Last fall, I had the opportunity to discover the Valle de Guadalupe during the Guadalupe Valley Food and Wine Fest. The destination was Mexico’s up and coming wine region, but unfortunately, my jam-packed itinerary for the weekend left no time for me to leisurely explore the area. I returned home from that trip feeling like I’d spent more time drinking craft beers along the Northern Baja Coast than drinking wine and that I’d only scratched the surface of an incredible wine region and what Conde Nast is calling the “next great food scene”.
When a return to the Baja for the Ensenada Beer Fest presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity to return to the area. The sun, food and drink were major draws, but my main motivation was the chance to spend time sharing experiences with my fantastic Mexican friends. I knew this was a beer focused trip but I secretly wished for the opportunity to head into the Valle at least for one afternoon over the weekend I was there.
There was a lot of beer consumed in the 2 nights in Tijuana pre-festival. But I can only drink so much beer before I crave a moment of slowing down and sipping wine. My mind wandered to my list of wineries and restaurants for the Valle de Guadalupe and I wondered again if there’d be any opportunity to escape beer and tacos to enjoy a pleasant sit down meal.
While we were exploring Tijuana, Anais (aka The Curious Mexican) mentioned she was “curious” to check out Fauna restaurant located in the Valle de Guadalupe. The door had opened, so I jumped at the opportunity. I’d known of Chef David Castro Hussong from the Guadalupe Valley Festival and because his restaurant had been recommended to me by multiple friends. Before we had any time to overthink the logistics, I secured a reservation for us.
With only 2 nights in Ensenada, both of which were committed to the beer festival, late lunch was our only option to dine at Fauna. I thought the timing of the meal was perfect, as I have more energy to appreciate a multi-course eating extravaganza during the day. The 45 minute drive from Ensenada was easy and as the landscape changed when we rounded over the hill into the Guadalupe Valley, I was ecstatic we’d included this adventure as part of our trip.
We drove down the bumpy dirt road towards Bruma, which is the property where Fauna is located and I remembered why I was so enchanted with the valley on my last visit. Unlike other more-developed wine regions in the world, the Valle de Guadalupe makes you feel like an explorer on the road to discovery rather than a follower on a path much travelled.
As we strolled from the parking lot to the restaurant, we were met with giant garden containers of vegetables. It mademe nostalgic of amazing meals in similar settings in the past, such as Single Thread, the Willows Inn, Blue Hill Stone Barns and of course the French Laundry. Seeing Chef in wandering the garden ahead of us, my anticipation of the meal grew.
We settled into our seats at the end of one of the large communal tables and I quickly relaxed into the surroundings. It was a warm sunny afternoon so we started with a cocktail to enjoy as we mulled over the menu options. My Paloma helped to loosen the mood even more, and we decided to go all-in with the Experimental tasting menu with a wine pairing to share.
1st course – Garden vegetables with a basil and avocado sauce. This dish was so reminiscent of the garden fence at Blue Hill, but upon research I learned that Chef spent time at Blue Hill, so the connection made sense. But this plating was more approachable, and more playful because of the accompanied sauce that I slowly dragged each vegetable through. Surrounded by the gardens in their pretty outdoor space, these first bites were the perfect introduction to the restaurant.
2nd Course – Garden peas in pea shell dashi with chia seeds was another stunner in its simplicity. Most people would think, “they’re serving me a bowl of peas?”, but I was elated to see this. Peas are one of my favorite foods, and this bowl of barely blanched sweet peas were pure perfection.
3rd course – Tetela filled with garbanzo bean puree and wrapped in a charred cabbage leaf. The smooth savouriness of the bean puree coupled with the char from both the cabbage and tetela contrasted perfectly from the pea dish before. The mezcal from Durango accompanied the bites so well.
4th Course – Ceviche with charred cucumber and chile. The dish seemed so Snow White delicate in its presentation but revealed excitement with the complexity of the smoky cucumber and zing of heat underneath.
We were joined at this point in the meal by Anais’ friend Oren (AKA @abori), who was also visiting Ensenada for the beer event. He was nice enough to make the long trek to join us and was a welcome addition to our lunch table.
Course 5 – Breaded abalone taco with creamy spinach on a blue corn tortilla. I am woo’d by certain ingredients and abalone is one of them. The taco was subtle and uncomplicated, which allowed the taste of the abalone to shine through.
6th course – Mussels with mushroom dashi, topped with epazote. After the pea dish, this is the other that blew me away in its seeming simplicity but immense depth of flavor, where the saline ocean met the rich earth.
This is the point of the meal where my focus on each individual taste became secondary to the experience as a whole. There was so much distraction, from being overwhelmed with the incredible flavors being placed in front of us, from the beauty of each plate and to the wonder of the composition of the dish itself. The energy emitted from my dining companions rose to a giddy state. It didn’t help that even though I shared the wine pairing, the glasses that accompanied each plate were each savored down to the last drop. This is my way of saying I was distracted in the meal to the point that I stopped taking photos. Thankfully Anais came to the rescue for the remainder of the meal. All the food photos that follow are hers.
Course 7 – Pork jowl salpicon with tomatillo and cucumber relish. The tart tomatillos and hint of heat from the chiles helped to cut through the richness of the crispy nuggets of pork.
Course 8 – Duck with mole. A dish that was short on description in my notes but hugely memorable in taste. I was curious about the mole that sat alongside the perfectly seasoned medium rare duck to the point that I contacted the Chef to see if I could find out more about it. He graciously responded to explain that the mole was a pine but puree with pasilla de Oaxaca (mixe), chilhuacle and gajillo chiles.
Dessert 1 – Honey semifreddo with corn flakes and milk ice cream. I am not a huge dessert fan, but this reminded me of a grown up version of the Crunchie bar I was so fond of as a kid.
Dessert 2 – Brownie crisp with banana ice cream. The chocolate and banana combination put smiles on all of our faces, which is the best way to end a meal.
Our lunch at Fauna was a meal where I’d felt the stars had aligned to create the perfect experience. The weather was pleasant enough to enjoy the meal comfortably outside, and the afternoon sunlight set a wonderful mood. Surrounded by the vegetable garden and vineyards beyond, I felt the connection to each of the delicious courses and pairings served. To top it off, it was a meal shared in the good company of food lovers.
So it happened on this trip, while I came for the beer, I found my best moment at Fauna savoring wine and swooning over delicious food. But as is becoming my Mexico norm, it’s the strengthening of existing relationships and meeting new people that made this meal extra incredible. The quiet moments in between were used to appreciate my good fortune.