After a long day of experiencing intensive back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back cooking demos at Congreso Ensenada Gastronómica, it was obvious where the after party would be, at Manzanilla, a funky restaurant from Benito Molina and chef-wife Solange that celebrates local seafood on a side street near the harbor. Street Gourmet LA founder Bill Esparza once again led us down that path, as he did in 2009, during an epic introduction to Baja.
The Molinas are some of the best-known chefs in Baja. He previously worked at the Four Seasons in Mexico City and she attended culinary school in Charlotte before they became restaurateurs and TV stars in Mexico. The couple currently owns two restaurants: Manzanilla in Ensenada, and Silvestre, a campestre in Valle Del Guadalupe. Unfortunately, Muelle Tres recently changed hands, so it will no longer be possible to enjoy their renditions of seafood dishes and ceviche.
Unfortunately, the two dishes that the couple prepared at Congreso Ensenada Gastronomia weren’t on the menu: shelled clams with black beans and Iberico pork fat – which Benito Molina described as a “Combinacion de mar y tierra increible” (incredible combination of sea and land); or the sardines with rigatoni and chile-rich tomato sauce. Still, we found plenty of hearty, relatively straightforward and flavorful dishes. So did a number of Mexico’s top chefs, many of whom presented at Congreso Ensenada Gastronómica, filled a table near the bar during our visit, including Tabasco’s Aquiles Chavez and Oaxaca’s Alejandro Ruiz.
Ostiones (90 pesos ~ $7.50) a las brasas con mantequilla de estragon con chiles consisted of plump, sweet grilled oysters served on the half shell, bathed in tarragon butter, with the shells firmly planted in a bed of dark roasted salt.
Abulon (100 pesos) frito con perejil salsa de soja y gengibre read better on the page than it tasted on my tongue. They lightly breaded and fried strips of local abalone, but they were fairly dry. Still, the dish did find some redemption with crispy fried parsley leaves and gingered soy sauce.
Tiradito (140 pesos) de pescado con jengibre, chile serrano y salsa de soya worked out even better, featuring firm pink rocote (rockfish) with big flavor thanks to a dressing of soy sauce, Serrano chile, minced ginger and chives.
Pescado (160 pesos) del dia con pure de garbanzos, chayotea y acelgas turned out to be the showstopper, juicy sheets of pink-fleshed rocote with well-seasoned, crisped skin, salted chard, firm squash cubes and rustic “hummus” minus the tahini.
Cascada (70 pesos) was less exciting, but still a good version of molten chocolate cake served on a jagged marble slab, dusted with powdered sugar and featuring cascading dark chocolate, as predicted by the name, which translates from Spanish as waterfall.
On my previous visit to Manzanilla in 2009, we only managed to try a couple dishes, and when a restaurant serves such high quality seafood, that’s clearly unacceptable. Now if we can only get our hands on some more sardines next time.