Sunday, February 24, 2008

El Poblet.....I Can Die Happy Now......

Sherman.....set the WayBack machine for Sunday, January 13.

We had long awaited brunch reservations at El Poblet in Denia,south of Valencia.

Problem. We were hungover and in Barcelona.....a mere 500km away. Thank God for the extra driver: Conall.

Chauffeur, bodyguard, photographer, reality Czech.........

Conall....our family Bohemian...... knew that lunch was going to be over the top. A sinful excess...not justifiable in any possible system of values.

I responded thus: Think of it as Opera...or Ballet....or a Broadway Play. And, instead of the cast working for a thousand other people, they are working just for one table at a time. Our table. We are supporting the arts.....and we get to eat!

I heard about El Poblet from David Kinch of Manresa......the only restaurant in California that comes close to Spanish standards.....

Let me rephrase that. Manresa is the only restaurant in California that competes at a modern Spanish level of excellence and creativity....right in there with the big boys. Eat your heart out, French Laundry! Anyway, last year David ate at Mugaritz, then drove to El Poblet.....then drove back......and then drove back again. He could not decide which was the best restaurant in Spain, you see.

One winter in Kitzbuhel I tried to figure out which was the best American novel of last century, Gravity's Rainbow or Sometimes a Great Notion. So I read Gravity's Rainbow, then Sometimes a Great Notion.....couldn't decide....and did it again.

I sat in my room during blizzards with two paperbacks........I didn't have to drive 600km each way, four times.....and I wasn't spending spend a grand a pop. David is mental. Kind of a perfectionist.

You should see his food......

The eminence gris at El Poblet is Quique DaCosta, a thirty-something who has been running the show for an improbable amount of time. He is an actual genius.....eating his food is like listening to Mozart play as a teenager must have been. Quique is definitely the most fun name to say in Spanish: "Kee-kay"......and it is refreshingly close to "Kooky" in the nicest possible way. El Poblet is rated two stars by Michelin, the same as Mugaritz.

The town Denia that is home to this jewel is a seaside burg like Hermosa Beach. When we lived in Hermosa we called it the white ghetto. Or like any town on Long Beach Island in Jersey. In winter, most of the beach front houses are empty. There is a KFC and a Burger King.

Of course, being Americans and...... despite the five hour drive.....we were early. And frantic with anticipation. Here is the photographer, violating various local ordinances, and burning off nervous energy.

And here is the tasteful strip mall next to the restaurant:

And here we are, five hours later in front of the actual restaurant.....possibly inebriated.
(Note the caution light....very apropos).

The restaurant itself is all glass everywhere. The kitchen is open, the bar is open, the wine cellar is open....and the dining rooms. No secrets.....except how in the world Quique creates his amazing dishes.

Like Mugaritz and Sant Pau....there are handouts. First, the napkin ring: (you click on this to make it bigger.....)

"I prefer to Conquer, not be conquered"
"Fusion is a mixture of lineage, products, cuisines, cultures, sentiment, philosophies and knowledge.
"From them we come, them we are, and there we go......"

More philosophy:

And a menu even. This is such a long, weird post that I am only showing the English menu.....wildly translated. Take my word for it, the Spanish version is similar. The author: picture a UC Santa Cruz food science major, with a MA in art, nineteen years in the most competitive kitchens in the world, some LSD....and some important missing neurotransmitters.....

By the by.....we always had the waiters speak to us in Castillian in Spain. The flow and poetry of the Castillian words turns the menu items and descriptions into mini-arias. You can always ask later if you miss something first time around. Who cares anyway?

Quique has a couple of different menus. There is a five course deal, and an a la carte menu. The a la carte stuff is expensive enough that you are always better off doing deep if you are having more than two courses. Still, there were all kinds of folks eating that Sunday.....many of them just came in for a nice fish dish after Mass. This is like taking the Maserati Countach over to Kasey's for a six-pack, but not matter. Us......after a five hour drive......we were swinging for the fences.

The maitre d'hotel is a Frenchman, Didier Fertilati.....fresh meat in Denia from The Fat Duck in England. Didier speaks all of the languages perfectly, so we were screwed from the get go. We orginally were bringing Txema, who worked at Mugaritz with Brendan, and I had mentioned this when I made my reservation months back. I implied that we were bringing an actual current Mugaritz person. We brought along Conall, a non-Mugaritz person instead. Didier was on us like white on rice: he knew everything about Mugaritz, and instantly knew that we didn't know shit. His best friend was the chef de cuisine, Paco.... that made Brendan's life a living hell in Erenterria......and who had quit six months ago and opened a new place in Madrid, taking with him and marrying Ruth, the Mugaritz winesteward......who used to work at The Fat Duck with Didier. See?

Give an old school French maitre d' a free swing at you, and you are fucked. Anyone remember when Laverne and Shirley went to the French restaurant with Lenny and Squiggy? It was like that. Amanda started referring to Didier....and still "that Fucking Pekinese".

I have to admit that all Didier's ice and cold steel were well deserved. El Poblet is the Big Time, and we played it Small Time.

