Celestial fare on offer at new Valle de Guadalupe restaurant
By W. Scott Koenig
Motivational speaker Les Brown famously said, “Shoot for the moon and if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars.” This holds true for rising culinary star chef Sheyla Alvarado — whose new eatery Restaurante Lunario at winery Lomita in the Valle de Guadalupe — shoots for the moon and delivers a stellar lineup of gastronomic delights in a setting that’s out of this world.
Chef Humberto Avila and Lomita owner Fernando Perez Castro founded Traslomita, their campestre style outdoor restaurant, at the winery in 2015. Alvarado was hired that same year and eventually took the mantle of executive chef. Several amigos enthused about the young chef’s delightful, hearty family-style dishes and insisted I visit as soon as I could. I didn’t make it until 2017 and was glad I did. Traslomita quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in the Valle.
I thought highly enough of the chef and her food to include both in a documentary I coproduced with The Culinary Institute of America and in my book Seven Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine, alongside more established chefs — and her mentors — Javier Plascencia, Diego Hernandez and Drew Deckman. Rick Bayless, the celebrity chef/owner of award-winning Mexican restaurants in Chicago, recently declared Alvarado the “…most talented chef in the Valle”.
So, I wasn’t going to wait for the next blue moon to visit Restaurante Lunario — not conceived as a new restaurant, but rather as an enclosed dining room for Traslomita. “We wanted to build a place for our customers to visit during the winter,” Alvarado shared during a recent interview. Many of the al fresco restaurants in the Valle close in November due to dropping temperatures during winter months. “I also always felt bad letting our staff go at the end of the season. The final design of the space was so beautiful, though, that we decided to create something more personal and unique.”
“With Lunario, we wanted to create something more personal” – Sheyla Alvarado
Lunario, open only for dinner, is accessed via a lit, magical, meandering pathway and stone steps nestled in Lomita’s vines. Inside, the space features a glass ceiling — perfect for star or moon gazing between courses. A large picture window frames a colorful array of plants in the outdoor garden that wouldn’t feel out of place in an alien landscape. Surfaces are of light stone, wood and granite that keep the interior bright. Gold-plated flatware is reminiscent of the metallic skirt of a lunar lander.
In contrast to Lomita’s heaping platters, Alvarado serves a six or eight course fixed menu at Lunario of decidedly smaller portions — with an emphasis on fine dining. She explains, “It’s really the same style of Mexican family food, but with a little more love and thought in the presentation.” Wines from Lomita and Castro’s other vineyard, Finca La Carrodilla, can be paired with the tasting courses. As can wine from Vena Cava and Baja California craft beers.
While the tasting menu’s fixed courses will be updated on a regular rotation, Alvarado assures that popular dishes will be available à la carte beginning in January 2020. “We began by changing the menu every lunar cycle, but our guests were sad to see their favorite dishes no longer offered,” she says.
One of those dishes is the softshell crab taco served on a tortilla of red corn and pipian (pumpkin seed). The crab, sourced from Veracruz, is sweet, sumptuous, perfectly battered and lightly fried. Cucumber and verdalago (purslane) provide a snappy contrast to the main ingredient’s malleability. A chunky salsa of green habanero and piquant tomatillo (green tomato) is served on the side and add a welcome touch of acid and heat. This flavorful taco succeeds on every level.
The flavorful softshell crab taco succeeds on every level.
Another course that achieves star status is lengua (beef tongue) sliced thin, roasted and served in its own ambrosial, slightly salty broth with nopal cactus, avocado and purslane. The broth is poured tableside, and the dish is served with red corn and pipian tortillas, on which we were instructed to rub lime before loading them with the lengua. A dollop of salsa verde of habanero and chicatana (ant sections from Oaxaca) is spooned in to add spice and texture to the dish. I raised bowl to mouth to enjoy every last drop of the sublime broth.
A tamal of sweet plantain is a nice change of taste between the savory courses. The silky tamal is served in a luxuriant bath of delectable, semi-smoky recado negro — a Yucatecan sauce of Mayan origin made with charred tomatoes and chili seco (dried chili) blended with spices, herbs and vinegar. The pungent umami of the recado offers a distinct counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the tamal.
If you’ve left room for the last course — and you should — a rompope (eggnog) crème brûlée offers a playful and tasty Mexican take on this classic dessert. A second postre, a small “sandwich” of dark chocolate mousse, banana puree, hazelnuts and caramel wedged between two thin, chocolate seed wafers is a wistful interpretation of a childhood Nutella and banana sandwich. Equally delicious, but not nearly as caloric.
The Lunario name also brings to mind the feminine mythology of our nearby celestial orb, befitting of Alvarado. She concludes, “As a female chef, people always think that I must suffer (in a male-dominant profession). But I don’t because chefs in the Valle are very open and inclusive. They celebrate women and I appreciate that. I’m very grateful.”
The fixed price menu is approximately $60/US for 8 courses, $53/US for 6 courses. With pairing options at approximately $95/US or $78/US, respectively. A la carte menu and pricing will be available in January 2020.
Restaurante Lunario is located at Fracc. 3 Lote 13, Local road Parcela 71, San Marcos, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. Open Thu-Sat from 7-11:30PM. Phone: +52 (646) 156-8469. Website: www.facebook.com/Lunario.Restaurante.
Disclaimer: The author and his family enjoyed their meal compliments of the house. No other compensation was received for writing this review and all opinions remain those of the author — who would enthusiastically return to Restaurante Lunario on his own peso.
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).