Baja's Most Ambitious Chef

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I want to be the Mexican Wolfgang Puck. That is my goal," says Martin San Roman. This 40-year-old Tijuana chef has already bested Puck in one respect--he owns 120 red Ferraris. These are miniatures, to be sure, but San Roman's ambitions, and his credits, are not.

His restaurant, Rincon San Roman, is in the forefront of the thriving new food scene in Tijuana. And his intriguing Baja-French-Mexican cuisine has drawn international attention. Today he will cook for Mexico's President Vicente Fox. Bill Clinton has also tasted his food.

Cut out to be a star, San Roman is good-looking, has a bright, engaging personality and a solid foundation of training at Ecole Lenotre in France. He's a TV celebrity too. For 6 1/2 years, he has appeared on Televisa's weekly "Del Chef a Usted" (From the Chef to You).

You might wonder why a chef of this stature has settled in Tijuana, when he could go anywhere. "You are right--I have had offers from London, Chicago, Australia, even Morocco," he says. "But I think, 'I am Mexican, and I have to make it here.' Food-wise, I can get everything I want from Baja as well as from the world. For me, Baja is the greatest state in Mexico."

Born in Mexico City of Basque ancestry, San Roman opened La Tour de France in Tijuana in 1989. His classical French food rose high above the tacos, carne asada and refried beans then typical of the city. San Roman closed that restaurant last year to concentrate on Rincon.

"Slowly, Tijuana is changing," he says. "In the near future, it will be the gastronomic place in Mexico. We have the best wine country in Mexico. We can get any kind of fish and seafood. We export organic products such as baby lettuces, baby vegetables and many quality items."

Like San Roman, Rincon stands apart. It is located on a peaceful hillside at Real del Mar, 12 miles from Tijuana's frenetic core. No signs advertise its presence. A guard raises a barrier to let visitors onto the grounds. The road winds quietly past a golf course and a Marriott hotel. The restaurant is across from the hotel.

It is a shock to find club sandwiches and hamburgers on the menu. Those are for golfers who want a quick lunch, the chef explains. But there is also an appetizer of deep-fried panela cheese filled with ate de membrillo, a golden quince paste. The blend of meltingly soft cheese with sweet quince is ravishing. San Roman dots the plate with strawberry coulis and spoons on pico de gallo made from strawberries, papaya, jalapenos and onions. Crisp, thin strips of corn tortilla tumble over the cheese, and a basil sprig sits on top. It is an extraordinary dish, a startling combination of flavors, and it typifies the way San Roman updates traditional Mexican dishes--sliced cheese with quince paste is a common dessert in Mexico.

For his chayote lasagna, he stacks chayote squash, spinach, tomato and Oaxaca-style cheese, then surrounds the stack with cilantro oil, diced tomato and cilantro leaves. Crab quesadillas perch against an avocado half that contains guacamole and a dab of wildly hot habanero chile compote. Corn husk strips sprout from the center of the avocado, and avocado slices are fanned in front beside a few leaves of baby lettuce. A single gaufrette potato slice punctuates this arrangement.

"Pave de boeuf aux escargots--filet of beef with snails, garlic and tomato sauce--is my signature dish," San Roman says. "The best dessert is the crepe cake with dark and white chocolate mousse. This dessert is my invention, and all Tijuana knows about it. I call it pastel de crepas Tijuana."

Specials one night are beef brains in red wine sauce with shallots and filet of sole stuffed with salmon in a beurre blanc sauce. "The specials are always French," San Roman says. "I would never leave my training in classic French cuisine. That's what I love. For me, it's the best cuisine, but I like to mix it with the Mexican."

At a reception following President Fox's speech at a journalists' convention in Tijuana today, San Roman plans to serve salmon in a vinaigrette seasoned with chipotle chiles and honey; quail marinated in Baja red wine, beef in tamarind sauce and California chiles filled with the truffle-like corn fungus huitlacoche and marinated with Mexican brown sugar and vinegar.

Although San Roman likes to update and glamorize Mexican food, some things he leaves alone. The Caesar salad on his menu is the Tijuana original.

He calls his style "cocina del autor," meaning dishes that he creates. "I try to fusion the Mexican and the French," he says, "but I am not the kind of chef that likes to fusion everything. I like to do something original." Although Baja can supply fresh herbs, San Roman will eventually grow his own behind the restaurant. Near the herb plot will be a barbecue pit for authentic Mexican barbacoa.

The simple, clean lines of Rincon San Roman reflect his fresh, contemporary style. "This is a new building," he says, "but it looks like an old village in Spain, or a house in Queretaro," the colonial city in central Mexico. Large windows look toward the Pacific and the Coronado Islands. Walls are painted blue, orange or white. Red carnations in cobalt blue bottles stand on tables covered with teal cloths and white overlays. The architect, Jose Luis Martinez Blanco, lives in Tijuana.

Contemporary paintings by Cecilia Garcia Amaro, also of Tijuana, hang on the walls along with framed vintage sheet music from France, a scene of the Moulin Rouge, and San Roman's culinary memorabilia. One frame shows off the Star Diamond award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences in New York, naming him a top chef. Wolfgang Puck also holds that honor.

