We humans are blessed with two eyes but only one mouth. But the mouth is so big that it can hold both the eyes and this must mean something. Mustn’t it? This particular evening, as wave after wave thunders onto Marbella’s beach and scattered children’s voices drift up to Restaurante Calima’s terrace from the boardwalk belo, my cyclops-mouth gapes in expectation.
It’s nearly time to return home.
My gods, my liver and kidneys, are shot after almost a month of industrious eating and drinking in the Iberian peninsular in my hunt to discover the condition of Spanish gastronomy post El Bulli; the world’s most acclaimed restaurant by far.
Behind me in Calima’s shining-steel open-kitchen, stands the cherubic thirty-six year old Dani García in chef’s jacket, jeans and white sneakers. Dani was born in Marbella and used to play down on the boardwalk when he was a child.
Today Dani is one of the pretenders to El Bulli chef Ferran Adriàs’s newly-abdicated throne, and with a sure, friendly touch he he’ll soon be directing his thirty-strong brigade through the evening.
Spanish gastronomy is said to be in a kind of mist since El Bulli’s closure last year. The restaurant had held three Michelin stars for a long time by then. Over the years the genius Ferran Adrià had developed a completely new style, molecular cooking, which made El Bulli into one of the world’s most innovative and influential restaurants.
And even if Ferran Adrià continues with his achievements, his restaurant is implacably closed. No new fixed stars have emerged, no new revolutionary aesthetic has been discerned.
But is it really so misty?
Can no one take over after El Bulli’s blinding fireworks?
I taste Dani’s opener, cold tomato soup.
The clear clang is there, but I remember what Franck Sibille, General Manager of the Marbella Club said to me over a martini the previous evening:
“Calima? It’s okay. But if you’ve been to El Bulli it’s nothing special.
But the tomato soup’s clang and Dani’s calm movements over in the kitchen promise something else.
“He’s wrong,” I say out loud over the table.
My wife looks at me.
“Now you have gone crazy,” she exclaims. “You’re talking to yourself. We’d best keep drinking!”
Otherwise the cava doesn’t run so freely this summer.
It is a hunched, kneeling land I travel through. A recession beaten Costa del Sol, a shiny Valencia who’s relaunch has stalled, a Barcelona with big demonstrations in the Plaça de Catalunya.
But not much of this is noticeable in the gleaming Hotel Arts, the luxury skyscraper by the Olympic port where wonder-boy Paco Pérez runs restaurant Enoteca, voted the city’s top restaurant 2010 by Time Out Barcelona.
Wine bottles rest along the walls of the dining room and well-off tourists are packed round the tables with the town’s citizens. Everyone looks satisfied, smacking lips and slurping, confident that the crisis is someone else’s problem.
Paco Pérez does what many contemporary Spanish chefs do.
He deconstructs and looks outwards.
The dessert, “Berries with Cream-cheese Ice cream,” is most interesting.
The dish may sound boring, but it is to be regarded as a modern Spanish classic. It was created by the country’s doyen of gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, at the end of the 70s and is said to be the reason he received his second Michelin star in 1977.
At the time, the dish was revolutionary.
Ice cream made of cheese?
Incredibly strange but oh-so-good, exclaimed guests and critics.
Many years later Ferran Adrià made couscous from cauliflower, simply by breaking the vegetable’s head into the smallest pieces possible. I ate the dish at El Bulli in the 90s during a chaotic visit which ended with me and my Swedishly-drunk companion drinking orujo on the beach till dawn.
Paco Pérez’s interpretation of Juan Mari Arzak’s classic dessert consists of taking frozen blackberries and raspberries and then minutely picking them apart, membrane by membrane, just as Ferran Adrià did with cauliflower. Paco Perez then serves the membrane with Juan Mari’s ice cream, and the result is something that can be likened to an ice-cold berry couscous surrounded by whole blackberries and raspberries.
For me, the dish is a quiet joy.
Sourness and coldness and berry-sweetness and cheese umami startle in my only mouth, as the dish sums up something that is unique in Spanish gastronomy and has made it a world leader.
The international outlook, in this case towards Arabia, is there.
The younger chef’s respectful, while still independent, regard for his older contemporaries.
The regional Spanish cuisines – in this case Catalan and Basque – in fusion.
And so creative effort and avant-gardism and fashion result in something exquisite.
