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Lisa Shames | November 2, 2016 | Feature Features National

At his newest restaurant, Leña Brava, Rick Bayless brings the seafood and rustic cooking style of Baja California to the West Loop.
Shrimp aguachile features sashimi-style blue shrimp in a sungold tomato broth.

If you still think of Mexico’s Tijuana as just a border town with a bad reputation, Rick Bayless has some news for you. In addition to having access to some of the best seafood in the world, an influx of wineries—and the increase of chefs and restaurants that inevitably follow such things—has helped contribute to changes in the area to the point where now, he says, “It’s a very beautiful and sophisticated city.”
But Bayless is doing more than simply paying lip service to a region of the country to which he’s dedicated his life’s work. He’s devoted his newest restaurant, Leña Brava, to the emerging cuisine of Baja California.

For the record, Bayless doesn’t need to open up any new restaurants. Between Frontera Grill (approaching its 30th anniversary), Topolobampo, Xoco, Frontera Fresco, O’Hare’s Tortas Frontera, his long-running PBS TV series, numerous books and his Frontera Foods product line, he has a very full and profitable plate (a recent multimillion-dollar sale of Frontera Foods notwithstanding). “I do it because I see something I want to create,” says Bayless of Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca, his casual cerveceria and taqueria next door. “I only do projects I love.”

That love can be found all over the 78-seat Randolph Street restaurant. Like with his other projects, Bayless took his time creating Leña Brava—2½ years to be exact—to make sure every detail is just so. Even the music, which ranges from funky Manu Chao to ’60s Ethiopian jazz, is his handiwork. (Like what you hear? Check out “Leña” on his Spotify account.) “It’s very eclectic,” says Bayless, “like the cuisine of Baja.”

And, in the case of Leña Brava, very delicious too.

Divided into two main sections, the menu features cold items, including raw fish preparations and salads (Ice), and dishes prepared on the wood-fired hearth and grills (Fire). To further drive home Bayless’ passion for cooking with fire—the restaurant’s name, after all, means “ferocious wood”—Leña Brava doesn’t cook with any gas or electric equipment. “I have wood fire in every single one of our restaurants,” he says. “That’s a hallmark of my style of cooking and what I love most.” Helping further his culinary vision are husband-and-wife chefs Fred and Lisa Despres, who can be seen taming the flames in the open kitchen at the far end of the intimate space.

On the cold side, you’d be wise to start with a half-dozen oysters, which, in addition to their superb briny flavor, come with a terrific smoky-spicy salsa negra and a cantaloupe-yuzu ice that I found myself eating like it was a serving of really good sorbet.

Other cold dishes range from seafood cocktails (cócteles) to unusual salads, including one of young coconut prepared three ways. Of the four ceviches, I’m partial to the Verde, which pairs buttery Baja hiramasa yellowtail with a kicky green chile adobo, daikon radish, shaved fennel and grilled garlic chives.

But if I had to choose just one from the Ice side of the menu, it would be the shrimp aguachile. Eight butterflied raw blue shrimp from Mazatlan sit in a golden-hued cold broth made from sungold tomatoes, lime, yuzu and arbol chile. It’s sweet, spicy and acidic at the same time. (Tip: Use your spoon to get every last drop.) Texture and additional flavor in the dish come via toasted sunflower seeds, slices of knob onions and bits of sea beans.

Seafood, not surprisingly, dominates the Fire side of the menu too, although braised short ribs, wood oven-roasted chicken and a massive Tomahawk steak are thrown in for those who aren’t fans.

Octopus may be a ubiquitous menu item these days, but the one at Leña Brava from the Oven and Hearth section reminds one of how great it can be when done right. By quickly searing the cephalopod in a hot steel pan placed directly on the embers, it retains its tenderness but also has a welcome bit of chew to it. “Mushy octopus drives me crazy,” says Bayless. Me too. Add in some frisee, avocado chunks and bits of bacon all lightly dressed with a warm bacon vinaigrette, and you have the perfect filling for the wonderful tortillas, which are made daily in-house from masa imported from southern Mexico.

Black cod also benefits from some high-intensity heat. Using the same marinade as tacos al pastor (red chile, achiote and pineapple), the fish visits the 800-degree wood-burning oven twice, which helps seal in those bright flavors. A Napa cabbage salad of sorts adds crunch, while a sour pineapple-shiso salsa brings tartness.

From the sides selection, the cooked-until-black eggplant and shiitakes won’t win any beauty contests, but the dish’s rich earthiness, courtesy of the salsa negra in which the ingredients are marinated, makes up for its lack of eye appeal. An ubercreamy cauliflower mash didn’t wow me, but my dining companion had no issues with it.

Desserts at Leña Brava are a wonderful fit for the dishes that come before it while also bringing plenty of creativity to the end of the meal. There’s a take on the classic très leches cake here with the addition of pistachios and raspberry sorbet. In another dessert, red and gold plums from Seedling Farms are a terrific foil to the honey liqueur-spiked cream tart they’re paired with.

Bayless’ homage to Baja extends to the restaurant’s spirits program, which offers one of the city’s best selections of mezcals—indigenous to that region—including a large array from highly regarded Del Maguey, whose founder won a James Beard Award this year. Those mezcals also find their way into some of the cocktails, my favorite being the tart and subtly smoky Leña Fire.

Need more proof of the chef’s love for this underrepresented region of Mexico? Head to the restrooms, where the colorful wallpaper depicts a field of agave plants, the main ingredient of mezcal. Wall to wall, Bayless’ new place is intoxicating.


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