My Birthday in Baja

Since my wonderful friend Patti and I checked out Finca La Divina in Valle de Guadalupe last year, I knew I had make it mine . . . even if for just one night. And so it was for a memorable Saturday as part of my birthday celebration! Bob’s sisters and significant others accepted my invitation, so we rocked the “whole house.” La Divina is a lovely venue that may serve as the model for my eventual Baja home.

Welcome to Finca La Divina!

The great room lives up to its name.

The pool and jacuzzi were not heated, however.

Put me in a sheepskin-covered chair in front of the La Divina fireplace, and I may never leave! But just up the hill is Drew Deckman’s relatively new Conchas de Piedra, with fantastic oysters, clams & sparkling wine from Casa de Piedra.

We lucked into a tasting at Lechuza, which was SO memorable (we have stories about trying to get into Lechuza in the past!) Spent HOURS under the eaves of Lechuza, dodging the drizzle, sipping their wonderful wines, nibbling cheese and savoring our conversations with Ray, Kristin & Patty, eventually visiting the cava and sampling their fine Nebbiolo. (We were stunned and saddened to hear that Lechuza owner and patriarch Ray Magnussen passed away suddenly last weekend. Our hearts go out to his familia, and the entire Valle; we will make the pilgrimage to Deckman’s this week to attend the celebration of Ray’s life.)

The late, great Ray Magnussen was the consummate host at Lechuza.

Team! In the Lechuza cava.

We couldn’t leave without buying bottles of Lechuza’s Amantes, cookbooks and more.

We also dropped in on Sol y Barro (which has expanded considerably since we first visited five years ago), chatting briefly with owner and winemaker Aime Desponds and marveling at the cob structures.

Inside the cob tasting room at Sol y Barro.

After relaxing & regrouping at La Divina, we capped off the day with a fantastic dinner at Malva, one of my VERY favorite Valle restaurants.

Malva’s pickled rabbit tostada.

Delicious octopus.

Lamb of Malva.

Sunday morning dawned clear and sunny; after a substantial breakfast of chilaquilies con huevos at La Divina, we worked our way around the Valle, stopping at Clos de Tres Cantos, Quinta Monastario (had to stock up on Viniphera spa products!) and a fave, Bodegas F. Rubio, where we purchased a bottle of Montepulciano. (NOTE: If you’re in the Valle on your birthday, don’t hesitate to promote it; you’ll likely get free tastings!)

Breakfast at Finca La Divina.

Our hostess at Clos de Tres Cantos.

Enjoying Bodegas F. Rubio.

We caught up with familia again in Ensenada for almejas gratinadas and pescado sarandeado at the venerable and ever-popular Mariscos Bahia de Ensenadapacked with locals on a late Seafood Sunday afternoon. After our first-ever stay at the Hotel San Nicolas, we hit the road early Monday, and thanks to Sentri, crossed shortly after 9 am, wrapping up a very tasty and memorable Baja birthday celebration!

You know? This simple pescado sarandeado may have been my favorite dish of the trip.