When I put one of the whole blackberries from Montserrat in my mouth it comes together again: Here too is that uncompromising requirement that the raw ingredients will be of the absolute highest quality.
In 2011 the restaurant was named 57th best in the world.
What then is the price of a raw ingredient?
Restaurante de productos.
So are called a particularly special kind of restaurant to be found here and there in Spain. Restaurants that specialize in one or several select raw-ingredients of the highest quality, which are prepared simply and to perfection.
For example, you can eat the planet’s best turbot in Elkano in the Basque Getaria, you can eat the best rice in Paco Gandia in Pinoso outside Alicante and you can have a magical grilled lobster from Galicia in La Trainera on Calle Lagasca in the center of Madrid.
You’ll find the best percebes at Restaurant Rías de Galicia in Barcelona, in the shabby districts near the congress centre.
Percebes, a type of barnacle, is in my opinion the finest delicacy the sea can offer.
They are difficult to fish, or rather difficult to pick. They grow on the cliffs along Galicia’s coast and are picked when the tides are low. To get to the really big specimens the pickers need to go far out, and when the tides turn they risk getting caught and drowning.
Several percebes pickers die each year. But that doesn’t seem to trouble anyone in the neat dining room of the Rías de Galicia this lunchtime.
Ferran Adrià eats his percebes here, and so do I when I’m in town.
I order six half-decimeter sized, newly flown in percebes for eighty euros, suck in the warm, sweet juice and chew down the tough, flabby bodies. Around me others do the same, and there is the same sacred feeling here as in the town’s old fishing church, Santa Maria del Mar.
Here however it’s the raw ingredient, and not the god who created it, that is worshipped.
Restaurantes de productos can rightly be said to be the foundation that the Spanish gastronomic miracle rests on.
They are playgrounds for the country’s fetishism with raw ingredients, and costly reminders that, no matter how much technology and thought are applied in a kitchen, the raw ingredient in itself will always be bigger.
Seeing in my mind’s eye the percebes pickers caught in the Atlantic’s hissing waves, far out on spike-sharp cliffs as the tide turns.
“Heart, many of the young chefs lack heart.”
The words are Juan Roca’s, ranked as the world’s second-best chef in British Restaurant Magazine’s annual list of the world’s best restaurants.
A long time ago my taste-buds’ own sirens lured me to his restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and there have been a number of trips in the years since.
Juan Roca always talks a lot about respect, while conscious that everything has a price. He talks about how one’s creativity as a chef must have a base. I especially remember his troubled look as he leaned against his brand new BMW one sunny June day outside the restaurant.
“The soul,” he said, “The soul must be there when you create.”
Juan Roca knows what he’s talking about.
His food may be bold but it always has heart and always tastes good.
It has been argued that the main legacy of Ferran Adrià is a technique-fixated generation of chefs, who love their chemistry sets and advanced electronic devices more than anything else.
To some extent this is true. All-too many Spanish restaurants with gastronomic ambitions feed their guests with empty gestures; dishes that bear witness to creativity for creativity’s sake.
That it should be self-evident that food has to taste good is questioned openly by some.
Is it not enough to provoke, to challenge?
Ferran Adrià went down this road during some of El Bulli’s many years, but he beat a retreat, as if he realized that gastronomy’s innermost essence will still be an almost sensual pleasure for the guests, and that wanting to throw up is difficult to reconcile with pleasure.
On my last visit to El Bulli, in December 2010, the poached lambs’ brains with gravy on oyster shells was conspicuous by its absence. Instead delicious lambs’ brains, lightly fried in a thick veal broth, was served.
That’s not mentioning the caviar marinated in the scent of white Alba truffles – a dish that fooled the brain in the most wonderful way. Was I eating truffles or caviar, or both? It was a perfect hedonist’s dream come true. The chaste-life’s most beautiful moment, enhanced by restaurant staff that moved through the vibrant, old-fashioned room like Bolshoi dancers round an imaginary metal pole.
Let us travel away from Girona, down along the Mediterranean coast and go ashore in the heart of the Costa del Sol.
Maybe two hundred kilometers south of Valencia is the hideous tourist hole Dénia where Quique Dacosta, perhaps Spanish gastronomy’s most media hungry chef, is at work.
