A Perfect Pairing in the Valle de Guadalupe
By: W. Scott Koenig
In the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California’s wine country, there’s nothing better than a thoughtfully-prepared and delicious dish crafted of fresh local ingredients accompanied by a glass of one of the region’s earthy red blends or monovarietals. And when the menu is created specifically with wine pairings in mind, all the better.
Ensenada native, winemaker Alvaro Alvarez and his family, began production as Alximia Vino Elemental in San Antonio de Las Minas in 2008. By now Alvarez’s story is a familiar one. A theoretical mathematician designs and builds an eco-friendly winemaking and tasting facility that resembles a UFO parked in the middle of a vineyard. He applies his mathematical knowledge to the creation of red and white blends and monovarietals inspired by the four elements — earth, air, fire and water.
Alximia has played host to several culinary projects since its inception. Chef Gilberto Morales’ Kumeyaay-inspired culinary proposal Nomada. Martin San Roman’s La Terrase, which showcased the chef’s unique brand of “Baja French” cuisine. The 2017 opening of restaurant LaX, with a menu of serviceable Mexican classics such as sopas of pork belly and ceviche tostadas, designed by Chef Marco Marin of Latitud 32.
“We decided to call the restaurant LaX (La Equis en Español) because there’s an ‘X Factor’ involved,” Alvarez, ever the mathematician, told us during a recent visit. “We wanted the freedom to change things up from time to time.” And with the recent hiring of executive chef Valeria Maravilla, things have changed — notably the quality of cuisine on offer here. And it’s a change for the better.
Maravilla is yet another talented graduate of Tijuana’s Culinary Art School, a fertile breeding ground for chefs who will eventually take the place of the Plascencias, Guerreros and Deckmans of the Valle. The young chef has already built an impressive resume — with kitchen stints at Ábac in Barcelona, the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego and Valle stalwart, Restaurante Laja.
“We called the restaurant LaX due to the ‘X Factor’.
We wanted the freedom to change things up from time to time.”
Maravilla’s arrival at LaX comes at an opportune time in Alximia’s evolution. “I want to start making better wines,” Alvarez confides. And a sharpened focus on his 2016 monovarietals – Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon – is testament to his progress as a winemaker. “When we were doing barrel tastings for our blends, there were a couple that were exceptional, so I decided to make monovarietals,” he says. Alvarez’s deep, complex 2016 Tempranillo is redolent of cherries and chocolate and one of the best of this Spanish varietal I’ve sampled in the region.
After hiring Maravilla to take over the kitchen earlier this year, winemaker and chef started with a clean slate, developing a menu of dishes that pair with Alximia’s line of blends and monovarietals. “We already knew how our new wines would taste, so we intentionally selected ingredients for the menu that would pair well with them,” Alvarez shares.
The result? In this reviewer’s opinion, they succeeded. Fabulously. During our visit to LaX, we enjoyed several new dishes and wines that paired perfectly. In fact, it was one of the best meals we’ve enjoyed this year in the Valle de Guadalupe, or anywhere for that matter.
“One of the best meals we’ve enjoyed in the Valle de Guadalupe this year.”
“When people come to Valle, they want Valle food,” chef Roberto Alcocer of Malva told me in 2017. And at LaX, ingredients endemic of the region are what one can expect — including octopus, ceviche, shellfish and a variety of locally-sourced fresh vegetables.
One example is Maravilla’s oyster ceviche. The bivalve is denatured with lemon, then chopped with onion, cherry tomatoes, avocado and fennel. The ceviche is served atop sturdy tostadas baked to remain crunchy beneath the juicy concoction. Served with two aiolis of parsley and chilies seco (dried chilies), it’s a refreshing entrada that’s wholly satisfying. This dish pairs best with Alximia’s Talisman, a 100% Viognier monovarietal.
LaX’s delicious duck roulade is topped with orange zest and served with grilled orange, orange morsels seasoned with olive oil, salt and thyme, carrots and squash. The dish is finished with a splash of beetroot purée blended with a red wine reduction, which lends itself to pairing with one of Alximia’s red blends, specifically their Magma of Carignan and Grenache. The wine’s intense plum tones work with – but don’t overpower – the local fowl’s profound savory flavor and bright orange accents.
Perhaps the best new dish – and one destined for my year end “Top 10 Baja Bites” list – is the black aguachile of seared beef filet. The succulent steak, sourced from a ranch in nearby Mexicali, is seasoned with salt and pepper and expertly seared — pink in the middle with a nice bark around the edges. It’s plated with red onion, cucumber, watercress and sliced habanero. A rich, tangy aguachile of tatemado (charred) habanero, onion and garlic with soy and black miso accompanies the filet and is to be poured over the dish. The flavors are perfectly balanced and the course pairs nicely with Alximia’s Aqua, equal parts Petit Verdot, Zinfandel and Grenache.
I’m not typically one for desserts but was pleasantly surprised by the visual appearance and taste of Maravilla’s brownie crumble, apportioned with mascarpone mousse, cheese, wine sorbet, salted caramel, caramelized walnuts, berries and white chocolate. It’s a decadent, fruity mélange that’s not too filling after a large meal. “To me, it’s like a forest,” the chef contends. This journey through the wilderness should include a glass of Alximia’s Zinfandel. Its jammy red berry notes riff off the dessert’s blueberries and raspberries and are a natural accompaniment to the luscious red wine sorbet.
With Alvarez’s renewed invigoration on quality winemaking and the addition of a fresh, young, imaginative kitchen lead in Maravilla, Alximia’s LaX should be near the top of your list of Valle de Guadalupe culinary destinations this year. I can’t wait to return and try the rest of the menu.
Disclaimer: Knowing that we’d love the new dishes from LaX and Alximia’s new 2016 vintages, Alvarez invited us to sample the new menu and generously comped our food and wine pairings. No other compensation was received for writing this article and all opinions remain my own.
San Diego-based lifestyle writer W. Scott Koenig is founder of the blog AGringoInMexico.com, author of the book 7 Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine and has written for Discover Baja Travel Club, Destino Los Cabos, DiningOut San Diego and SanDiegoRed. Scott organizes and conducts professional and private culinary tours of Baja California and has assisted with film and video productions in the region. He has worked with the Food Channel, the BBC, KPBS and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).