O'Pazo, Combarro, Askua, Raussel and Tinin
Because of certain postings on the Opinionated About Dining Discussion Forum, as well as reviews I have read on other blogs, I dedicated a chunk of my recent trip to Europe to eating at a few of Spain's better known regional restaurants. Spanish regional cuisine is sort of in these days, as Spain is the last of the big three, France and Italy being the other two, to be discovered by the foodie community. The result is that people now talk about platters of Joselita ham, or grilled red shrimp from Denia, or baby lamb roasted in an asador, the way we used to talk about cassoulets or roast Bresse chickens, or dishes like ribolita or grilled scamponi during the 1980's, which was the golden age of Americans travelling to Europe for the purpose of eating.
Unlike French regional dining, where writers like Patrica Wells and guides like Gault Millau created a framework for where people needed to go and what they needed to eat when they got there, there is no equivelent English language publication covering Spanish regional cuisine. As a result, non-Spanish diners are sort of backing into Spanish regional cuisine as a by-product of diners travelling to Spain to sample eat the new Spanish haute cuisine at restaurants like El Bulli, Martin Berasetegui and Arzak. But since man can't live on haute cuisine alone, invariably diners will also seek out the best tapas bars, asadors, paella specialists and other types of casual restaurants that invariably featured the cuisine of the region you happened to be in, and the Spanish dining circuit now includes a list of places that some people consider a must go.
But something else was driving me to visit these restaurants. Over the last few years, a number people in the foodie community, let's them call "ingredientistas" for the purpose of this article. have taken the position that regional restaurants, in particular certain Spanish regioal restaurants, should be rated more highly than places like El Bulli or Mugaritz. Looking at their claim in the context of of how cuisine has been rated ever since restaurant guide books began appearing around 110 years ago, their theory didn't make sense. Historically, restaurants were rated according to the technical abilities of the chefs. Sure ingredients played a large part in the rating, but best ingredient-based, or regional restaurants, topped out well below the highest range. I'm racking my brain to think of an example that doesn't comply but I can't think of a fish or meat specialist that Michelin ever gave more than a single star to, or Gault Millau a score of 15/20. In instances where these types of specialists received higher scores, the chef always had extensive culinary training. But now there is a movement afoot to try and claim that a Basque fish asador, or a Catalan regional restaurant, has the potential to get a higher score than a restaurant like Arzak or Cellar can Roca.
It was against that backdrop that I found myself getting out of a taxi in front of what my friend Pedro Espinosa calls "the decadent O'Pazo," a fish and seafood specialist in the Tetuan section of Madrid. Of course you are asking what is regional about a seafood restaurant in Madrid, a city that doesn't even have a river running through it? Well it seems that regionality in Madrid is a construct, where they truck in the best fish and crustaceans Spain has to offer from far away places like Asturias and Alicante. But who am I to quibble about what constitutes regionality? If tuna sent by Fedex from Montauk, New York to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo can be considered regional cuisine, I guess langoustines that have travelled 400 hundred kilometeres to a display case in Madrid qualifies as well.
If you have never been to a Madrid seafood specialist you are missing something special as one of the defining features is a display case full of odd looking crustaceans that one doesn't ever see on this side of the Atlantic (let alone in places like Britain or France,) resulting in pure gastronomic eye candy
Unfortunately another feature of these types of restaurants is a staff who speak English at what is best a perfunctory level, if at all. In fact dining in Madrid reminds me of the conditions in France 20 years ago, when it was difficult to find restaurant personel who spoke English. Fortunately, 'O Pazo had one waiter who spoke enough English to explain what the different specimens were and together we put together a small tasting of the fruits of the sea including Santiaguinos, cigalas, Langosta etc., finished with a small rodaballo (turbot) served with a sauce of oil, vinegar and garlic.
All in all it was a fine meal, with the large split langoustine in the third picture being the best specimen by far. But ultimately, this wasn't a good enough meal to make a special trip for. The turbot, even though Pedro told me it was "the specialty of the house," was fine but nothing extraordinary. If Mrs P. was there should would look at me and say, "it's fish" with an implication that fish doesn't get better than a certain level.