I’ve seen Quique Dacosta looking at pictures of himself in the local gossip magazines after his restaurant has closed for the evening.
When I interviewed Dacosta he didn’t hide the fact that all his guests couldn’t be expected to appreciate all of his dishes, and that wasn’t his aim.
“I know that only one in twenty will be able to finish some of my dishes. But I must give people my vision.”
The dish referred to was “Granit,” Quique Dacosta’s gastronomic interpretation of the mountains that surround Dénia and where he has his home.
No one disputes Quique’s creativity.
The dish “Granit” consists of salt, edible paper made of algae, and meringue flavored with oyster shells. Together the components form a speckled gray rock-like formation on the plate, and in your mouth the creation tastes entirely mineral. The texture reminds me of one from my youth when I sometimes put the shovel in my mouth while playing in the sandbox.
“I want to show what it’s like to eat stone,” says Quique, and maybe he’s succeeded.
Now we know that stone is no good to eat.
Quique is even trying to create architecture with the help of food. A tribute to the architect Calatrava is made of hot wild oysters covered with an iodine film, representing the science center in Valencia. The resemblance is certainly there. The problem is that the dish is inedible, even for a toughened organism like my own. And really it’s no more conceptually interesting than when children on television build cars from readymade meatballs and cucumber.
Quique Dacosta is an example of a narcissist chef who has set himself in the way of the guest’s experience. And that, I think, is not a fruitful starting point for gastronomy. Spanish or otherwise.
Things are much more toned-down at Dani Garcia’s Calima.
“I am a chef, maybe an artisan, but no artist,” he says. “I am much more traditional than many think.”
Dani García developed his skills as an apprentice at mythical chef Martín Berasategui’s three-star restaurant in Lasarte, several kilometers north of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. Here he learned that beetroot can be served as ice cream, that a dish doesn’t need to have sauce, that percebes can be served in its own jelly. He learned that if only the respect for raw ingredients and knowledge of the tradition is there, then most things are possible.
In the Basque Country the many star chefs help each other—more clearly so than in the rest of Spain.
To come to the Basque Country and enjoy the Basque’s company is my Scheria. If you win a Basque’s trust, you’ve got a friend for life.
My good friend Elena Arzak, who now runs Restaurante Arzak side by side with her father Juan Mari, phoned and warned her friend Dani that I was coming. She put in a good word for both of us and so all the necessary doors were open, trust in place.
In the Basque Country, the chefs have always moved to their own rhythm, first inspired by the legendary chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon and then by Ferran Adrià, who in turn was inspired by Juan Mari Arzak.
That’s not to say that El Bulli’s closure can’t be a release for certain Basque chefs. •
Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz in Errenteria has long worked in the shadow of El Bulli, where he practiced as a youngster. Andoni has long held the third slot on Restaurant Magazine’s list and been the darling of food geeks.
But I’ve seen how he’s agonized over the years.
How he tried to focus his menus while El Bulli served an overabundance of dishes. How he created severely and austerely while Ferran Adrià was wild and unbridled.
But in the past year, something has happened.
Instead of the usual eight dishes now Andoni serves each guest at least eighteen dishes.
And what dishes.
Raw ingredients twisted and turned, reduced, concentrated and served in their most beguiling form. The suckling-pigs’ tails are tough and sweet and in every way wonderful.
Mugaritz head chef Rafa Costa e Silva shrugs when I comment on the change.
“Oh, we don’t care as much anymore. The guests want to have fun. And we do too”.
Andoni confirms it himself a few hours later in the restaurant’s kitchen.
A happy, proud man in early middle-age and growing stout stands in front of me. Not the severe gentleman undergoing a creative crisis I met a few years earlier.
“We try to give the guest a bigger experience now,” he says.
The kitchen at Mugaritz burned down a few years ago.
The restaurant was forced to close, and lots of guests who’d travelled from all over the world to eat at Mugaritz suddenly had nowhere to go.
Elena Arzak tells the story at home in the kitchen of the family’s apartment. It’s Monday and their restaurant is closed, so me and my wife are invited home to dinner.
“I went to Andoni as soon as I heard about the fire,” says Elena. I asked him if we could help, but what was to be done? The kitchen had burnt down. What we could do was to take the guests and make room for the apprentices in our kitchen.
Said and done.
