meat!) that had been brined overnight. This was probably the juiciest, most flavorful pork chop I've ever made... a result of having a nearly 2-inch thick cut of high quality meat seared in the pan, then roasted on the bone. I had some serious doubts as to whether the sweetness of the baby kiwi would clash with the tomato in the panzanella, but it turned out to be a very successful combination, particularly paired with the rich taste and mouthfeel of the pork.

My flavor combinations have been somewhat confused... really just a bit out of whack for the past couple of meals. This simple meal of more intuitive flavors brings back a little bit of focus for me.

simple pecorino foam

one cup of whole milk
3/4 cup of freshly grated pecorino romano

heat the milk in a small pot until just scalded. do not boil. add grated pecorino and remove from heat. whisk until blended. vigorous whisking while returning the pot to the stove over medium heat immediately after the addition of the pecorino may induce a bubble-over effect that will naturally create the foam, but you need to be careful not to burn the milk solids and cheese. alternatively, pour the contents into a smaller container and use an immersion blender to establish the foam consistency. use immediatly while still very warm.

there are more sophisticated ways of creating foams with superior stability and a finer, creamier texture, but most require tools and ingredients that are not readily available in the average home kitchen.

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October 24, 2006

you have GOT to be kidding me...

We try to buy our food responsibly, supporting organic and sustainably grown products from local producers when possible (although admittedly, we could make a more concerted effort). One of the products we really enjoy is the "Rosie" line of chickens from Petaluma Poultry. Rosie is their certified organic, free range chicken. As the company describes the product on their website:
Rosie was the first chicken in the United States to carry a certified organic label. Rosie's diet consists of 100% certified organic corn and soybean grown on soil that has been free of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers for at least three years. Petaluma Poultry raises Rosie in accordance with the organic protocols independently verified by Oregon Tilth, a third party certifier. Oregon Tilth visits the poultry houses, feed mill and processing plant to confirm that organic practices are followed at all times. We maintain a rigorous audit trail documenting the hatching, growing, processing and distribution of each bird. Dick Krengel, President of Willowbrook Feed, says "We can trace a box of Rosies from our delivery truck all the way back to the field where their organic feed was grown." Rosie is a free range chicken, allowed to run and forage outdoors in an open-air, fenced area outside the barn. At market, Rosie's weight averages 4 pounds.
Petaluma Poultry "strive[s] to create harmonious relationships in nature sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world." Sure, it costs quite a bit more, but you feel like you're doing something better for the environment, better for the chicken, and better for your health, right?

As it turns out, maybe not.

Right now, I'm reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan... his observations on the connection between overproduction and overconsumption to resource depletion, reduced biodiversity, disease and economic hardship are flat-out freaky. I'm only about 1/3 of the way through, but it's definitely a good read for anyone who cares about the food they eat and the overall impact our ridiculous aggregate consumption patterns are making. Anyways, on the BART ride to work this morning, I read the following excerpt on page 140:
I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the "free range" lifestyle promised on the label? True, there's a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old -- for fear they'll catch something outside -- and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later .
No freakin' way. Rosie's a fraud?

Okay, I know that not all "organic" products are equal, with some of the mass produced brands abusing the use of the word in the name of capitalistic marketing with shameless, unregulated abandon, but man, I thought Petaluma Farms was one of the good guys! I'm going to withhold judgment for the moment while I do some research and dig a bit deeper to find out who's closer to the truth. Stay tuned...

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October 22, 2006

the choices we make

salad of late-season japanese tomato
goat cheese, olive oil, japanese red sea salt

pan-seared mahi mahi
slow-poached egg, eggplant, andouille, bacon, bell pepper, mushroom, balsamic drops

"To think about tomorrow is a luxury."
- Rt. Revd. David Zac Niringiye

I try to appreciate the amazing luxury of choices we have, even in our most basic daily routines (white or wheat? paper or plastic? soup or salad?). It's a real gift and a blessing, and we've done nothing in particular to deserve it. Yet I constantly take for granted the mere existence of a choice... of options... of the opportunity to make a decision... something a lot of people in this world don't have.