A Tale of Four Food Fests: Part IV

Does summer always save the best for last? Sabor de Baja was an incredible finale to last summer’s flurry of fun Baja culinary fests. Sabor is a true labor of love by the husband-and-wife team behind San Antonio del Mar’s Mi Casa Supper Club, Chef Bo Bendana and Dennis Sein. The fourth annual must-wear-white Sabor was held the last Wednesday evening of August in the beachfront gardens of the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Although a mid-week event can be a bit challenging for those of us who have day jobs stateside, Sabor sells out every year. And, rightly it should! Bo and Dennis recruited thoughtful judges (this year including Jorge Meraz, host of KPBS’ Crossing South and MasterChef winner Claudia Sandoval) who participated in a blind tasting of not only great dishes, but also considered how they pair with Baja vinos and cervezas. It’s a well-organized event with great signage and opportunities to chat with chefs and winery reps. We loved the variety of dishes, wines and cervezas offered to guests. First prize went to Ensenada’s Mantou Gastropub, for their superb duck carpaccio (smoked with wood vines and mesquite) with goat cheese, pearl apricots and microgreens, paired with Corona del Valle Sauvignon Blanc. Second place went to Fuego Cocina del Valle, for their smoky pork paired with a sublime red from Vinicola Montano Benson. The judges gave the third place prize to Valle de Guadalupe’s Sanvil for their Mexico-meets-India mash-up: curried chicken liver sopes paired with cerveza from Compass Ales Brewery; and the People’s Choice prize went to Chabert’s at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, for their filet mignon with mushrooms, wine foam and sweet potato, paired with a 2013 Syrah by Claudius Vina y Bodega. We also loved Navio’s tuna with chile, grapefruit, watermelon, jicama and salsa de chapulines, paired with a 2014 Tintillo from Legado Sais; Mixtura’s oysters with mignonette and apple, paired with wine from Relieve; and Oryx Capital’s tomato and persian cucumber dish with mescal foam, paired with Cerveceria Ramuri beer. We were also ecstatic that longtime friend Jo Ann Knox Martino was pouring her delicious Cava Vintango Nebbiolo. Sabor was one of – if not THE – best Baja culinary event of 2016! It’s a fantastic way to get to know some of Baja’s most innovative eateries, wineries and breweries. Mark your calendars for August 30 (just over seven months away) and get your tickets early for Sabor de Baja 2017!

Watch a very cool video recapping Sabor 2016 by Once Upon A Time in Rosarito’s Scot Richardson:

Gracias por photos by Bob Gove. Sorry this post is so tardy; a fun holiday stay in Puerto Rico got in the way! Look for previews of the best 2017 Baja food fests soon.

Girls’ Weekend in the Valle: A Trilogy (Part III)

After our tasting at Mogor Badan, we stopped by Deckman’s to put in our dinner reservation. Returning after our visits to 3 Mujeres, Viñas de Garza, Finca Altozano & La Esperanza, the sun was slipping behind the hills. Deckman’s is certainly the lowest key of the “high” cuisine restaurants I’ve visited in the Valle. Its intimacy makes Finca Altozano and La Esperanza seem rather large and, in comparison, somewhat commercial.

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Deckmans 2

Deckman’s is nestled under pine trees; the dining area’s walls are hay bales; its wooden tables rest upon a carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles. We felt fortunate that Chef Drew himself was in the house, diligently slaving over the firewood-fueled grill that is the restaurant’s centerpiece. Since he is a Michelin-starred chef, we HAD to go with the five-course tasting menu, which worked out to a very reasonable $45. We began with a fish sope (compliments of the casa), continued with delicious oysters mignonette, clam salpicon, quail with delicate mole and black beans, very moist and tender lobina (fish) and a decadent dessert. All the dishes were so beautifully presented!  A very memorable meal; after paying our tab, we paid our respects to Chef Drew.

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Sunday morning was our last at Casa Mayoral. We walked down to get a closer look at the ostriches (como se dice “ostrich” en español? Avestruz – thank you Eduardo Mayoral!) in a large pen on their neighbor’s property. From time to time the big birds would preen and bellow – quite interesting!

Ostrich crop

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After another great breakfast – this time, huevos a la mexicana – we packed up to journey out of the Valle. When we stopped in to say goodbye to Eduardo, we met Ismene Venegas, the chef at El Pintar de 3 Mujeres, which was closed for the winter. We look forward to sampling her cuisine on a future Valle visit!

Adios, Casa Mayoral! But we weren’t done eating and drinking our way through the Valle. We checked out the nearby Clos de Tres Cantos, which is artsy (love the cement easy chairs) yet casually elegant. But their wines? For us at least, not terribly memorable. Maybe we need to make a second visit . . .

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Speaking of low-key, we sought – and eventually found – Lechuza. I loved their wines I’d sampled at events, but had never visited their winery. Alas – they were closed! Hopefully you can catch them at KM 82.5. But don’t expect a lot of signage to help you find ’em!

