His Laja is a spacious, handsome restaurant that suggests a stylish osteria in Italy, with wooden floors, beam ceilings, fieldstone and whitewashed walls, and big, sturdy bare wooden tables. There are two four-course fixed-price menus, changing every week, or a seven-course combination. The raw materials are scrupulously fresh and local, and Téllez’s cooking is superb, expressed with the kind of confident simplicity you’d expect from a place like, say, Chez Panisse.
Having lunch at Laja late last year with Benito Molina and Solange Muris, good friends of Téllez’s, we ate: a straight-forward cream soup of leeks, turnips, carrots, and orange squash; a salad of wonderfully flavorful little greens and herbs with roasted beets; triangles of seared rare bluefin tuna with caramelized bits of roasted eggplant and sweet pepper; big squash ravioli panfried with cheese; meaty, sweet black cod fillets with an assortment of tiny sautéed vegetables (including the smallest okra I’ve ever seen); various cuts of roasted local baby lamb with more beets; and finally, sorbets of orange and anise-flavored pineapple over a pomegranate granita.
“Everything was here,” says Molina, as we finish dessert. “The vegetables, the wine, the olive oil, the best fish in the country… . We just had to see it.” Yet he confesses, he is having second thoughts about the Baja Mediterranean idea. “The truth is,” he says, “I’m not happy with the term now. Yes, we are in the Mexican Mediterranean—but I believe we have to dig deeper into our own roots, too. After all, what is more Mediterranean than the tomato? And the tomato came from here!”
Km. 83, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe (52-646-155-2556)
Riverol 122, Centro, Ensenada (52-646-175-7073)
Boulevard Teniente Azueta 187-b, Centro/Malecón (No phone, but reservations may be made through Manzanilla)
Boulevard Sanches Taboada 3110, Esq. Escuadrón No. 201, Local 1 y 2 Zona Rio, Tijuana (52-664-972-9935)
4346 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA (619-475-8627)
Boulevard Sanches Taboada 3151, Esq. Escuadrón No. 201 Zona Rio, Tijuana (52-664-686-6443)
Km. 73, Carretera Ensenada-Tecate, Valle de Guadalupe (No phone)◊
The first commercial winery in Mexico opened in 1597, far from Baja California, in the state of Coahuila. Baja got its first winery, Santo Tomás (still going strong), in 1888, but the Valle de Guadalupe, today the heart of the Mexican wine industry, was first planted with grapes commercially only in the 1930s—and most of the top small producers there today have been at it for fewer than a dozen years.
Hugo d’Acosta, a former winemaker for Santo Tomás, is the star of the valley. He makes an elegant unoaked Chardonnay and a silky blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon (the valley’s most expensive wine, commonly priced at $125 or more on local wine lists) under his own Casa de Piedra label, as well as an ever-changing assortment of other wines labeled Acrata, including a red that’s roughly half Grenache and half Carignan with a touch of Duriff. He also works as winemaker or consultant for several other wineries, including the American-owned Adobe Guadalupe, and has just launched another winery called Paralelo, from which he will release two different reds annually, both blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah, but in different proportions, from different vineyards, and aged in different kinds of oak.
Eccentricities like this are common in the valley—all kinds of stuff has been planted here. There are no rules, no sacred traditions. Thus, Antonio Badan, who is of Swiss extraction, makes a white from a patch of Chasselas (the principal wine grape of his homeland), along with an elegant blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Juan Carlos Bravo, the gym teacher at the local school, produces an Andalusian-style white from Palomino, and a luscious old-vines Carignan. Adobe Guadalupe’s rich rosé changes composition every year; the 2002 vintage contained Syrah, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Ugni Blanc, and Moscatel!
A few Baja wines are available in the U.S., mostly in the San Diego area but also elsewhere in California and in New York City. The larger producers, such as San Tomás, are best represented, but to sample most of the better boutique treasures, you’ll have to venture south of the border.
Casa Natalie (Km 103.3 Carretera Tijuana-Ensenada, 7263 El Sauzal de Rodríguez; reservations: 888-562-8254; from $252). Ensenada’s only luxury boutique hotel, a converted private villa on the sea with seven suites, all handsomely furnished, as well as a mini-spa and pool. Breakfast and dinner are available to guests only.
Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn (011-52-646-155-2094; from $168) has six modest but pleasant rooms at one of Baja’s best wineries. Home-style meals are served on request, to guests only.
Las Brisas del Valle (818-207-7130; from $175). A beautiful new Tuscan-style villa on a hilltop overlooking much of the valley, with six attractive guest rooms. Breakfast is served, as is a fixed-price dinner for guests, prepared by V. Omar Garcia Salazar, a young veteran of La Embotelladora Vieja in Ensenada. Eileen Gregory, proprietor of Las Brisas, describes both the hotel and his cooking as (groan) “Mexiterranean.”