VALLE DE GUADALUPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA – On a steamy 95 degree August day in the Valle de Guadalupe, chef Ryan Steyn’s new restaurant – El Jardin de Adobe at the Adobe Guadalupe vineyard – appeared at the end of a dusty path like a welcoming mirage. Cozily nestled in an olive and pink peppercorn tree-shaded patio just outside the winemaking facilities, the tranquil space with a vineyard view provided perfect respite from the heat. The campestre style restaurant accommodates diners from a rustic tiled counter and small kitchen located at the front of the space. This is where chef Ryan and his small, very capable staff prep, cook, plate and serve impeccable dishes of grilled meat and European-inspired fare with a Mexican flourish using locally-sourced ingredients.
Originally from South Africa, Chef Ryan began his career as executive chef of the restaurant at an African game preserve – his first gig upon graduating from the Swiss Institute of Hospitality Training in 2003. After spending time with the Relais en Chateux hotel group and Cellars Greenhouse restaurant in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Winelands, Ryan met his wife – TIjuanense Susan Monsalve – and followed her back to Baja California to open Bistrot L’Escargot in Tijuana. He was inevitably drawn toward the growing culinary movement in the Valle de Guadalupe and signed on as executive chef at Latitud 32 at El Cielo vineyards.
This is where El Gringo met chef Ryan a little over a year ago and enjoyed a perfectly grilled piece of yellowtail with fresh greens, tomatoes and snap peas from the chef’s onsite garden. Besides the delicious fare on offer, the thing that stood out to me was how beautifully the food was presented. Chef Ryan “paints a plate” like no other, accentuating the main course with streaks and swirls of sauce and sides in a way that gives pause to the urge to simply dig in. Not dissimilar to the pause one makes in front of a visually arresting piece in a museum, but with the benefit of being edible art.
Ryan collaborated with Adobe Guadalupe owner Tru Miller to open El Jardin this summer to round out the award-winning vineyard and boutique hotel’s onsite amenities. We were in Baja during El Jardin’s opening weekend, so El Gringo and familia made reservations to stop by for lunch. Chef Ryan greeted us with his customary friendly smile and we were seated at one of the patio’s half dozen sun-dappled tables.
To cool off, we ordered a limonada for El Gringo’s 6-year old, and a bottle of Adobe Guadalupe’s limited run Jardin Secreto (Secret Garden) Chardonnay for ourselves. Fermented in steel tanks, this unwooded new world Chardonnay forgoes “butteriness” and delivers a lighter, fruit-forward taste which was just what we needed on this warm day. By using quality grapes, the vineyard is able to produce Chardonnay that is both refreshing and flavorful. Our bottle was one of the first of twenty from a limited run and a standout varietal for us this year. The vineyard’s other award-winning wines are also available by glass or bottle. Salud!
Chef Ryan started us off with a plate of local artisanal cheese accompanied by local organic fruit. The cheese, as always in Baja California, was fantastic. And the selection of plump, flavorful grapes, sweet prunes, peaches and pear whetted our appetite for the goodness to come. We were also served freshly-baked bread in a brown bag, liberally spreading heaps of Susan’s own Baja Country Veggies tapanade made from Valle-grown olives on top of the warm, crusty loaf.
The next course was a complementary plate of crostini topped with a rustic bruschetta of locally grown organic tomatoes accompanied by a very nice local olive oil and chili sauce. Satiated with entradas, we were ready to try a couple of the a la carte courses. Oh, and the menu at El Jardin will be changing weekly to feature seasonal specialties year-round, so there’s no guarantee that any of these dishes will be on the menu when you visit (though favorites I’m guessing will probably become somewhat perennial).
Several items were recommended. We tried some but missed a few that sounded very good – such as the black risotto with crispy octopus and the aged ribeye with potatoes and garden vegetables. We did order the grilled quail with garlic and beetroot, three ways, Mexican foie gras and the escargot of chipotle and lime. Upon delivery of our order from our waiter (an amigo formerly with Valle restaurant Santa Brasa), Ryan called to us from the kitchen, “Quail, foie gras and escargot. You are a man who likes to eat well!”. And we did eat very well indeed.
The escargot was delivered to the table in a cazuela, still bubbling hot. We loved how Ryan had taken a dish that is typically served elegantly in-shell or on a fussy escargot plate and presented it instead in rustic, indigenous stone cookware. After a brief period of cooling, we swirled the meaty morsels of snail around the buttery, garlicy and smoky chipotle lime sauce and plopped the plump pulmonata in our mouths. We sopped up every bit of the juice with more bread in a bag. If I lived in the Valle, I would stop by to say “hola” and order this dish from Ryan every day. It’s that good.
You can’t enjoy foie gras in California due to state law forbidding the production and sale of the delicacy here. But in Baja California, not only is it permissible, it’s highly encouraged. Chef Ryan has had a reputation in the region as one of the chefs who best handles the delicacy and we were eager to try this illicit dish. A buttery and generous slice of foie gras is served with a caramelized layer of rendered fat on top (which El Gringo’s hijo thought – mistakenly – was a layer of chocolate, much to our amusement when he took a big bite). The foie was all creamy goodness and the layer of fat added nice substance, flavor and texture. The pomegranate provided a bittersweet snap to the whole affair, which was – once again – artfully presented in the middle of a stark, white plate.
El Gringo has had mixed experiences with quail. When they’re too small, they can be stringy and tend to overcook easily. But chef Ryan’s quail were plump, juicy, well seasoned and grilled for just the right amount of time with a slight crispy sear on the skin. We savored every savory bite and I really liked the beetroot served three ways – the root, the greens and a puree of the root. I’ve always been a fan of beets, and the taproots grown in the Valle de Guadalupe can’t be…beat!
We ended our lunch with lemon finger popsicles with sage, direct from Ryan’s freezer. Presented in a plastic tupperware popsicle mold, I had a flashback to the 70’s for a moment as we grew up with this economical and highly customizable form of frozen concoction delivery. Finishing our wine and popsicles, Susan arrived just as we were about to leave with gifts of Ryan’s “Foodie Flavors” and her “Baja Country Veggies” marmalades and sauces – a fig tequila marmalade, artichoke pesto, tapanade verde and cilantro chimichurri. We loved them all and only the chimichurri remains (and only because we don’t eat a lot of red meat at home). Gracias Susan!
Leaving El Jardin de Adobe was similar to stepping out of a dream and back into real-time as we made our way up the highway and to our very short wait at the Tecate border (5 minutes on a Sunday night, if you can believe that!). If you’re looking for a shady oasis in the Valle de Guadalupe with great food, wine and atmosphere, stop by and let Chef Ryan Steyn spoil you in the comfort of his new backyard. And let him know El Gringo sent you!
Your Gringo in Mexico,
To get to El Jardin de Adobe in the Valle de Guadalupe, arriving to the small village of El Porvenir from the south, follow signs at the end of town to the left on a dirt road to Adobe Guadalupe. The guard can direct you to the restaurant. Prices are inexpensive – moderate.
Ryan’s Foodie Flavors and Baja Country Veggies marmalades and sauces are available for sale at the restaurant, at Adobe Guadalupe and at shops throughout the Valle de Guadalupe.
Phone :+52-646-1552879 www.adobeguadalupe.com