The border has been "bearish" since 9/11 -- that is, sometimes you eat the bear, usually the bear eats you. The unpredictability has hurt a lot of Tijuana restaurants -- especially the better ones. Fewer gringos willingly suffer the weekend crush, nor casually head to TJ for a good weeknight dinner, because of the risk of a delayed return. Romesco is a major Baja restaurant group's ingenious solution: If gourmet gabachos won't come eat in TJ, then bring the best of TJ to them.
Romesco is named for a lively Spanish "gypsy" sauce that's often served with fish. (You can taste it on the restaurant's gambas al ajillo appetizer.) It's the first north-of-the-border branch of the Placencia family's restaurant group, which includes the acclaimed Casa Placencia and Villa Saverios. Chef Javier Placencia, son of the dynasty's founder, is in charge of Romesco's kitchen, importing his creative blending of Mexican ingredients and pan-Mediterranean flavors. He's not one of those remote-control executive chefs, but actually works on the premises. (I've seen him there; he's even guapo -- a looker.) The choice of location, an obscure Bonita mini-mall, may seem a little crazy -- but it's loco como un zorro. Despite all the new, upper-middle-class housing rising in the area, most eateries are fast-casual chains or mom 'n' pop taquerias. A Grand Slam breakfast just doesn't do it for a special dinner out.
I chose my dinner companions to do the food justice, calling on Sicily-born Laura, whose new Trieste-born in-laws live in Ensenada. Her gorgeous mom, Ignazia, joined us -- she just returned from a Baja vacation with a new passion for serious Mexican cuisine. Ignazia's friend Lea is an Italian citizen of the world who fears no food.
The menu presented a painful problem: just four eaters, and I yearned to taste at least 14 appetizers and salads (out of 26). My brave compañeras had no food taboos, so the only limit was our moderate appetites. We divided our appetizer choices between the three starter-menu areas -- cold tapas, hot tapas, and salads and soups. From the cold tapas, we began with Sea of Cortez smoked marlin carpaccio, a dinner plate covered with paper-thin slices of the rich, oily game fish, bathed in a faintly sweet ponzu dressing and "wasabi salt." It was garnished with a refreshing mound of avocado and papaya salsa and scattered with dark-green sprigs of samphire (salconia in Spanish), a tasty seaside dune plant that's crunchy, naturally salty, and packed with healthy minerals.
From the salads, Laura zoomed in on salt-crusted baked pear, with Roquefort, candied walnuts, and greens in a port wine vinaigrette. The combination is standard, but the trace of salt on the surface of the pear slices brought out their sweetness -- a trick that Mexico, Italy, and Thailand all arrived at independently: To make fruit taste sweeter, don't sugar it -- salt it.
From the hot tapas, our choice was beef tongue en cocotte, bathed in almond red pipian sauce (made with ground nuts, tomatoes, and mild chiles). It was served as a wrap-your-own taquitos dish, with small, thin, steaming-hot corn tortillas, spicy green and red salsas, and a bowl of chopped onions with cilantro. The meat was meltingly tender, the sauce luxurious, while the onion mixture lent crunch and contrast. This was young Laura's first taste of tongue, and she had to adjust her palate to the texture. Yes, it does feel like chewing on a tongue, but it doesn't hurt -- it's not your tongue. Lea and I, old hands at tongue-biting, fell on the dish.
With regrets at bypassing a cream of fresh pea soup, beef cheek taquitos, and shrimp and mozzarella mini-tacos, I returned to the cold tapas list for foie gras torchon, mainly to test the kitchen on a technically demanding dish. The pâté was adequate but too dense, lacking the pure-butter texture of the great torchons at Tapenade and Cavaillon. A torchon is made by wrapping a whole foie gras tightly and poaching it slowly until cooked. I'd guess the poaching water might have been a few degrees too hot.
Since the Placencia empire began with Italian restaurants, we wanted to share a pasta course between the appetizers and the mains. Laura had her eye on Linguine Pescatore "Al Cartoccio." This brought a pleasant array of gently cooked shellfish in a simple, tasty tomato sauce, but the linguine was cooked softer than "al dente," presenting one too many tender textures with none to bite back. Next time, I'll choose a more adventurous pasta -- house-made Baja lobster ravioli with pine nuts and preserved lemon in brandy cream sauce (a favorite of the chef's) or beef short rib tortelloni with cabernet pasilla sauce and horseradish froth.
As at most restaurants, entrées are less daring than appetizers, but they, too, make clever use of rare Baja ingredients. Mesquite-grilled duck breast in a sauce based on a Mexican red wine was rosy, tender, and fatless. Before cooking, the duck was marinated in miel de maguey, honey from the tequila cactus, and the meat was finished off over wood to give it a hint of smokiness. The red wine syrup was sweetly pleasing, although hardly revolutionary. "I love duck," said Lea, "but it's difficult to cook perfectly. I'm very pleased with this." It came with a delightful guava chutney, steamed quelites (greens), and an enchanting side dish that fooled all but one of us. It tasted like a slightly coarse purée of some mystery root vegetable. Lea diagnosed it correctly: "It's polenta made of corn flour mixed with semolina flour!"
Rack of lamb, cooked precisely to our request for medium-rare, was tender as filet mignon and glazed with miel de maguey. That sauce, too, was sweet and not especially exotic, but one of the vegetable garnishes was sensational: Fresh early-spring peas, lightly mint-touched, came in a wash of thickened heavy cream, a combination almost pornographically sensual. The cream may have been the "cauliflower fondant" that we didn't otherwise notice. As Brad Pitt could tell you, it's hard to concentrate on Jennifer Aniston when Angelina Jolie shows up on your plate.