One of few Mexican chefs accepted into the Academie Culinaire de France, San Roman is anything but pretentious. For lunch one day, he leaps up from the table, saying, "I am going to do something simple, something delicious." And he heads for a barbecue that is smoking outside the kitchen door.

Here he grills carne asada--thin-cut Mexican sirloin that has soaked for 24 hours with orange juice, orange slices, onions, oil, salt and oregano. He finishes the plate with a strip of grilled cactus and a long, green chile filled with panela cheese, covered with sauteed vegetables, tomato sauce and cotija cheese.

"I like to do Mexican food that you can drink with wine," he says. His choice for this lunch is Terra, from L.A. Cetto's newly released Don Luis line. Produced from grapes grown near Ensenada, Terra blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and was aged one year in oak and 12 months in the bottle.

San Roman is an advisor to California chefs who will compete in the 2004 Culinary Olympics in Germany. Mexican embassies invite him overseas, and he has taught at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and London. On June 22, he will cook a Baja wine dinner at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines.

There are catering jobs too, meals for film personalities working in Baja and plans for a boutique in Tijuana, where he will sell chef's equipment, wines and ingredients, including the organic coffee that he brings from Chiapas. He is also working on a Spanish-language show for the Food Network.

Still, San Roman still has time to play soccer, go to movies and relax with his wife, Marion, and four children. "I know how to delegate," he says. And he's a relaxed sort of guy. "They call me the bluejean chef, because I wear bluejeans all the time. That's my style."

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Rincon San Roman is about 12 miles south of Tijuana. Take the toll road, Carretera Tijuana Ensenada, to the Real del Mar exit, which leads directly to the Mariott Residence Inn. The restaurant is across the street. The phone number is 011-52-664-631-2241.

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Queso Panela Frito

Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 1 hour freezing * Vegetarian

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Mexican quince paste is found at Latino markets.

QUESO PANELA FRITO

1 1/4 pounds panela cheese, cut in 8 circles about 3 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick

1/2 pound Mexican quince paste (ate de membrillo), cut in 4 circles the same diameter as the cheese, 1/2 inch thick

1/2 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup fine dry bread crumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper and minced parsley

Place a panela circle on a work surface and put a circle of quince paste on top. Place a second panela circle on top of that, as if making a sandwich. Lightly flour the cheese sandwiches, then dip in the beaten eggs, then in the bread crumbs. Place the breaded cheese in the freezer for 1 hour.

STRAWBERRY COULIS

7 medium strawberries, hulled

1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon sugar

6 drops lime juice

Puree the strawberries, water, sugar and lime juice in a blender. Strain well.

STRAWBERRY PICO DE GALLO

1/2 cup finely diced strawberries

1/2 cup finely diced papaya

1/2 cup finely diced onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapenos

Strawberry Coulis

Combine the strawberries, papaya, onion and jalapeno. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the Strawberry Coulis.

ASSEMBLY

Oil, for frying

1 corn tortilla, cut into very thin strips

Strawberry Pico de Gallo

Cracked black pepper

Basil sprigs

Pour oil to a depth of 4 inches in a heavy, deep skillet and heat to 350 degrees. Fry the tortilla strips until golden, about 2 minutes a side. Drain on paper towels.

Fry each cheese sandwich until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes, and drain on paper towels.

Place each in the center of a plate. Divide the Pico de Gallo among the plates and garnish with the remaining Coulis, cracked pepper, basil and tortilla strips.

4 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 383 calories; 520 mg sodium; 111 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.

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Crab Quesadillas (Quesadillas de Congrejo)

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

CHILE HABANERO RELISH

2 habanero chiles, sliced

3 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise into very thin strips

3 leaves basil, sliced very thin

1 tablespoon olive oil

Several drops lime juice

Salt, pepper

In a small bowl, combine the chiles, garlic, basil, olive oil and lime juice; season with salt and pepper.

GUACAMOLE

1 avocado

1/3 tomato, seeded, finely diced

1/3 small onion

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon lime juice

1/4 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder

Salt

White pepper

Peel and pit the avocado, then mash. Add the tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice, bouillon powder and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

QUESADILLAS

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon oil, divided

1/4 pound sliced mushrooms, about 2 cups

4 (10-inch) flour tortillas

1/2 pound cooked crab meat

2 cups Oaxaca or Chihuahua cheese, grated

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Guacamole, divided

3 avocados

Chile Habanero Relish, to taste

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms have given up their moisture and reabsorbed it again, 5 minutes.

For each quesadilla, top one side of a flour tortilla with 1/4 of the crab, cheese, cilantro and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Fold in half.

Heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place the quesadillas in the skillet, in batches if necessary, and cook until golden and crispy on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and brown the other side.

Cut 2 of the avocados in half; remove the pits. Place one half on each plate. Cut a quesadilla in thirds and stand these against the avocado half. Spoon some guacamole in each half. Place a little Habanero Relish on the side of the avocado. Peel and pit the remaining avocado; cut into thin slices. Fan the slices across each plate.

4 servings. Each serving: 665 calories; 1,407 mg sodium; 99 mg cholesterol; 47 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 7.65 grams fiber.

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