I first walked into Chef Benito Molina's Manzanilla sometime in 2007--it was located on Av. Riveroll, before moving to it's current location along Ensenada's industrial waterfront. Molina--a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute--had already made a name for himself in Mexico City when he arrived in Baja. He was lured to Ensenada by Mexican enologist Hugo D'Acosta-- here, Molina would pioneer the use fresh local ingredients,Mexican olive oil, and Baja wines in a new approach to Baja cuisine. .
It had been more than a year since I'd dined at Manzanilla's bordello-esque warehouse space, and I was due for magic clams and seafood surprises from the local waters of Baja California. What surfaced was a seafood-intensive 12-course tasting that brilliantly flowed from ocean to plate at times as subdued as the night's sky in El Valle, and others as explosive as La Bufadora. Molina is a West Coast cool jazz chef, and he's swinging harder than ever. Check out these tasty riffs!
El Menu Degustacion 8 de Julio de 2012
The first taste of the evening a salpicon de pescado with a faint brush stroke of dried chiles to brighten delicate bits of fish balanced by a dab of guacamole and vegetables whose flavors fused to the airy tostada.
From the gardens of the Valle de Guadalupe, a fresh picked and vivid, grilled salad of heirloom tomatoes sweetened by a traditional Valle marmalade, given pungency by nasturiums, and salted by a fine Ramonetti cheese.
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This ever evolving dish is one of the great tastes of Baja California. The light dressing and wild fennel marry the pristine slivers of umami with a dreamy cultured cream--take your time with this plate as you would a slow ballad.
Three ceviches of with contrasting elements of citrus and brine: bloody clam, pismo clam, and chocolata clam show Chef Molina's mastery of the genre employing sea beans, and the true surprise of this dish--ficoide glacial, or foraged, salty ice plant. An highly agreeable diversion of seaweed salad and a melt-in-your-mouth patch of yellow fin tuna gelatin served at just the right temperature of chill made this dish worthy of its title.
Manzanilla could easily be one of the top oyster and clam bars you've ever set foot in without trying. Indulge in white clam in pesto, with a kumamoto oyster, and a bahia falsa clam from the cold bar.
Then a round shellfish from the grill: bahia falsa, white clam, and little neck are given a sexy ,buttery liquor from herbs and Baja cheeses.
The crab claw was the a nice change of tempo buoyed by a sweet emphasis of basil.
A second course of sardines--grilled this time--is a generous remittance for us so deprived of this taste up north. This time Chef Benito Molina offered a down home plate of traditional Mexican grill--Ensenada style.
The ensemble put together for the Baja quail dish paired mushrooms in garlic and garlic cream with chard brought the wild bird back to the garden were it likely met its end--a delicious tribute to Baja quail.
Perfectly grilled cod, rockot, and yellow tail with a bean puree, and corn is another familiar Molina dish that has found its pocket.
This meal was a terroir driven chef's compilation of Ensenada standards rearranged in imaginative presentations--an open ravioli of grilled lamb and wild flowers transcends the customary lamb taco.
Finally the dessert: a chocolate cookie, a Mexican apricot-like fruit in syrup, and chamomile ice cream--a simple trio of unexpected charm.
If a seafood fantasy you seek, then Manzanilla is where dream becomes reality; where Chef Benito Molina fronts a legendary seafood jam session into the after hours.
Manzanilla is located on Teniente Azueta, #139, Ensenada, B.C.; 011-52-646-175-7073; www.rmanzanilla.com. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 1p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 1p.m to 6p.m.; Take the toll highway to Ensenada and make the first right when you come to town onto Teniente Azueta, the restaurant will be up on your right hand side opposite the waterfront.