The border has been "bearish" since 9/11 -- that is, sometimes you eat the bear, usually the bear eats you. The unpredictability has hurt a lot of Tijuana restaurants -- especially the better ones. Fewer gringos willingly suffer the weekend crush, nor casually head to TJ for a good weeknight dinner, because of the risk of a delayed return. Romesco is a major Baja restaurant group's ingenious solution: If gourmet gabachos won't come eat in TJ, then bring the best of TJ to them.
Romesco is named for a lively Spanish "gypsy" sauce that's often served with fish. (You can taste it on the restaurant's gambas al ajillo appetizer.) It's the first north-of-the-border branch of the Placencia family's restaurant group, which includes the acclaimed Casa Placencia and Villa Saverios. Chef Javier Placencia, son of the dynasty's founder, is in charge of Romesco's kitchen, importing his creative blending of Mexican ingredients and pan-Mediterranean flavors. He's not one of those remote-control executive chefs, but actually works on the premises. (I've seen him there; he's even guapo -- a looker.) The choice of location, an obscure Bonita mini-mall, may seem a little crazy -- but it's loco como un zorro. Despite all the new, upper-middle-class housing rising in the area, most eateries are fast-casual chains or mom 'n' pop taquerias. A Grand Slam breakfast just doesn't do it for a special dinner out.
I chose my dinner companions to do the food justice, calling on Sicily-born Laura, whose new Trieste-born in-laws live in Ensenada. Her gorgeous mom, Ignazia, joined us -- she just returned from a Baja vacation with a new passion for serious Mexican cuisine. Ignazia's friend Lea is an Italian citizen of the world who fears no food.
The menu presented a painful problem: just four eaters, and I yearned to taste at least 14 appetizers and salads (out of 26). My brave compañeras had no food taboos, so the only limit was our moderate appetites. We divided our appetizer choices between the three starter-menu areas -- cold tapas, hot tapas, and salads and soups. From the cold tapas, we began with Sea of Cortez smoked marlin carpaccio, a dinner plate covered with paper-thin slices of the rich, oily game fish, bathed in a faintly sweet ponzu dressing and "wasabi salt." It was garnished with a refreshing mound of avocado and papaya salsa and scattered with dark-green sprigs of samphire (salconia in Spanish), a tasty seaside dune plant that's crunchy, naturally salty, and packed with healthy minerals.
From the salads, Laura zoomed in on salt-crusted baked pear, with Roquefort, candied walnuts, and greens in a port wine vinaigrette. The combination is standard, but the trace of salt on the surface of the pear slices brought out their sweetness -- a trick that Mexico, Italy, and Thailand all arrived at independently: To make fruit taste sweeter, don't sugar it -- salt it.
From the hot tapas, our choice was beef tongue en cocotte, bathed in almond red pipian sauce (made with ground nuts, tomatoes, and mild chiles). It was served as a wrap-your-own taquitos dish, with small, thin, steaming-hot corn tortillas, spicy green and red salsas, and a bowl of chopped onions with cilantro. The meat was meltingly tender, the sauce luxurious, while the onion mixture lent crunch and contrast. This was young Laura's first taste of tongue, and she had to adjust her palate to the texture. Yes, it does feel like chewing on a tongue, but it doesn't hurt -- it's not your tongue. Lea and I, old hands at tongue-biting, fell on the dish.
With regrets at bypassing a cream of fresh pea soup, beef cheek taquitos, and shrimp and mozzarella mini-tacos, I returned to the cold tapas list for foie gras torchon, mainly to test the kitchen on a technically demanding dish. The pâté was adequate but too dense, lacking the pure-butter texture of the great torchons at Tapenade and Cavaillon. A torchon is made by wrapping a whole foie gras tightly and poaching it slowly until cooked. I'd guess the poaching water might have been a few degrees too hot.
Since the Placencia empire began with Italian restaurants, we wanted to share a pasta course between the appetizers and the mains. Laura had her eye on Linguine Pescatore "Al Cartoccio." This brought a pleasant array of gently cooked shellfish in a simple, tasty tomato sauce, but the linguine was cooked softer than "al dente," presenting one too many tender textures with none to bite back. Next time, I'll choose a more adventurous pasta -- house-made Baja lobster ravioli with pine nuts and preserved lemon in brandy cream sauce (a favorite of the chef's) or beef short rib tortelloni with cabernet pasilla sauce and horseradish froth.
As at most restaurants, entrées are less daring than appetizers, but they, too, make clever use of rare Baja ingredients. Mesquite-grilled duck breast in a sauce based on a Mexican red wine was rosy, tender, and fatless. Before cooking, the duck was marinated in miel de maguey, honey from the tequila cactus, and the meat was finished off over wood to give it a hint of smokiness. The red wine syrup was sweetly pleasing, although hardly revolutionary. "I love duck," said Lea, "but it's difficult to cook perfectly. I'm very pleased with this." It came with a delightful guava chutney, steamed quelites (greens), and an enchanting side dish that fooled all but one of us. It tasted like a slightly coarse purée of some mystery root vegetable. Lea diagnosed it correctly: "It's polenta made of corn flour mixed with semolina flour!"
Rack of lamb, cooked precisely to our request for medium-rare, was tender as filet mignon and glazed with miel de maguey. That sauce, too, was sweet and not especially exotic, but one of the vegetable garnishes was sensational: Fresh early-spring peas, lightly mint-touched, came in a wash of thickened heavy cream, a combination almost pornographically sensual. The cream may have been the "cauliflower fondant" that we didn't otherwise notice. As Brad Pitt could tell you, it's hard to concentrate on Jennifer Aniston when Angelina Jolie shows up on your plate.
