Friday, April 3, 2009

What I've Learned

During ten days in Spain, we had a chance to do some excellent eating. While we experienced a wide range of places, from humble tapas bars to Michelin 3-star restaurants, it was still only a small sample of what Spain has to offer. But I am nonetheless convinced that the Spaniards' passion for and dedication to great ingredients, and to the joy and satisfaction of good eating, make Spain one of the world's great dining destinations. So what broad, pat generalizations can I draw from this limited snapshot?

1. great ingredients cooked properly will make a great dish. This is not some Marco Pierre White* "the only way to cook fish is on the bone with olive oil lemon and salt" rant (about which you can find more discussion here). I'm completely agnostic as to preparation methods and techniques, and think it is just as possible that sous vide or anti-griddle is the proper way to cook something as a saute pan. But it is perhaps an obvious, almost tautological truth, that if you start with great product and don't screw it up, you will end up with something great. Some of the most exciting, satisfying things we ate on this trip were also the simplest - percebes at Goizeko, calçots at Cuines Santa Caterina. Even the Arzak egg we had was as much about wonderfully flavorful egg and truffle as about the technique and presentation.

2. it's just cooking. In large part, and with a couple exceptions, the places that are using contemporary techniques are not doing so as an end unto themselves, but rather just as part of the repertoire of making great food. At Arzak we had spherified mushrooms and solidified foie oils and powdered olive oil sauces, but it didn't seem contrived or forced. In part I think with such a greater concentration of restaurants that are exploring these contemporary techniques, it becomes less "look what I can do" (though there certainly remains an element of that), and more about how those techniques can be used to enhance the entire dining experience.

3. presentation is not a substitute for flavor. We were served some breathtakingly beautiful things in Spain. The "hot and cold crab salad" at Akelaŕe was a visually stunning dish, with the miniature carrot and radish made of vegetable purees, and the perfect-looking meringue mushroom - but it would have been a disappointing dish without such vivid flavors. The creations at Aloña Berri were some of the most beautiful bites I've ever seen, but what made the place so special was that they were just as good to eat as they were to look at. On the other hand, the "esmeraldas de chocolate" at Arzak were also a great visual feat, but that didn't change the fact that they didn't taste like much. Presentation is undoubtedly a component of a great meal, but it can never make up for lackluster flavors.

4. there are few things as revelatory as an unexpected complementary combination of flavors. Arzak used herbs in desserts, particularly in combination with chocolate, to great effect (basil ice cream paired with chocolate spheres and a red wine sauce; a chocolate-rosemary ice cream that was just fantastic). Aloña Berri's pintxo pairing mackerel and foie gras, along with a crisped leek sprinkled with various flavors, worked perfectly. To me, these kinds of combinations - when they work - can make for some of the most magical dining moments.

5. Asian influences would seem to be Spain's trend du jour. Albert Raurich spent nearly ten years as El Bulli's chef de cuisine, but his new restaurant, Dos Palillos, is doing pretty straight-ahead Chinese and Japanese food with only a smattering of hints of his former job. Other places riffing on Asian themes, like Kabuki Wellington and Diverxo in Madrid, are also getting much attention. I wonder how much this may just be a reflection of Spanish food culture not being as familiar with Asian cuisines as perhaps we are here in the U.S., as the East/West thing doesn't seem all that groundbreaking to me.

6. Arzak is doing some interesting things with colors. The manipulation of color was a recurring theme in our meal at Arzak. The "bronzed" monkfish, with a sauce that also became speckled with bronze when another sauce was added tableside; the "perdigones" in iridescent silver and pink with the duck, the "esmeraldas" of chocolate with a shiny green shell made from spinach, were remarkable effects. But see 3 above - if the flavors aren't there, the dish will still disappoint.

7. Akelaŕe is doing some interesting things with echoing of flavors. It only occurred to me in retrospect, but one of the things that was common to many of our dishes at Akelaŕe was that the same flavor would be repeated in different forms in the same dish. The crab came as a cold shredded salad and a warm grilled claw, as well as in the coral "soil" underneath. Prawns were served over another "soil" made from dried ground prawn shells. Sole was served with an emulsified sauce made from the fish's cooking juices. Roasted suckling pig came with pools of "Iberian emulsion" which echoed the porcine flavors. Many of these dishes only had a few predominant flavors, a far cry from, for instance, Alinea dishes with "too many garnishes to list." This is not to say that one is any better than the other, only to note the dramatic difference between the approaches.

8. there's no good reason for any restaurant to be stuffy. Arzak and Akelaŕe are both Michelin 3-star restaurants, but there was not the slightest hint of stuffiness or haughtiness at either place. The restaurant staff at both places were warm, friendly and relaxed. Indeed, the solicitude that Juan Mari and Elena Arzak showed for everyone in the restaurant while we there - ourselves included - was one of the most memorable, and rewarding, things about our meal. Elena in particular is just one of the warmest, most genuine people you could ever have the good fortune to meet.

So that closes the chapter on our venture to Spain, and we'll now return, for the time being, at least, to the original premise of this blog - good eats in Miami and surrounds. Thanks for your patience.

*Given that his "Chopping Block" show lasted only a few episodes and nobody other than Mrs. F and I have seen the movie "Mystery Men," I doubt there is anyone else in the universe that will get this reference, but MPW's messianic "insights" on the show reminded me of none other than The Sphinx -"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions." "To learn my teachings, I must first teach you to learn." "When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack." Am I the only one who finds these things just a little bit formulaic? I know this guy was supposed to be one of the greatest chefs in England, but ... maybe it was the checkerboard Spicoli Vans that made it hard for me to take him seriously.


  1. So in the end what was your favorite restaurant that you visited? What was your favorite single dish(or bite) of the trip?

  2. I always struggle with these kind of "best" questions. Alona Berri was quite special, and the "Guiller" tapa may have been the single best bite of the trip. Best dish, possibly the cochinillo at Akelare. For the whole dining experience, Arzak was my favorite.