By Remy Sternbach
When you think of a Michelin-starred chef, you probably think of a pretentious Gordon Ramsay or Joël Robuchon type. They’re in their white aprons and toques, working behind the scenes inside a closed kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton in New York, LA, or maybe even Paris. Even if you are okay to wait months to get a reservation, you will have to decide if it’s worth it to spend half a month’s rent on a meal.
That said, I was pleased to discover that Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe offers a reasonable, yet, undoubtedly memorable Michelin-starred experience. Situated off Federal Highway 3 at the Mogor-Badan vineyard, is Deckman’s en El Mogor. Also known as just Deckman’s, the resturant is led by its head chef, Drew Deckman. Using only wood flame, the acclaimed restaurant offers an enigmatic al fresco open-kitchen dining experience. Deckman’s blends traditional Northern Baja cuisine, American South- inspired barbeque, and the touch of a European-trained palate.
According to the restaurant's website, Drew is originally from Georgia. After being awarded a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, he spent 10 years developing his culinary skill by working in France, Switzerland, and Germany cooking with gastro-masters. He gained experience from culinary experts such as Paul Bocuse, Jacques Maximin, Gilles DuPont and Tommy Byrne. He has even worked in China. In 2003, Drew was awarded a Michelin Star for his work at Restaurant Vitus in Germany.
With his impressive culinary resume, Drew could have set up shop anywhere in the world, but he didn’t. He humbly chose the inconspicuous Valle de Guadalupe for its beautiful scenery, delectable wine, and access to top grade seafood from the port of Ensenada. Although Drew has other culinary ventures that are getting a start, he currently works in the kitchen at Deckman’s full-time.
For those who are unacquainted with the region, Valle de Guadalupe is situated about 2 hours south of downtown San Diego, just north-east of Ensenada in Northern Baja. The area is known as the mecca of Mexican wine due to the valley’s ideal wine growing climate. The rapidly up-and- coming wine scene naturally invites upscale eateries. I frequently travel to Valle de Guadalupe to enjoy this special and unique region with friends and family.
In late September, my father was visiting San Diego for a business trip, he had a couple days of down time to spend with me, but he forgot his passport. Fortunately, I was able to get a family member to secretly overnight it. With a tad bit of luck, I was able to squeeze in a reservation at Deckman’s and surprise my dad. He had no idea I had his passport or that I was taking him to Mexico until we got to the Tijuana border!
We arrived at Deckman’s just before twilight for our reservation, on our approach we could see the smoke rising from the wood-powered grills. I confirmed our reservation and we were promptly seated. The restaurant is small and completely outside, kitchen and all. You can spot Drew Deckman from a mile away. The tall, broad shouldered, and bearded gringo stands behind a massive grill maybe 15 feet from where we were seated. His grill is loaded with a contrast of giant beef steaks and petite cuts of quail.
Of course, Drew isn’t the only one working the show, there are another dozen or so waitstaff and cooks. Drew and his cooks are diligently working wood fired grills. They are cooking everything from vegetables to tostadas. They all face the constant challenge of unpredictable cooking temperatures and smoke exposure which they endure to deliver a one-of- kind culinary experience to their patrons. The waitstaff well represent the prestige of Deckman’s but are still very friendly and approachable.
There were a lot of compelling options on the menu, so my father and I decided to try the five-course chef’s tasting with its wine pairing. That way we could get a broad sample of what Deckman’s has to offer. Keep in mind the menu changes with the season, as almost everything served is locally sourced.
We started off with fresh bread and wines from the Mogor-Badan vineyard. The sun started setting over the mountains very quickly. The lack of humidity left a very beautiful Martian-esque sunset. Soon it was dark. Not long after we were brought a complimentary ceviche amuse-bouche which was very enjoyable.
Our first course, chilled and delectable oysters, was served to us next along with more wine. Drew has said that it’s one of his favorite foods to prepare and they certainly did not disappoint. They were incredibly tasty.
Soon after, we were served beef tongue garnished with small tomatoes and herbs. The meat was cooked perfectly. This is quite a challenge to accomplish when you are using a wood stove and it really made me appreciate the skill required to make this dish.
Next, we were served a delicious seasoned quail with mole sauce. Drew really hit his marks fusing European, American, and Mexican flavors in this dish, with its Southern-style seasoning. The following dish was a slow-cooked steak and vegetables. The remarkably tasty dish showed off how well one can cook beef in Deckman’s one-of- a-kind wood-fired setup.
Though we were already satiated, our last course was a surprising dessert of fennel ice cream. Yes, fennel. I had no idea what to expect with such an audaciously crafted dessert. Surprisingly, it was some of the best ice cream I ever tasted, with a flawless balance of spice and sweet. It’s served with caramelized zest, pastries, and cream.
I certainly recommend you make a reservation at Deckman’s if you are a planning a trip to Valle de Guadalupe. The restaurant is the epitome of the best of what Valle de Guadalupe has to offer. As mentioned, Drew is currently working on other culinary ventures. He already has partnerships with 2 other places in the Ensenada area including Conchas de Piedra at the Casa de Piedra winery in Valle de Guadalupe, and at Aqua Mala, a microbrewery by the coast in Ensenada.
It is rumored that by next year, Drew will be the full-time head chef of a yet to be named restaurant in Banker’s Hill, a neighborhood in San Diego. Just in case, you should make it down to Deckman’s at el Mogor before it’s too late. Buen Provecho!