This weekend, I had beef tongue for the first time in a tasty taco de lengua. Beef tongue isn't exactly the most appetizing visual image, but its taste and texture are uniquely satisfying. The tongue is a very lean piece of meat that needs to be stewed for a bit in order to make it soft and velvety. The diced tongue in the taco had a lighter-than-beef flavor, with just a hint of textural resistance... maybe stewed at a slightly high temperature... but still a nice canvas for the salsa verde, onion and cilantro.

We saw this little block of Japanese sea salt -- it's roughly about 8 cubic inches, half a pound in weight -- and were intrigued. It's fascinating to learn about all the different types of salt out there, how they're produced, and what other elements they may contain. Apparently, the pinkish hue in this chunk comes from the presence of calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and iron. It supposedly has a unique minerally flavor that goes well with tomatoes... we'll see about that. We also found some pristine looking mahi mahi... funny how similar in color the flesh of the mahi mahi is to the salt.

This morning, we had a chance to stop by La Farine to pick up some breakfast with Melissa and Dawn. I also wanted to get a seeded baguette (my favorite bread) for dinner tonight... it's generously topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and toasted fennel seeds. The nutty, lightly anise flavor is a great match for the toothsome texture of the rustic baguette. I could eat the whole baguette myself, with just a bit of sweet cream butter or st. andre cheese...

For dinner tonight, I wanted to keep things simple, but was also craving some rich flavors as the temperature dropped suddenly about 15 degrees with the arrival of a bit of an off-shore breeze. I found these lusciously red japanese tomatoes at Berkeley Bowl that smelled surprisingly ripe and full-flavored, with a pronounced citric aroma permeating its skin. I sliced that up and added some creamy goat cheese and olive oil to add roundness... the tomatoes were awesome! Fairly firm flesh, but which a mouth-filling concentration of vibrant flavor; definitely not sweet and mellow, these had real life and exhuberance, exploding with lycopene goodness. I microplaned some of the pink salt on top -- Lav declared its unique flavor to be "salty."

Ever since I read this blog entry, I've been wanting to try making a slow-poached egg with a uniformly custard-like consistency. I slow-poached the egg for one hour at 63 degrees celsius; the contents would serve as the base of the dish. In the meantime, I sauteed a dice of eggplant and andouille, crisped a bacon segment, and seared the mahi mahi. I was trying to go with two predominant flavor themes here: sweet and earthy. The sweet elements came from the custard-like yolk (which had a subtle intrinsic sweetness that paired perfectly with a bit of thick, aged, low acid balsamic drizzle... sort of the same idea as David Kinch's use of maple syrup, but purely savory), the eggplant, caramelized shallots and roasted yellow bell pepper flesh. The earthy theme was represented by the seared mahi flesh, roasted mushroom, the andouille and the bacon. Ultimately, although decadent and tasty, there were too many flavors obscuring the focus... I should have ditched the bacon and eggplant. The slow-poached egg was awesome though, and would be optimal with a steak or served simply with salt and a dab of sweet syrup.

And just like that, another weekend has flown by. As we finished up, I started thinking about the past two days... what exactly did I do this weekend? Well, I tried some new foods and flavor combinations and bought a chunk of pink salt... I spent time with my wife, my friends and my family, and I held a 15-day-old baby for the first time. Each moment was significant in its own way, some far more than others. I do have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow -- planning the week ahead, not worrying about where my next meal will come from or where I'll find shelter and safety -- but maybe I should stay in the present for a bit longer instead, making sure I appreciate the moments that have just taken place.

