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When I was in Belgium back in January, my friend J.P. Perez couldn't stop raving about El Poblet and the cuisine of Quique Dacosta. According to J.P., Dacosta, along with a handful of other young chefs, was the future of cuisine. It was a bold statement, but one that I wasn't going to take lightly considering the source. In fact I took it so seriously that three months later I found myself in a van which was on its way from Valencia to Denia in order to have a Saturday lunch at the restaurant. J.P was driving and he was attempting to explain Dacosta's cuisine to the others in the van. "There's a mongol between Denia and the sea" he told us. Mongol, from what I could understand, was a swamp. Still I was having a hard time understanding him. Food that tasted like a swamp. Now what would that be like? I soaked up the conversation and stored it away for further use. Still I was having a hard time processing the information.
The setup at El Poblet is a bit unusual. The kitchen, rather than being tucked away at the back of the restaurant, is located just off of the entrance. That means that the pass is literally at the head of the entrance to the restaurant, and the first thing you come upon when entering is Quique Dacosta standing at the pass barking out orders to his kitchen staff. Talk about having an open kitchen! But there was something else that was unique about it. After the hostess greeted you, Dacosta was able to personally greet his guests as they were led to their tables. I have to say it's an approach I preferred and more chefs should try it. Most chefs greet their guests after the meal is over. Why not greet them before the meal begins?
They started us with a Rum and Coke of Foie with a mist of lemon zest and wild rocket. It was an unusual way to start. Typically you would get showered with amuse but not here. The thin layer of creamy foie was moist and tasty, and the contrast with the rum and coke gelee made for a reasonably good way to wake your palate. The next dish, crunchy artichokes in vinegar of Spanish Champagne, dressed on green olive oil with filaments 2007 olsaffi-ony gelatine and wild oranges, played a similar role and while interesting and delicious, seemed to be more about getting your palate ready for the more serious dishes than being about compelling food. At first I didn't realize it but then came the mongol. They placed the dish in front of us and the waiter was announcing the ingredients. I wasn't really paying that much attention as we had printed menus and I could refer to the list of ingredients later on. I took a bite, couldn't believe what I was tasting, took another bite and experienced the same sensation. I looked down at the menu and it said "The Living Forest represents perfumes, textures and products that we can find in a walk around one of our forests. Go into it." Well that is exactly what happened. Upon taking one bite of the dish, it was as if we were magically transported into a forest. The sensation was so unusual that I asked the others if they were experiencing it as well and they were having the same sensation. Next we were transported to a beach and our noses were lined with the aroma of seaweed. I looked down at my menu and it said, "Abstraction of the Sea, seaweed and mushroom salad with rice vinegar on a layer of potatoes with bitter almond aioli and a gelatinous seaweed veil." I have to say it was the oddest sensation. The mushrooms were sliced in a way where biting into them gave the impression of biting into something like kelp. It was almost too chewy to eat, but at the last moment it gave way to your bite and dissolved in your mouth.
Our trip through nature continued with "Hoarfrost, dry fruits, the trees hoarfrost and the shrimp. To eat the hoarfrost produced on nut trees during cold nights is a magical. The smoke scent of the fire, made by countrymen to allow defrosting, stimulates us to appreciate this dish and this moment." If you have ever traveled in Europe, I am sure you know the scent of burning vines that you come upon quite often while driving on the highway. Well this dish had that scent in the dish. Not a smoked flavor like barbecue, the actual smell of the burning sarmants in the creamy part of the dish. I ran my index finger along the edge of the dish to pick some of the "hoarfrost" up to smell it and it was if I was transported to one of those farms where they are burning the branches. Phenomenal. Then we took a break from conceptual dishes and had Sticky Senia Rice on a bed of smoked eel with pearls of red fruits and wild rosemary flowers from Morrtgó. Quite good and it made me think of the risottos that Alajmao serves at Le Calandre. The next dish was more visually evocative since the effect it tries to create, is not something we would normally eat. Unless of course one is in the habit of licking the exteriors of Frank Gehry buildings. "Oysters", inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao If I understood J.P's explanation of the dish, oysters are placed in a very hot oven and the heat causes them shell to explode open, and the juices to spill out of the oyster onto the pan. The juices are then mixed with alginate, and the result gives the impression of the museum. It happened to be quite delicious, with a belon oyster wrapped in oyster paper. Then two delicious servings of red prawns from Denia. Warm in a red prawn broth and then traditional, boiled and chilled. (these are pictured on the first page of the article.)
Then my favorite dish of the meal, "The Other Moon of Valenica" which was a play on sepia and its ink. There was toasted rice that was flavored with sepia ink, sepia juices turned into crunchy balls, sepia cream, and two different types of sepia preparations. Hard to describe it but it was in the vein of Gagnaire but much more contemporary. Or maybe I can describe it as a 21st Century "Oysters and Pearls." Regardless, it's something I need to again, and rather soon at that. Sprouted Seeds, berries and pulses with dice of pork with apame seed with paprika from Jaranctilla had lovely chewy bits of pork belly and skin. Like pork jerky but somewhat softer. Borage stalks, fleshy aloe vera, wild white thistle from Montgó and grilled raw red was unusual because of the use of aloe vera. Like dishes that use chlorophyll in the sauce, this was similar but more intense. Maybe you should eat it after getting a sunburn.Then a hen egg which somehow had agar agar I believe added to the mix to give it the unusual skin.
Then the meal was supposed to end with some lovely hunks of goose liver with a quince topping. But I insisted that we order a paella. After all, Quique has written the definitive cookbook on modern rice dishes and traveling all that way and not sampling a rice dish seemed silly, At first the others objected but eventually I prevailed (are you surprised to hear that?). Just before the foie gras course was served, a captain came to our table and summoned us to the kitchen where we found Quique waiting for us at the pass. A large paella pan was sitting on the pass and we were about to get a lesson in how to make the perfect modern paella. After hearing all about a specially designed teflon coated pan with a solid core so the heat is evenly dispersed, and how the rice is supposed to be placed in as thin a layer as possible so it cooks evenly, and how the proportions were 80 grams of rice to 1 1/2 liters of codfish stock, and how there was no stirring, and how the dish cooks in 18 minutes, Quique lifted a spatula and cut a strip away to reveal a magical carmeliztion on the bottom of the paella. It was a delicious end to the meal, and the others offered me kudos on my insisting on having it. I enjoyed it so much that on my way out I told Quieque I would like to come back and eat an entire menu of rice dishes. His response was that with notice he would prepare a menu with the seven different paellas he has created over the last seven years so I can track the evolution of the process.
Even the desserts were interesting (I rarely feel that way about the dessert course) and included an infusion of Stevia Rebaudiana with petals, flowers, wild herbs and apple peel, then aloe & violets, and an absolutely superb coconut cream that had these coconut pellets made of agar agar which resembled coconut tapioca.
This is truly one of the greatest restaurants in the world. And I'm sorry for the pun but, it was almost too much to swallow in a single visit. I could easily return for 2-3 days of eating at El Poblet with some meals revolving around this group of modern dishes so I could sample them again, and other meals revolving around dishes on the traditional menu that the restaurant serves. Then there is also the meal of the seven paellas. And the dishes that cause one to feel as if they have been transported to a physical location might be the single greatest advancement in cuisine I have come across. I have a lot to say about those dishes, but do not want to present my thoughts until I have the chance to sample them again. I am hoping to try and revisit the restaurant in the fall. Yes it was that good and it is easily the most interesting restaurant I have come across in a long time. A