Ugly Americans.....Busted!!!!

Our nerves were shot, and we barely were able to focus through the choice of olive oils and breads. No way was Conall taking fotos and getting busted again. So..... we missed some images of some courses and the amuses bouches. Luckily the waiter was a very kind and cool Neapolitan, and Conall and he were able to exchange some pornographic Neapolitan slang that chilled everything out. And the winesteward was a humble local guy with no issues, an amazing palate, and great vision and understanding of his wines and the dishes. Jose Antonio Navarrete....what a beauty.

Like true professionals, we rallied.....and noticed among the handouts some press for Quique's new cookbook....only 99euros. We ordered up a copy...and asked that it be signed for our missing Mugaritz chef friend, Brendan.....Seriously treading water......

Flailing, actually.

After some Cava, and after realizing that everyone else in our dining room didn't give a shit about us.....Conall got back on track with the camera. The Cava helped. The oyster went unrecorded.....but everyone does an oyster (and an egg) these days. Quique's was surrounded in a gel of seawater and oyster liquid....Nice, but we can do that, too.

Then: "Abstraction of the SeA"....evoking a gush of the sea. Seaweed and mushroom salad on a layer of potatoes with almond aioli and a seaweed veil. Nothing was normal. The potatoes were laminated or something....not like grandma's....All the textures and shapes varied all over the map. A shy, warm-up snap from Conall:

The wine Jose Antonio chose for these first two courses was Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana....the single vineyard sherry we also had from David Escoset at Sant Pau. Crisp, clean...wonderful fragrances that wove in and out of the flavors and scents from Quique. I was amazed to discover later that it is a sherry. Wow.

Next, the Hoarfrost.... an insane excercise in tableside cryogenics, with a covered dish with smoke injected with the nuts and the local prawns, and the smoke and mirrors......And delicious.

Next, one the two best dishes I have ever had in my life: The Living Forest. A walk in the woods.....mushrooms in four or five textures: chips, dust, natural, tissue paper made from shrooms......Five guys five minutes to make....and it still arrives warm at the table. Worth flying to Spain, the five hour drive....and flying directly back home, if you had to......

Next......Chunk O' tea infused green apple with stevia rubaudiana and aloe vera:

OK.....a brief break to pee:

A steel chair with letters projected on to it. Don't all men's rooms have chairs? Who was that Senator from Idaho?
The sink.
The urinal....

The urinal flushing.....

The commode.....

Back to the food......

Next: Fregola Sarda......Sardinian durum wheat balls with monkfish and tears of green peas with licorice.....somewhere under the "lagrimas". If you are about to scoff at the foam as being so last century, don't. Think: World's Most Flavorful Treasure Hunt. And the foam added just the right amount of accents and contrast to the couscous and monkfish.

Onwards.....By the way, it is now 3:43. You have been seated for an hour and forty-five minutes.

Next: This is Quique's idea of PrAwn, Denia's rose; PrAwn, Denia's red:

Two species of prawn, with a broth. The bronze chips are somehow made entirely of onion. As is the flower petal.

Are you exhausted yet? No.....

On to another top ten dish: Valencia's Other Moon. Caviar. Squid ink crustycrunchie things.....

No resting! Rally! Next: Red Mullet "Mark Rothko" saffron:

We knew Mark Rothko, but the Neapolitan was happy to bring us a Rothko book to refresh our chi anyway.

Quique looks everywhere for inspiration. At Arzak, Juan-Mari has Xabi Guttierez to be the art guy/scientist in the back. Quique is on his own.

Quique does the light sculptures on the walls.

Halogen. Copper foil. Simple and cool. My bad foto, not Conall's.

Quique does the sculptures on the tables. We had a pile of eggs for a while that, as the wine we were drinking built up, became more and more phallic. We asked to change out the table sculpture....

Here is Amanda caught between kitchen and wine cellar with the rejected egg/penises........

We switched out for Chef Running Into the Wall........

Quique has the flip side: Chef Emerging From the Wall. I can relate.....

Next: Rice with cherries and cherry caviar. A "normal" we can do this in Cachagua.

The first dessert: White.......
What the fuck!?! Candy with zabaglione......
Oh...served on slate.

Next: Velvet of hazelnuts. OK, I can kind of picture this.....More crunchies......

Next: On to the second best dish I ever had in my life: Giandura of five citrus fruits' skins
Intense citrus flavors, great textures, different temperatures......

Decent presentation.


Some random drunk....

In awe.

About halfway through the meal, the "Fucking Pekinese" reappeared. He had our signed cookbook in hand, in a nice bag. He regretfully informed us that due to the pressures of the job, and the intense work load involved in being a genius, Quique could not spare the time to greet us personally. Quique needed his rest, you see. More ice and steel.

A couple of courses later, a random kitchen guy appeared.....possibly the chef de cuisine. He was humble, not a big eye-contact guy, and possibly bereft of any English language skills ....or any Spanish-spoken-by-English-language-folk skills. Still, it was nice.....We are Workers, and appreciate being recognized by Workers....We thanked the man.