The evenings festivities were at Combarro, another Madrid fish specialist, where I was were dining with Pedro and Rogellio who is another Madrid based OA member, and UK based members Scott and Gary. Combarro is reputed to be the best seafood restaurant in Madrid, and it resides on "seafood row," a block away from 'O Pazo. Once again I was met by an astonishing display of fish and seafood in the window. I entered the restaurant to find Pedro and Rogellio already sitting a the table. We allowed them do order the meal, and a parade of creatures from rivers and the oceans began appearing at our table including Belon oysters, percebes, which are barnacles scrapped from the rocks, spider crab, octopus, shrimp and langoustines, and a tranch of fried turbot. The quality was definitely a step up from my lunch at O Pazo with only the langoustine at lunch matching the quality I found at Combarro. In particular the barnacles were unusual, looking like the fingers of a large animal which you ate by ripping open the soft membrane around the knuckle-like joint and you pulled a cylinder shaped delicacy out of the finger which reminded me of the tails of the steamers we eat in the U.S. (sorry for the fuzzy picture.) Then some spider crab, also good, with flesh that reminded me of eating torteau Iat Parisian brasseries.
Some exceptionally tender octopus was next. Among the best I ever had. Then an appearance of the langosutine/red shrimp from Denia duo I had at lunch and once again the langoustine was superb. Then what I thought was the single best thing at either of the seafood meals. A tranch of turbot that was fried and served with an assortment of vegetables. Really top class turbot and perfectly done. We finished the meal with a seasonal specialty which is lamprey that is cooked in its own blood like a civet, and which I will politely describe as an acquired taste that I haven't yet acquired.
Overall a better meal than 'O Pazo, but it was "still fish" using the Mrs. P. way of determining the importance of a particular cuisine or restaurant. Clearly it was good enough to eat again if I happened to be in Madrid. In fact I would put it in my regular rotation of places to visit if I happened to live there. But would I travel far out of my way to eat this? Absolutely not.
Our next stop was a surprise as it wasn't on the original schedule. The next morning we had flown to Valencia in order to have lunch at Ca Sento and El Poblet. My friend Jean-Paul Perez was supposed to be flying in from Gent to join us, but while I as at the airport waiting for my flight to board, my cell phone rang and it was Jean-Paul who was stuck on the ring road outside of Brussels and he was going to miss his flight. But more importantly, he told me Raul Allexandre, the chef of Ca Sento, was going to be out at a cooking demonstration that afternoon and he switched our lunch reservation at Ca Sento to dinner. Instead he had booked us at an asador I had never heard of named Askua, which he hyped by saying "they use the same beef that they use at Casa Julien in Tolosa, and Martin Bersategui uses the beef as well.
We walked into Askua at 2:30, and instead of a rustic asador, we found a super-modern restaurant with a waistaff dressed as if they could have been working at one of Spain's modern haute cuisine restaurantss. They staff was being guided by the restaurant's dashing owner, who was wearing a custom-tailored suit that one could describe as fitting "just so." The walls were white-washed, and were decorated with large installations of modern art, and each table had an adjustable light fixture hanging over it which was adjusted based on the height of the diners when each table sat down. Jean-Paul had called him in advance and ordered our lunch, and they began to deliver a procession of dishes at our table including a delicious amuse of pork belly that was cooked on the grill, sliced, and them salted, grilled espardenyes, firm and meaty anchovies, and a slab of slate full of boiled and chilled red shrimp from Denia.
We continued with steak tartar made from the sirloin, served atop some fried potatoes, followed by some very clean tasting sweatbreads which were perfectly grilled. Then two different steaks, both cut from the rib, served one at a time. The first was from the top of the rib and the other from the bottom. They were both superb. Soft as butter with a deep flavor of beef, and cooked perfectly.
The next day, after a stunning meal at El Poblet, which I will write up later on, we went out for some tapas at around 10:30. After eating a platter of ham at an outpost of the Sanchez Romero empire (not as good as Joselita in my opinion), we settled in at Raussel, sort of a luxury tapas bar that is part Cal Pep and part Basque asador, where we put together a small tasting of almejas, small clams cooked ala plancha. some excellent home- made chorizo also cooked ala plancha, a delicious plate of scrambled eggs with chopped vgetables mixed in, topped with smoked salmon, and some truly superb sepia cooked ala plancha with oil and garlic.