Heading west, we stopped to peek at Finca La Divina on the outskirts of San Antonio de las Minas. This three-bedroom B&B opened about a year ago by fave Baja chef, Javier Plasciencia. Rita and her husband, from Mission Valley, were the only guests, and she encouraged us to snoop around. One look at La Finca’s great room – a lovely chef’s kitchen at one end, fireplace with sheepskin-strewn chairs clustered about in the middle, a bar well-stocked with Baja wines at the other end and cool art sprinkled in between – made me want to move in!

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The pool, jacuzzi and groovy chairs outside aren’t bad, either. According to Rita, stays at La Finca include breakfast whipped up by the onsite caretaker/manager, and guests can order food from Plasciencia’s Finca Altozano to be delivered! What a wonderful refuge right outside San Antonio, which felt like a bustling city after two bucolic days deeper in the Valle.

We found our way to Vinícola Retorno, which has to get the award for the funkiest winery we visited. But their wines: great! We enjoyed chatting with our young hosts and would have purchased a bottle, but were already at our limit for taking back to the U.S. We also stopped at Los Globos, the venerable cheese and gourmet goodies shop in San Antonio; we sampled a few and bought a big slice of their cheese with a crust of rosemary and other herbs. It’s called “greñudo,” which loosely translates to “shaggy” or “hippie” – imagine, a hippie cheese!

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I’d heard great things about Malva, named Baja’s best restaurant in 2014. Malva is just west of San Antonio, perched above the Mina Penelope winery. It’s on the first curve heading west; don’t blink or you’ll miss the turnoff! What a hidden gem with a fantastic vibe. Wish we’d been hungrier: Malva’s seven-course tasting menu was going for 600 pesos, or just $35 U.S! In my opinion, Malva’s grilled oysters won the prize for best dish on this trip. We also shared the duck carnitas sopes, which were very tasty and generous. Our server told us about the chowder with chicharrón de crab; I hope it will be on the menu when I return!

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We’d planned to stop at Madera 5 on our way back to El Sauzal; we know Chef Ryan Steyn had El Clavo, outside their tasting room. Alas, Madero 5 was locked up and from what we’ve learned, El Clavo has moved off the premises. Bummer – I love Madera’s Nebbiolo and Chef Ryan’s cuisine! We headed north, stopping at Popotla to visit with Bob and friends and catch a bit of the Super Bowl on our way back to San Diego. Although we gathered an awesome assortment of Baja wines, gourmet, bath & body products during our adventure, we kept talking about the things we should have bought.

Baja goodies crop

IMG_1196Hey, there’s always a reason to return to Baja and Valle de Guadalupe!

Photos by Patti Anderson, Carole Ravago & Bob Gove.

 

Baja Bits & Bites

We made the rounds of Rosarito on Labor Day weekend. Three great breakfasts: Los Pelicanos, La EstanciaCafe Conrado (in San Antonio del Mar).

Los Pelicanos' chile poblano, mushroom, corn & cheese omeletLos Pelicanos' "toreados" - great on anything! You've got to ask for them.

A La Estancia waterwheelConrado SignVeggie Scramble w/Oaxaca cheese & avocado at Cafe Conrado

Saturday afternoon found us at The Lighthouse in La Misión for a tasting of wines from Valle de Guadalupe’s Nativo, paired with tasty (and beautifully presented) tidbits from Rosarito’s Aki Va! (a restaurant we are not familiar with!)

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George at The LighthouseOfferings from Vinicola Nativo

With Benjamin of Vinicola NativoThe Aki Va chef serves yummy & beautiful polenta

The polenta from Rosarito's Aki Va!Ravioli from Aki Va!

