Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mexican Modern: Mision 19

I'm always intrigued by Javier Plascenia's food. If anyone can shatter the cliche that most people--other than Mexicans--think of as Mexican food, it is the Plascenias. My friend Beatriz Ladezma of Caxao Chocolates, who grew up with Javier and with whom I had dinner with at the new Mision 19 in Tijuana, explained to me that chefs throughout Baja look to the Plascencias as the epitome of creative and striking menus and techniques. Certainly, they've been doing that at Romesco on the U.S. side in Bonita--with Mediterranean-inspired dishes using local ingredients. Erizo Cebicheria, which I visited in April, melds local seafood with forward-looking approaches--octopus carpacio, for example, or chicharon de tuna.

So, I'd been eager to travel to Tijuana again to try Mision 19, one of the newest additions to the Plascencia restaurants. But this one is truly Javier's. Here, he's cutting loose and making his own imprint without worrying about how it fits in with the rest of the family's dining spots.

The restaurant is housed in Zona Urbana Rio, the city's business district, in a new concrete building--very cool and modern, but the space is warmed by an infusion of wood--whether the long thick planks that hang along the windows or the sleek wood tables and chairs--and color--the red upholstery and the tint of green in the glass.


The food is just as cool and modern, presented on white dishes sitting on squares of lava or slate. Everything pops.

Beatriz and I decided to go with the Chef's menu, which started light--a parfait of avocado meringue, thick housemade yogurt, diced Baja scallops, Persian cucumbers, soy jelly, chiltipin--a local wild chili--and a sprig of salty sea bean surrounded by corn sand. While the layers are beautiful shades of cool green, they are meant to be stirred together and the resulting flavors are an amalgam of sweetness with a tad of heat, umami from the soy jelly and salt from the sea bean.


Next came a petite salad of cured nopal strips mixed with Meyer lemon and grapefruit juice, topped by locally farmed abalone chips, micro arugula, and a chili de arbol salsa--creating a hot, crunchy dish with the slightest undertone of grapefruit. The dish, Plascencia said, was inspired by a dish he had at a local Chinese restaurant.  In fact, there is a distinct Chinese influence in several dishes, due, explained Beatriz, to the large Chinese community in Tijuana. Like the Jewish community I grew up in north of the border, Tijuanans have a tradition of enjoying Sunday dinners at their favorite Chinese restaurants. The Plascencias clearly among them.


Our third dish was deceptively simple--a salad with a thin slice of beef, heirloom tomatoes, and olives. But the beef had been sous vide for more than 48 hours--or, as the menu says, "cooked to high empty for 48 hours and sealed at the moment."


Intriguingly, the waiter, also named Javier, placed spoons in front of us and instructed us to use it to pick up the olives. Okay. The greyish brown olive, reminiscent of a kalamata, was, in fact, not an olive at all. Hello, molecular gastronomy. This was the essence of olive, but a tiny balloon of olive juice with all the salty brine you get when you bite into the real thing.


Fortunately there were several in the salad--and I felt like a kid playing with her food. What fun!

We then segued from light to more substantial. Risotto. But, here too tradition was upended. Think of this as a Mexican version of risotto made, yes, with arborio rice, but also heirloom goat eye beans and pearl barley. No cheese in sight and totally not necessary. The richness of the risotto came from wild mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, black truffle and black truffle oil, and a healthy helping of huitlacoche--also known as black gold, fungus on corn that is a true delicacy. Topping the risotto was epazote foam and what looked like tiny geranium petals.


Easing into fall, this spins traditional rice and beans into an elegant yet earthy and filling dish. I loved the distinctiveness of the textures of the arborio, the barley, and the beans--all chewy but different in their own ways.

How to beat this? Well, our last course was perhaps the one Beatriz and I enjoyed most. Pork belly. Was it a taco? Well, kind of. But again, Javier turned tradition on its head and merged two, actually three, cultures.


The slate tile held what looked like a taco with three sauces. But instead of a corn tortilla was a masa and maiz crepe with a hint of cilantro peeking out. The three sauces? From the left a soy mixture, chili de arbol, and then tomatillo and habanero. Then we each removed our toothpicks.


Inside was revealed more cilantro and slices of scallions topping strips of creamy pork belly. I gingerly added the spicy sauces and finished it with a drizzle of the soy, picked it up and took a bite. Then laughed. Clearly Javier had recently had Peking Duck. The pork belly was a combination of juicy flesh and crispy skin. The soy sauce and the richness of the pork was so "Peking Duck" but then there was the cilantro, the scallion, and those spicy salsas. Taco. Encased in a crepe. This isn't the Mexican food that people go to TJ for--but it should be because it clearly expresses the ingredients and cultural influences that are so key to the region. And so bypasses the cliche of what outsiders think encompasses Mexican food which is, well, just street food.

We finished with a colorful dessert plate centered around panacotta. A long tube of panacotta. Tossed in and around the creamy sweet was pineapple sugar ice, a brilliant blue colored jiricaya--like flan with cream, eggs, and sugar but not ordinarily blue--pistachio brittle, strawberry leather, cacao sand, a whisp of cotton candy, white chocolate raspberries, and a slice of roasted, then poached peach. Altogether it was a circus of a plate. I'm not sure how it fit in with the train of courses we'd been on, but it was a colorful and fun end to a surprising and delicious meal. Next up? Caesar's Restaurante Bar, the birthplace of the Caesar salad, but now, with the Plascencias' ownership, the epitome of Baja's new gastronomic culture.


Mision 19 is located at Mision de San Javier, 10643 in Zona Urbana Rio, about a five-minute drive from the border crossing off the 805.

Chocolatier Beatriz Ladezma and her childhood friend Javier Plascencia

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