Monday 22 August 2011

Café de Paris – Málaga

Despite having enjoyed eating at the various tapas bars, seafood restaurants, a Bib Gourmand and the magnificent El Claustro in Granada, it was good to know that we had a booking at a Michelin starred restaurant. Café de Paris in Málaga’s old town uses modern and classic French techniques to serve ‘high gastronomy’ with Andalusian influences and quality seasonal products. Right up our street!

On the corner of two quiet side streets near the town’s bullring, stepping into Café de Paris, for the time being*, is like stepping into a haven of old school luxury (*they are soon moving to new premises at Muello Uno). As you enter, the first things you notice are the wooden display cases, showcasing quality glassware; some of the chef’s awards; food and travel guides and a collection of elBulli books.

To the right, a small reception area, complete with a charming laddered wine rack housing their collection of some of the finest Spanish wines organised by region or D.O. (Denominación de Origen), from areas such as Ribera del Duero, Campo de Borja, Bierzo, Utiel Requena, Xérès and of course Rioja.

Upon being shown into the small, intimate dining area, set with just sixteen covers the quality ensues: well spaced tables, covered in quality linens, Limoges porcelain side plates and Riedel glassware promise food of equal splendor. A feeling of grandeur and indulgent luxury instantly puts one at ease - the lavish décor completed with charming horn of plenty shaped vases with flowing with fresh flowers.

Growing up in Málaga at his parents’ churrería, which later became a café and then the fine dining establishment the Café de Paris, I imagine a young José Carlos García had two dreams - to take over his father’s kitchen and to win a Michelin star. After achieving excellent grades at catering collage and completing his apprenticeship under Joan Roca, Michel Bras and Martin Berasategui he fulfilled his first dream in 2001; and the second a year later when he won the restaurant its first Michelin star, which they hold to this day.

We were presented with the menus, À la Carte and the Menú Degustación Estacional – we opted for the Seasonal Degustation Menu (€64) with the supplement (€10) of accompanying homemade breads, butter and tapas. We had been recommended the ‘tapas’ upgrade and were pleased we did as it also included some delightful petit fours.

The first tapa dish was a vibrant tasting palate cleanser comprised of a minty espuma and a sharp lime granita to create a Mojito en texturas.

Next up was a little crunchy pillow of flatbread containing humous - Crujiente humous.

The fresh selection of breads was served with a trio of interestingly flavoured salts - Chilli salt, Chocolate salt and a Curried Masala salt. All were delicious and I cannot chose a favourite – suffice to say that they definitely pushed me over the adult daily recommended salt intake of 6g (around one full teaspoon).

The next tapa featured a Basil focaccia, topped with crunchy cheese wafer and a basil crème – artistically presented on a stone. (Any reader invited to my next dinner party, expect a dish served on a stone – don’t worry, I will wash them first!)

The first dish from the menu proper was, Ostras Bloody Mary – a beautiful dish, my favourite of the meal. An intense foamy tomato sauce with a punchy vodka soaked oyster suspended in the middle. This sparked up the conversation about whether to swallow whole of chew your oysters – I am definitely a chewer!

The next dish, Gazpacho de nectarines con yoghurt mediterráneo y aciete de albacaha, divided opinion; half of my dining companions finding it too intensely flavoured. I loved the concentrated punch of the nectarine gazpacho – a zingy sorbet in a soup… a perfect reflection of the Spanish sunshine. So full of flavour, so refreshing!

My wife’s favourite dish of the day was the next to be presented, Carpaccio de gambas de Málaga, crema de aguacates y caramel salado con micro vegetables – a simple dish featuring a fresh prawn carpaccio with guacamole, pine nut dressing and micro salad leaves. Very clean, fresh, summery flavours.

Having eaten what was possibly the best scallop dish of my life at The Box Tree, Ilkley, earlier in the month, this course had a lot to live up to! The Box Tree dish remains número uno but the, Vieras caramelizadas con coca de pimientos rojos asados y aciete virgin extra, was still very tasty – the salted biscuit and concentrated swipe of olive oil making especially good partners for the caramelised scallop.

The next course was listed on the menu as something which roughly translated as, “Pigeon with ‘false potatoes’ risotto and his liver” but we were given the opportunity to change this to, Cochinillo confitado, cardamono y pina especiado or Suckling pig with cardamom and grilled pineapple. Despite being a fan of suckling pig, I would have preferred the pigeon but was out voted by my dining companions (as is usual with a tasting menu, all diners are expected to have the same.) Annoyingly, most of them were a little disappointed with the pork dish because of the sweetness of the pineapple, making me feel even more peeved about not having the pigeon.

Unanimously, the next dish and our first dessert, Nido crujiente con toffee plátano, vanilla natural y helado de piel limón, was a taste sensation - the vanilla and lemon zest ice cream and citrusy foam filling our mouths with zingy goodness. The ‘nest’ of banana and toffee providing great taste and texture.  

Another texturally exciting dessert followed, Chocolate X5 Valrhona - a crunchy bed, with apricot fruits and fruit gelées, topped with white and dark chocolate ice creams and decorated with a shard of pistachio studded chocolate. Amazing.