While we waited for the tasting to set up, we ordered some Lighthouse bar botanas – jalapeño poppers (stuffed with yummy tuna) and spicy chicken wings. Always good to chat with Lighthouse proprietor, George! And good to know they are expanding beyond their sports-bar image. Of the four Nativo wines offered, we loved the Cucapah 2013 (Nebbiolo); first runner-up was the Pai-Pai 2012 (Cabernet Sauvignon & Monastrell, which we learned from Nativo’s Benjamin Pena Guerrero is same as Mourvedre). The others: not as good.

Bob @ Calafia (shot from my comfy, shady perch)Ollie's salmon pizza

Yummy!Our neighbors' table @ Ollie's

While Bob surfed Calafia Sunday afternoon, I sauntered up to the restaurant/bar’s balcony to relax with margaritas in the shade, a great live band (covers of Enanitos Verdes & Soda Stereo!) and a wonderful view of the line-up. Later we headed to Ollie’s Pizza, where we petted Ollie (a large, fluffy black dog), chatted with owner Richard, and scarfed down a fantastic pizza with smoked salmon, cream cheese, fresh tomatoes and capers. Perfect summer dinner! GREAT FIND: on our way to drop in on friends Rafael, Shelly & Marie in Rancho Reynoso, we stopped at the Don Pisto in Puerto Nuevo (Lobster Town was going off!) to discover they carry an all-star selection of Baja wines. My new BFF Vera at the store told me they recently amped up their selection.

El Cielo wines @ Don Pisto Puerto NuevoSanto Tomas wines @ Don Pisto Puerto Nuevo

Another successful weekend eating and drinking in Baja. ¡Salud!

Muchas gracias for photos by Bob Gove.

One Fun Sunday: Mi Casa & Nogada Fest

We planned to be a support boat for our fave paddler, Jon Loren, in last weekend’s Catalina Classic. But due to unfortunate last-min problems, Bob’s boat, the “Wave Magnet” was not up for the task. Plan B = BAJA! Headed down early Sunday AM; while Bob surfed, I enjoyed a nice low-tide beach walk. On our way to Tijuana for the Chile en Nogada Fest, we stopped in San Antonio del Mar, where we were immediately attracted to Mi Casa Supper Club, open now for one year.

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I’d heard great things about these folks, Chef Bo Bendana & Dennis – and, I know and respect the fact that they organize the successful sold-out Sabor de Baja @ Rosarito Beach Hotel every August, so it was a no-brainer to visit their spot and enjoy a rooftop brunch.

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We shared a smoked salmon omelet, but the real stars were the insane San Quintin oysters; WOW, what a great example of delicious Baja products and beautiful presentation. Can’t wait to return to Mi Casa Supper Club for dinner!

On to Tijuana’s Avenida Revolucion for chiles en nogada. This is a very traditional dish, often associated with Mexican Independence Day, coming up Sept.16.

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And this was our first visit to Tijuana’s fest, the 6th annual, with free admission (one needs to buy one’s own food & bev). The revered dish consists of a poblano chile, roasted & peeled, stuffed with a mixture of meat (usually beef & pork), fruit & spices, topped with a cream sauce containing ground walnuts and fresh pomegranate seeds.

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More than a dozen competitors vied in the contest to be deemed the best! We enjoyed the onstage demonstrations, and were happy to recognize Scott Koenig of A Gringo in Mexico.com among the judges (we met Scott over mescal tasting @ the Baja Culinary Fest two years ago). The dish is visually stunning, mirroring the colors of the Mexican flag (Que Viva La Patria!) The dutiful judges sampled more than a dozen chiles; we could only handle one, from Tijuana restaurant Cien Anos, which was lovely and delicious.

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Personally, I would have LOVED to have seen some more “breakout” treatments of the nogada, stuffed with chicken, turkey or seafood. Beverage options at the fest abounded: Palomas! Sangria! Wine! Beer! We enjoyed tastings from Mundano winery, who has a vineyard

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in the Valle and (if I understood correctly) will soon offer tastings; we brought home a $17 bottle of their tasty 2012 Nebbiolo. One fun Sunday: we love and highly recommend Baja food fests!

Muchas gracias for photos by Bob Gove.