Our gluttonous group raced from restaurant to restaurant, eating at 20 spots over the course of 48 hours. Several restaurants on our Baja bender warranted further exploration, but time wouldn’t allow it. Thankfully, near the end of our journey, we finally took the time to relax and enjoy a full meal at Silvestre. Earlier in the day, we ate at Muelle Tres and Manzanilla, but Benito Molina’s most memorable restaurant is only open during the summer, overlooks his Zinfandel vineyard and features a dramatic boulder-lined landscape.
Benito Molina is known as one of the leading practitioners and proponents of local Baja cuisine. He spent the night walking between his twin mesquite grills and the crowd, which luxuriated on the covered patio, drinking local wine and enjoying food that has a real sense of place.
The terrace offered an amazing view of Molina’s Zinfandel orchard. Mid-way through our meal, it started to downpour. Several people ran between the vines, looked toward the sky and began to dance. It was a great moment.
When we sat down, most people opted for a glass of Baja wine, but a couple people started with a glass of Jamaica. While Molina and his crew were grilling the food, we amused ourselves with a spears of cucumber and fibrous jicama dusted with chile powder.
Drive from Tijuana to Ensenada and you’ll see circular pens just off the coast. These gigantic pens are used to farm bluefin. For our first course, Molina’s crew prepared luscious ruby-hued bluefin ceviche topped with minced ginger, Serrano chiles and a judicious dressing of olive oil, soy, and balsamic vinegar. This seemingly simple preparation generated explosive flavor.
Roccot is an ocean perch similar to rascasse that was seasoned with dried chilies, featuring a gelatinous orange skin. The white fish came apart in sheets and paired well with nopales salad. Chef Molina had extra fish, and the second fillet was even better, with crisper skin.
The main course was a Pibil-like lamb shank topped with pickled onions and cooked with black beans in a bright sauce of orange juice, garlic and achiote – annatto paste. There was way more bone than meat, but the available meat was tender and absolutely infused with the tangy marinade. Some people, including deep-end diner Eddie Lin, managed to find some marrow.
We drank two different local wines throughout the meal, a 2008 Filidith Vino Blanco and 2007 Domenico Garnacha.
Instead of dessert, we finished with a plate of cow’s milk cheese produced by Molina’s friend Marcelo Castro Ramonetti in the town of Ojos Negros. We tried four different variations from the fourth generation cheesemaker: airy queso fresca, peppercorn-studded, rosemary and more intensely flavored (and firmer) aged cheese.
Silvestre delivered a truly memorable dining experience. My only quibble: when we arrived, a butterflied pig was splayed on one of the grills. It never reached our tables.
CLOSED DURING WINTER
Thank you to the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau, Crossborder Agency, Cotuco (Tijuana Tourism Board), and Tijuana Canirac (Tijuana Restaurant Association) for sponsoring our eye-opening culinary tour of northern Baja. Thank you to Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA for leading the tour and for supplying so much invaluable information.