South of the Border Surprise

Many years ago - perhaps almost 20 years - I went to San Diego to visit my college classmate David and his partner David (and naturally all their friends named David) for a week to escape the horrors of a New England 'spring.'

One of our outings included snorkeling in La Jolla, a small and elite village just to the north. There, we ate lunch at La Valencia, a resort hotel dubbed The Pink Lady. And pink she is! We sat outside and enjoyed whatever sandwiches we ordered - mine was most likely something featuring the local seafood. I do love my seafood! Our waiter, a kind man with just enough gray at the temples to be fatherly, asked if we were visitors. One yes, one no. "Will you be visiting my home town in Mexico while you are here?" he asked? David told him that we planned to go south beyond Tijuana the next day. "Well, then, you must go to my cousin's restaurant - he is the maître d' at a fine French restaurant called El Rey Sol." "French?" we both inquired with a hint of curiosity in our voices? "Yes, French."

Our server then went on to share the story of how this restaurant came to be in the small seaside town of Ensenada, in Baja California. Her name was Donia Pepita and, in 1945 following the war, she traveled to France to study at the renowned Cordon Bleu. (I do hope I have all this correct - my memory is not what it used to be! But this will give you the idea...) She returned to Ensenada and, in 1947, opened El Rey Sol (The Sun King) on Avenida Lopez Mateos. It remains there today.

David and I entered into the richly decorated interior. It was dark and cool in contrast to the brightness of the seaside sun. The look was Old World and combined French wallpapers with Mexican tiled walls and fixtures, with stained and painted paneling below the wainscot. It was comfortable and romantic. We asked for our waiter's cousin. "Lo siento mucho. Este es su día libre." (I am so sorry. It is his day off.) No worries... we planned to eat there anyway.

Keeping with my seafood theme, I ordered the mussels in saffron broth - a dish that practically brought tears to my eyes. I spoke almost no Spanish at that time and relied heavily on David to help me. I asked David if he thought we could get the recipe. He asked our waiter who, in turn, asked in the kitchen. Soon, the chef appeared at our table and HE was not Donia Pepita. While I believe she was still alive at that time, she was no longer in the kitchen, although her recipes lived on. The chef, who spoke French, said there were no recipes but if I wished, I could accompany him into the kitchen for a demonstration. "Bien sur!"

He walked me back into the most beautifully appointed restaurant kitchen I had ever seen. Everything - in contrast to the the rich, dark salons in front - was bright white with stainless steel fixtures. And, in the midst of the lunch rush, it was calm and orderly. The chef took me to an empty work surface and, with a combination of mime and actual techniques, showed me how to make the dish without using a single ingredient. I wish I could remember his name to credit him in this post.

I was a bit unprepared to see the kitchen and to be taught by this great chef. And, I was not altogether ready to speak French simultaneously translating and trying to remember my lesson. Later that afternoon, in the car on the way to La Bufadora ("The Blowhole - a natural phenomenon amongst the craggy rocks south of Ensendada), I made my notes that eventually became today's recipe.

I returned to my Upstate New York home and immediately set to trying this dish. The recipe I post today is the product of 20 years of fine tuning. But each time I have it, I am transported back to that day spent in Ensenada.

Many years later, after Mark and I had been together for a few years, we visited David and David in San Diego, and followed in the footsteps we had taken years before. The waiter at La Valencia was still there - and remembered us! - and he told us that Donia Pepita had passed on the restaurant to a family member, and that it was still very good even though his cousin no longer worked there. So off we went to Ensenada for a meal at El Rey Sol. The ambiance was just the same and the food just as good, although updated and with a sense of Franco-Mexican fusion. We had duck with a plum-chipotle sauce that melted in our mouths. Other dishes, as well, were tasted and shared although the duck shines in our memory.

Mussels can be hard to find if you live inland. But, if you can find them, make sure you get nice big ones cultivated on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The sweetness of the mussels is a wonderful combination with a buttery Chardonnay and the other-worldly saffron. This dish can be served as a soup course, first course or main course - but regardless of which course you choose, it needs to be served with a good, crusty French bread to sop up the sauce!

¡Buen provecho!

- David

Mussels in Saffron-Chardonnay Cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped sweet onion
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chardonnay
1 pound cultivated mussels, scrubbed and debearded (discard any broken or opened mussels)
1/2 cup heavy cream

In a large saucepan, melt butter and cook onion and shallot over medium heat until soft and clear, but not browned - about 5 minutes.

Add the saffron and salt and stir until saffron begins to diffuse its color and flavor - about 30 seconds.  Add the wine and bring to a boil.  Add mussels and cover, and cook over high heat for 3-5 minutes until mussels have all opened. *

Pour broth through sieve and return mussels (or mussel meat) to the broth.  **  Add cream and bring just to a boil.  Serve with a crusty French bread and a crisp white wine.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter or soup course

* You may remove the mussel meat and discard the shells at this point, if desired.
 ** If you prefer a more rustic version, you do not have to strain out the onions and shallots.

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