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May 10, 2008 04:59 PM

Laja - Valle de Guadalupe

I thought - for about a nanosecond - about tagging these comments onto the existing thread about Laja being over-rated but decided that would serve absolutely no purpose. You see, it's not about Laja being overrated, underrated, good or bad. And it's not necessarily even about the food. It's really more about concept, context and integration than anything.

The concept is sustainable, the context products moving seamlessly around the V de G serving the need and purpose for which they were intended, the integration supports both the concept and the context allowing them to co-exist and ensuring that the process begins again season to season. The food, which, btw, was very good, is only one piece of the much larger valley puzzle.

On a visit to Paralelo winery we saw how natural resources, including local trash, were used to construct the new winery building. That the building had been built as a green project to blend into the environment as much as possible. Rather than striving for a possibly unattainable perfection, the architects and vintners embraced imperfection, used it as a jumping off point and learning tool. Each varietal is harvested, crushed on the roof and flowed by gravity into specific tanks for fermentation and then blended and casked according to need. Like the building in which they are made, the style and taste of the wines reflects the valley and the four elements of the soil, the heat, the wind, and the lack of water.

At Mogor Badan we saw 55 year old rescued vines standing side by side with organic gardens, free range chickens, sheep, cattle and olive trees saved from destruction. We also saw how the obsession of a hobbyist vintner became a sustainable, eco-friendly winery producing some beautifully lean but wonderfully full bodied field blended wines. Temperature control is managed by using locally quarried stone and an earthen cellar designed to retain warmth or cold as needed. In a project just now reaching completion, most other electrical energy needs will be met with solar panels. The tianguis organico from 11 am to 1 pm on Wednesday and Saturday sells garden produce which also finds it's way to markets in Ensenada and tables in D.F.

Our last stop was, of course, Laja. It's definitely NOT about typical or traditional Mexican food. It's also not about Mexican alta cocina in which typical Mexican products ingredients are transformed into highly interesting and creative non-traditional dishes. Laja is mostly about finding, supporting and, ultimately, showcasing the best ingredients that reflect the local climate, land, people, culture and cycle of life of the Valle de Guadalupe. Almost everything evolves from an organic, sustainably or humanely grown or raised source in the Valley or very close by.

Perhaps it was no accident, perhaps it was, that the first two dishes were foods that have been my sworn nemeses for years...oysters and tripe. I'll also be the first to admit that when that pristine plate rimmed with oysters and garnished barnacles was put before us even I had to swoon. Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I won't ever try it...and even like it. So it wasn't long before even I was popping the wonderfully fat, briny and incredibly suave oysters like everyone else. The migonette sauce served along side was hardly needed, but, somehow, it added a delicious nuance. The barnacles were new to everyone at the table and looked an awful lot like little miniature elephant trunks. Lightly blanched they were slightly chewy (not in a bad way), slightly sweet with a slight hint of the sea. They too were best unadorned, simplicity being the key. Both the oysters and barnacles sat atop a layer of sea beans, all of them paying a much deserved nod to the aqua culture less than 20 miles from the restaurant

The seafood was followed by probably one of my least favorite things of all time...tripas. These beef tripes were, however, to use an old cliche, literally meltingly tender. They had been stewed down to a pleasant and plush softness all the while developing a remarkable depth of flavor.

The tripe gave way to a fabulous garnet red, cold, beet soup. A few aromatics and a little apple were all that was needed to seal the deal and make me fall in love with this soup. Laja has it's own garden and grows much of it's own produce, I'm guessing the beets probably came out of it, but I'm much more sure that the salad that followed must have been in the ground shortly before service. The greens were about as tender and flavorful as any I've eaten and the local olive oil and citrus used to dress it were perfect. In fact, at least one person at our table was so taken with the greens that a second plate was ordered.

The soup and salad soon morphed into probably the best, or at least most memorable dish of the evening. There is a reason bacon and eggs is such a seductive combination and the musky aromas of pork and eggs arrived at the table before the plates. A gorgeously poached egg beckoned from atop a disk of pork jowl that combined nearly equal amounts of satin smooth pork fat and contrasting crisped pork meat and topped with a few wisps of lightly dressed field greens. The golden orange silky yolk, when mixed with the fat, pork and greens, was nothing short of velveteen and more than a little voluptuous in the mouth. I think this has to be flat out one of the sexiest combinations of food I've ever had the pleasure to eat. And it was a delightful and delectable pleasure, every single bite

Following that egg dish would be hard enough, let alone trying to top it, and to Chef's credit, he didn't try. The fish course of local rock cod that followed the egg was as soft and mellow as the previous dish had been bold and assertive. It provided the perfect pause and segue to the lamb, rosy coins of loin meat and crisper pieces of shoulder and neck. Tiny baby turnips had been turned and caramelized to resemble cloves of garlic, but they provided a nice sweet polarity to the heady meat. A trio of sorbets made from local fruits and herbs along with the airiest and most feather light pana cotta I think I've very had ended the meal. Locally pressed olive oil and a dense, chewy sourdough-style bread were on the table throughout the meal; they were as good as everything else we ate as well.

The Valle de Guadalupe is not Napa, Marlborough, Spain or France. Sure it's growing, evolving and moving in the direction of development, but for the moment, the development, thankfully, isn't moving at warp speed. Roads are not wide nor are they especially well marked or lit. Wineries are mostly open by appointment and accommodations in the valley are limited.