Just as we were finishing....Jose Antonio and the Neapolitan reappeared. Apparently, we had achieved some non-Didier related level of coolness, and they bought us a round of grappa. Thanks, boys.....After nine wines and a bottle of Cava, we were feeling a little neglected in the alcohol department.

We carefully negociated our way to the exit. On the way out, Quique's office is right there....with a big glass window. Inside, there was the geeky chef guy we had talked to earlier.....clearly a low ranking guy, since he was still working at 5:30pm on a Sunday. He was conferring with a waiter about the menu, and Jose Antonio was there, printing up a copy for us of our wines. For my Wine Geek friends:Jose Antonio came out with his list, and the chef geek came with him.

It was Quique. Still the winter slack season, on a Sunday....probably at hour 120 or so for that week.

David Kinch was conflicted about the difference between Mugaritz and El Poblet.

At Mugaritz, as even Didier confirms.....Andoni Aduriz, the chef, is rarely there.....and almost never in the winter. Andoni is a gifted chef......a wonderful, genius chef.....but he has his eyes on the prize. He loves publicity and self-promotion.

Quique just works.

Like David Kinch, come to think of it.

Skill and genius are the only tools that get sharper with use.....

Our jury is in....

Quique DaCosta is the best chef in Spain.

Oh.....lunch was:

A Thousand Dollars.

Not cheap.....

Well, maybe.......

What would you pay to listen to Mozart, played by Mozart?

And....we got to eat!


Blogger Alberto Landgraf said...

nice one guys!
youre writing is great!
im a chef from brazil and was with quique here last year at a food festival! great down to earth guy, listened more than he spoke, always wired to evrything happening around him, great guy! really doesnt care about the glory and all, wants to cook and be happy! never cooked anywhere other than el poblet!
your blog was brought to my attention by chuck, from chuck eats!
keep the good writing!

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


6:23 AM  
Blogger aromes said...

Great review.
Couple of questions:
(1)I want to go there but want to take photos. From what I sensed from your review, taking photos should not be an issue (except that you suspected the Pekinese to probably play smart about it, right?)
(2)Any idea of the $$$ for the wine pairing. I believe the most extended multiple course tasting menus is $130 approx. But what extra $$$ should I expect to pay for wine pairings?
(3)Is tip included in the menu? Or else how goes the tipping there: 15% of the bill?

7:24 PM  
Blogger Txacoli said...

Aromes: I returned there last week...had to eat by myself as Amanda was down for the count. I think my bill came to 180 euros with wine.

The Pekinese....Didier...was very cordial. He has been named best young restaurant manager of the year in Spain.

The same wine steward did the same wonderful job. Quique has backed away from some of the more spectacular molecular recipes...:(

The food was spectacular, the service better than I remember even, with lots of nice little new touches. I will write about it in full this week.

Photos are not banned...just be discreet. I use a point and shoot with the flash turned off so as not to disturb other diners.

Finally...I strongly recommend staying at the Hotel Albatros in Gandia...about 20 minutes north and very easy to find coming and going. Inexpensive, clean, bright, great staff.

Oh, and tipping is usually 5% or so. I love the wine guy, so I gave him 50 euros, and left 30 on the table. Hey, I was overcome!

9:01 AM  
Blogger aromes said...

Thanks for your responses. Very kind from your part. I am keeping my fingers crossed: I am trying to chose between Oud Sluis or El Poblet for our 10th Wedding Anniversary, but Spain, although way pricier for us (we will fly from Toronto) is way more tempting (we wont have just El Poblet in mind, but also the sea, the beach). I feel bad to ask, but may be you can help with the following questions:
(1)I am planning to spend the very last week of June in Denia (June 29th -July 2nd). I am afraid that, since that is the startup of the high season, I will miss the bus between Valencia's Airport and Denia. Do you know if it is possible way in advance to buy the Bus tickets online from abroad? Would you recommend the Alsa's ( bus company web site for such? How long in advance do you think I should do that (like 2 months ahead or should that be done even in December for the July that it precedes?)
Worst case scenario, I would take a Taxi to Denia, albeit that would be crazy (surely around 150 euros).
(2)In Denia, would the same spot to pick the Bus back to Valencia be at the same location where I was dropped from Valencia?
(3)What were your most savourish Paellas in Denia? Hopefully, I will get to enjoy Quique's Traditional fare too (probably on Lunch) and there will be Paella, I am sure. But I would also like to eat some great local paellas at other spots too.
(4)Thanks for the suggestion of your hotel. I had in mind Los Angeles or Noguera Mar Hotel, but will also consider your suggestion. Basically, I wanted a Hotel with direct access to some great sandy Beach (hence the Las Marines Area) but with still possibility to walk 15-20 mins and get to the main Center City's attractions. So I thought Los Angeles or Noguera might fit. But I am sure your suggestion will be even more affordable with still the same opportunities.
Again, Highly appreciated. The best to Amanda and you!

5:15 PM  

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