I love visiting the “sherry triangle” area of Andalusia (in southern Spain) for a number of reasons; firstly, of course, the sherry itself is just fantastic; secondly, the food is absolutely delicious, with local seafood playing a prominent role; thirdly, my sister-in-law lives there, and as a qualified tour guide she always makes sure that we have a fantastic time. So, when she mentioned that a restaurant in El Puerto de Santa Maria (Aponiente), had been given two Michelin stars and was making quite a loud noise on the culinary scene, it piqued my interest immediately. When I found out that it was a restaurant that had an all-seafood (ergo no meat) menu, paired with local sherries, I booked a table and our flights immediately – I had to try this out!
From the very beginning we were made to feel that this evening would be more than just a dinner, it was going to be an experience, a gastronomic journey if you will. The emails from the restaurant about the booking tell you that you will be “welcomed aboard” and as you approach the restaurant itself you are greeted by a member of staff who show you to a cabin (a small-ish room with a few tables) where you are served some very nicely presented snacks and a glass (or three!) of Puerto Fino from Bodegas Lustau to get you started. My favourite of the snacks was an attractive plate of goodies you can see on the left with a little doughnut, some cured mackerel and a butternut squash taco.
After about thirty minutes we were escorted to the main restaurant, which is set in a beautifully-restored warehouse on the banks of the local river. The decor is very tastefully done, with a nautical theme throughout. We were taken past the open kitchen where we could see the chefs hard at work doing their prep for the evening service. We also got a chance to meet the Executive Head Chef, and brains of the whole operation, Angel Leon, who was very affable and stopped for a photo with us – which was a nice touch. The dining room itself was large with high ceilings and was bright with a relatively small number of large dining tables set up for diners.
We selected their 25 (!) course tasting menu, which consisted of a number of smaller plates, as well as some larger plates. For the sake of brevity I will focus the discussion below on some of my favourite courses and, of course, the wines that they paired with them.
The Light of the Sea
One of the dishes that put Angel Leon and Aponiente on the map is their famous “Light of the Sea” dish. They do a lot of work with their in-house marine biologist who works in their research facility and had wanted to create a dish that capture something especially magical from the sea. To do this they take you into a room, take some special worms that live in the water, dry them and then grind them up before putting them into a glass and mixing with some grapefruit juice. The lights in the room are then turned off so that you are left in complete darkness. Slowly before you, the glass starts to glow in a rather ethereal manner. As the worms’ chemical reaction continues you find that you can paint your hand with the liquid and leave a sort of UV mark on your hand. You are told to drink the liquid – which doesn’t really taste of anything much; but the point is that you have been able to eat “the light of the sea” – a very interesting and unique concept. I was glad to have been able to experience this! Naturally, it was difficult to take a picture of this experience – but I hope the one above gives some indication of what it looked like.
A Tale of Two Soups
The first course from the menu that I want to describe to you was entitled “Sweetcorn Gazpacho”, and was a beautifully delicate and dainty take on that classic of Spanish soups. Instead of the tomato flavours that you would expect to find, this was transformed into a vaguely Mexican affair with bright citrusy-lemon notes, paired against a strong, smoky chilli profile that reminded me of chipotle. As well as the sweet crunch of the sweetcorn kernels in the dish, there were little cubes of a root that was similar to wasabi in giving off an intensely spicy bite.
All in all, a thought-provoking and bold soup (although it was not the best soup of the evening); but what would you pair this with? The sommelier completely blindsided me by pairing this with a NV Brut Nature Champagne from Christophe Mignon, which was made from 100% Pinot Meunier. On the nose it was very bready and toasty, but on the mouth it was light and bright with pleasant lemon notes. PM is often a bit of a filler grape in Champagne blends, but here it was nice to see it brought to centre stage and demonstrating that it can be elegant in its own right. The match with the soup was inspired – bravo!
