Recipes for restaurants

The Very Beautiful Valle de Guadalupe

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.

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A Little Taste of Tijuana

September 21, 2017

This is my overwhelming image of Baja California: smiling, generous and very relaxed. Also, I must say, very delicious.

That beautiful woman is at Marisco’s Ruben, in Tijuana, just over the border.  Fantastic aguachiles, made to order with raw shrimp, scallops ….

or callo de acha – a scallop that is the adductor muscle of a giant clam (here they are in the fish market in Ensenada).


You will not want to miss chocolate clams which are the most delicious clams I know – crisper than the ordinary sort – and which sadly never make their way across the border.

And while we’re on the subject of clams, an important bit of information.  Should you need to use the restroom, you will need to understand the signage.

This is the lady’s room.

This means men.

In Tijuana I also recommend the tacos here at Fitos.  They’re quickly made, the tacos dipped into the sauce, crisped, then filled with the most wonderful birria of beef.  (I would have liked to try the tripe, but sadly they were out.)

In Ensenada, in addition to visiting the fish market (if only to see the display of shrimp)

You will want to stop in at Tacos Fenix.

A true example of the law of the line: although there’s a similar stand across the street where there’s no wait, the line at Fenix is always long. Join it.

Tomorrow: a visit to one of the most enchanting places in the world, the Valle de Guadalupe where, among other things, you can dine beneath the shade of a century-old oak tree.

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Italy, Continued

August 10, 2017

Just outside Bologna, in the tiny town of Savigno, is a terrific little restaurant called Amerigo dal 1934.  The town itself is quaint and peaceful; wandering down the streets, peering into bakeries and butcher shops,  you know its citizens eat very well.

They certainly do. The trattoria has been serving its citizens since 1934, and it proudly lists the date each item went onto the menu. We, it turned out, are pure traditionalists; just about every dish we ordered has been on the menu since the very start.

We began our meal with a plate of traditional cured meats,

pickled vegetables (there’s a little shop attached to the restaurant, where they sell their own products),

and this fantastic tongue salad, the meat soft, the herbs fragrant.

This might have been my favorite dish of the evening, tortelli with prosciutto di Mora and parmesan cream

And even on a scalding hot night, these tiny tortellini in brodo were superb.

This was our dessert – although it’s actually intended as an antipasto – an Italian ice cream sandwich. Parmesan gelato is splashed with balsamic and served on the local tigelle bread.


Another night we were on lovely Lake Trasimeno, looking for seafood. It’s difficult to find salt water fish in this land-locked area of Italy, but we found it at Il Fischio del Merlo in Passignano sul Trasimeno.

Seafood salad.

Beautifully fried fish

One of the stranger dishes I’ve encountered (and one the restaurant is very proud of): risotto cooked in sweet wine, with raw shrimp cooked simply by the heat of the risotto.

And a very beautiful orata, served curled beneath its own bones.

If you’re looking for a different kind of menu in Umbria – one that departs from the usual meat-centric dishes along with a little pasta – this is a very good choice.  A lovely ambiance and extremely pleasant service.

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Osteria Francescana, at Last!

August 6, 2017

This is Massimo Bottura.  If you’re reading this, you probably know that his small restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana,  has three Michelin stars and was voted the best restaurant in the world on the Pellegrino scale.  You might also know that he’s a chef with an extremely interesting mind and a huge heart, who is deeply involved with feeding the hungry of the world.

I’ve known (and admired) both Massimo and his elegant American wife Lara Gilmore for a while now, but somehow I’ve never made it to Modena. Until yesterday.

Leave it to me to go to a four hour lunch on a day of such intense heat the newspaper headlines all read “Dangerous even for the animals.”  (For the record, it hit 107 degrees.)  And this is not, I might mention, a restaurant you drive to; Modena is an ancient city and cars are not allowed inside the city walls (unless you live there).  So we arrived parched and almost dizzy with heat.

Within seconds, we’d forgotten everything but the pure pleasure of listening to Massimo and Lara discuss their various projects (a refettorio in London, another in Burkina Faso and a gelateria in a refugee camp in Greece) – and the meal they were about to serve us.

Blown away. That’s my instant review.  If you want more, keep reading.

These were just the tiny starting amuses bouches:  This first is called, in homage to Magritte, “ceci n’est pas une sardine.”

But of course, it is, at least partly, a sardine sandwich… all crunch, crackle and salt.

Corn stuffed with ceviche.  Except, the corn is actually meringue, so you eat it first with shock, and then delight.  “To be a cook,” says Massimo, “you have to travel. Taste. Remember.”

There were six or seven other tiny tastes – all deeply textured, each a single, powerful bite that resonated in your mind. And then the show really began with Massimo’s version of insalata di mare.

Hidden inside the tiny head of lettuce were more leaves; biting in you discovered that each was a crisp little cracker made of a traditional dish like impepata di cozze (peppered mussels).  Tender little bits of seafood were tucked between the layers of cracker, hidden away to make each bite a new delight.

Another surprise: instead of wine, we drank a Japanese limoncello with this: Tsuruume Yuzu. Best version I’ve ever encountered.

Perhaps the most traditional dish of the day – cool spaghetti cooked like risotto. The pasta itself has been transformed until it is no longer a mere vehicle for sauce. In the cooking each strand has absorbed the liquid, becoming one with the sauce and forcing you to experience pasta in a whole new way.

