September 22, 2017
The Valle de Guadalupe is unlike anyplace I’ve visited before. People compare it to the Napa Valley thirty years ago, but that’s not right. This is very much it’s own land – an arid dessert, filled with dusty, rutted, unpaved roads and no addresses that make any sense. A place where grapes struggle up out of the ground, and the stressed vegetables are filled with flavor. A place where the air is filled with the music of crowing roosters, and the jauntiest dogs you’ve ever seen gambol across the land. A place where those who scratch a living from this difficult earth band together in what seems to be a true spirit of solidarity.
It is also a place of extraordinary beauty. You bump down these dusty rock-filled roads and then suddenly turn off into an oasis of green plants and gardens. This is my view from my lovely room at the Villa del Valle, the hotel run by former Angelenos Phil and Elaine Gregory next to their Vena Cava winery. (which has been called “the hippest winery in Baja”.)
And then there is the food….
Javier Plascencia, who owns the wonderful Finca Altozano (home of this extraordinary restaurant built right into a tree)
says that there is a freedom here in Baja that untethers a chef accustomed to cooking in the United States. That – combined with the freshness of the food and the universally gracious service – gives every meal a joyous quality.
I fell in love with everything about Traslomita, an outdoor restaurant that raises its own vegetables and serves them in simple and imaginative ways.
Seafood here is very fine – the port of Ensenada is just across the mountains – and the Sea of Cortez has extremely cold water. Traslomita’s version of aquachile is remarkable; the chef, Sheyla Alvorado burns the vegetables to make the sauce.
She serves her ceviche in a giant clam shell…
And makes the most addictive taquitos from suckling pig cooked in a caja China.
Don’t miss the rice pudding; rich and textural, laced with guava, bits of cold and crunch and topped with caramel ice cream, it reminded me of the famous rice pudding at L’Ami Jean in Paris.
Many of the wineries and restaurants here were designed by architect Alejandro D’Acosta, who is one of the more inspiring people I’ve met. His architecture – he is famous for recycling – is idiosyncratic, changing remarkably from venue to venue. Sometimes funky, often spare and beautiful, it is always interesting. But in addition to creating beautiful spaces, he and his brother have created La Esquelita, a place where local grape growers come to learn winemaking, using the school’s equipment at every step along the way. This seems very much in the spirit of Guadalupe: people helping one another out. (Alejandro, in the blue shirt, stands before vats of crushed grapes. The green lines are refrigeration.)
One ofd D’Acosta’s most gorgeous buildings is the winery Bruma, which has just opened its own restaurant, Fauna. Chef David Castro is a local son, but he’s worked at Eleven Madison Park, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Cala – and his food is extraordinary.
To begin there were kumamoto oysters, blood clams, and these little seaweed chips with nopales
This is his version of aguachile – kanpachi hiding beneath the larges slice of daikon you’ve ever seen. There are also rumors of sea urchin hiding in here. A truly spectacular dish.
Hiding beneath that cauliflower foam (shades of the famous Robuchon cauliflower and caviar) is a wildly delicious mixture of sea urchin and bone marrow. Brilliant!
Rare duck , very flavorful, with a burnt cabbage mole.
And a beautiful dessert that was so delicious it was gone before I remembered to pull my camera out.
The friendliest meal we had was at La Cocina de Dona Esthela, a huge barn of a place that attracts a wide clientele for breakfast – which surely counts among the world’s greatest ways to start the day. Dona Esthela is justly famous for her lamb, but I was equally enamored of her machaca, served with lacy light Sonora style flour tortillas and irresistible refried beans.
Her gorditas are spectacular – these are filled with nopales
and of course her chilaquiles are superb.
Could this woman possibly serve you anything bad?
The most magical meal we had was the one Javier served us beneath that ancient tree at Finca Altozano. The meal was very long, but these were the highlights
geoduck (which apparently grows in the Sea of Cortez)
local sea urchin
grilled suckling pig
chilied beans mixed with hominy
Smokey, lemony, slightly spicy paella, cooked over the open fire, with local quail.
The food here in the Valle de Guadalupe is exciting, and the wines are fascinating. But things here are changing fast. Go now; thirty years from now you’ll be proud to say you knew the Valley when it was still young.
Categorised in: restaurants