Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dinner In Dénia

It's not every day you fork out £500 on dinner for three... and then happily surrender a further £100 for the accompanying book. But then dinner at Quique Dacosta (formerly El Poblet) is no every day meal.
Outside the recently renamed El Poblet Restaurante

It's no surprise that Quique Dacosta has eventually abandoned the name of the El Poblet district of Dénia, with its down-market shopping parade, and renamed his distinctly up-market restaurant eponymously. But it must have been a wrench for the largely self-taught Michelin 2* chef who began his culinary career locally as a 14-year-old dish-washer.

Quique's philosophy was shaped though years of experience in Costa Blanca restaurants, including the pizzería where he first took control of the stoves and understood the pride and attention to detail with which the Italians cook simple local produce. From that moment it was only a matter of discovering the Valencian culinary roots, becoming familiar with the abundance of local fresh produce (especially the amazing local seafood) and learning something of the new techniques being developed in Catalunya and the Basque Country... and a master chef was born.

The decor is a comfortable balance between rustic and modern minimalist, with partition screens and table positioning creating privacy without seclusion. The first thing that strikes you as you take your seat is the elegant tableware with its unmistakeable signs of expensive tastes and wallets to match. That famous phrase comes immediately to mind - "If you need to ask how much, you can't afford it."
A note to diners on the importance of consuming dishes at the appropriate temperature
Next to seize your attention is the introductory note. At Mugaritz the note poetically encourages you to abandon your worries and enjoy a few hours of stress-free relaxation. With Quique the welcome is more practical - explaining the importance of temperature to several dishes and the consequent need for consumption without delay. As you read it you realise that you have surrendered yourself into the arms of a chef who not only focuses on flavour, aroma and visual appearance, but also on texture and temperature techniques. It can only be a matter of time before the headphones arrive, à la Blumenthal.

A selection of olive oils and vinegars for the breadNo self-respecting meal in the Valencian Community would start without bread and olive oil. Here we are talking warm, freshly baked bread (including a gluten-free offering substituted effortlessly for my coeliac dad) with a choice of superb local extra-virgin oils presented with a selection of paired vinegars. Along with a mellow Gramona Imperial Gran Reserva 2005 Cava, with its subdued and beautifully integrated carbonation and light flavour of apple balanced by the most subtle toasted aromas, it signalled the perfect start to an evening of blissful gastronomic indulgence.

Utterly brilliant and something I would definitely do in my own place was the supply of individual menus for each customer, printed in their own language and tailored to their individual dietary choices. I've seen this done at the end of a meal, but doing it at the start of the meal and thus providing a written guide to each dish was truly inspired. Another nice gesture - this time aimed more at the affluent diner than at the eager gastronome - was the depositing of small cushions on the floor beneath mum's handbag and dad's camera. It's those little touches that earn you accolades.One of the individual menus provided to us at the start of the meal

"White Truffle from Montgó" - not what it first appearsInspired by a love of Italy dating from Quique's youthful experience as a pizzeria chef, "White Truffle from Montgó" brought excitement and intrepidation in equal measure. The aroma was unmistakeable. But an Alba truffle this size must cost a fortune! Is it an extra, to be added to the bill? A second glance reveals the dish to be a crafty reconstruction - a parmesan mousse moulded into a rustic truffle shape, plunged into liquid nitrogen to freeze and then quickly dusted in a powder of five dried wild mushrooms to form an aromatic, crusty shell. If great dishes are meant to make you smile, this one brought tears of joy.

If the first dish brought memories of the woods at sunset, the second was redolent of the forest at sunrise. A green pea purée base soft under foot, with vegetables and shoots, mushrooms, herbs and flowers gently raising their heads into the early morning mist. After the earlier use of liquid nitrogen, "The Haze" was a perfect occasion for the deployment of solid carbon dioxide, or 'dry ice'. The concept behind this dish was flawless. The only problem was the difficulty of delivering flavours to match the aromas, temperatures, textures and appearance."The Haze" - inspired by the early morning haze and the aromas of damp earth and frozen herbs

"Cubalibre of Foie-Gras, with Aroma of Lemon and Wild Rocket" - simply stunningAnticipating "Foie-Gras Cubalibre", you might expect your rum & coke to be served with crushed ice & lemon in a glass alongside a piece of foie. But you'd be reckoning without Quique Dacosta's skills of deconstruction and reinvention. Here we have a base layer of light and incredibly smooth foie mousse beneath a gelatine layer of rum and Coca-Cola reduction. In the centre, compressed lemon granita providing a vibrant contrast in colour, flavour, temperature and texture. Where a sorbet would have been pleasant, the crunch of the ice crystals counterbalanced the smooth, creamy unctuousness of the foie cubalibre. The mustard leaves were a step too far. But a fabulous dish all the same and one that will long be remembered.