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October 18, 2006

bone marrow and broccoli... just a little weekday tinkering

moelle desséchée
poached broccoli stem, crème fraiche, pugliese toast, bitter microgreens, cornichons, mustard

cuisse rôtie de poulet
broccoli puree, pecorino romano “snow”, dried yuzu, thyme, balsamic pan jus

2005 copain l'hiver

We had a reservation to check out Bourbon and Branch today, but the timing ultimately didn't work out too well. As I disappointedly cancelled the reservation, I was hit by a small twinge of inspiration... We had some broccoli and chicken thigh waiting in the fridge, along with some beef bones for marrow. What kind of a quick and easy meal could be made of these components?

We had a transcendent meal at Coi a couple of months ago, and one of the most memorable dishes was a small lobe of crispy seared bone marrow served with caviar and fleur de sel. The biggest question was how to duplicate the crisp exterior. We soaked the bone marrow for a couple of hours to remove some of the blood, then roasted it in the oven at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes. Scooped out the warmed, just-melting marrow and dusted it with corn starch before pan-searing it in a bit of browned butter. We plated the two resulting portions with a tiny dab of creme fraiche for parallel richness; mustard, chili oil, bitter microgreens, and cornichons to contrast and cut through the decadence; toasted pugliese for a neutral-flavored textural contrast; and hollowed poached broccoli stems to visually mimic the bones while adding a distinct vegetable element to a fundamentally meaty dish.

I've wondered about using broccoli as a puree. The thigh was deboned, since the dark meat is juicy enough to roast without it. The dried yuzu flakes (from Japan... thanks to Melissa, our official purveyor of interesting citrus) lended a subtle brightness to the dark meat, while the thyme accentuated the depth of flavor with its earthiness. The p.r. "snow" served to bind these somewhat divergent elements, aided by the light balsamic-tinged pan jus. Ultimately, the puree made the dish a bit imbalanced, with Lav noting that she expected much more intrinsic sweetness from the broccoli. Somehow, I feel like there is more that can be done with the broccoli puree... I just need to figure out how to better exploit that flavor.

These were some pretty rich dishes, so we opted to pair everything with a bottle of 2005 Copain l'Hiver. The "Saisons des Vins" series -- the second label from Wells Guthrie at Copain -- never lets you down. The l'Hiver, a rich and full-bodied syrah, was packed with densly extracted plum, accented by white pepper and a hint of smoky tobacco. Super inky; our teeth were stained after half a glass. Not as much acidity as I had expected, but the strength of the fruit still managed to contrast sufficiently against the decadence of the dishes.

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October 15, 2006

Some new surprises, and an overdue farewell to summer

We're well into the fall season now, and Lav and I find ourselves still in the midst of an Italian kick. Last night, we made a pizza at home using canned San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzanos are ideal for sauces because of their meaty flesh and their "bittersweet" flavor -- lower sugar and lower acid. Just a bit of basil and you're good to go.

This morning, we were surprised to notice for the first time that the Meyer lemon tree Melissa gave us for Christmas last year is beginning to develop lemons. Finally! Having a little outdoor patio/deck is paying off! Thoughts of grilled lemon slices and lemon confit are running through my mind, but it looks like I've still got a few more months to wait...

After a morning dim sum session, we went on the prowl to check out some local shops and pick up some food. We started off at the Genova Delicatessen in Temescal, which is an amazing little shop in Oakland, founded in 1926. Genova sells sliced meats, cured meats, fresh pastas, sauces, imported canned goods (including both De Cecco and Strianese brand imported D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes... take that A.G. Ferrari), olive oils, desserts... everything and anything Italian, and all well priced. The find of the day was a jar of Annalisa fabioli bianchi di spagna (italian butter beans)... this will be used to try and recreate that haunting zuppa from A16 sometime soon.

We walked across the street to Bakesale Betty's. Alison, sporting her impossibly blue hair, had all sorts of fantastically decadent treats out. We asked her to pack up a slice of her famous lemon bar (perfectly lemony tart, with a super rich crust), a slice of pumpkin bread (moist and dense, with a well-developed, deep spice flavor), and a pear-ginger scone (moist and buttery, with a sweet ginger zing) for us. All three were rich, pure and pretty much euphoric.

