2018 is in full swing and with her came a whole new chunk of flavors south of the border. The seductive charms of the French, the intoxicating tastes of the sea and the power of the humble avocado are all showcased in this wee roundup of the two best new bites that I had on my latest crisscross through Baja.
Over the span of a few weeks, I traipsed solo from village to village, up and down Highway 1, and even though I tasted my way through super high-end restaurants and tiny, lowbrow cantinas, nothing beat this double threat of fresh eats. Each of them was literally mind boggling in their deliciousness….and simpler than ever in their presentation.
Le Bistro, Loreto Bay
Opening night, December 2017. I pretty much planned my whole trip around an opening date in early December that I caught wind of on a random local’s blog. If a French bistro was setting up shop in Loreto, then I needed to be there to witness this glory; especially since the words champagne and oysters were mentioned as the house specialty. But, once I rolled into town and saw what looked like an empty storefront, I thought, there is no way this place is opening in 48 hours. Not a chance. But, never underestimate the power of the glorious French and the fortitude of the Mexican locals on hand to make miracles happen. I was shocked to swing by two days later for the Grand Opening and see the doors flung open, the tables and chairs set just so and the twinkly outdoor lights shining.
A staff of what seemed like dozens were racing around the tiny spot putting the finishing touches on the charming veranda and wouldn’t you know it, I was the first person there at high noon. I took a seat and perused the chalkboard menu while a fresh bottle of cold champagne (their very first) was popped open and more potential guests wandered by…curious about the new joint in the community. They had a small offering of oysters, shrimp, specialty meats, smoked fish, cheeses, homemade jams, pates, and the like…all the typical findings one would expect in a local seaside mom-n-pop deep in the French Riviera. What I did not expect was the level of taste that hit me with every single bite. It’s as if they had taken seafood and incarnated it into everything it should always have been but one is rarely lucky enough to get a chef with magical hands that knows what to do with seafood. Which, by the way, is very little. Since I was dining solo, the kitchen was kind enough to give me split plates so I could try everything. A half-dozen oysters were shuffled out and slurped down (doused in lemon) within minutes. A half dozen shrimp perched on a slate slab showed up right after, with a mess of various butters to dip each poached crustacean in. The big surprise was the jar of curry butter. Who knew that flavor tingle even existed? Some kind of pickled sea algae flanked the butters and I couldn’t stop crunching on each little string. This was how seafood was supposed to be done; just quietly uncomplicated, with flavors of salt and the sea dominating each bite.
While all this was going on, the house crew was being corrected on the spot when they made slight faux pas and local vendors kept swinging by with bags of more seafood and ingredients. I love delivery service like that – if you call them, they will come, loaded to the gills with seasonal goods. The atmosphere was beyond festive – it’s as if all of France descended on this small colonial village just for the opening of this bistro. No less than half a dozen languages were being flung around from table to table and they might have run out of champagne before dinner service. I would consider that a good thing on Day 1 in a remote Mexican hamlet.
PS – I met a friendly couple as I was leaving and they demanded I try their smoked fish. That bite alone requires a whole new litany of ramblings. These folks got it going on and I cannot wait to slip back through in a month of so.
What used to be called Agave is now called Regina. Why, I really don’t know. I’m sure it’s an owner change, a family feud or simply just a freshen up. No matter what the reason is, I can say that in 15 years of Loreto travel, I have never eaten at Agave. But, this time I gave Regina a try – blame it on the convivial mood surrounding the plaza one fine afternoon and the impeccable weather that gifts Baja this time of year. And also, the piping hot chocolate clams one solitary diner was inhaling.
Once I plopped down and ingested the menu though, my eyes landed on the avocado shrimp boat. Now there are three words that I would never put together and get excited about unless they were all three actually happening on my sailboat. But, not in a restaurant. The heavens steered me toward it though and in all my years, never did I expect such a tasty set up. It took a long spell for it to finally reach my table, but when it did, I just gazed at it for elongated minute. So much detail went into constructing this dish, it was extraordinary. From the crisp lettuce leaves set up like wings of an airplane to the shaved and pickled carrots, celery and cucumbers nestled underneath the avocado; it was as if the chef spent his whole morning prepping just those four ingredients. Nothing haphazard here! Then, perched on top of that tangle were two peeled avocados (thank you!) overflowing with what can only be described as a shrimp salad of the Promised Land. Big, thick chunks of local chopped shrimp and crisp chopped celery were bound together by luscious sour cream and not much else except a beautiful sprig of baby basil – ready to take its own flight.
Each nibble I took slowly turned into a full ravage of the whole plate. So much so that every tourist wandering by questioned what I was eating and then…based on my enthusiasm, grabbed a table. Talk about real time Instagram skills! This is the one dish in my latest two-week sojourn that I conjure up daily in my mind. I am almost scared to try and recreate it for fear of failing the original. Which can only mean one thing – time to head back to Baja!