Following our desserts, coffee and the petit fours brought out as part of the ‘tapas’ upgrade: a chocolate macaron; an iced orange bonbon, a sticky sweet financier; a passion fruit cheesecake and a dusted chocolate rock. All were great – my favourite the passion fruit, a great intensity of flavour.

A wonderful meal, we were even given, on departure a complementary chef’s apron to advertise their new premises which we will definitely be visiting!

Sunday 21 August 2011

Caserío de San Benitio - Antequera

Our stay in Granada over, we returned to my parents’ ranch and olive farm in Villanueva del Trabuco. Retiring to Spain six years ago to enjoy the sunshine, healthy Mediterranean diet and to grow organic olives using traditional methods of harvest (beating with a stick and handpicking), my family cultivates the Hojiblanca olive.

Their olives are collected by ‘El Groupo Hojiblanca’, a union of thousands of olive farming families that together grow more than 24 million trees (making the cooperative the largest in the world) and work all year round to obtain the best virgin olive oils and table olives. Spain, with more than 300 million olive trees is the world’s most prolific producer of olives - harvesting almost twice as many tons as Italy.

Throughout history, the olive has been the symbol of peace, glory, fertility, wisdom, and pureness. Sat writing this in the peaceful shade of my parents’ terrace, surrounded by the glorious Gordo and San Jorge mountains; overlooking their pool and olive groves which provide shelter to the horses, who in turn provide their finest organic manure which fertilizes the trees the wisdom of their decision to relocate to this pure and traditional way of life is unquestionable.

Telling my parent’s about the fabulous food that we had eaten in Granada, they asked me to use my Michelin App to see what restaurants Michelin recommended in the locality. Being a fairly rural area we didn’t expect all that many and indeed were proved correct. However, quality is always better than quantity and just 15.4 miles away we discovered a listing for Caserío de San Benito – a Bib Gourmand.  

Michelin’s entry states, ‘This rural restaurant is built in the style of an old country house. It has numerous rustic touches and a chapel next door that houses an ethnographical museum. Home cooking and generous portions.

Restaurants awarded the "Bib Gourmand" rating are said to provide "good food at moderate prices" priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards. In the guide you will find them alongside a logo depicting the head of ‘Bib’ (short for Bibendium, the nickname for the Michelin Man) eagerly licking his lips. In the guide to Great Britain and Ireland you will currently find a similar number of Bib Gourmand restaurants as starred restaurants; in Spain and Portugal there are almost double, possibly suggesting that good cheap food is more readily available in the Iberian countries?

This may be so; a badly kept secret of Spanish restaurants and cuisine is the “Menú del Día”, a three course meal, often with water and wine included in the set price. One of the few positives of his dictatorship, the concept was first introduced by General Franco as a way of ensuring that workers had daily affordable access to at least one nutritious meal.

Although no longer law, many restaurants (including some with Michelin stars) and most local bars and eateries, still provide this economic option during lunchtime or “la comida” hours. Some establishments will proudly display their “Menú” on a chalkboard outside – many trying to keep it lower that the €9.50 national average. In others, (especially if you are not ‘local’) you may find yourself presented with the ‘a la carte but can always ask, ¿Hay menú? We did just that, discovering that Caserío de San Benito’s Menú del Día came in at €12 – above the national average but still great value for three courses rated by the Michelin guide!

The first course or 'primer plato' will typically be vegetable or carbohydrate base options. Usually including: salads, vegetable dishes and hot or cold soups. My dining companions all chose the Ensalada Mixta, simple to translate as mixed salad. A fresh, crisp salad of beef tomatoes, lettuce, red and green peppers, shredded carrot and beetroot and topped with a boiled egg and shoot of white asparagus. So simple, so tasty… healthy too!

I chose to start with the Gazpacho – a refreshing and flavoursome, iced tomato soup with garlic and an acidic bite of white wine vinegar. Served with fresh cooling prices of cucumber and tomato and generous slices of fluffy white bread. Perfecto!

Whilst on the subject of bread, this was some of the freshest and fluffiest we have been served in Spain - great with the Hojiblanca olives, oil and vinegar.

The second course, the 'segundo plato' will generally be the meat and fish options. Regional specialties may include: paella, sausages and various stews. Again, my dining companions all chose the same dish, Chuletas de cordero – lamb chops, served on top of thin slices of fried potato that had absorbed the juices from the lamb, making them go greasy and floppy and taste delicious.

My chosen dish was Bacalao con pisto – codfish with a ratatouille style vegetable sauce. Wonderful home cooking: fresh, tasty and seasoned beautifully.

The menú del día usually includes “Postre o Café” – dessert or coffee.  Top restaurants side, the choice of desserts is usually pretty basic. My padre opted for a slice of refreshing melónMy wife and mother went for natillas – a set custard style dessert, flavoured with cinnamon and topped with a biscuit. I opted for the mousse de chocolate – rich, smooth and chocolaty.

