Benito Molina is a seminal name when it comes to the current fever surrounding Baja’s culinary advance. Raised in Mexico City, Molina attended boarding school in The Alps and high school in Ojai, hooked into a chef’s life over a summer job at Maxim’s back in Mexico, observing chef Jean Yves Ferrer and later taking a role in his kitchen as fishmonger, his obsession with seafood solidified through extensive fishing jaunts around Baja. Molina studied under Michel LeBorgne at Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute before his tenure with Todd English at Olives. Fortuitously, he would later be Baja-bound, leading the kitchen as head chef of La Embotelladora Vieja before establishing his own harbor-side fine-dining legend, Manzanilla with his wife, chef Solange Muris in 2000. Molina’s cooking shines in the sum of his travels and an inward beam pointed at the intrinsic treasures of Baja, using its stunning seafood, native flora, spices and olive oils, along with the wines emerging from Ensenada’s surrounding valleys to meld Mediterranean, European, and Mexican influences into a fertile cooking style that’s made him a star across Latin America.
Molina now has his own television show, wears laurels from international competitions, has cooked aside Rene Redzepi and for Juan Mari Arzak, and is persistently labeled as a “rockstar chef” of Baja.
Tonight will mark the final night of the chef’s three-day appearance at John Sedler’s Playa, where Molina is currently preparing a nine-item a la carte menu, including lengua tiradito with pickled nopales, menudo-inspired orecchiette, and pork loin with vanilla apples and Mayan chimole. Take a look at what we ate last night in our slide show look back at Molina’s Manzanilla pop-up at Playa.
Chef-owner of Manzanilla in Ensenada.
We began with a dish off of Sedler’s own menu, featuring rooftop-grown cucumbers and tomatos, with sweet, bright flavors coming from chopped mango, sprigs of cilantro, and central-load of guacamole
Next we dug into Manzanilla’s ceviche of tender black snapper topped with a mildly spicy chile verde atop a chewy, rather tough tortilla chip swabbed in mole negro, a great start to the evening.
Our favorite dish of the evening, Molina’s team plated thinly-sliced lengua beneath a phenomenal salad of pickled cactus and a squeeze of honey-mustard. Not ordering another was, in retrospect, a mistake.
This clever use of “little ear” pasta melded a smoky flavor with the tripe one would expect in a bowl of menudo, along with tongue, enriching the hearty serving with the soft, squishy pleasures of the intestine.
Our one major disappointment of the night–possibly as the seafood master himself spent the duration of our dinner in a T.V. interview–was this high-priced serving of shellfish, involving brassy bar oysters from Morro Bay with ricotta and uni and poached pig’s feet, the former topping obscuring the taste of the oyster, the other undiscernible on top of a mushy oyster lacking pop, structure, and even a trickle of brine. A littleneck clam with pesto was too tiny to really register and the raspberry character missing from a Kumomoto’s raspberry mignonette. Molina’s team alkso serves a hot shellfish platter of four mollusks topped with gratins and European-style sauces.
Dinner concluded nicely with a supple cut of pork loin balanced by vanilla and white-wine poached apple and a smear of dark Yucateco chimole.
Benito Molina will be cooking tonight at Playa, paving the way for next week’s visit by Tacos Kokopelli.