Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Spanish Roundup - Two Great Restaurants

Most bloggers find themselves from time to time with some half-written posts that somehow never got completed and published... and I'm no exception. Looking through the drafts on my testbed the other day I found partial write-ups of two Spanish fine dining experiences that I want to share with you before I move on to the new phase of my career. These restaurants are Espai Sucre in Barcelona and Torrijos in Valencia - and both thoroughly deserve to be listed amongst my greatest dining experiences in Spain.

Let's start with Espai Sucre (Sugar Space). There's something very funny - in a puerile sort of way - about tucking yourself in a corner and stuffing yourself with sweets. Going to a "dessert restaurant" taps into that vein of guilt associated with scoffing a whole chocolate bar or adding three spoons of sugar to your coffee. But Espai Sucre isn't really like that at all. Jordi Butrón and Xano Saguer are professional pastry chefs alright - they run a patisserie school on the premises, training students in the fundamentals of "restaurant-style pastry making". But when they apply these skills to their restaurant menu, the intention is to transcend any normal convention of dessert-making. As they put it: "Espai Sucre restores the restaurant-style dessert as an element with its own personality and codes, where the result of combining technique and experience shades away the limits that separate the notion of sweet and savory elements." In other words, it's the dessert's addendum role - the guilty pleasure of something sweet enjoyed after real savoury food - that Butrón and Saguer set out to overthrow.

Espai Sucre Patisserie School and Restaurant de Postres
So what qualifies a pastry chef to challenge the received orthodoxy of centuries of gastronomy? Like many Catalan chefs, Butrón studied at Barcelona's Escuela de Restauración y Hostelería, before taking an apprenticeship at the famous Pastelería Escribà where he learnt his trade as a pastry chef. He took stages at three of the most creative restaurants in Europe - Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras and El Bulli, returning home to take up a post at Jean Luc Figueras. His experiences at these centres of gastronomic excellence taught Butrón that second place is not good enough. Desserts deserved their own tasting menu, he concluded, with a natural flow from the light, acidic and refreshing to the heavier, more robust and more tightly constructed. With no elements barred from the new, liberated desserts.

Butrón codified his position as follows:

1. Flavour is the priority. Technique and aesthetic are complementary means of increasing quality, remaining faithful to the original flavour.

2. The monopoly of sugar is to be ended. The range of tasty possibilities is widened to include sweet, salty, bitter, acidity, spicy, sweet and sour.

3. There should be respect for tradition, but the use of new techniques, products and tools permits better control over the flavour.

4. The arrangement of food components is an essential variable as flavour may differ according to the ingredient placement.

5. We must introduce immediacy into assemblies, expanding the options for hot/cold combinations, volumes, etc.

6. The dessert is an independent discipline with its own codes and specialists, but there must be close relationships with the world of savoury cuisine.

7. The most important intangible element of a dish is a discourse (idea, concept, theme, argument) which invisibly transcends the components.
Jordi Butrón

There's nothing new here. Principle #9 of Pau Arenós' Ten Fundamental Principles of Technoemotional Cooking states: "The frontiers disappear between sweet and savoury, between the main ingredients and the complementary ones. The ideal means of expression is a degustation menu." It's just that few, if any, chefs have achieved this objective. The vast majority still present their savoury dishes first and their dessert dishes as an after-thought - "blurring the frontiers" perhaps with a pre-dessert.

It took a couple of pastry chefs to open Espai Sucre and put the principle fully into practice. Well, that was the theory, at least. A year ago, while I was training at Lasarte months before my appointment as Pastry Chef at Ferrero, I went to see for myself. Unfortunately, my notes have long since disappeared. But my photographs of the dishes and my memories of a truly excellent dining experience remain. Enjoy the slideshow and, next time you're in Barcelona, visit Espai Sucre for yourself and enjoy the real thing.

