July 3 2014 06:27 PM

A BajaMed pioneer still stands tall

Oven roasted local lamb with vegetable risotto
Oven-roasted lamb with vegetable risotto
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

The tall-poppy syndrome is a social phenomenon—prominent in Australia, New Zealand and Canada—in which people of distinction ("tall poppies") are cut down for the simple "crime" of elevating themselves above their fellow citizens through their accomplishments. It's a syndrome that appears to be alive and thriving in the Baja and Southern California food scenes.

Laja restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe (Carretera Ensenada-Tecate km. 83) was one of the first of the new Baja restaurants to gain international attention. Chef Jair Tellez and then-wife Laura (the restaurant's name comes from the first two letters of each of their names) bought land in "the middle of nowhere," as Tellez described it in an Eater interview, to create a destination restaurant. But Laura and Jair divorced, and Laura's front-of-house role was assumed by winemaker Andres Blanco. Meanwhile, Tellez began spending more time at his Mexico City venture, MeroToro. Soon, long knives were out for the tall poppy. Whispers suggested that Laja lost focus, foodies found new darlings and one Chowhound discussion labeled the restaurant "WAY OVERRATED."

If Laja is overrated, please give me a list of similarly overrated restaurants. Our recent meal (with wine pairings) began with two amuse bouches: flawlessly roasted beets garnished with a dollop of yoghurt (simple but delicious) and a silky and perfectly well-rounded gazpacho elevated by a twist of preserved lemon. These were followed by a lettuce salad with green apple, nectarine and elderberry that reminded me how good a lightly dressed salad can be when the ingredients are perfectly fresh. The elderberries provided a surprising accent. It was a Chez Panisse moment.

Those dishes were but a prelude to a crudo of callo de hacha (a clam that's similar to diver scallops) and sea snail with lightly (and ever-so-slightly spicy) pickled cucumbers, cherry tomato slices and scallions with avocado in an herb-infused vinaigrette. It was a symphony of complementary flavors and contrasting textures.

A vegetable ravioli with chicken broth and preserved lemon was less spectacular but had subtle charms. While the crafting of the ravioli was slightly off in filling quantity and form, the flavors were spot-on. Moreover, Blanco's pairing of the dish with his Ulloa Pinot Noir picked up brilliantly on the floral qualities on the plate and elevated the experience.

If the crudo wasn't the dish of the evening, those honors must go to the oven-roasted local lamb with vegetable risotto. A single, thin, expertly roasted carrot from Laja's garden and a beautifully roasted and perfectly pink lamb chop were the visual foci of the plate. A cheese-less fresh vegetable risotto was a nice counterpoint. But the real prize was the less-fancied bits of the lamb braised till they fell off the bone, pressed overnight in refrigeration, cut into blocks and seared to caramelized deliciousness. A reduction of the braising liquid sauced the plate.

A series of pre-dessert and dessert courses followed, ranging from refreshing to excellent. The white-chocolate royale with mascarpone was a standout. But, truly, after the crudo and lamb dishes, these weren't even necessary. 

Laja overrated? Hardly. Long live the tall poppy. ¡Viva Laja!

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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