Thursday, 13 November 2008

Lasarte - A Different Class Of Dining

In my recent write-up of Barcelona bistronomic restaurant Gresca, I set a challenge to test readers' knowledge of Catalan fine dining. "The Executive Chef", I wrote, "is a Basque who holds four Michelin stars - one at the hotel restaurant in question. He trained the brilliant young chefs of two other restaurants which I ate in recently and wrote about on this blog." I also challenged my readers to explain the secret of Rafael Peña's signature dish souffléed egg with vegetables 'a la crema' - fluffy egg white with a soft, flowing egg yolk inside.

I'm a bit disappointed that nobody managed to decipher either puzzle. Anyone who's read Hervé This will know how to cook egg white without solidifying the yolk. Albumen solidifies at 62ºC and yolk at 68ºC, so cooking an egg at 65ºC for quite a long time will result in the white being sufficiently firm but the yolk still runny. The souffléed eggs are made by separating whites from yolks, whipping the whites to meringue, pouring into ramekins lined with clingfilm and pouring the yolk into the centres (remember the old clingfilm poached egg trick?) The parcels are then tied up, cooked in a Roner water bath at 65ºC, unwrapped and baked quickly in a very hot oven to brown the meringue. Easy! Mind you, it sounds easier than it is. If you don't believe me, try it yourself.

The celebrated Executive Chef is Martín Berasategui, whose eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria in The Basque Country has held three Michelin stars for the past seven years and is considered one of the world's best. The 1-star restaurant - as you will have realised from the title of this post - is Lasarte, which Berasategui opened to critical acclaim in 2006. The Michelin Red Guide 2009 Spain & Portugal will be published in a few days and I'll be interested to see whether Lasarte follows in the footsteps of another restaurant that I had the pleasure of dining in the other day, Àbac, which gained its second star last year. Two stars in as many years might seem like indecent haste, but it's not impossible.Lasarte's dining room - formal but very relaxed

Regular readers will have noticed that I'm rapidly expanding my experience of high-end Spanish cuisine, with visits to Alkimia, Cinc Sentits, Àbac and Gresca here in Barcelona and Gastronómico Guggenheim and Mugaritz in the Basque Country. I dined at Koy Shunka here in Barcelona last week, Albert Adrià's Inopia this week and I've already booked lunch at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona for later in the year. So the question must be asked: "Why am I indulging myself so much?" Well, part of the reason is that I really enjoy a good meal, like any other foodie. But I'm on a relatively small salary (zero right now) and certainly haven't won El Gordo (no, not Gordon Ramsay but the Spanish lottery grand prize). The answer lies in something Ferran Adrià said in an interview with John Carlin of Observer Food Monthly: "The best chefs I know are the ones who most enjoy eating". In order to cook well, you need to know how to eat well. It's not a matter of copying what other chefs are doing - Ferran's most famous mantra is "Creativity means not copying". But you need to understand where the world has come from and where it's heading in order play your own unique part in the process. So for me, the experience of dining is every bit as much to do with my development as a chef as my pleasure as a customer. Well, that's my line and I'm sticking to it. However, some thanks must go to Lysa of Food & Wine Magazine, her friend Gabby and Niamh of Eat Like A Girl for bravely accompanying me around town and helping me keep busy eating and drinking during my time off!

It's not surprising that I'm beginning to enjoy dining experiences at Michelin 2* level. As I've gained in experience and developed my palate, so I'm becoming ready for finer dining. But that doesn't mean that I'm not enjoying the bistronomic scene in Barcelona every bit as much. I've always argued that great food is great food regardless of the status of a restaurant and that truly great chefs never cook with honours in mind (the reason I was so shocked at Marco's public confession). Right now I think the most enjoyable eating experience in the city is to be had at Koy Shunka. But my expectations in general are rising rapidly. And three weeks ago the bar was raised for me. I took my good friend and erstwhile Çomerc 24 chef de partie Michael to Lasarte to celebrate his birthday - and experienced dining that was simply in a different class to anything I'd ever experienced before.

Hotel Condes on La Passeig de Gràcia in EixampleLasarte's class impresses itself on you as you arrive at the Hotel Condes in the most bourgeois part of the Passeig de Gràcia, smack inbetween Barcelona's second and third most famous buildings (after La Sagrada Familia) - Gaudí's La Padrera and Casa Batlló. But it's not pretension or snobbery that I'm talking about here - it's true class. When my dad asked me what I meant by this, my response was immediate: "Most places I've been before they play guitar, at various levels of competence and originality. At Comerç 24 both back and front of house play a pretty mean guitar. At Lasarte, they play the violin."

I'd eaten at one of Martín Berasategui's restaurants before - the Restaurante Gastronómico Guggenheim in Bilbao - and been knocked out by its simple but immaculate ingredient-led cooking.

But this latest venture in a Barcelona hotel was an interesting challenge - would it prove to be nothing more than the cash cow of an internationally famous Executive Chef, or would it rise to the level that this Basque master of the kitchen is capable of? A lot would depend on the Head Chef, of course. The man in charge of the stoves is Alex Gares - a young Catalan whose eyes were opened to the world of gastronomy when, as a sixteen-year-old, he took a job in a Chinese restaurant in Barcelona. He enrolled at catering college, undertook a stage at El Racó d'en Freixa... and never looked back. During the next few years, Alex trained under three giants of the professional kitchen - Martín Berasategui in Lasarte-Oria, Carme Ruscalleda at Sant Pau and Ferran Adrià at El Bulli - making him the ideal candidate to head up the kitchens at the newly-launched Lasarte. Well, that was the theory, but would it prove to be the case in reality?Alex Gares - Lasarte Head Chef and a man who knows how to conduct an orchestra

I'm glad to say I wasn't disappointed. Eating at Lasarte was like being a karaoke singing, disco-dancing, pub team football player spending a rest day visiting La Scala, the Bolshoi Ballet and the San Siro. It was, quite simply, in a totally different league. The experience was so amazing that I left the hotel armed with my camera but without a copy of the menu. D'oh! For now, I'll just show you a Flickr display of my tasting menu. Next time I have the immense pleasure of dining at Lasarte, I'll describe the dishes to you. Right now they are just a dizzy blur of hedonistic pleasure.

Many thanks to Josh Tse for the photo of Alex Gares from his set The ART of new Spanish cuisine @ HK.


The TriniGourmet said...

Fascinating stuff! :) So glad you are having such a grand time :) Must confess I'm utterly grossed by eggs in any degree of runniness hehehe but the rest sounds amazing :D said...

Thanks to you for meeting up and showing me around. I had a great afternoon!


The Boston Foodie said...

After that clingfilm poached egg diaster you expect us to know this? The Lasarte dining experience looks and sounds nothing short of amazing. I am on the wrong side of the Atlantic!

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