Sadly, it's finally time to bid farewell to the summer. We've been in a bit of denial, but it's already the middle of October! Our rationalization is that a lot of the summer crop extended late into the season because of the rainy season earlier this year... We made a tomato and mozzarella salad with some farmer's market Early Girl tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufalo from the Cowgirl Creamery, organic basil and L.A. Cetto olive oil.

We also made a simple pasta with the fresh spinach fettucini we picked up from Genova. The sauce is made only of the San Marzano tomatoes, a bit of garlic and basil. The finish is a simple grating of awesome Cowgirl Creamery pecorino romano.

Looks like we're in for some rain this week...

Genova Delicatessen

5095 Telegraph Avenue, Suite A, Oakland

Bakesale Betty
5098 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland

October 9, 2006

An attempt at lamb tagine

salad of peach, pluot and mustard greens
light lemon vinaigrette

mousse of roasted eggplant and capsicum
olive oil emulsion

chicken and eggplant bestila
crushed hazelnuts, cinnamon, allspice

lamb tagine with couscous
olives, tomato confit, pluots, golden raisins, preserved lemon

gazelle’s horns
hazelnuts, almond paste

I can still remember the first time I tried a tagine dish. John Slattery, a friend from days gone by, invited me over for dinner for his tagine back in 1998, when he explained to me the importance of conical tagine lid, how the miniscule steam vent created a low pressure steam braise for the stew, resulting in incredibly tender and flavorful meat. Back then, there were very few restaurants in the area serving tagine, so it was a real treat.

Fast forward 8 years… I decided it was time to give tagine, and Moroccan food in general, a try. The plan was for a lamb tagine, stewed with shallots, garlic, kalamata olives, roasted tomatoes and preserved lemons. We hadn't seen Jeff since the annual insanity known as Jeff-tember (people playing catch with flaming red hot coals, etc.), so getting together for dinner was long overdue.

Let’s chalk this one up to a “learning experience”… a couple of things weren’t running on all pistons:
  • the lamb wasn’t quite as tender as I had hoped- the flavors were unbalanced… like playing pinball on you’re your taste buds. The olives were unexpectedly salty, the lemon was a strange pairing with the lamb, and the delicate layers of seasoning (sweet paprika, cumin, tumeric) were muddled indistinguishably.
  • since I just bought the tagine pot that day, I didn’t have time to soak it in water prior to the first use to prevent cracking… so the majority of the cooking was done in a pot.
  • we only had time for instant couscous... actually, I've never made couscous the real way, by steaming, but someday...

So many of the flavors of Moroccan cuisine are bold, complex, and intoxicatingly decadent. I'll definitely be giving this another try, hopefully with a better overall balance next time.

October 1, 2006

A blissful meal in the Guadalupe Valley (Baja / Laja, part 2)

(continued from yesterday...)

We arrived at Laja just in time for our 1:30 pm reservation. The restaurant is housed in a small, charming building in the midst of vineyards, with a garden of herbs and vegetables adjacent to the building, inspiring a pastoral atmosphere and alluding to the careful execution of fresh ingredients to come.

the menu

Butternut Squash Veloute Soup with Local Olive Oil
Our Garden Lettuce and Herb Salad with Fresh Tomatoes
Acrata Sinonimo
Blue Fin Tuna Tartare with Cucumber and Preserved Lemon
Sweet Corn Gnocchi with Eggplant and Zucchini Blossom
Santo Tomas Chardonnay Sauvignon
Pan Roasted Rock Cod with Seasonal Vegetables
Oven Roasted Local Lamb with Shallots and Mustard Greens
Baron Balche Doble Blanc 2002
Yellow Watermelon Cold Soup with Prickly Pear and Lemon Balm Sorbets
Almond Financier with Butternut Squash Ice Cream and Green Apple

Chef Jair Téllez and his wife Laura Reinert opened the restaurant in 2001 (thus, the name Laja). Jair’s resume includes Daniel in New York, La Folie and Gordon’s House of Fine Eats in San Francisco, and The Four Seasons in Mexico City.

