The culinary shining star of our trip was our visit to Laja.
The reviews are mixed, but I was pleased to find that I disagreed with those who had negative things to say and we all enjoyed ourselves to the fullest.
First, you drive a lazy, slow, picturesque (for the most part) hour from Ensenada, through the commercial fishing town of El Sauzal and up through the mountains on the Ruta del Vino (aka Mex 3 towards tecate).
Then, you arrive, abruptly at the restaurant, a sign on the freeway simple says "LAJA" and points to the left. Off the road, you turn through the entrance to park in front a white hacienda style building with huge rosemary plants and a cactus garden framing the stairs to the front door. Because we were early, we walked through the orchards and let the front-yard garden entertain us as Nish identified all the trees and the rest of us took turns identifying the items in the garden (E and I had fun comparing their rows of squash and zucchini to our one plant).
When you enter, you are greeted immediately by a friendly Spanish-looking man who gives you your selection of the available tables. The decor is open and airy. Vaulted ceilings, windows galore, each facing different gardens, vines, or hills, and the furniture was simple but gorgeous rough wood tables and chairs, stained to a medium dark polish. If we ever have a house with space for a large dining table, I'd like the one in the middle of that room -- it looked so focused on feeding.
The napkins and plates are all white, the glasswear clear and sturdier than you'd get at a restaurant of this quality in the U.S, and the cutlery was equally practical, including the well-balanced Laguiole steak knife with the tell-tale fly at the pressure point.
After perusing the paper menu (printed with a computer and stapled together), we all opted for the Chef's tasting menu. 8 courses. No amuse bouches or palate cleansers. Additionally, the a la carte menu contained only 2 additional courses that you could choose from, so why bother?
This place is much more rustic than some of the write-ups would lead you to believe. It is on a dirt road. It is relatively small. The wine list is mainly (if not entirely, I didn't spend too much time reading it as I opted for the wine pairing and let the experts decide) made up of local Valle de Guadalupe selections. There are no easily recognizable big name (and big price tag) wines.
The plating is perfectly gorgeous, both in visual presentation of the food as well as selection of the type of geometric (although never garishly so) dish to use. The service is informal, but pleasant and responsive, and we were never wanting for anything.
The sparse (but natural and well-matched to the surrounding nature) decor, as well as the minimalism in the food offerings and the commitment to local wine are the types of things, I suspect, that have led to the mixed reviews. The Chef comes from a four seasons and San Francisco big name restaurant background. If you come looking for that same experience, you will likely be disappointed.
But, if you are looking for an amazing, fresh meal experience that displays the character of northern baja, look no further.
The Tasting Menu
-Beet Gazpacho with thin slices of steamed crabapples floating on top (or very tart apples of some sort, or perhaps pickled apples) (paired with a local white that wasn't particularly memorable).
-Field greens (grown out front) and yellow pear and red cherry tomatoes (grown out back) in a simple vinaigrette (paired with a better white than the first, a slightly heavier chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc blend, I believe).
-Homemade wide flat noodles topped with a simple sauce of olive oil, a hint of garlic, mandolin-sliced and perfectly cooked fresh light green zucchini (from the front garden), and small specks of a bright green herb that had very little taste (I will be trying to make this one with some of our basil). This course was the favorite of half of the group (and was paired with a delicious Monte Xanic chenin blanc colombard blend)
-4 small Fresh tuna slices over a tart bright green sauce (paired with a sweet cool sangiovese rosé)
-Filet of cod with the skin on over a deliciously light potato puree (paired with a very light merlot, served chilled).
-A light, very juicy lamb preparation of 1 rib, two quarter-sized medalions, and a slightly spiced stewed preparation. (paired with a blend of cabernet sauvignon and another grape -- perhaps tempranillo?)
-3 sorbets. One carrot-orange, the other two unidentifiable blends of local fruits.
-Delicious light vanilla ice milk with an apricot tart -- ahhh, the amazing mexican pastry tradition meets the French in this dessert. This was my favorite course. And I don't even like apricots that much and I rarely love dessert. But this just was the epitome of the taste of summer vacation to end a perfectly languid 2.5 hour meal with friends.