El Poblet (Denia, Spain) – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Note: El Poblet has been re-named to Quique DaCosta)
Every year, one restaurant captures my attention like no other. In 2004, Manresa began what has been tremendous run of meals. Ludo Lefebvre’s Bastide of 2005 awoke my palette to the wonders that might lie across the sea and, no doubt, provided inspiration for my 2006 European adventure. In 2006, it was Ideas in Food’s two stellar meals at their former Keyah Grande restaurant. For 2007?
From top to bottom, there may not be a restaurant with greater attention to detail and production values than El Poblet. The restaurant is quite modern with a huge open kitchen as you walk in. The menus nearly qualify as works of art. In the technique/ingredient matrix, you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that uses such high-quality ingredients for their experiments. And in the realm of dining as experience, despite the crass commercialization of the beach ghetto Denia, El Poblet (the restaurant and food) has a Shakespearian quality – poetic and magical.
Where Etxebarri missed great expectations, El Poblet handily surpassed even higher hopes. This is a destination restaurant of the highest recommendation. Of all my meals this year, only the Les Ambassadeurs truffle meal may have been better.
Rum and Coke of Foie with a mist of lemon zest and wild rocket 2001/2007
Dated 2001, and reinvented for 2007, conceptually, it shows the thinking of a chef trying to explore a new cuisine, a signature. This had a post-modern sensibility – mix high end with elements of pop culture – challenge traditional assumptions and relationships of pairings. It also might serve as an exploration into the memories of youth (Coke, or is that Rum & Coke) influencing taste, a possible nod to Heston’s research from Fat Duck.
Super smooth, creamier than French Laundry’s foie, the rum and coke gelee was nearly too sweet but just restrained enough to keep the dish balanced. The salting was masterful. Excellent.
Crunchy artichokes dressed on green olive oil with filaments of saffrony gelatin and wild oranges 2007
The (candied?) orange brightened the artichokes earthiness but the saffron’s shredded gelatin, while an interesting texture by itself, akin somewhat to bird’s nest, seemed superfluous and it didn’t add to the dish. Very Good.
The Living Forest 2007
The Opinionated About review caused some ripples in the foodosphere by proclaiming experience and abstraction as new culinary frontiers. An argument against this notion is the traditional symbolism, and ritual, found in many cultures around their food. However, symbolism and abstraction are entirely different; and the arguments seemed to get caught up in semantics.
This dish was experiential and, with my limited dining experience in mind, I think it’s a bold new frontier. Other restaurants crossed over into the intellectual realm long ago – French Laundry with its plays on classic dishes; El Bulli and WD-50 with their new takes on ingredients and traditional flavor pairings; Fat Duck with memory and influence; and countless others. El Poblet seems different with these Abstraction dishes (this one, Abstraction of the Sea, Hoarfrost, and The Other Moon of Valencia below.) The ingredients were nonrepresentational in a culinary context; they did not point back to themselves in meaning or intent. The experience was the dish – not the mind trying to link symbol to food item. Whether this becomes important or not is for history to tell.
Mushrooms mixed with a brown sugar sand, it had the crunch and taste of walking through a forest. Each bite yielded different aspects of the earth. The entire dish had the crisp smell of forest air. The brown sugar was just a touch too sweet but its portions could be easily controlled to maintain the delicate ecosystem. Excellent.
Abstraction of the Sea 2007
The best realization of the four experiential experiments. The mushrooms compose a majority of the dish yet they clearly mimicked the look, feel, and taste of seaweed. The smells and tastes of the ocean breeze were so vivid that one might question why it’s labeled an abstraction. This is an evocative cuisine. Excellent.
Oysters Inspired by the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao) 2006
Slightly warmed oyster with a pure oyster flavor but one has to question the point. The paper dissolved immediately and felt slightly inorganic. The Gillardeau oysters, slightly warmed, quite meaty, were of very high quality. A more technical explanation of the dish can be found at TastyTech – an interesting take on the dialectics of the dish. Very Good.
The meal was like walking through an epic classic poem – walks in enchanted forests, the sea of a great voyage, and with this dish, magical fruit. No dish evokes a Shakespearian magic like this one. The place, the meal’s progression, and this dish intersect in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The crisp cool evening.
The hoarfrost (see the technical definition), an olive oil emulsion, captured the essence of a frosty night as it imparted a cool chill. Its smoky flavor, as light and subtle as Etxebarri’s dishes, floated in the mouth and evoked a sense of burning fires in the heart of winter. Raw shrimp sat underneath. Very Good.
Roasted with a rose/prawn infusion with the slightest of rose hints. Prawn was perfectly cooked. Exquisite presentation. The seafood at El Poblet is second to none; the Spanish seem to pride themselves on procuring the freshest seafood possible. Excellent.
Tuna Belly Flaps with chicken and tuna sauce 2007
Possibly more post-modern games, Chicken of the Sea, an exemplary piece of Mediterranean tuna with a slight smokiness. The roasted tuna and chicken sauce added body and depth but one wonders if they were necessary when the ingredient was as good as the tuna. Excellent.
The Other Moon of Valencia 2007
More Shakespeare, an all squid dish – crunchy ink balls, squid foam, and squid with more ink under the foam. A consensus of blogs liken this as the best but I simply don’t get it from a taste perspective. It was random to me, none of the elements interacting with the other. What was the point of the foam? A beautiful and magical dish but too conceptual. It did capture the mood of fishing during a late night but its culinary merits were minimal. Good.
Sticky Senia Rice on a bed of smoked eel 2006
Perfect rice, each grain perfumed by the cherry & rosemary. The smoked eel added a slight smokiness to the dish with the smoke and fruit flavors mixing. Chef Quique Dacosta has written what some call the bible for rice cooking and this dish supported that opinion. Very Good.
Hen from the Golden Eggs 2006
The excellent egg was marred by an overpowering coffee sauce. The richness of the egg was lost in the heaviness of the sauce. This was the weakest dish of the night. Ok.
Fregula Salad 2007
My notes were sketchy on this one and the photo doesn’t bring back much from the memory. Green pea foam, licorice infusion, pasta; interesting texture, foam intensely green pea, monkfish skin gelatinous. Good to Very Good.
A Basic Understanding of the Lamb 2007
Lamb, quinoa, amaranth, & tapioca. Toasted cereals were a treat in themselves and stole the show. Lamb itself too gelatious for my tastes (parts were braised, others possibly sous-vide.) Good.
Bowl of crystallized apple with infusion of Stevia Rebaudiana, Petals, Flowers, and Wild Herbs 2007
Herbs make it, gave it a refreshing quality
Aloe and Violets 2006
Violet ice cream, yogurt, dehydrated pineapple, & aloe. Ice cream and yogurt both had excellent texture, more intense than normal violet, aloe played with the continuing theme of coolness throughout the night. Very Good.
Panettone of Chocolate 2007
It is magical; the most exciting meal I’ve eaten this year; and it’s a must-visit destination. A Top 5 restaurant for me, automatic inclusion in my A1 Best Meals list. The chef is also reknowned for his traditional recipes, particularly rice and paella. I would suggest booking two nights, one for the gastronomic tasting menu and the other for the traditional tasting menu. In between, when you’ve got nothing to do in Denia, make a run for perfect paella at Paco Gandia (and then compare it to the one you order at El Poblet.)
Official Site: http://www.elpoblet.com/