And not everyone is going to like Laja. The tacos and tequila crowd won't, and part of the Mexican alta cocina crowd wanting to be wowed with originality probably won't either. The socially conscious or thoughtful diner who understands the concept of local products served in the context of the local area will probably adore Laja, I did. Take an FCI trained chef, local Mexican ingredients, mix well with local character, wine and sensibilities and you've got the recipe for Laja and the V de G.

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  1. I know I shouldn't comment very much given that I haven't eaten there... I guess I hope some day Jair has enough confidence or desire to pay a nod to the Indigenous people of Baja and the wild, unique foods of the desert.... from a conceptual perspective... to me, that is how Laja would reach its apex.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Eat_Nopal me on this...Jair doesn't lack for either confidence or desire. One of the most interesting comments of the afternoon was made by one of the architects that helped design and build Paralelo. He was talking about the freedom to be themselves in the Valley and not have to be beholden to an idea, ideal or an image that may or may not be valid any longer. He simply said - "We don't have the same burden, we don't have to carry the "piramide" on our backs here like they do in other areas of Mexico".

      There is a palpable feeling in the Valley that they are creating in the here and now and not bound by what people think or want them to be. Northern Baja was never heavily populated by indigenous tribes. I think to say that Laja would reach it's pinnacle by adding indigenous food puts the piramide back on their shoulders and adds a burden and expectation they neither need nor want. What they are doing now is alive, vibrant and in balance and harmony with their environment. Balance and harmony with nature and the environment has always been a cornerstone for any native/indigenous culture. The harmony and balance currently in the V de G is modern, sensible and does pay homage to at least the last 500 years of history. Northern Baja does not have the depth or richness of some of the mainstream MesoAmerican cultures found on the mainland. Bringing the old to the new in this case may not add a tremendous amount. But who knows, at sometime there may be an interest in pursuing what once was, but for the present, I think they're perfectly content to pursue the here and now.

      1. re: DiningDiva

        I take my hat off to you Dining Diva you truly got what the Guadalupe Valley spirit is. Congratulations !!

    2. A general discussion about the cooking in this area has been split to the General Topics board:

      Please continue that discussion there, so that we can keep the focus on this board on great places to eat.

      Thank you.

      1. Yes, yes, yes! Couldn't agree more with this post. Dined at Laja 5/3/08, and basically split the 5 course tasting with my sweetie, so we got to taste everything on the menu. The pork jowl was truly amazing...sort of like what a salade Lyonnaise wants to be when it grows up. There was not a single dish that I would not re-order, and the balance of courses, as noted by DiningDiva, was terrific. Service was lovely, and Jair matched glasses of really interesting wines with each of our courses...a delight. Also, I have to say that the smoky Oaxacan mescal (!) at the end of our meal was a revelation. We love the valley, and have been going there for several years for tasting and just hanging out. Now I can't imagine going without trying to have at least one meal at Laja...

        1. Re: Tripe. Haven't you ever had menudo? It's really no big deal to make melt-in-your-mouth tripe. Most street vendors selling from carts in Ensenada can do it.

          And where did the oysters come from and what kind of oysters were they?

          And is every member of this board on a first name basis with the owner/chef of Laja? The times we've been there, if the restaurant isn't busy (and it usuually isn't), he makes a brief appearance at the restaurant's tables to ask if diners enjoyed their meals, etc. This is what one expects from a good restaurant.

          And the roads are, for the most part, not wide in Napa (beyond Yountville) and in most of the interesting regions (wine and food) in Spain and France. What's your point? And, in fact, the Valle de Guadalupe Wine Road is now extremely well marked, showing turnoffs to restaurants, wineries, and B&Bs. A few years ago, if driving at night, one had to look carefully for the 83 km road sign to find the turnoff to Laja. Now there are several large signs. And there is excellent signage to other "roadside attractions" off Hwy 3.

          Look here for a great map:

          Or, before enlargement, here:

          And, BTW, this government website is quite good.

          And the "taco and tequila crowd" won't like most "ethnic" restaurants in the area (such as El Taco de Huitzilopochtli) any better than they would like the "upscale" restaurants such as Laja or La Manzanilla or Capricho's (and is 623 back in business yet?).

          1. I just moved to Ensenada, next door to the wine country in Baja California and am suffering from a sensory overload. I haven't been to Laja or Manzanillo yet, but if they are as good as the local fare, I am in for a culenary orgazm. I love this place after only living here for a month. I am having an adobe house build by "La Bufadora" with a view that, in any part of California would cost 100 times what I could afford (make that 100 times 10) and have been having so much fun just visiting the local restaurants and fish taco stands that I can't stand it. EVERYTHING I HAVE TRIED SO FAR HAS BEEN FABULOUS (except for the "churros" or deep fried snake of a batter filled with cajeta - a very sweet milk something or other) that was just too sweet for my taste which runs more to the salty than to the sweet. I plan to go to Laja and Manzanillo as soon as I settle down and get a couple of social security checks under my belt. WHAT A PLACE ENSENADA IS!!

            1 Reply
            1. re: sugarpine54

              Manzanilla, La Guerrerense, and Muelle Tres, my friend. They will become part of your routine.