Photos by Bill Veale Graphics
You can't say enough about the new opportunities in the Guadalupe Valley for beautiful places to eat. At this point with the explosions of new wineries, pairing wine with gourmet food, one could spend their whole vacation sampling and tasting. In the midst of all of this, Restaurante Quercus has carved out a very unique style and presentation. It is hidden in the deep shadows under two hundred year old oak trees at the edge of a seasonal stream. The owner Federico Cota Campbell, biologist, and chef Luciano González are passionate about what they call Caliterránea Cuisine. Federico explains they serve a natural blending of all the traditions of the Californias that include the characteristics of Ensenada's native cooking. Federico believes that "creative freedom in a constant evolution." This luscious vision promises to fill the plate, amaze the palet and fully satisfy the appetite.
The dark wood and volcanic rock structure is nestled in the shade of the Coastal Oak trees, whose scientific name is Quercus agrifolia. Federico named his restaurant, Quercus, in honor of their majesty and historic significance. The trees and the very land still hold the sense of an earlier time. The Indian group, Kumeyaay or also spelled Kumiai, were the first people who lived here. The Kumeyaay can be traced back 10,000 years or a span of 600 generations living on in the Kumeyaay today. These great oaks provided the acorn that sustained the people and this land was abundant with plant, animal and bird life.
It is no wonder that Federico was attracted to this location for his restaurant. He is putting his own deep roots down just like the oaks. Federico is a storyteller, biologist and restaurateur. He has vast insights and it is obvious the land of Baja California nourishes his heart and soul. His stories are rich and unique spanning a lifetime. He will spin you a tale about the current rain producing weather cycle and how he literally walked much of the land as a biologist for the Mexican government. He camped and followed Big Horned sheep. He set out to discover the effects that the damming of the Colorado River has on the Gulf of California today. His knowledge is limitless about the native planets, where they are found and their properties. On occasion, a wild salvia might be used in a particular dish, to “spice things up a bit.” A man of many talents, he worked processing government loans during the real estate boom. He also saved many people from being hurt in the crash, as he saw clearly that it was going to happen. Sadly, he admitted, that there were people who did not take heed.
Chef Luciano is part of the 4th generation of graduates from the School of Gastronomy in Ensenada. There have been ten graduating classes to date, as Baja is becoming well known for culinary delights south of the border. Many will say that Ensenada now rivals Tijuana in this northern state. Here at Quercus, Federico and Chef Luciano are passionate about what they are creating. You can see the twinkle in their eyes when they speak about crafting new ideas. Besides the passion there is a delightful sense of adventure in a menu that is “Juntan el Mar y la Tierra” - a beautiful closeness of both land and sea.
In order to create the perfected seasoning and flavors, a smokehouse was constructed for the homemade sausage and cured bacon. For an appetizer from the sea, try the sashimi de pulpo con pesca with just a hint of the Orient.
The huge brick oven is used for everything. The small loaves of bread are baked and served with salsas of roasted chilies, tomatoes and seasoning. The hamburger with blue cheese is held between two slices of warm bread. Oven baked pizza with names like Mezxla de Quesos, includes gorgonzola and goat cheese. For the carnivores, one has to try the pizza with the homemade smoked sausage, ham and pepperoni. The pizzas are very light on tomato base. Instead, a secret blend of cheeses with Chef Luciano’s special spices covers thin crispy crust that melts in your mouth.
While I wait for the BBQ pork ribs, I sample the house wine. It has its own special story, bottled especially for Federico by a friend, it is a blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet has a silky smooth finish. It is full bodied, yet light enough to accompany most dishes on the menu. The gentle afternoon sun filters through the oak leaves, light and dark patterns dance with the breeze. When, in the summer, it turns hot in the valley, these old trees will keep provide deep shade, for comfortable dining. Frank Sinatra croons a wistful song of love and I can hear singing in the kitchen. Of course the song blends like a special spice with the food, as in the movie Water for Chocolate.
I was told the pork ribs are cured for 24 to 36 hours in a secret blend that includes anise. The BBQ sauce is a pineapple roasted chipotle affair. The chef presented his creation on a wooden plank. The glazed ribs were draped over a pillow of whipped potatoes and garnished with tiny carrots and miniature zucchini. Sometimes vegetables can be decorative, but when I bit into the ear of corn, childhood memories came flooding back, sweet, tender and roasted over an open fire. The meat was falling off the bone tender...just too good!
Federico admits that he is not a traditionalist when it comes to culinary delights. He says, “Gastronomy just happens. There are no rules, but one: make it good.”
Directions: From the toll road south, take #3 to San Antonio de Las Minas. At the first and only stoplight, turn right. Two blocks look left for the Quercus sign. If you cross over the bridge you have gone too far. Open Thursday thru Sunday, serving lunch and dinner. For restaurant hours and reservations call 646-155-3167 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
References. Google: Kumeyaay History and Wikipedia