Remember how I said that the Gazpacho (above) wasn’t the best soup of the evening? Now comes the best soup of the evening, which was once more somewhat understatedly titled “Cold Iodine Soup”. The soup itself was creamy, soft and delicate; I must say that I am not particularly familiar with the taste of iodine, but it did have the slightest tang to it. This was served with some morsels of lobster that sweet, juicy and absolutely divine. All of this was enhanced by the attractive (and rather dramatic) dish that the soul was served in. In my notes, I simply recorded “best soup ever!” Enough said.
A touch of theatre
On the menu there were several dishes that looked on the face of them to be meat dishes, despite being advertised as a seafood only restaurant. Case in point was one of the courses that was simply entitled “Steak Tartare”. Eyebrows were raised, we expected that there was going to be a twist. Of course there was! The dish was made from Squid rather than Beef and had been marinated in Harissa to give the dish a rather attractive colouring. The waiter then mixed the squid in front of us, adding onions, capers and mustard to give flavour and a sauce was served alongside to add some acidity to cut against the squid. This was all very theatrical and added a sense of excitement to the dish, which I enjoyed very much – however I think I’ll stick to ordering Beef Tartare!
This was paired with a 2016 Solear en Rama Saca de Otono (from Sanlucar) which was served ex-magnum and was one of only 100 magnums produced from this small-batch producer. Once more the match was spot on – the wine was fine and elegant, there was a slightly sweet butterscotch note to the nose and on the taste there was that familiar saltiness that is redolent of Sanlucar sherries.
The dishes continued with their theatrical nature with the next course, which was Angel’s take on a very traditional, local favourite, patatas con chocos – or “potatoes and cuttlefish”. To make this they cooked down some crab and then at the table in a majestic looking device pressed the cooked crab sauce into a dish (photo – above right). It came out a rich and luxuriant caramel brown. When I tasted it, it reminded me of a deep, complex mole-style sauce; just beautiful. The ravioli was nice and delicate, with the cuttlefish inside wonderfully soft and tender – something that you don’t always find with cuttlefish. A simply sublime dish, that once more was enhanced with the splash of razzle-dazzle that was starting to characterise this tasting experience.
We had this dish with a Equipo Navazos Amontillado Sherry (Sanlucar), which was again served ex-magnum. This was a serious wine: beautiful hazelnut sheen in the glass; an elegant nose that had the customary sea-salt profile, but coupled with some sweet spices and a slight perfume; on the mouth it was savoury, nutty and salty. This was a pleasingly complex wine that was a great match with the dish.
Now time for some sweets! There were two that really stood out for me, the first was a citrussy burrata. Burrata is one of my favourite dishes and something I always order when I see it on the menu, but this was the first time that I had had it as a dessert. The presentation of the dish was very interesting as you can see from the photo, there was a sauce on the bottom of the plate that looked a little like a lung of some kind! The burrata itself was made from a lovely fresh cream and as you cut into it, it seeped out nicely over the plate.
The menu ended with what is a high-point of any tasting experience, an almond soufflé! The soufflé was nice, soft and moist with a deliciously gooey filling which oozed all over the plate when we cut into it. The almond flavour really came through nicely with a pleasingly refreshing milk-flavoured sorbet that was quinelled on the side. This was an excellent way to finish the meal.
To pair with these two puddings we had a lovely 2015 Pedro Ximenez from Bodegas Ximenez–Spinola.
Having arrived at 8pm, we left the restaurant at just after midnight having had a truly delightful and memorable experience. The calibre of the cooking was extremely high and I thought that the wine-matching was inspired, credit must go to Juan Ruiz-Henestrosa, the head Sommelier. The service was attentive and pleasant, all the more-impressive when you consider that they were having to explain these complex dishes in English for us.
As a 2* restaurant, you are expecting something particularly special when you visit – after all it is not cheap. I would say that this was an experience that lived up to the hype. Bravo to Angel and the team.