Arzak is always full, but a pair of extra tables for Mugaritz’s guests were squeezed into the dining room.
The kitchen at Arzak is one of the most crammed you can find in three-star restaurants. But, even so, room was found for the apprentices there.
“Help yourself,” says Elena Arzak later, carrying her Catalan fiduea, noodle-paella, to the table.
Here in her home I encounter the same hospitality that every guest encounters in the family’s restaurant. After a hundred years of running a restaurant, the family genes are permanently imbued with hospitality.
Much can be said about the food that was served at El Bulli. But it was never sensual.
Surreal, avant-garde, extravagant, hedonistic …
But never sensual.
The most sensual food in Spain today is cooked by Elena Arzak and her father Juan Mari. I am always amazed by how, with the help of the latest techniques, they create exquisite dishes that are clearly anchored in a Basque tradition, even if the ingredients are Mexican yuca and some obscure pepper variety from China.
At Arzak they serve food that wakes every part of the soul; clear sauces with layer on layer of flavors, clearly recognizable, but still somehow new.
And there’s poetry. Who can forget a woodcock’s tears?
One day on La Concha beach I ask her for the secret.
“You know, Mons,” she says, “Up here we do what we’ve always done. In our own way.”
“What’s your way?”
“Well, as you know, we put a little parsley in most things.”
The last day in San Sebastián I eat lunch with Juan Mari in the restaurant kitchen.
He says, even lovingly, that Andoni’s food is demanding.
And it is, compared to Arzak’s accessible style.
Then he says that, indeed, his good friend René Redzepi interned at El Bulli before opening Noma in Copenhagen, which is now number one on Restaurant Magazine’s list.
The implication: Noma is actually considered to be, more than anything, a Spanish restaurant.
A month after my visit to Calima, my body’s gods have recuperated, so I go to Madrid.
One Saturday night, there are only ten guests at Sergi Arola’s two-star, stylishly designed restaurant Gastro. But Arola makes money in South America. He runs Arola-Vintetres in São Paulo, and in 2011 he was awarded gastronomic personality of the year in Brazil.
Perhaps the top restaurant in Madrid right now is La terraza del Casino, which has connections with the El Bulli empire. The chef is Paco Roncero, who worked for many years under Ferran Adrià.
One Friday evening in September, I sit on the restaurant’s roof-terrace in the vibrant Madrid night. The red light from the post-office clock out on Gran Via is accompanied by the sighing of the cars down on Calle Alcalá. But, even so, the terrace is its own bygone world, complete with jacket dress-code, well choreographed service and a skilful harpist in a corner.
The food swings from a simple but seductive tuna with tomato and mayonnaise to a difficult but very good gelatinized meat puck with slow-cooked beef tendon.
The hours pass.
Dish after dish arrives at the table.
Real reality ceases to exist for me and my companion, just as it should when you give yourself up to gastronomy’s hottest and most expensive embrace.
The performance of La terraza is calm and sure without being self righteous.
Moderately provocative in its pairing of ruthless traditionalism and the properly challenging.
The sky is mist-free tonight. Many stars are shining brightly above me.
There is no new Spanish fixed-star to succeed Ferran Adrià.
However, there are great talents that will now have room to grow greater still.
At last, I knock back my ice-cold orujo blanco, let it warm my cyclops mouth.
I look over at the clock on the Gran Via with my two eyes.
It is around the same time of day that I left Dani García alone in his kitchen at Calima and hunted the Golden Mile for a taxi.
And now I’m sitting here again.
With fourteen dishes in my stomach, lots of good wine inside my Bauer jacket and my beloved dirty liquor on its way slowly down my throat.
Or am I sitting in Calima’s dining room? Do I hear children’s voices from the boardwalk? Could it be Dani’s voice as a child?
Or am I sitting at Mugaritz, in Errenteria, under the bare oak-beams? Maybe at Enoteca in Barcelona, or slurping down expensive percebes at Rías de Galicia?
No, I am probably in Restaurante Arzak’s kitchen, beside Juan Mari.
Seeing how Elena Arzak’s seven year old daughter takes over the kitchen in the middle of the lunch-rush and improvises her favorite dessert: lobster claw with chocolate ice cream and popcorn.
Then I see Juan Mari’s satisfied look and Elena’s smile, and realize that Spanish gastronomy’s future can already be considered assured.