Today’s Guadalupe Valley in Baja California, Mexico is often compared to the Napa Valley of 60 years ago. If that’s true, then Valle de Guadalupe is way ahead of Napa in at least one regard. Six decades ago Thomas Keller was not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. His defining restaurant The French Laundry could not have been a part of the emerging culinary scene of Napa, CA.
As often as people compare Valle de Guadalupe to a burgeoning Napa, they also compare the farm-to-table restaurant Laja Cocina de Baja California (km 83, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. Tel. 01–646-155‑2556) to Keller’s famed wine country restaurant. Laja is the creation of Chef Jair Téllez, whose culinary skills are enhanced by a beautiful location and the impeccable quality of the local seafood, valley-raised meat and farm-grown produce. Laja has its own fields, orchard and vineyard, too. The cheese, the olive oil and of course the wine all are sourced from the Baja peninsula.
These ingredients are the backbone of Téllez’s four and eight-course prix-fixe menus, which change weekly. While continually creative, the underlying theme of these dishes is strictly seasonal. Téllez favors classic techniques while respecting Baja’s unique regional culinary traditions– making the Keller comparisons inevitable. However, his dishes are not Keller copies. Laja’s cuisine pays homage to the natural diversity of Baja California.
Laja Cocina de Baja
The restaurant and its garden are set in and around an adobe hacienda. The vibe is sophisticated but casual. I felt appropriately dressed in a nice pair of shorts and a casual shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Still, the space retains an elegance even without the expected starched tablecloths. We chose a bare-wood table on the back terrace where we could overlook the gardens and the greenhouse. We had the patio to ourselves and were content to sit and take in the atmosphere of the expansive property. With every salad ordered we watched someone from the kitchen head out to the greenhouse to select the ingredients. It’s that kind of a place.
2012 JC Bravo Palomino
Pairs well with
We started our meal with a soup of mussels veloute. It was simply wonderful. Briny with an earthy umami, it was made bright and unexpectedly sweet with a hint of fennel. It had such a taste of the sea too, as the mussels had been freshly harvested from the nearby waters of Ensenada. One aspect of this restaurant that was nothing like The French Laundry was the policy on portion size. Simply stated, they present portions that are appropriate to the size and scope of the meal but “if you liked any dish and want to try it again” just let them know and they will bring seconds. We had seconds on the soup.
As the meal continued with that freshly clipped salad that I mentioned, we ordered a bottle of locally made JC Bravo Palomino. A crisp, dry white wine with plenty of juicy aroma. This was followed by tuna carpaccio. An elegant yet simple combination that reminded me of something you’d enjoy at Boulud Sud in NYC. I wasn’t surprised to later learn that Jair Téllez, had studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and worked with Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel. The highlight of our meal at Laja was a stuffed quail with butternut squash cream and Swiss chard– a particularly savory combination. The valley-raised quail was juicier and unmistakably richer than any sort of game bird I’d ever had before. GREG
Laja Cocina de Baja
More on my trip to Valle de Guadalupe: GREG