The alternative dish provided for my pescatarian mum was billed as "Weird Leaves", although a better translation of the original Spanish "Hojas Raras" would be "Unusual Leaves". On offer were pairings of sweetleaf and chameleon plant with olive oil & black olive, kalanchoe with jamón fat & tomato, nasturtium with truffle oil & anchovy, sempervivum with hazelnut oil & wasabi, begonia with smoky beetroot oil, echeveria with avocado oil & eucalyptus, majii with walnut oil & Moscatel and oysterleaf with codium seaweed, all presented over a tomato water gel. A panoply of sensory experiences to excite and challenge the palate, nose and eyes."Weird Leaves" - nothing weird about these delicious pairings

Next to arrive was "Iberian Oyster". Not the most attractive dish, with the initial appearance of a raw mollusc left long enough for its life juices to leech out and the corpse to suffer a severe fungal attack.

"Iberian Oyster" - simple looking but complex in executionLuckily, however, the dish tasted far better than it looked. The flavours were fresh as a daisy. The oyster was presented raw, perched on top of a jamón gel, with a nitro-frozen "oyster air" made from baby squids blended with the oyster's natural juices to create a dark grey liquid base to which lecithin was added. The base was then frothed up and spoonfuls of the air dropped into liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze the bubbles into a solid structure. A pleasant and interesting dish, but not exactly ground-breaking.

"Dénia's Red Prawn" offered the best of local seafood, presented in a deceptively simple arrangement on a salt crust rock. Cooked à la plancha, then in sea water. According to the Maitre d', the red prawns brought in at the shores of Dénia are especially sweet because of the seaweeds on which they feast. The waters in which they swim are apparently so deep that the seaweeds on which they feed have yet to photosynthesise - resulting in a unique product with an extraordinary flavour."Dénia's Red Prawn" - a simple triumph

For me this dish was the out-and-out winner of the evening, for sheer beauty in simplicity and incredible flavour. The only criticism I can make is that the prawns weren't deveined properly, which at this level of cooking isn't really excusable.

"Langoustine, from las Rotas" - too much work for too little rewardDish 6, "Langoustine, from las Rotas" was one of the few disappointing plates of the evening. There are times when you feel like cracking thin langoustines with miniature nutcrackers and extracting the flesh milligram by milligram with a winkle-pin, but this wasn't such a time. The shellfish were split neatly down the middle longitudinally to form a symmetrical pair of halves, and was dressed with a sea water air, which to be honest wasn't very salty. Not a very impressive dish, I'm afraid.

Strangely named, "The Hen of the Golden Eggs", given that the heroine of Aesop's fable about prodigal poultry was a goose. Even more strange that such an unoriginal and outmoded dish, with its low temperature egg and excess of gold leaf, should be ascribed to invention as recently as 2005. But the dish worked well, both as a visual treat and an oral experience, with a perfect yolk spilling into the mouth orgasmically like a scene from Tampopo, to be washed down with a reduced stock made from its progenitor. Not the most challenging dish of the evening, but a satisfying one nonetheless."The Hen of the Golden Eggs" - a more traditional dish

"Senia Rice with Black Truffle from Morella and Smoked Pigeon Liver" - too much umamiDuring the discussion of dietary requirements, I'd asked for a rice dish to be included on the tasting menu. After all, Quique is a recognised expert on modern rice dishes. "Senia Rice with Black Truffle from Morella and Smoked Pigeon Liver" was one of those creations I view as a victory for Michelin expectations over good cooking. Far too much truffle (partly our own fault, as we accepted the offer of an additional grating of Alba), masking the flavours of both pigeon and rice. Cut umami with something acidic or pungent and the effect can be stupendous. Layer umami on umami and it's simply over-indulgent.

With "Monochrome of Coconut", the first of two desserts, came the shock of snowblindness. Surely we weren't expected to munch away at a pile of shredded coconut? With each spoonful the apprehensions dissipated and the smiles extended. Silky coconut ice cream covered with shavings of grated coconut gelatine, small pieces of raw virginal coconut flesh, a smear of smooth coconut purée and tiny dancing balls of coconut 'caviar'. Monochronicity suddenly made sense. Remove the visual stimulus and the sense of flavour and texture is enhanced. Simple, ingenious, flawless, delicious. Possibly the best dish of the evening on texture alone."Monocromo of Coconut" - a textural masterpiece

"Stones" - a work of culinary geniusWith Quique's 2009 dessert "Stones", the meal ended where it began - back on Valencian soil. Not now the dampness of the woods on a truffle-hunting autumn evening nor the chill of the forest on a misty spring morning, but the concept of dry crunchiness of a road on a summer's afternoon. Stepping onto a chocolate mousse path sprinkled with chocolate biscuit crumbs, with huge stones made of panettone coated with a special sugar preparation, plunged into liquid nitrogen to form a crust and then painted with mint. Tiptoeing through strands of kataïfi pastry and dancing crystallised herbs and flowers. Full of amazing textures and, like all truly great chocolate dishes, without excess sweetness. Sublime.