Fontana,” says Massimo – who obviously has great affection for the next dish, “was cutting and Burri was burning. ”  (He is talking about the two greatest artists of the arte povera movement of the fifties and sixties.) ” I had it in mind to make sole, and I thought about both of them.  So I made edible paper out of dehydrated sea water, and then burned it….”  This result is this explosion of whiteness.

It is even more delicious than it looks.  So delicious that a Japanese artist insisted on creating the perfect plate.  This is the result.

I regret to tell you that I liked the eel course that arrived next so much that I’d inhaled it before giving it a  chance to pose for its portrait. The slim filet of eel was surrounded by a cool green puddle of concentrated apple on one side and a little beige pool of gently burnt polenta on the other; a pile of ashes huddled at the bottom of the eel.  “In my idea,” said Massimo, “it is the story of the Este family who in 1594 moved the capital from Ferrara to Modena.” A wild animal is surrounded by all the foods of the region – but they’ve been moved, manipulated, transformed.  The sweet tart concentrated apple cut through the richness of the fish while the slight graininess of  polenta anchored it to the earth and the bitter char of the burnt vegetables hovered above like an angry angel.

Massimo is back, gesturing with his hands as he tells us how he conceived the next dish.  “My mind is mixing Piero della Francesca – beautiful gold leaves – and Pistoletto seven hundred years later.  But I’m also thinking of stainless steel in the sixties, and how people use tin foil.”

Okay – fine explanation – but who else would think that and serve this?

Hidden beneath that edible gold foil is the most extraordinary melange: minuscule rounds of turned potatoes intertwined with sweet, briny, tiny oysters swimming in a deep beurre blanc. It becomes a dance of textures as the softness of the oysters twirl up against the crispness of the potato.

This next dish has a completely different artist godfather. This time it is Warhol and his camouflage.

“I put together green and black risotto, but then I thought what is missing?”  Massimo muses.  “We have the sea and the flatland, but where are the tawny hills?

Think of this as an edible landscape – all the elements of the earth turned into three risottos. “Eat them all at once!” Massimo cries. How boring it will be, from now on, to eat a single risotto on its own.

We’d been drinking wine – cool Trebiannos, a Provencal rose, even a sauternes for the rich oyster dish  – but with the risotto another surprise appears: an herbal drink with a serious kick.  This is what I thought: in this bitterness, delight.

Massimo calls his next little masterpiece  “Autumn in New York, Spring in Kyoto, Summer in Modena.”

In trying to express the place where he is – right this moment – Massimo strolls through farmers markets of the world, meeting chefs, reveling in produce, living in the moment.  And somehow this dish – intense tomatoes, almost burnt eggplants, a dashi made of local vegetables, evolves.

Modena is a city devoted to tortellini.  The tiny, excruciatingly difficult to construct little dumplings are everywhere.  Massimo fills his with bone marrow, mortadella and veal before bathing them in a rich parmesan cream.  “I’m having a contest with David Chang,” he exults, “dumpling versus tortellini.  I won’t say who won.”  He chuckles wickedly. And no wonder: it is hard to imagine anything more delicious than this.

The main course, perhaps most playful of all, is a duck that flies across the world, stopping along the journey to forage for food. So many flavors represented here – a touch of corn, a bit of horseradish, a hint of ginger, a whisper of rose.  The leg is deconstructed and made into a meatball.

Cherry season in Modena. Here are three different kinds ranging from sweet to sour, along with ricotta cheese. Cherry pie is very jealous.

Massimo makes popcorn!

And finally, Italy’s most famous dessert turned into a souffle.  Tiramisu, reconsidered, reconstructed, reinvented.  So good.

The final flavor is the best version of chocolate covered cherries the world has ever known.  Each bite detonates in your mouth, delivering a burst of fresh, tart cherry juice.  The complex flavor resonates on and on, like a bell that you feel to the bottom of your toes, even when you are back outside in the blazing sun, winding your way through the ancient streets of this beautiful city.

It’s been quite a journey.

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Italy, Part 2, Above Bologna

August 3, 2017

It’s hot. So hot. The thermometer hit 107 today as we wended our way into the hills above Bologna. How would we have found  the lovely little Antica Trattoria Belletti without electronic maps?  At one point the calm voice took us up a narrow dirt lane, no wider than a goat path.  But then suddenly she was saying, “Turn right and your destination will be on the right.”

And there it was, a stone building with walls so thick it was cool and dark inside. Suddenly, despite the heat, we were hungry.

These appeared first, crescentine fritte (the fat fried puffs) and tigelle (the pretty disks), which were still warm, with the “mountain plate” of meats and vegetables:

That alone is worth the trip.  The cheese – squacqerone in local dialect – is soft and drippy and completely wonderful, and the garlicky bits of pork cooked in their own fat utterly irresistible.

The vegetables – in oil – are home-pickled.  The waitress brought out the jar so we could see it.


Fried polenta – all corn and crispness – to dip into more of that soft, fresh, dripping cheese.

This is’t fancy food, but it is very good.  Afterward there were handmade pastas: this green version, with sausage and porcini, was my favorite.

And finally, a plate of local mountain cheeses, served with the trattoria’s own jams and honeys.

It’s good to know that here in Italy the small places still survive off the beaten path. Good to know that you can walk in to find simple fare served with love and pride.

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