An hour south of Tijuana, somewhere along Ensenada's Ruta del Vino--the road through Baja's wine-rich Valle de Guadalupe--two Americanos are searching for a sign. Not the eagle-on-the-cactus-with-a-serpent-in-its-mouth kinda sign, but one that, nevertheless, we hope will lead us to some sort of promised land.
Fellow Forker Dave and I manage to spot the tiny sign for "La Villa del Valle" before it's too late. We hook a quick left and exit the paved road, winding our way through hilly, picturesque, sprawling terrain for what seems like an eternity.
The Villa, a bed and breakfast on a hill, is home to one of Baja's most exciting new restaurants, Corazon de Tierra. With my stomach growling and frenetic anticipation coursing through me, I turn to Dave and declare, "This is my Bourdain moment."
Ironically, I was spot on. Chef Diego Hernandez--who Dave knows because they follow each other on Twitter--would tell us that just a few weeks earlier, Anthony Bourdain, the chef and travel show host, had the same experience, which was filmed for an upcoming show. Based on his travels, Bourdain called Baja the new Tuscany, telling the crowd at a recent Los Angeles speaking event: "Tijuana and Ensenada--there's some awesome shit going on down there right now. They got tired of waiting for Americans to come back and just started making really great, really creative food."
I used to think of Mexican food as just tacos and burritos (the latter of which you'll hardly find in Tijuana by the way), but Mexican food is so much more. Varying from regions, with each region touting its own specialty, there is a lot I have yet to discover. And while tradition has its place, what's new in Baja is Baja Med, an enthusiastic movement to fuse Baja ingredients with Mediterranean and Asian flavors and technique.
Corazon de Tierra (Heart of the Land) is a star on the short list (La Querencia, Mision 19 and Muelle Tres are others). Corazon has its own wines and olive oil and sources all ingredients on site or within miles of the property. The menu changes daily based on what's available.
As Dave put it, "It's a locavore's wet dream."
Essentially a really pretty, elevated one-room wooden box, Corazon de Tierra is made of recycled materials.
On one side of the room, six chefs scramble to put plates together as diners enjoy the view of the garden and surrounding hills, which can be seen entirely through a glass wall that slides completely open. We're able to watch chefs leave the kitchen for the garden and pick the produce for our dishes as they're being made.
The setting is enough to amaze, but the multi-course menu we're about to indulge in is better:
We're sent sea barnacles to start and I'm scared to put them in my mouth. But the shells pop off and each bite is chewy, then gritty, with a burst of salinity. A drizzle of olive oil brightens up the brininess.
Next, a clean, earthy salad of dense beets with bitter greens to cut through fatty hunks of pork head cheese.
The third course, a mound of garden vegetables held together by spongy risotto grains. Wood-fired carrots add a smokiness to the dish, and the kicker, unannounced by the menu description, is crispy bits of chicharron. Each bite oozes creaminess, with the added decadence of melty pork fat in the finish. My favorite dish of the meal, and one of the best plates I've had in my life.
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Pacific cod and sprouted lentils arrive, but I'm still reeling from the previous course. I enjoy the fleshy cod, but the skin could be crisper ... and I'm still reeling from the previous course.
One of the most beautiful plates of food I've had arrives next. A swoop of green apple puree cradles perfectly roasted boneless quail. The meat is dark and juicy, but the surprise here is the fruity flavor of the purple flowers used to garnish the dish.
Already stuffed, we have two more courses to go. A pre-dessert granita flavored with rose petal, lemon and verbena is served with cubes of minty gel, strawberry and a sugary sliver of candied kumquat.
The meal finishes with a neutral egg ice cream smothered in banana sabayon and topped with jagged shards of chocolate bread.
As if the meal isn't enough, we've only experienced half of this amazing lunch. Chef Diego joins us and we talk a bit. He takes us on a tour of the garden and the grounds.
With dogs leading the way, we walk down the hill toward the winery. In the picture, it's the area in the upper right of the photo. Focus closely and you'll see slanted roofs making up the structure. Those are boats. BOATS.
It's more noticeable when you're inside of the room, which is an incredible sight to see. And while we're on the subject, I'm not much of a drinker, but the wine we had, Villa del Valle's Vena Cava made by Villa owner Phil Gregory, was a solid red. Palatable, without bitter tannins to get in the way, it's the kind of glass I enjoy sipping on a day like this.
We walk up the hill and say goodbye to our chef and tour guide. We plan to head back to Tijuana and continue our gastronomic adventure. Before we leave, I take off my belt and throw it in the back seat.