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Laja - Baja California Norte

The Valle de Guadalupe is close to paradise. That valley has this ability to touch every one of your senses from the oddly unnatural silence in the air being away from the urban drone, the scent of desert plants and flowers blooming, the warm sun on our skin, to the taste of wine cultivated exclusively there. Though no doubt more remarkable were the people we met whom without knowing us treated us with such kindness and passion I have a closer idea of what being human is.

I do not think I will ever be able to thank Jay and DD for including me on this trip - an amazing day is a poor way to describe it sufficiently. Thousand thanks goes out to Pat and Candice for also sharing the day with me - its way too easy to have such a fantastic time with like-minded, wonderful individuals as you all.

We met with Jair at his restaurant and head over to Parellelo, a winery whose architecture expressed a Mexican sensibility and had every functional and environmental aspect was carefully incorporated into its being. We were given a tour and sampled 2 wines.

West to El Mogor - a small winery run by a enterprising man who outgrew a hobby for making wine, where we sampled a swiss grape wine and a annual field blend in the cool underground wine cellar.

Then it was Laja.

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  1. I don't think I can talk about Laja without talking about Jair, her chef & owner. Being around the guy just makes you want to smile and have a good time. He has an aura of happiness and passion to him thats is difficult not to succumb to. You start to understand what it requires to express and construct such beauty through his food.

    There are more impressionate, eventful days in my life but right now I can only pull up two, being born and spending and evening at Laja. Dining here was the pinnacle of gastronomic experiences in my life and the pass up an experience here would be a unforgivable folly.

    >>First Course
    *Oysters on the half shell and Percebes on a bed of Sea Beans*
    This was tasting the port of Ensenada. Oysters were juicy and vivid. The Percebes however were a new experience in flavor and texture. Damn, who would of thought barnacles that were flash boiled could be so delicious and ultimate essence of the sea [in this sense much like sea urchin]?

    >>2nd Course
    *Tripe in a French style*
    Exciting dish. The tripe could be mistaken for butter in a clove and pepper nuanced gravy. It arrived in a covered ceramic piece that flooded the room upon revealing with its appetite inducing aroma. The bread now served a dual service - vehicle for the olive oil that makes you sad to return to the US and getting every last bit of that gravy.

    >>3rd course
    *Beet soup*
    Hmmm...antithesis to cloyingly sweet version I have had. Rustic in that it had an earthy component to balance any sweetness. Tasted of tierra. Perfect in its succession of the rich tripe.

    >>4th Course
    *Baby green salad with mandarin orange slices*
    Please go eat a salad at Laja. I am confounded - the tenderness of the greens the lifting citrus and local olive oil vinegarette. Yes, the salad was one of the most eye opening courses of the entire meal. If you are having trouble understanding the localtarian movement, I offer you this salad in consideration.

    >>5th Course
    * Greens and Poached egg topped round of Pork Jowl*
    I can't really talk about this dish. Ok, I will say it was my favorite course of the entire evening. Not worthy of my words.

    >> 6th Course
    * Rockfish with spinach a [yellow cream] and a pig feet escabeche element*
    So close to beating the previous. The skin of the rock fish was a golden brown chicharron of pescado, flesh buttery moist, and the smoky deepness lend by the pig feet dice eshcabeche sauce is beyond comprehension in how much it added to this fish sauce. At this point I started to hate Jair for changing my life forever. :^)

    >> 7th course
    * Goat cheese Raviolis*
    Fresh pasta, my God so delicate and beautiful in its simplicity.

    >> 8th Course
    * Local Lamb, 2 styles*
    A perfectly med rare grilled tenderloin and a braised shoulder. An ode to textural contrasts in gastronomie if there ever was one. The braised shoulder was sweet, rich and eye rolling. 3rd favorite dish

    >>9th Course
    *Trio of sorbets with Candied orange rind*
    The fragrance of the orange rind and taste of the lavender sorbet are etched into my memory.

    >>10th Course
    * Local cows milk cheese with almonds and honey*
    Josh - regarding the cheese - you stand corrected

    >>11th course
    * Panna Cotta with strawberry sauce*
    The milk of that panna cotta was a epiphany - was I tasting milk for the first time? The emotions of happiness and sadness were my reaction to this. What was going on?I don't believe and have trouble believing a dessert has ever affected me so.

    7 Replies
    1. re: kare_raisu

      Sounds Amazing... up & till this menu I have not found Laja's dish descriptions to be that compelling... but these dishes do sound like they are taking their own route and not just whipping up localitarian versions of dishes in vogue at the world's top restaurants.