Last May I left Catalunya and moved south to the Valencian Autonomous Community. The capital doesn't boast a single Michelin 2* or 3* restaurant, but has no fewer than five 1* ones, two of them cited for the first time in 2009 and one in 2008. If any part of Spain can be called up-and-coming gastronomically, it's Valencia. So friends might have been well surprised one day last July to find me lunching out in one of the city's longest-established and most respected dining rooms. But they'd only question my conservatism if they failed to notice that, two decades after Óscar Torrijos first opened his eponymous restaurant, the sign outside has changed to read simply "Torrijos". There has been a generational change, with daughter Raquel taking over front of house and her husband Josep Quintana taking control of the kitchens.

It used to be difficult for me to eat out due to the fact that most Spanish restaurants operate the same timetable - open when I'm working and closed on my days off. But finding myself with the good fortune of a free Tuesday, I was able to jump into a car with my fellow chef Luis and drive to the big city for lunch. And it was to Torrijos, in the Barrio Russafa in the heart of the old town, that we headed.
Me, arriving at Restaurante Torrijos
The grandfather of modern Valencian cooking, Óscar Torrijos, opened his restaurant in the city centre in 1987 and it soon became established as one of the most elegant addresses in the city and the place to go for fine food, winning a Michelin star in 1992. Two decades later, Óscar handed over the reins to daughter Raquel and her chef husband Josep Quintana and between them they have revitalised and modernised the restaurant while maintaining the best of its traditions (and its Michelin star). Raquel runs front of house and is an accomplished sommelier - now in charge of a wine cellar focused on French, Italian, Chilean and Argentinean wines and estimated to run to some 25,000 bottles.

Chef Josep QuintanaJosep Quintana is a largely self-taught Catalan who learnt to cook in a traditional family environment. Only when he trained at some of Barcelona's finest restaurants, including Gaig and Espai Sucre, did he learn the techniques that were to underpin his subsequent professional development. His style is characterised by sourcing the very best produce and bringing together perfectly cooked components into a balanced plate. Several reviews quote the chef describing his cuisine as "Mediterranean", but I suspect that the word has been taken out of context as this does a disservice to the complexity of the menu at Torrijos. Much of Spain's cooking can be described as such because it is based on produce grown locally in the southern communities, imported into al-Andalus a millennium ago by the Arabs and Moors or discovered in Italy and the Mediterranean islands in the 14th century by the seafarers of Catalunya.

But to use the term "Mediterranean" to describe a menu often implies a loose eclecticism - whereas these menus are far more carefully constructed. At the heart of what Josep Quintana does is to strike a careful balance between recognisable local dishes rooted in Valencian tradition, the very best of the high Spanish kitchen and outside influences that elevate dishes to a contemporary global status. Med-Asian fusion might be going too far as a description of these more outward-looking dishes, but there are very recognisable Asian influences in Sr. Quintana's cooking and they show the careful selection and balance that I associate with the best of fusion food after my brief spell training with Peter Gordon.

Anyway, enough of philosophy and history - I came to Torrijos to sample the tasting menu. Their lunchtime offering is an abbreviated version of the full evening menú gastronómico - showcasing the best of Josep's creative cooking while leaving guests still fit for an afternoon's work. I've put photos of all the dishes into the Flickr display below and if you click on a given picture you'll get a description.

Interestingly, the old man isn't exactly putting his feet up and watching daytime TV. Having passed the baton to Raquel and Josep at Torrijos, Óscar has re-established Restaurante Torrijos a mile away to the northeast, just outside the city ring road in the Westin Valencia Hotel. Here Óscar has returned to his roots in the neighbourhood of Mestalla, with a bar at the entrance where you can enjoy a drink with some tapas and a small gourmet dining room. If Óscar hasn't lost the art of cooking, he hasn't lost the art of PR either. From my researches on the web, I reckon he's outdoing his daughter and son-in-law in web references to their respective restaurants!


Paulina Mata said...

Recently I spent an week-end at Barcelona. I printed and took with me your post "Dining out in Barcelona". Thanks for it! It was quite useful.

I had a very good meals at Espai Sucre. Seeing your photos I could recognize some of the dishes. :-)

I also had excelent meals at Koy Shunka and Lasarte.

Trig said...

Hi Paulina - glad my post was useful, though I wrote it a while back and times move on. Koy Shunka is still my eaterie of choice in Barcelona for a great night out. Now I've got to re-explore the London scene.

Timothy said...
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