Monday, November 28, 2011

Erizo Cebicheria Redux

Last April, I wrote about a splendid day I enjoyed in Tijuana that included lunch at Erizo Cebicheria. It was one of those meals that made me shake my head in disbelief at the magic of the seafood I was enjoying. The meal had one of my lunch companions, Chef Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove, transfixed. We just couldn't get over the flavors, the creativity, and the presentation of each dish.

So, when owner Javier Plascencia told me that he had redone the restaurant since then, I had to return to see just how it could possibly have improved. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dan Nattrass of Catalina Offshore Products suggested another day trip down to Tijuana, this time with Chad White, executive chef and partner at Sea Rocket Bistro. After checking out the fish markets and doing some major damage at Mercato Hidalgo, the public market, we headed over to Erizo Cebicheria. And, yes, change had happened.

First, the size of the place has about tripled. Plascencia also added a small fish market and expanded the kitchen. But what truly struck me was the new decor. It's got a rustic yet modern feel and there was a strange familiarity to the tables and the materials in general that I couldn't put my finger on until Plascencia told us that the design was inspired by the Popotla fishing village in Rosarito, just below the old Fox Studios. Popotla is a favorite place of mine. To say it's rustic would be elevating it, but that's part of its charm as a collection of about two dozen "restaurants." My favorite was Mariscos España. It's on the water and you can watch the fishing pongas pull in with their catch. Erizo Cebicheria now plays off of that casual, seaside feel with white-washed looking tables and patio chairs, but more importantly, clever dishes that highlight the freshness of the seafood.

While the decor has changed, the menu has remained much the same, although with an expanded kitchen the restaurant can now do more.

We started with Chiles Gueros con Camaron, yellow jalapeños stuffed with chopped shrimp and topped with a stunning relish of carrots, red onion, and cilantro.

Chef Chad White about to dig in to the Chiles Gueros con Camaron
From there, the dishes we ordered kept coming. At the fish markets, the three of us were enchanted by chocolate clams, a large bi-valve in a creamy brown shell. And there they were at Erizo's fish market. So we each ordered one and when they arrived, the presentation was so beautiful we could barely stand to dig in and disturb it.

The cooks chopped up the clam to make a light ceviche with tomatoes and cucumbers blended with ponzu sauce. It rested on a plate filled with sea salt and accented with a sprig of salty sea bean. The clam was tender and sweet and complemented by the sweet crunch of the cucumber and the citrusy saltiness of the ponzu.

Then there was a gorgeous Calla de Acha, large sea scallops presented with cucumber, red onion, chile sauce, and chicharron.

The dish is presented on a platter but the server portions out individual servings.

Each bit contains a large piece of scallop, slices of red onion and cucumber, heated by the chili sauce and finished off by the crunchy pork crackling. It's absurdly delicious.

One of Trey, Dan, and my favorite dishes from our first visit was Chicharron de Atun and Dan and I insisted that Chad had to try it. This is a riff on a Chinese favorite, Orange Chicken.

It looks at first like the sweet crispy fried protein you'd expect to eat with white rice. But instead, these are pieces of tuna coated in rice flour blended with cayenne and chile de arbol powder, fried and served with pico de gallo, guac, and corn tortillas.

We also enjoyed a beautiful Ceviche Verde con Camaron -- a shrimp ceviche with cilantro, serrano and habanero chilis, tomatillo, avocado, and red onion.

It sounds like it would be impossibly spicy, but, in fact, the heat is carefully controlled and serves to flavor not enflame.

I was taken with the idea of an oyster tempura taco, and out it came -- crispy and crunchy with a tender oyster in the middle. Add some spicy salsa with ginger, a little kimchi, a sprinkling of lettuce, and a dab of mayo-based sauce, and you've got a great taco treat.

We thought we were done, but we'd forgotten that we'd ordered octopus, another favorite dish from our first visit. Again, the octopus was mesquite grilled, stunning with a tomatillo and habanero salsa.

Prepared poorly, octopus can be your worst chewy nightmare. This pulpo clearly had been well braised before grilling. It was tender and smoky, a lovely conclusion to the meal.

Erizo Cebicheria is located at Ave Sonora No 3808-11 just off Blvd Agua Caliente.

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