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


  1. matcha9:02 PM

    Oi-shii!!! Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience and permitting me to *savor* the food without worrying about the calories. Actually, I take that back -- now I'm hungry and will probably gorge myself while unsuccessfully searching for something as satisfying as what I see here!

  2. Anonymous11:47 PM

    In my opinion, this restaurant is good but not nearly as fanastic as you portray it to be. The wine is fantastic but that's another subject. The service was indifferent (although two attractive young ladies at a table nearby received many visits and much attention from the wait staff, maitre d', and even someone who appeared to be the chef himself). I thought that strange that the chef did not stop by our nearby table inasmuch as we had told the waiter that my companion was a French-trained executive chef (and, as it turned out, a better chef anyhow). The food was good (albeit a bit too salty) but because the staff was not as attentive as it should have been while, at the same time, it fawned all over the girls at the neighboring table, the overall experience was somewhat disappointing. Meal for two with wine cost: $250 U.S.

  3. That's too bad about your experience. When we went during lunchtime, there were very few people in the restaurant, so the staff was incredibly accommodating and attentive. Given the quality of the food and ingredients, we thought it was worth every penny.

    Lunch for 2, splitting an individually selected wine pairing, was $120 US (before tip).