April 11 2015 09:10 AM

Octopus with pork belly, beef tongue with clams in the Valle de Guadalupe

Grilled octopus, pork belly and cauliflower two ways
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Javier Plascencia may be the face of BajaMed cuisine and Miguel Angel Guerrero may own the trademark. Benito Molino definitely has the best moustache. But Drew Deckman of Deckman's en El Mogor (Km. 85.5 Highway 3 Tecate-Ensenada, San Antonio De Las Minas, B.C.) is the only Michelin-starred chef working the BajaMed turf.

Much has been made about the battle between upscale-casual and fine dining. Deckman's takes the debate to another level. The place is not just casual, it's a glorified campsite. The cooking equipment is, essentially, a wood-fired grill and oven. Deckman describes it as "the anti-kichen." When the tables are not set out, picnic-style, in a field with a gorgeous view of Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe wine country, the dining room is housed under a canopy supported by minimalistic wood framing and hay bales plastered on the inside with adobe. 

If the setting says "beautiful picnic," the food says "fine dining." The best way to approach the food is the (ever-evolving) five-course "Bounty of Baja" menu. The meal starts with an amuse bouche. On one trip it was an attractive tangle of julienned squash sinfully cooked down in butter, garnished with carrots and herb oil. A promising prelude. 

One of the fixtures on Deckman's menu is beef tongue tiradito with shellfish (chopped pata de mula clam ceviche on two trips) brunoised vegetables, guacamole and guajillo chile and lime. It was, essentially, surf and turf, Deckman's-style. The richness of the beef tongue, almost headcheese-like, playing off against the firm, meaty texture and freshness of the clam was balanced in flavors and textures. A garnish of lovage flowers gave the dish a colorful counterpoint.

Next up: grilled octopus, pork belly and cauliflower two ways (mashed and pickled). I consider pairing pork belly with octopus, especially falling-apart tender tentacles seared on the grill, to be cheating. Like juicing in baseball, you still have to hit the pitch (execute the dish), but if you do, the ball goes out of the park. The parallels and contrasts between these proteins are numerous and interesting. The cauliflower elements underlined it, the mash providing a layer of earthy comfort, the pickle an ethereal highlight. It was a memorable dish. 

Farm-raised quail, white navy beans and pickled vegetables was another good dish; quail, the grill and Baja is always a good combination. A roast pork with roasted root vegetables was most notable for the amount of respect paid to the vegetables. Deckman's managed to coax every bit of flavor out of carrots, a parsnip and a scallion. The vegetables outshined the protein. 

It would be easy to compare Deckman's to Finca Altozano. Both feature wonderful Valle settings and sightlines. Both feature the food of brilliant, high-profile chef-owners. But the parallels hide a difference in purpose. Where Finca focuses on Baja traditions, Deckman has taken his Michelin-starred cuisine into the field while maintaining exacting precision. The same execution and composition (both culinary and visual) he demonstrated at Restaurant Vitus in Germany (where he earned the star) are present on every plate. 

It's Michelin-starred food in a breathtakingly beautiful, natural and environmentally conscious setting.

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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