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Baja's Most Ambitious Chef


TIJUANA — "I want to be the Mexican Wolfgang Puck. That is my goal," says Martin San Roman. This 40-year-old Tijuana chef has already bested Puck in one respect--he owns 120 red Ferraris. These are miniatures, to be sure, but San Roman's ambitions, and his credits, are not.

His restaurant, Rincon San Roman, is in the forefront of the thriving new food scene in Tijuana. And his intriguing Baja-French-Mexican cuisine has drawn international attention. Today he will cook for Mexico's President Vicente Fox. Bill Clinton has also tasted his food.

Cut out to be a star, San Roman is good-looking, has a bright, engaging personality and a solid foundation of training at Ecole Lenotre in France. He's a TV celebrity too. For 6 1/2 years, he has appeared on Televisa's weekly "Del Chef a Usted" (From the Chef to You).

You might wonder why a chef of this stature has settled in Tijuana, when he could go anywhere. "You are right--I have had offers from London, Chicago, Australia, even Morocco," he says. "But I think, 'I am Mexican, and I have to make it here.' Food-wise, I can get everything I want from Baja as well as from the world. For me, Baja is the greatest state in Mexico."

Born in Mexico City of Basque ancestry, San Roman opened La Tour de France in Tijuana in 1989. His classical French food rose high above the tacos, carne asada and refried beans then typical of the city. San Roman closed that restaurant last year to concentrate on Rincon.

"Slowly, Tijuana is changing," he says. "In the near future, it will be the gastronomic place in Mexico. We have the best wine country in Mexico. We can get any kind of fish and seafood. We export organic products such as baby lettuces, baby vegetables and many quality items."

Like San Roman, Rincon stands apart. It is located on a peaceful hillside at Real del Mar, 12 miles from Tijuana's frenetic core. No signs advertise its presence. A guard raises a barrier to let visitors onto the grounds. The road winds quietly past a golf course and a Marriott hotel. The restaurant is across from the hotel.

It is a shock to find club sandwiches and hamburgers on the menu. Those are for golfers who want a quick lunch, the chef explains. But there is also an appetizer of deep-fried panela cheese filled with ate de membrillo, a golden quince paste. The blend of meltingly soft cheese with sweet quince is ravishing. San Roman dots the plate with strawberry coulis and spoons on pico de gallo made from strawberries, papaya, jalapenos and onions. Crisp, thin strips of corn tortilla tumble over the cheese, and a basil sprig sits on top. It is an extraordinary dish, a startling combination of flavors, and it typifies the way San Roman updates traditional Mexican dishes--sliced cheese with quince paste is a common dessert in Mexico.

For his chayote lasagna, he stacks chayote squash, spinach, tomato and Oaxaca-style cheese, then surrounds the stack with cilantro oil, diced tomato and cilantro leaves. Crab quesadillas perch against an avocado half that contains guacamole and a dab of wildly hot habanero chile compote. Corn husk strips sprout from the center of the avocado, and avocado slices are fanned in front beside a few leaves of baby lettuce. A single gaufrette potato slice punctuates this arrangement.

"Pave de boeuf aux escargots--filet of beef with snails, garlic and tomato sauce--is my signature dish," San Roman says. "The best dessert is the crepe cake with dark and white chocolate mousse. This dessert is my invention, and all Tijuana knows about it. I call it pastel de crepas Tijuana."

Specials one night are beef brains in red wine sauce with shallots and filet of sole stuffed with salmon in a beurre blanc sauce. "The specials are always French," San Roman says. "I would never leave my training in classic French cuisine. That's what I love. For me, it's the best cuisine, but I like to mix it with the Mexican."

At a reception following President Fox's speech at a journalists' convention in Tijuana today, San Roman plans to serve salmon in a vinaigrette seasoned with chipotle chiles and honey; quail marinated in Baja red wine, beef in tamarind sauce and California chiles filled with the truffle-like corn fungus huitlacoche and marinated with Mexican brown sugar and vinegar.

Although San Roman likes to update and glamorize Mexican food, some things he leaves alone. The Caesar salad on his menu is the Tijuana original.

He calls his style "cocina del autor," meaning dishes that he creates. "I try to fusion the Mexican and the French," he says, "but I am not the kind of chef that likes to fusion everything. I like to do something original." Although Baja can supply fresh herbs, San Roman will eventually grow his own behind the restaurant. Near the herb plot will be a barbecue pit for authentic Mexican barbacoa.

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