      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        Like Alex, for me Laja was also a completely life-changing food experience. I'm impressed though, I was much more at a loss for words than he is. I can still remember the nuttiness of the local pork, the goat cheese-like flavor of the butter, the intense flavor of the olive oil, the meltingly tender persimmons topping the salad, and the mezcal-hibiscus-guava punch we had after they closed. I need to get back down there one of these days.

        1. re: Josh

          Meant to write Josh is correct about the cheeses!

        2. re: Eat_Nopal

          They definitely use what is available rather than following fashion. We also had a very good meal there - but I think the environment conspired against us. It was so dark where we sat, (outside because the din inside was utterly deafening) that we couldn't see the food. Still, one of my favorite dishes - anywhere - was the lamb we were served. I'd like to go back sometime during the day and tour the fields, etc. I'd also make advance arrangements to go to some of the wineries, they aren't all open at all hours the way we're used to up here.

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            I think not being compelled by menu descriptions from this place is a reaction I def. would have shared -especially living in Sonoma county. But my God - from a Quality of ingredient standpoint - this place cannot be beat. I have not been to the French Laundry but there is not a doubt in my mind that this is its equal in Mexico. Beyond conventions of nationality of cuisine we were tasting the Valle de Guadalupe, cheese, milk, wine, herbs, pork, lamb, fish, fruit, salad - all from that little paradise.

            Jair pays tribute to what he has by treating them with a flawless hand. I cannot find one thing wrong with the meal there.

            You must go

          2. re: kare_raisu

            We were there on Thursday evening for an early dinner in my birthday celebration rotation. This is the first time we have had the pleasure of experiencing Laja and it certainly won't be the last. We had many of the same dishes that you enjoyed and experienced equal swooning in happiness, therefore there is not much that I can add to expand to your eloquent review or argue in favor of the finer points of the restaurant that DD has made on the other thread here. I will say that Chef pointed out to us a couple of times that the important message of the food in this beautiful restaurant is fresh and SIMPLE. It is all in the beauty of the simplicity, he kept pointing out. A fairly "simple" message and understanding of what he strives for.

            We began with the pork jowl and egg dish. Amazing. I want to experience that about every other day of my life. Followed by the arugula salad to cut the rich, creaminess of the first dish. Beautiful, peppery arugula dressed simply in the fruity, local olive oil and a slight bitter sweet symphony of preserved lemon. Mission accomplished! Perfection.

            My husband loved the lamb and I enjoyed the rockfish. The sauce was actually "creamy leek", a beautiful flavor remincent of vichy soup. It was the most amazing contrast of textures, from the crispy skin to the pure butter of flesh. The most amazing fish preparation I have ever enjoyed. Your words more inspiring than anything I can really think of.

            The whisper of orange essence in the delicate panna cotta with sweet strawberry soup was a revelation.

            We got there early, giving ourselves plenty of time to dine at a leisurely pace and watch the light and reflection of the beautiful restaurant change with the dwindling minutes of the evening. We were rewarded even further by the beautiful sunset drive up the coast towards our evening accomodations. We are still talking about the beautiful, special experience. Thanks to all of the previous posters about Laja that inspired us to make the journey, and thanks to this thread for extending the memory and giving us reflection on even more revelations post-dining-orgasm.

            1. re: kare_raisu

              Foodiechick --
              Yes, Yes, Yes!
              Fresh and simple is Laja. Each course challenged me to question what I have been putting in my body all my life. The industrialized food producing machine is wasting away our souls. Laja is my personal evidence of that.

              My God, I will never forget that panna cotta - unpasturized, valley fresh milk. What are we doing to nature to leach it of flavors that I finally become cognizant of? Its a sin.

              I agree with all my heart your statements about all the dishes.

              Many, many thanks for sharing your experience - reading it made me so happy.

            2. Here are some pictures by Gayla:
              beet soup, salad, raviolis, and poached egg with pork jowl

              More will be coming

              1. Lamb, sorbets and panna cotta

                1 Reply
                1. re: kare_raisu

                  I have to say I like the unpretentious, minimalist presentations.

