Valle de Guadalupe restaurant layers flavors using only hyper-local ingredients
By: W. Scott Koenig
The perennial and edible herb malva—known in English as mallow—grows wild in the Valle de Guadalupe and is one of the earliest cited plants in recorded history. Wikipedia credits a physician from the third century BC as proclaiming, “The mallow nourishes, is easily digested, and its liquid lubricates the windpipe”.
The same could be said of the plant’s namesake Malva restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe. Chef Roberto Alcocer’s cuisine nourishes diners while his hyper-local sourcing assists in nourishing the wine region’s organic farmers and ranchers, as well as fishermen on both coasts of Baja California.
And not only is chef Alcocer’s food extremely digestible, it is a thrill to experience. Like the modern Mexican table on which it’s laid—Alcocer spent time in Enrique Olvera’s kitchen at Pujol—several of the dishes at Malva offer a thought-provoking culinary proposition.
One example is his grilled rabbit loin, served with carrots and greens—including a malva leaf—atop a bed of millet and creamy risotto. “It’s the rabbit served with his own diet,” the chef explained during a recent visit.
As far as “lubricating the throat,” Malva partners with host vineyard Mina Penelope to offer several interesting wines, including an excellent Sauvignon Blanc with just a touch of added Muscat, and the chef’s first personal vintage of Malbec, a Malbec Rosé, and a Grenache.
Chef Alcocer moved to Ensenada from Chiapas with his family at age 7. As a culinary student and young chef, he traveled to Puebla, Mexico City, France, and England to learn and work in a number of renowned and Michelin-starred restaurants.
The chef returned to Ensenada and opened Malva in 2014. “This restaurant is my baby,” Alcocer shared during a recent visit. “It’s been the chicken that lays the golden eggs. I don’t think that’s right, but in Mexico, we don’t have geese.”
Alcocer’s success with Malva—consistently listed one of San Pellegrino’s Top 100 Mexican Restaurants—has provided him the resources to open restaurant Sole in Mexico City, which features American East coast-style seafood, as well as the opportunity to consult with other chefs and restaurants.
Alcocer cooks only with local and organic ingredients, focusing on a menu he refers to as “Valle food.” “That is cooking with fire, wood, and charcoal and respecting the ingredients. If you don’t have your own garden, there is a garden with the best produce nearby. The meat and the seafood should also be of the freshest quality, of course.”
The chef continued, “When you receive second-class vegetables, or second-class fish, it’s like a girl. If it’s not beautiful, you have to dress it up a lot. If she is already beautiful, she doesn’t have to do too much. It’s the same with ingredients.”
Alcocer also wants his guests to enjoy a unique experience at Malva. “If my producers are selling ducks to other restaurants in the Valle de Guadalupe, I won’t buy them because you can get them somewhere else,” he explained. “We want to be as delicious and individual as we can be.”
To this end, Alcocer insists that you won’t find Baja California staples such as lobster or fish tacos on his menu, but they will always serve lamb, and lots of it. “Different lamb preparations are always on the menu since we have them here (at the ranch). We raise them, we feed them, and we sacrifice them.”
Malva offers a ten-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings, as well as a la carte dishes. The tasting menu typically starts with fresh or grilled shellfish. Alcocer recently featured a trio of shellfish that included a hurache oyster in mignonette, and black and red pata de mula clams in light ranchero and habanero salsas, respectively.
The bivalves were fresh, flavorful, and redolent of the sea. The toothsome texture of the red clam was reminiscent of an almeja chocolata (chocolate clam), typically pervasive, but absent from most Baja California restaurant menus due to a seasonal and limited supply this summer, but not missed at all during this sitting.
Given the chef’s use of only the freshest produce, salads at Malva are a highlight. In 2015 his summer menu featured a salad of carrots prepared three ways: grilled, pickled, and as a puree served with Swiss chard, greens, dollops of beet puree, and ash. His arrangement of the salad along the rim of a white dish is exemplary of plating as an art form. Chef Alocer’s food looks as good as it tastes, and leaves all of the senses satisfied.
A recent dish of the restaurant’s ranch-raised borrego featured lamb that was braised, shredded, rolled, and wood fire grilled atop a pinto bean puree and lima beans with a garnish of Swiss chard. The meat was succulent, perfectly seasoned, and combined very well with the hearty flavor of the bean puree.
The chef’s escolar served in emulsions of fava beans and roasted fennel is a great example of his use of what he terms “weird fish”. Also known as white tuna and closely related to the oilfish, his grilled escolar is rich, dense, and flavorful—and best tasted after a swipe through one or both of the emulsions in order to appreciate the chef’s layering of ingredients to create a dish with multiple flavors that work perfectly together.
Although other opportunities have arisen and he’s often asked about expanding Malva’s intimate 30-40-seat restaurant, the chef is content to remain in Ensenada without growing too big, and appreciates what he’s created. Most of the year, he can be found beneath the palm-thatched palapa that serves as the restaurant’s roof, happily at work in his self-described rustic kitchen.
“I consider myself from Ensenada. And I will stay in Ensenada,” Alcocer concluded at the end of a recent visit. “I’ve spent half my life here. My father said that I was too intelligent (to study and work as a chef), and that I should go to law school. But all his life he told me to do what I like. And if you’re not happy, why go to work?”
Malva is open Mondays from 1-7PM and Wed-Sat from 1-9PM. They are closed on Tuesdays. Malva is located at Kilometer 96 On the Carretera Ensenada-Tecate, 22755 San Antonio De Las Minas, Baja California, Mexico (Directly across the road from Santo Tomas vineyards). Reservations recommended. +52-646-155-3085, www.malvarestaurant.com.