Then two different types of steaks. Beef from a ranch owned by the winery Vega-Sicilia (I think that's what they told me) and Wagyu beef from Chile. I could have done without the wagyu but the owner of the restaurant wanted us to taste it side by side with the Vega beef. I don't know about you, but two different steaks at a meal, both the same cut, was a new concept to me. But they must do that a lot in Spain because we had it two days in a row (where's the laugh icon.) Well the steaks were fine, but neither compared to the beef we had at Askua a day earlier. Oh yes, a plate of fried potatoes and spinach accompanied the steaks.
The Spanish regional dining portion of my journey ended with a trip to the small town of Sepulveda, about 100 kilometers north of Madrid, to sample the famous cordero, spring lamb cooked in an asador. We were originally supposed to go to lunch with Pedro and Rogellio and their wives, and travel about 100 kms further to the town of Campospero, in order to eat at Mannix, Spain's # 1 asador for cordero. But I got a call on Saturday that they both had fell ill and wouldn't be coming. Since we were taking the train up from Valencia to Madrid early Sunday morning, the prospect of a 200 km drive wasn't thrilling us so we changed plans and went to Tinin, purportedyly # 2 in the cordero asador sweepstakes. Well it was a bust. I don't know if we were there on a bad day, or this is a bad year for cordero, but it was one of the most ordinary dining experiences we ever had. We were a party of three, and we ate two quarters of the lamb, first the back quarter and then the front. Maybe someone else can write of a better experience but this goes on my "no reason to go back" list. You can eat better cordero, certainly cooked with more skill, at either Zuberoa outside of San Sebastian or El Raco can Fabes north of Barcelona. Why anyone needs to schlep to a small town 40 kms east of Segovia to eat this is a mystery to me.
One thing that amazed me about Spain was the wine that they like to drink there. First I have to tell you that I am a fan of old Rioja, and I have a cellar holding many treasures with vintages ranging from the 1920's through the 1960's. But over the last decade, the average Spanish palate seems to have lost their taste for traditionally styled wines in favor of the more modern, international style that wine critics like Robert Parker are known for touting. This resulted in our having a difficult time finding acceptable wine to drink (our definition of acceptable mind you) in most restaurants. In fact in Askua I ventured away from tradition to order a bottle of Contino Vina et Oliva which we found was like drinking a mixture of glue, rocket fuel and compost mixed with cherry jam. When we were ready for our second bottle, I ordered a very appropriate La Rioja Alta 1995 904 Gran Reserva and the owner of the restaurant tried to talk me out of it telling me "you can't drink this wine after the Contino." But we were not to be dissuaded. When she opened the wine she smelled the bottle and she made a face. I asked her if the wine was bad and she said "no, but Spanish people don't like to drink wine like this anymore." Anymore? I could hardly believe my ears and I rolled off a list of wineries in Rioja that make traditionally styled wines and she made her face again and said, "I don't like any of those wines." I would have been more surprised at her reaction had we not experienced Pedro and Rogellio dismissing a bottle of 1994 La Rioja Alta saying "this is the wine our grandfathers drank, we want to drink something new." I still can't get over how people who are fans of ingredient based dining, like wines that pretty much kill the ingredients. Maybe someone can explain it to me but it doesn't make any sense.
Anyhow getting back to regional dining in Spain. I don't think it is quite as good as regional dining was in France during the heydey of the 1980's. But despite that comparison, in eating the cuisine, and these aren't the only restaurants I've been to -- I've also been to Hispania, Elkano, Gaia, Casa Julien in Tolosa, Mantaqueria Ravel, Garbet and others -- while you can eat well, even exceptional in some instances, it simply doesn't reach the type of ethereal dining experience you can have at a place where the kitchen is being run by a highly trained, and super-creative chef like at Mugartitz, or El Poblet. And not only does claiming otherwise contradict the way restaurants have been rated for more than a century, it's also as a friend of mine would say, a false statement.