                2. Hey k_r, how about a few Place links!
                  If needed, Google now lets you add them there as well.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: DiveFan


                    km 83, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada
                    Valley de Guadalupe
                    Baja, CA

                  2. Bravo, Alex. I must say having dinner with you at Laja was almost as amazing as the food itself. I have rarely experienced anyone as overwhelmed and enjoying it as much as you were. You are high on the A list of preferred guests. I'm not as talented at describing the food as my companions, Gayla, Alex and Candace but this was a road trip par excellence. From beginning to end I likened it to a great book that I didn't want to end. Thank you, first of all to Jay for inviting me and btw, he's a great chauffeur. Nice ride. Beautiful weather, wonderful cultured and creative people, fine conversation and good wine and food. KR forgot to mention that the architect of Parelleo and his lovely wife(also an architect) joined us for dinner and provided the wines for a few of the courses. The meal has been rightfully praised. Thanks to Nopal for noticing the modest but appealing presentation..the accent was on the food, not over the top display but the aromas enticed us before we even saw the plates. May I add that we had much to eat, left nothing on the plates, and none of us were uncomfortably full but all very satisfied. The chef joined the table after dinner and was as witty and charming at entertaining us as he was at preparing that wonderful food. This was a remarkable and memorable experience. Of course I'm going back , as often as I can, and of course I will try and convince everyone I know to try it for themselves.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: P Macias

                      Ah yes, Claudia and Alejandro my new adoptive parents! She was a way cool woman- I loved joking around with her in Spanish. Who knows maybe I will take them up on their offer of Oaxaca for Day of the dead.

                      I didnt want yesterday to end either. I loved sitting next you Pat and reveling in its magnificence.

                      I really wanted those churros from the vendor while we were waiting in line at San Ysidro but I was still pleasantly full!

                      1. re: kare_raisu

                        Alex, if you get the opportunity to go to DoD in Oax, take it in a heart beat. Do NOT hesitate. Volaris flies TIA - OX non-stop, you just have to watch that the taxes on the special fares don't escalate the total cost of the ticket too much.

                    2. Wow KR that sounds amazing, I was In Baja all weekend and tried so many new things but nothing compared to the level of Laja. I'm always looking for places in Baja, thanks so much for sharing, that place sounds amazing.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Masa Assassin

                        MA, please, please share some reports with us on this board about places you visited!

                      2. Kare, thanks so much! now I'm tempted to brave the frontera (last year waited 4 hours to cross). I just have 2 questions: how much for 11 courses, and how long was the wait to cross? (time/ day?). Thanks again.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: paso_gurl_100

                          I believe its 690 pesos for the 5 course. The wait coming back on a friday night was only 40min - you can munch on some churros and listen to cumbia.

                          Brave the frontera its worth it! I cant wait to get back!

                          1. re: paso_gurl_100

                            The tasting menu comes in either 4 course or 8 course, and then you can add options (i.e., tripe, oysters, cheese) a la carte. I forget the exact prices and they're not on the website any more, but I think it's around $50ish (USD) for the 4 course and $75ish for the 8 course.

                            If I eat modestly, with wine, tax and tip I generally spend around 80 USD per person; if I feast extravagantly more like 125-150. This is also how much I spend at San Diego fine-dining restaurants, so if you typically spend a different amount at SD fine-dining places, you might want to adjust my numbers accordingly..

                          2. I was talking to the wine director at Jonathans today and he was telling me how difficult it has become to Guadalupe Valley wines across the border lately. After our great dinner at Laja, and the yummy wine we enjoyed with it, I was ready to be more aggressive in seeking them out here in SD. Apparently NAFTA was supposed to ease the restrictions but only added more red tape (they only had a couple of bottles of Santo Thomas and one Cetto Petite Syrah). On another note, he asked if we had tried the rabbit at LAJA. When I innocently replied that I had not seen it on the menu he responded this way: "You have to call ahead to order it," *WINK* "so they can go out and catch it." *WINK, WINK*

                            1. Here are some of my late pictures of the day:

                              The last 2 are the oyster/percebes and tripe dish

                                1. re: kare_raisu

                                  great photos KR, we missed the oysters and tripe. Husband would have loved the tripe, that is pushing my limits a bit (but then he also has enjoyed angulas (?sp) in Tijuana - I draw the line at crickets and ants.) Are you in for the newly forming Laja date?

                                  1. re: foodiechick

                                    I dont think I am able to miss an oppty to get back there.....so yes!

                                    If you ever want to try crickets with me at fiesta oaxaquena in escondido let me know!

                                  2. re: kare_raisu

                                    I especially like the footsteps in the dust of the winery!

                                    1. re: foodiechick

                                      Ha, looks like that! But thats actually the adobe wall with impressions pf nopal cactus paddles 'flying'

                                      1. re: kare_raisu

                                        Second look in the morning light (and without the impediment of the wine I drank with dinner last night)....even more amazing pic.

                                        1. re: foodiechick

                                          Alex.... I think you are really, really, really going to like the Tequila region when you visit next week? You would also like the highlands as well.