A photographer was on site to take some photos of the staff for the restaurant’s website. Here are Chef Jair and Andrés (who made a few inspired pairings of local Mexican wines for our meal). Watching the staff interact was great. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be part of this team, which definitely came across in the gracious service.

I can’t say enough about this meal. Our expectations were quite high after hearing the restaurant described as “incredible,” a culinary “mecca,” and “the Chez Panisse of the South.” Our meal exceeded those expectations.

As we sat down, we were given a small flask of beautiful, locally pressed olive oil, which was alive with fruity and nutty richness, with just the lightest hint of grassy aromas. A perfect accompaniment to the just-out-of-the-oven crusty bread that had Lav spinning in a state of carb-induced euphoria.

We opted for the four-course meal, ordering opposites on each selection… so it ended up being more like an eight-course dégustation.

The butternut squash velouté was delicious in the basic simplicity of its execution. Pure essence of squash transformed into a velvety-rich broth with a hint of olive oil incorporated into it.

The salad evoked the first Chez Panisse moment, featuring garden lettuces that tasted like they’d been plucked out of the ground just moments before plating. The fresh garden herbs were the star of the dish – pungent and aromatic, but with a delicate finesse.

Next, the bluefin tuna tartare. Yes, a lot of folks (myself included) may be getting weary of having this dish and its myriad re-interpretations at every restaurant, but this one recaptured the essence of why this can be such a great dish. No soy sauce, wasabi, sesame oil, or other overpowering flavors to cover up the delicate fish. Just extraordinarily fresh tuna, practically buttery, dressed with a clean-tasting olive oil, and accented with relatively neutral cucumber for texture, preserved lemon for a mellow acidity, and rocket for a light peppery bite. Like having tuna tartare for the first time.

The sweet corn gnocchi was the biggest “wow” dish of the afternoon. Perfectly cooked gnocchi with the flavor of the freshest sweet corn (grown in the garden) permeating every bite. Pillowy soft on the inside, lightly crisp from pan frying on the outside. The accents of diced eggplant and baby zucchini with their blossoms added the perfect accompaniment to complete the dish, painting an absolutely magical picture of the bounty of late summer in Baja. That was the second Chez Panisse moment: only the second time in my life that I've had eggplant and loved it.

The pan-roasted rock cod was exquisitely fresh, served with seasonal vegetables to highlight the sweetness of the cod. An impressive concentration of flavor into a typically mild-flavored fish.

This was nearly my favorite dish. I’ve rarely tasted lamb so rich and unctuous. The locally-raised lamb featured two different cuts for textural contrast: a roasted loin and a second portion (perhaps shoulder) that was so meltingly tender, I though it must have been slow-braised. Notice the color, resembling pork or veal more than the deep brown and red hues that I’m used to for lamb. Really amazing.

The prickly pear and lemon sorbets in yellow watermelon consommé was an ideal palate-cleansing dessert on what was becoming an increasingly warm day outside.

I love financiers. I used to think the financier at Bouchon Bakery was the best I’d ever tasted. I now have a new favorite, even if it is 600 miles away. Then I tasted it with the butternut squash ice cream… what an inspired pairing! The ice cream had only a hint of sweetness, focusing more on the intrinsic flavor of the squash. This made a perfect match as it paired magnificently with the buttery sweetness of the warm financier, which also had a gloriously crispy exterior.

Two hours of ingredient-driven bliss. The epitome of fresh, seasonal and local. One of the best “California” meals ever… in Baja. Sometimes a restaurant makes you appreciate ingredients in a new way; Laja is one of those places. I can’t wait to come back. And we will.

Laja Restaurante
Km. 83 Carretera Tecate-Ensenada
Valle de Guadalupe
Baja California

Other press on Laja:
New York Times
Los Angeles Times