I must say something about the accompanying wines. When we ordered our menús degustaciónes, we followed the now established pattern of electing paired drinks (I say "drinks", because beers, sakés and other alcoholic beverages are finding themselves increasingly paired with dishes these days). So it was somewhat of a surprise when the sommelier suggested a bottle of Gran Veigadares 2005 to accompany several of the courses, with other specifically paired wines for just three of the dishes. And what a choice that turned out to be. Gran Veigadares is one of the high quality vinho verdes known as Galicia's Green Gold, from the Condado de Tea subregion of the Rías Baixas. Like many of the fine wines in the region, it is made from the local Albariño white grape by one of the many female winemakers for which Rías Baixas is famous. It paired the seafood exquisitely. A wine more suited to me you couldn't find. Cross the Minho into Portugal and it's not long before you reach my home from home, where cheaper vinho verde is consumed avidly. Wines provided for specific dishes were a light sweet Sidra de Hielo icewine, a full-on complex Bota de Manzanilla Pasada sherry and a local Fondillón 1980 demi-sec monastrell from Salvador Poveda in Monóvar, Alicante. For the first time ever in fine dining, I couldn't fault a single wine pairing. They were simply perfect.Salvador Poveda Fondillón from Monóvar

Service was attentive - perhaps a little too much so at times. But we had, after all, arrived so early that kitchen team scarcely had time to turn on the ovens and we'd clearly disrupted the Maître d's smooth service plans for the night. It was good to see that the request for gluten-free bread was noted across front of house. Dad is fond of recounting experiences of announcing his coeliac status to one waiter while rejecting the offer of grissini, only for a second waiter (or worse still the same one) to recommend the ravioli. Slightly disappointing was that the clinking of our cava glasses accompanied by a distinctly audible birthday toast went unnoticed. Balloons and sparklers would be a tad vulgar for this sophisticated establishment, but a simple candle with the final dessert would have been nice.

The courtyard and lounge at Quique Dacosta
With smoking now banned at restaurant tables in Spain, the new lounge area provided the perfect retreat for coffee, petit fours and liqueurs and for mum to exercise a habit she should have given up years ago. It was also the opportunity to meet Chef Dacosta and discuss our dining experience.

Chatting with Quique Dacosta after the mealIf you click on the photo left to enlarge it, you'll see a large white book hidden away beneath a book of Picasso paintings and a travel magazine. Arroces Contemporáneos (Modern Rice Dishes) is a seminal work on the cuisine for which Valencia is most famous. Nobody pushed the book at all, but when I asked if I could have a copy for my birthday and my folks agreed, the restaurant was quick to oblige. Within minutes the waiter reappeared, brandishing a brand new copy of the book for Quique to sign.

OK, so he misspelt my name. After the perfection of the meal, it was a mistake I could happily forgive.


Mike said...

It was a really great meal, if a little heavy on the wallet. If this is fine dining, bring it on!

nancy princeton said...

Looks very yummy and expensive too. However, good for once in a while.

ChuckEats said...

i wish it weren't in the middle of the summer beach tourist wasteland - it's one of my favorite restaurants in the world

bathmate said...

wow this is outstanding comment for posting, thnak you.


ulteriorepicure said...

Great recap. Thanks for reporting. I endeavor to make it some day.

Trig said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments. You must get down to Dénia to try the place for yourselves one day.

365 Tage said...

no way would I ever spend that much money on silly looking food. I would really admire a chef who can make interesting and good.looking food on a budget for the 99,5% poor sods who can't afford this sort of play food.

Trig said...

I'm one of the 99.5% who can't afford this type of food, but I love cooking it and eating it. Thank God someone else pays for it.

Anonymous said...

U are always a good writer.
The way u write is awesome.

S Lloyd said...

Instead of offering wine pairing by the glass, they did offer a bottle of wine for some of the courses: doesn't this cost more than the wine pairing by the glass?

Trig said...

No, it worked out a bit less expensive because the vinho verde wasn't too pricy. Overall the meal was expensive, but well worth it. My dad still raves about it today.

Bobby said...

This is so frustrating, after reading this blog I want the story to go on!!

Keep us updated Trig, what are you doing now?

Great Blog by the way, just hoping there is more to read.

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