After the meal we joined their chickens for a wander around the restaurants adjoining Museo de San Benito – exhibiting objects representing local traditions and customs. With such collections as: examples of agricultural tools, vehicles and machinery, including old olive presses; sewing machines; books and writings and artifacts of religious iconography.  A real find - showcasing some of the best of rural Spain’s culture and food.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Senzone – Granada

On our last night in Granada we had discussed an evening at our hotel sat on the balcony with just some nibbles, until my wife uttered those familiar words, "Let's eat out." Followed by the less familiar, "I'll pay."

Jumping back onto the iPad and the Michelin App, I found an interesting entry for a hotel restaurant called ‘Senzone’ that the trusty guide stated serves cuisine 'à la mode' in 'a contemporary layout' with 'carefully prepared dishes.' A further bit of Googleage revealed that the restaurant is housed in the Five Star Hotel, Hospes Palacio de los Patos. We jumped into our poshest frocks (a cool linen ensemble for myself) and then into a taxi.

On arrival at the hotel, we were buzzed through the electronic gates of the charming former aristocrats villa and noted that the restaurant was located in a modern, marble clad building alongside. We descended the few steps into an oasis of calm. Glimmering water gently bubbled and foliage flowed from large terracotta pots and hung from vines, creating welcome shade from the late evening sun.  

Inside, the sleek contemporary bar area with modish white leather stools looked a great place to enjoy a pre or post meal cocktail. The adjoining restaurant area with its modern Georgian style chairs in white with silver upholstery continued the modernist theme. We chose to enjoy our meal outside on the terrace, the sound of the water being so relaxing.

An award winning restaurant, (finalist in the prestigious “Restaurant Revelation of the Year” Award at the Madrid Fusion Summit in 2007), Senzone offers an interesting and varied menu with innovative interpretations on national and regional favourites, with an emphasis on local products - the ‘Gastronomical Caviar Degustation’ showcasing the excellent organic produce from nearby Riofrío. Having snacked and eaten for most of the day, we decided to go a la carte, (saving the celebration of caviar for a return visit.)

To get the show on the road, the usual bowl of olives soon arrived, this time, accompanied by the less usual squid ink crackers.

Next up, as an amuse bouche, a refreshing bowl of Salmorejo – although similar to the more common gazpacho, this recipe from Córdoba produces a thicker soup and uses just tomatoes, bread, oil, vinegar and garlic with a garnish of Serrano ham.

My wife’s choice of starter was,  Cous-cous con melon y vinagreta de frutos rojos – a simple, yet tasty dish featuring beautifully diced cubes of melon with the sharp ‘red fruits’ vinaigrette.

Featuring two of my favourite ingredients, spider crab and artichokes, I was really looking forward to my starter, Arroz de centollo y alcachofas. Served in a bowl made from a hollowed out spiny spider crab shell, it certainly looked impressive. One taste of the cheesy rice studded with pieces of sweet crab meat and artichoke and I was smitten. I’ve always loved artichokes and have been successfully growing them at home for the past couple of years, this dish got me thinking about the possibilities of getting a tank and raising my own spider crabs but with a minimum EU landing size of 120cm and an average size of 1.5m the possibility of making this starter at home is obviously a nonstarter!

My wife’s next course was, Nuestra lata de caviar (caviar de Riofrío, quisquillas, crema agria de coliflor y blinis de alga) – roughly translated as ‘our way of caviar’ the thin seaweed blinis being the perfect vehicle for the fine creamy Per Sé caviar from Riofrío, accompanied by a carpaccio of prawns and a creamy cauliflower sauce. My wife stated this is one of the finest dishes she has eaten, ever!

My next course was, Chopitos de Motril, ñoquis de tinta y alioli – a visually striking plate of food, starring gorgeous baby squids from nearby Motril (coastal town of the Granada province), cooked with their ink sacks intact. The ‘gnocchi’ also contained squid ink, although with a crispy shell and light chewy centre, the texture of these was more similar to a macaron than gnocchi; they tasted delightful all the same. A vibrant green parsley oil and dramatic swipe of red pepper sauce completed the stunning dish.

Translating as, ‘veal sirloin with mushroom risotto’, Solomillo de ternera y risotto de setas was my wife’s choice of main - she said it was tasty enough but didn’t seem wowed.

My main was, Bacalao con tomate “a la andaluza” y polenta al vino oloroso – another vibrant dish with the parsley oil and a rich tomato sauce ‘Andalusian style’, contrasting with the lightly poached brilliant white of the codfish. The neat block of polenta enhanced with sweet wine was a great accompaniment.

For dessert, my wife opted for the intriguingly named, Nuestro combinado de moda or “our trendy cocktail’ – based on a mojito, without the alcohol, it was essentially a combination of mint and lime sorbets and granitas. Very refreshing.

My dessert was simply called, Chocolate en diferentes texturas – you can’t go wrong with chocolate served in different textures! The main constituents being a white chocolate ‘cannelloni’ with a rich chocolate mouse in the centre and an indulgent warm white chocolate ‘soup’. Delicious!

A magnificent meal to end a fabulous week in Granada – next time we are in the city we will definitely go back to try the ‘Gastronomical Caviar’ menu and will be looking out for the Hospes Hotels and Senzone Restaurants in other Spanish cities. 

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