Taste matters most to another rising Spanish star
PUERTO DE SANTA MARÍA, Spain - At 2 p.m. on a Saturday, an American family still struggling to adjust to the local dining schedule is the first group to be seated for lunch at Aponiente, a 25-seat restaurant tucked into a scenic side street in this picturesque port town just outside Cádiz. The intimate dining room, where abstract fish appear to swim on one whitewashed wall, feels cozy, and the undivided attention of the flawless staff is more than welcome.
The Spanish menu lists the name of its chef-owner, Ángel León, as “Captain of the Ship.’’ It’s not just a metaphor. Leon does indeed have a boat and he takes it out twice a week to gather the ingredients he prepares so inventively. Though nearly everything on his menu comes from the sea, it would be a disservice to call this a seafood restaurant.
In the last 20 years, Spain has risen to the top of the world of gastronomy, partly because of the innovations of chefs in Catalonia and the Basque region. But León, 33, who is considered among the country’s rising culinary stars, is making his mark from this quiet corner of Andalusia. A local boy, León attended cooking school in Seville and worked in Bordeaux, France, and Toledo, Spain, before opening Aponiente in 2006. The restaurant earned its first
Puerto de Santa María sits in Spain’s sherry region, next to Jerez de la Frontera. The majority of wines at Aponiente, like the food, are from the region, with a small selection from other countries. The chef’s tasting menu is available with or without wine pairings. The pairing runs through the full range of sherries, beginning with a light, dry fino and ending with a 70-year-old Pedro Ximénez dessert wine that could be a dessert on its own.
Promotional materials for this year’s international Madrid Fusion food festival in January described León, who was a speaker, as “a mad scientist.’’ He laughs when asked if this is how he sees himself. Though he is not averse to using unusual ingredients in his kitchen (plankton features prominently on his menu) and has invented both tools and techniques (like a way to use micro-algae to clarify stock), all of his food is easily recognizable as such, and he never uses chemicals. “The taste is what matters most,’’ he says.
A 14-course chef’s tasting opens with a surprising twist on a Spanish classic, butifarra (Catalan sausages). Traditionally made with pork, León’s are made with fish. The taste is as rich and complex as any Spanish sausage. As he serves them, the chef explains that these are healthier thanks to the fat from the fish. He created them with a team from Veta la Palma, a sustainable aquaculture farm in southwest Spain, by combining plankton and mullet from the farm.
While the plankton works behind the scenes in the first course, it features heavily in other items. An oyster, served on the half shell “buried in alkaline sea mud,’’ is really surrounded by plankton. Visually arresting, it tastes like the ocean. The sea organisms are used to stunning effect as well in a play on paella, adding color and flavor to rice that is mounded on a small plate and surrounded by a circle of squid with smoked aioli. The dish is served cold.
One of the techniques for which León has become known is cooking over olive pits, which he uses instead of traditional charcoal. Using this method, he discovered he could transfer some of the olives’ flavor onto the exterior of the food, thus highlighting another of his country’s iconic foods. A plate of sardines grilled over olive coals with sauteed tomatoes and herbs comes together in perfect harmony. The fresh, clean-tasting Spanish sardines bear no resemblance to the oily pieces packed into cans.
There is a decided North African influence in several dishes, not surprising given the proximity of this southern Spanish town to that continent. León has traveled widely in that part of the world. A dessert of orange blossom ice cream floating in cold Moroccan mint iced tea strikes just the right balance of flavors and textures. It is neither too sweet nor too heavy at the end of a large meal.
Amazingly, 14 courses leave diners feeling comfortably sated rather than unpleasantly full. But it’s unlikely they will feel an urge for dinner - not even by 10 p.m., when Spaniards are just sitting down to eat.
Aponiente , 6 Calle Puerto Escondido, Puerto de Santa María, Spain, 011-34-956-851-870, www.aponiente.com
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.