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WINE

Hold the Cerveza

In Mexico's Wine Country, Elegant Cuisine Deserves a More Subtle Companion

September 19, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA — Attend this coastal city's annual wine festival and you'll emerge with a new view of Mexican food--and the sad awareness that, for the most part, this is not what you get north of the border.

Picture freshly caught skate wing with a crunchy topping of fried jamaica flowers. Risotto prepared with huitlacoche, the darkly intriguing fungus that grows on corn. Lobster medallions sauced with vodka-laced bechamel and topped with caviar. Tiny squid in dark beet sauce. Deep sea shrimp that are sweet like lobster. Quail simmered with white wine and lots of fresh rosemary.

These are not rare dishes. They're regular fare at Ensenada restaurants--refined, classy dishes that you drink with wine, not beer. Save the cerveza for the heavy, sauce-flooded combo plates that you get in Alta California.

Perhaps taste is elevated here because Ensenada is the center of Mexico's wine district. Two wineries, Bodegas de Santo Tomas and Cavas Valmar, are in the city. A string of others are situated off the Ensenada-Tecate highway, a short drive from town.

The ultimate in wine-dining is the Santo Tomas winery restaurant, La Embotelladora Vieja. Dramatic, free-standing brick arches soar above the tables in this big, dark room. A long wine bar, huge wine casks and bottle storage bins let you know that you are in a winery.

During the Fiestas de la Vendimia, the wine festival held in August, Santo Tomas staged a street fair, and La Embotelladora offered a special menu that tells more than anything else what modern Mexican cuisine is like.

The first course was a salad of Greek feta cheese ringed by tomato slices, each topped with a leaf of locally grown basil. Tiny capers cascaded over the cheese, and the dressing was raspberry vinegar and Argentine olive oil.

Next came a pyramid of toast points sheltering slices of foie gras from the state of Morelos. On the side: a marmalade of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries cooked in wine made from Tempranillo, a grape characteristic of the Rioja district of Spain.

The main course required a difficult choice between risotto made with huitlacoche flown in from Mexico City, porcini mushrooms, chanterelles and white truffle oil and one made with duck confit and Merlot.

For dessert, chef Benito Molina created a tart of puff pastry and vanilla cream topped with a pear poached in Merlot accompanied by strawberry coulis, Sherry-flavored chocolate sauce and scoops of vanilla ice cream. Molina, who is from Mexico City, trained at the New England Culinary Institute.

Home cooking is not far behind the chefs. Cavas Valmar stages an annual wine cooking contest for amateurs during the festival. This year's winning recipe was shrimp cooked with white wine, tomatoes, garlic, a dash of curry powder and chipotle chile. Second place went to mussels in puff pastry. Squid marinated in white wine and baked with a cream cheese-onion sauce came in third.

At a party after the contest, local cooks dished up specialties such as tuna pa^te prepared with white wine and pork loin in a rich sauce that contained chorizo and ham.

Spurring on the movement toward fancy cooking at home is Leticia Backhoff of Ensenada. Backhoff teaches cooking in private homes in Ensenada and Tijuana and doesn't stint on luxury ingredients. Trained in France and England, she prepares an enchilada casserole that requires 1 1/2 pounds of lobster meat and a pound of large shrimp.

Another dish from her curriculum is pork loin marinated with rosemary and ancho chile and served with a sauce modeled on green mole enriched with lots of whipping cream. She accompanies this with mozzarella-topped stuffed potatoes that contain bacon and jalapen~o.

Backhoff would match white wines with these dishes: a Sauvignon Blanc with the seafood enchilada casserole and a Chenin Blanc or a blend of Chenin Blanc and French Colombard to accompany the pork.

Her husband, Hans, is the winemaker for Monte Xanic, which produces some of the region's most prestigious varietals.

An aficionado of fine Mexican food (he'll tell you the best restaurants in Ensenada and Mexico City and what to order), Hans Backhoff says even tostadas and gorditas can go with wine--that is, if the spices are kept at a palatable level. Lobster tacos, an Ensenada specialty, are excellent with Chardonnay. "But tacos with spicy sauce? I'd have a beer," he says.

To get a North American slant on pairing Mexican food with wine, we turned to Ronald McClendon, winemaker for Vides del Guadalupe-Domecq, producer of Pedro Domecq wines. McClendon was formerly winemaker with R.H. Phillips Vineyards in Yolo County, the now-defunct John Culbertson Winery in Fallbrook and assistant winemaker at the San Pasqual Vineyards in Escondido, which is no longer in business.

With lobster burritos, and even with chiles rellenos, McClendon likes Chenin Blanc, a wine that is more popular in Mexico than in California. Domecq's version has a little residual sugar and enough acidity to cut through richness.

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