The cranes of the working Port of Ensenada loom over the approach to Manzanilla Restaurant (Blvd. Teniente Azueta No. 139, Ensenada) like Imperial Walkers over the Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. It's an improbable place to find a world-class restaurant.
Lately, a sense of sameness has crept into the high-end culinary world. Dishes increasingly look the same, taste the same and use the same ingredients and often the same approaches. It doesn't matter if the restaurant's in Paris or London, San Sebastian or San Francisco, Shanghai or Mumbai. But that's not the case at Manzanilla.
Head from Ensenada's docks out the port's gates and the first door on the left is for Manzanilla, recently named one of the top 25 restaurants in Latin America. Its proximity to those docks is more than a quirk of geography. It's a defining feature of the food coming out of Benito Molino and Solange Muris' kitchen.
That became apparent from the very first dish: a rock cod tiradito. Tilting more toward Italian crudo than Peruvian tiradito, this dish was both simple and subtly complex—fantastically fresh fish presented with just enough manipulation to enhance its natural qualities. Sea asparagus underlines the proximity to the water. Clamato gel reflects the mariscos of Baja roadside stands. Huitlacoche powder lends an earthy undertone, and soy reflects the Asian influences of both Baja and Peru.
A shellfish quartet offered one raw and three cooked presentations. The most straightforward was a raw oyster with raspberry vinaigrette and shallots melding with the oyster's natural liquor to make a perfect sauce. The most interesting was a grilled oyster with pork trotter "salad." The trotter's gelatinous texture served as an interesting comment on the oyster's own texture.
Manzanilla's abalone duo featured two little abalone shells, one cupping a bit of the grilled-tomato sauce arcing around the plate to sauce the abalone meat at its center. On the other side, the shell held tender chunks of fried abalone along with terrific fried parsley. The latter was a perfect accompaniment—in flavor and texture—for the toothsome abalone.
Rock cod made another appearance in a grilled presentation, sitting on a tomatillo-gouda sauce and a dramatic swipe of black-been purée. It was simple and perfect. Everything that needed to be there was there, and nothing that it didn't need was included.
The best of the meat dishes featured three pieces of grilled quail—a counterintuitive Baja culinary star—displayed theatrically on a squid-ink tic-tac-toe pattern. Along with the quail, the squares were filled with a quail egg on mushroom and homemade kimchi. The presentation was dramatic, the cooking precise and indulgent.
Sitting in Manzanilla's space, you'd never think you were in London, Tokyo or Madrid. You know you're steps from Ensenada's port, and you couldn't be anywhere else. The stars of each dish say so, as do the garnishes. It's world-class cuisine in a working-class spot, and it seems equally comfortable in both worlds.