Why is Benito Molina considered to be one of the hottest chefs in Baja? Perhaps it’s because he buys his fish fresh daily for Manzanilla from a market a mere four blocks away. Or, that he’s obsessed with sourcing the best local ingredients such as Kumamoto oysters, abalone and chocolate clams from the waters of Baja along with world-class wines, olive oils, herbs and produce from the Valle de Guadalupe. I’m sure that his status as a national Mexican TV star also helps. As a seafood lover, I was thrilled for the introduction to Manzanilla’s haute cuisine at a recent six course tasting dinner hosted by the Ministry of Tourism of Baja California. Finding the best Mexican seafood at Manzanilla in Ensenada was a true wow moment.
I didn’t expect to run across a gourmet restaurant on an unobtrusive side street in an industrial area near Ensenada’s commercial harbor. So imagine my surprise when I stepped inside Manzanilla to discover a sophisticated conglomeration of hot pink chandeliers, modern artwork and marble tables. A massive, ornate mahogany bar salvaged from the deck of an old cruise ship dominates the space. The mix of antique and modern furnishings all diffused by the warm glow of candlelight created a mysterious yet glamorous ambiance that welcomed me to linger over my superlative dinner.
Manzanilla Offers Baja Med Cuisine
The Baja Mediterranean (or Baja Med for short) movement started approximately 15 years ago. Essentially, Baja Med is a fusion of Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian flavors incorporating fresh ingredients from the region. I find this amazing amalgam of distinct ethnic flavors from Mediterranean olive oil, tarragon and Gorgonzola to Asian ginger and soy to Mexican chilies and epazote irresistible.
A Baja Med pioneer, Chef Benito was classically trained in French cuisine. He blends masterful technique with an inventive approach to food that lets simple flavors shine through. Chilies, olive oil and salt are at the core of his cooking. And his synthesis of preparations could include French velouté, Korean kimchi and Mexican guajillo sauce side by side in the same meal.
It’s like a complicated dance on a plate. A myriad of diverse tastes and textures come together in an intricate performance. This illustrates Chef Benito’s brilliance and the exciting direction that Baja food culture is taking.
Six Course Tasting Menu at Manzanilla
I enjoyed a six-course tasting menu at Manzanilla. Here are the highlights of my evening enjoying the best Mexican seafood at Manzanilla.
Amuse-bouche: Hangar Steak
I started with a fanciful hangar steak lollipop over a silky dollop of béchamel sauce served with a fruity glass of Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard 2015.
Uno: Fish Tiradito
The Peruvian sister to Japanese sashimi, Tiradito is raw sliced fish served over a spicy sauce. I enjoyed Manzanilla’s spin on this super fresh dish featuring black Lyncod with raspberry vinaigrette, ginger, soy sauce and local olive oil along with Geoduck clam with lemon vinaigrette.
A sublime shellfish flight showcased plump, sweet oysters—raw with mignonette sauce, raw with pig’s feet salad and grilled with tarragon butter plus a magic morsel of grilled clam with Gorgonzola.
Tres: Farmed Abalone
A refreshing glass of Adobe Guadalupe Uriel 2015 rosé paired well with a savory abalone duo. The first was lightly seared with white wine-infused tomato sauce, olives and epazote and the second fried with parsley, soy sauce and ginger.
Amuse-bouche: Mussel Cream Shot
Don’t be put off by the title! This “shot” was a mouthful of buttery briny bliss.
Quatro: Tic Tac Toe Quail
I loved the fun presentation of this dish with quail, quail egg and homemade kimchee placed in between tic tac toe squares painted in squid ink on the plate.
Cinco: Catch of the Day
Also artistically plated, flakey grilled Yellowtail was accompanied by a smear of black bean puree, purslane (a nutritious fleshy succulent) garnish and pool of green tomato-fish broth foam. A bold glass of Baron Balche Special Reserve 2013 red blend stood up well to the hearty flavors of the fish.
Seis: Queso Camote
Finally, I relished the tremendous finish of local fresh cheese ice cream, pureed sweet potato, caramelized oats and caramel.
If You Go
Teniente José Azueta 139
Recinto Portuario, Zona Centro, 22800
Ensenada, BC, Mexico
Reservations: +52 646 175 7073
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a meal in compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.