VALLE DE GUADALUPE When I visited chef Ryan Steyn's El Clavo Cocina de Baja last year at its former location next to winery Madera 5 in Ensenada's industrial zone, I asked the chef about his new project's name. He explained "El Clavo means to 'nail it', to do something really good." I sampled about a half dozen of Ryan's dishes that day from fish tacos to empanadas to a Baja Med preparation of octopus and indeed, the chef nailed each of them in both presentation and flavor.
After two summers helming the seasonal El Jardin por Ryan Styen at Adobe Guadalupe, Ryan and his wife and business partner Suzy Monsalve have reincarnated El Clavo as a seasonal campestre kitchen in a cozy corner of charming winery Quinta Monasterio. Opened by renowned winemaker Reynaldo Rodriguez and his son Reynaldo Jr. in 2006, the winery is considered one of the area's oldest when measured against the Valle's growth during the ensuing decade.
We were invited to El Clavo's soft opening last month and without hesitation accepted and scrambled to find a hotel room in the Valle or Ensenada during Baja California's busiest time of year. There's a good reason I've followed this talented South African chef across the Valle since his debut here at Latitud 32 at El Cielo back in 2012, and I wasn't going to miss out on what promised to be an evening of great food, wine, and friends.
Chef Ryan Steyn at El Clavo Cocina de Baja. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Entering through the opened gates of Quinta Monsterio's Spanish mission-styled entryway, El Clavo is nestled in the shade of tall eucalyptus and elm trees on an outdoor terrace cut from a rocky hillside. A red awning amidst the green leaves and ground cover clearly marks the spot, and Ryan and a small staff work diligently in his food trailer-slash-kitchen parked right next to the dining area. The impression is one of having a really great picnic in a friend's beautifully landscaped backyard.
We greeted the chef as he was stirring the paella that was to be part of our feast that evening. "We really enjoyed running the campestre at Adobe Guadalupe, so we're very excited to partner with Quinta Monasterio this season and serve their wines with our cuisine," Ryan shared. "And though the menu is a bit different here, I am bringing back 'La Bufadora' from El Jardin." I drooled at the taste memory of this dish a tiradito of local geoduck, fresh garden vegetables, and tobiko served in a box with a blowhole that emits a plume of dry ice vapor, a playful homage to its oceanic namesake.
"La Bufadora" is back on the menu at El Clavo Cocina de Baja. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Ryan is an adherent of using locally sourced ingredients and El Clavo's menu will change weekly based on what's available. "These are Pacific oysters from San Quintin," the chef informed us as he brought out a plate of the beautiful bivalves. "I just picked them up in Ensenada at Mercado Negro this morning." Adorned with just a splash of mignonette, the chilled oysters were huge, meaty, super fresh, and had just the right amount of brine. A sprig of salicornia gave the oysters the extra element of crunchiness without detracting from the flavor.
Fresh Pacific Oysters from San Quintin, Baja California. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
We washed the oysters down with glasses of perfectly chilled Natal Chardonnay from Quinta Monasterio, a welcome pairing on this hot and humid summer evening. Aged in new American oak barrels, the vino blanco has just a bit of toast and is far from cloying. As the evening and courses progressed, we moved on to their Datum blend of Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz. Served at slightly lower than cave temperature, the red was refreshing and lacked the heavier mouthfeel of many of the blends in the Valle de Guadalupe.
The Datum blend from Quinta Monasterio. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Tostadas de mariscos (seafood) are a regional specialty, and served everywhere from the street carts of Ensenada to the tables of the Valle de Guadalupe's award-winning restaurants. With his simple tostada de pulpo (octopus), chef Ryan nailed the simplicity and essence of the dish, while upping the ante on class vis-à-vis the addition of fresh cilantro and jalapeños, thinly sliced radish, and heirloom tomatoes.
Octopus tostada at El Clavo. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Our final course was the one we'd all been waiting for Ryan's paella. The scent of it had been wafting from the pan through the warm air all night. Loaded with chicken, Spanish chorizo, mussels, pork, shrimp, onion, and red pepper, it was extremely satisfying and totally unpretentious. At this point, our eight-year-old son had returned to the table after running around with chef Ryan and Suzy's boy, and promptly finished two servings of the stuff. This was a definite sign of approval from our increasingly finicky little eater.
Paella at El Clavo. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Though the food was finished, the wine continued to flow as we chatted with old and new friends and welcomed the moon, stars, and night time respite from the day's heat. A mellow musical trio provided background music. Toward the end of the night, A Gringo in Mexico amiga Ana Laura Holguin a longtime friend and collaborator of the chef took the microphone to sing a loungey version of The Cure's Lovesong, capping a perfect evening and experience at Ryan's latest culinary venture.
El Clavo Cocina de Baja is located at Quinta Monasterio winery, Parcel 12, El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. Follow the signs in the town of El Porvenir to find the winery just west of Highway 1. Phone: +52 (646) 156-5384. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Open 12PM 8PM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 2016.
We were invited to El Clavo's soft opening and enjoyed complimentary food and wine as the guests of our generous hosts. No compensation was received for writing this article, and all opinions are those of the author who has and would gladly spend his own peso at the chef's restaurants and projects.