A fillet of escolar (a fish with facial markings resembling horn-rim eyeglasses -- hence its name, "scholar") was well treated. Under a bouffantly crisped, lightly breaded surface, the flesh was tender, and the plate was painted with a slick of salty squid-ink and scattered with more samphire. I have no objection to encountering samphire twice in one meal. It's appeared only twice before in my last 700 restaurant dinners and is not about to wear out its welcome. Barramundi (an Australian bass subbing for out-of-season Alaskan halibut) was also given its due props in the cooking and garnishes, but its coral-colored siete mares sauce was saltier than any of us liked.
Romesco offers plenty of more commonplace entrées, including Italian milanesa and chicken Marsala, braised short ribs, and three certified Angus beefsteaks that are grilled over mesquite chips. On weekends, they serve the acclaimed paella of their Tijuana sister-restaurants. And don't even get me started on what's for lunch! (A muffuletta sandwich for one thing, complete with olive salad.)
The wine list is loaded with good bottles at decent prices -- although we soon discovered that not everything in print is in stock. (Our first two choices for appetizer-course whites were long gone.) California, Italy, and Mexico are the most strongly represented wine-growing nations. We were pleased with the easygoing, velvety Cetto Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Guadalupe Valley that we enjoyed with our entrées. You'd never mistake it for a tannic prima donna of a Médoc, but as a food wine it's a charmer.
The house-made dessert list is almost overabundant, a last-course mirror to the first-course cornucopia. It ranges from flan, churros, and crepas de cajeta (crepes with goat-milk caramel syrup) to chocolate fantasies to heartland gringo fruit cobbler. The crepas and churros aren't the best I've ever sampled (i.e., the crepes are a tad thick), but the fresh mango cheesecake is a showstopper. Set atop a ginger-nut crust, the cheese is ethereal, fluffy and moist, topped with a thick, fresh mango glaze, with tangy tamarind-vanilla sauce pooling on the plate. Those who prefer the lightest sweets at a meal's end will sing hosannas. And the espresso is good, too, delivered right along with the desserts at our request. (Surprising how often servers ignore that plea.) In fact, service -- our waiter was imported from one of the Tijuana restaurants -- was well above average.
As we left, our posse eyeballed our fellow diners, checking out the later arrivals, and in the parking lot we commented on their delightful diversity. A quartet of handsome middle-aged Japanese dudes (the cutest of them bearded, and none dressed in the stereotypic navy-blue suit) explained the presence of unfiltered Nigori sake ("crazy milk") on the wine list. A striking, casual-glam Latino foursome (two guys, two gals in their thirties) could've been the Mexican Oscar nominees enjoying an anonymous night off. Plus lots of less-charismatic San Diegans -- all ages and ethnicities -- were chowing down happily. The restaurant even offers a kiddie menu so local families can take their kids out and start teaching them how to eat well.
Did Bonita need a Romesco? Who wouldn't?
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My father started our restaurant business 37 years ago in Tijuana," says chef-owner Javier Placencia, "when he founded Guiseppe's Pizzeria. He'd been working in Italian restaurants, so that's how he learned Italian cuisine. So ever since I was a little kid, I used to hang out at the restaurant and do my homework. After I graduated from high school, I decided to go to cooking school. I went to San Diego's Mesa College culinary program. And then my father needed my help taking care of the business in Tijuana, when he wanted to open a nicer Italian-style restaurant, and I took a couple of courses at the CIA in Napa Valley. When I came back, we opened Saverios. Eventually we grew to seven restaurants and cafés in Tijuana."
Why did he decide to open a restaurant in Bonita? "A lot of people from Tijuana live in this area," he said. "In fact, my family lived here when I was in high school, and I went to school in Bonita. So there were a lot of people who wanted us to open a place in the South Bay -- people who go to restaurants a lot. We moved back here two years ago and thought the area could use a restaurant like Romesco. And a lot of restaurants are about to open here as this area grows -- Dobson's and so forth -- they see a big market here. And the border waits influenced the decision. We had a lot of people from San Diego, North County, and L.A. that used to go to our restaurants on the weekends. Now, border waits are two, three hours coming back, and walking, it's even worse. A lot of people stopped going to Tijuana, so opening a restaurant here seemed like a good idea.
"We adapted some favorite dishes from our Tijuana restaurants to the menu here. We change the menu every two months or so, but we always keep some dishes that people don't want us to take out -- like the beef cheek tacos, the sort of things that people don't find in this area. We try to feature local products from Baja California -- we bring a lot of fish from there (like the smoked marlin and the escolar), a lot of vegetables, and all our olive oil. We buy most of our produce from Maneadero, south of Ensenada, where they grow organic baby vegetables. We're also working with the local wineries down there.
"And we're creating all sorts of new dishes all the time. I'm just going crazy here in California with the abundance of produce -- beautiful colored, fresh! Being a chef here is like being a chef in Disneyland. It makes me want to be in the kitchen more. I just did a chile pasilla stuffed with shredded duck, garnished with Mexican cacao beans, in a red wine sauce. On certain Mondays, we've started doing dinners featuring California wineries, and we did that dish for a Martin Ray dinner. And there's an Australian fish, barramundi -- we're going to serve it with roasted figs, lemon, ginger, and basil, for a pinot noir dinner.
"We're already starting to expand. We already make all our own pastries, but our kitchen is small, so we rented the place next door so we can start making our own breads, like we do in Mexico."