Northern Spain: in search of food and wine part 2

Vega is a tiny hamlet on the coast, a few houses, sand dunes and the Atlantic. Gueyumar restaurant with just one spoon and fork in the Michelin Guide looks out onto the sand dunes. The place looks fairly unassuming and the giant fish bolted on the outside wall suggests that this place might be offerering something a bit light-hearted. However, the opening page of the wine list with around seventy different Champagnes gives warning that this place is actually pretty serious about what it does. The wine list is over six hundred wines strong. In contrast to the vast wine list is the food offering: “We only do fish, only three of four choices today,” said the waiter. “Excellent”, we answered. At that point he started to like the British tourists who’d turned up so ridculously early for lunch that the place was empty.

vega

Four different breads including sultana and maize and some sweet anchovies in a red pepper olive oil preceded our main course which was turbot. Turbot like I have never had. The restaurant has an on-view lava grill and a display fridge stuffed with fish. Cooking is simple; our giant steaks of turbot some 15” long and 2” thick were grilled on the lava grill with loads of garlic butter. The flavour of the fish was terrific. Some warm, crunchy red cabbage was offered and a few fleurets of cauliflower and that was it.  This was very straightforward cooking and therein lies the success of this place: a short menu, simple cooking, and really good, fresh fish. by the time we’d eaten our turbot the restaurant was packed and deservedly so.  I finished with some fig ice cream and we took a stroll along the dunes, catching the salt air coming off the sea. It was two minutes walk from sitting having lunch to standing on the edge of the Atlantic and relecting that the view and the lunch will linger long in ones memory.

The city of Oviedo is 90 minutes on a rattling local train from Arriondas through scenery of boulder strew salmon rivers, rocky escarpments, wooded hills and hamlets ringed by tiny fields. Oviedo is mostly modern and bold with numerous stone statues, wide streets and chic boutiques but there’s also an old quarter, noted for its tidy streets which are swept daily by the council. There’s a Cathedral in the old quarter and in a courtyard near the Cathedral we found the restaurant Traslaburra, in the Saint Antonio square. The restaurant wasn’t on our itinerary but It was getting too hot to keep walking, it was lunchtime and the place had nicely clothed tables outside in partial shade and it looked inviting. There was a restaurant manager with a tie and focus who welcomed us and there was also the owner in white casual shirt, cuffs turned back and shirt un-tucked cruising the tables, chatting and fussing over customers. There was 1980’s British pop chart music playing and I reckoned the owner had started the place as a night club, then, as he had mellowed into middle-age, so his business had evolved from night club to sedate restaurant.

We ordered food and some half bottles of wine and in the shade the temperature was a pleasant 22 degrees. We started with very good croquetas and a beetroot carpaccio with tiny cubes of feta, tomato concasse and tiny spears of mint that was quite delicious. Queen was playing in the background as we moved onto our main courses – hake stew with salsa vinaigrette and a veal sirloin grilled with lots of sea salt, cooked for two minutes on each side.  The ten ounces of superbly tender, flavoursome meat was gorgeous. The cooking was simple but sound and the flavours were great. The Clash “London Calling” followed Queen as we finished our half bottles of Albarino and Muga Rioja Reserva 2011 and took nougat ice cream to finish. 93 Euros for the lot.

The 2 Michelin starred Casa Marcial is half an hour’s drive from Arriondas heading up a narrow winding road into the hills and onwards to nowhere in particular. The restaurant is very simply decorated, stone walls, plain wooden tables without cloths and bare wooden floor boards. We started with four amazing canapes brought together; crispy cod skin, corn soufflé with sardine smoke, “the rooster and his surroundings” and limpets with seaweeds. The corn soufflé came with a yaw egg yolk atop and the rooster was a parfait of rooster inside a cocks comb made from maize, which was an amusingly playful touch. The limpets with seaweeds had a cider cream and all the flavours were so vivid that I am hard put to think of a more memorable initial impact from the start of a meal except, perhaps, for a slice of nashi pear with bergamot served at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Copenhagen.

cutlery-at-casa-marcial

After the canapes, or snacks or whatever you want to call them came Serrano ham croquettes, then a corn poori with egg, then red mullet. The mullet fillets were cooked at our table on a skillet covered with heated rock salt wrapped in seaweed and covered in more rock salt and left for two minutes. A baco foil parcel of mullet skeleton with juices was left on our table and we were left to combine the two to make a simple soup that tasted amazing. I’m not a great fan of red mullet but this time it tasted sensational.

marcial

An Asturian white bean stew was served up next with three types of contrasting sausage and a little pork belly. Baby goat, slow cooked on the bone, followed with a roasted red pepper gelatine and a salad of garden lettuce, seeds of tomato, broad beans and flowers.

We finished with Lazana cheese with hazelnuts, Pria cheese with wild strawberries in vanilla water, a rice pudding with caramel glaze and then tea and petits fours outside on the terrace looking at the mountains. The photos are all from Casa Marcial.

The flavours were vivid and the local provenance of the food was clearly a priority. The dining room was simple and the service friendly and unpretentious. The food flavours put the meal into my top handful of the best restaurants that I’ve eaten in.

After the best part two weeks in the north we returned to Madrid and spent some time exploring restaurants and tapas bars there, the former for food inspiration and the latter to see what was new on the wine scene in the capital.

To single out one restaurant I would choose the 2 Michelin star Club Allard . This former gentleman’s club is a very smart restaurant in a grand 19th century building in the heart of Madrid. To start, we drank Juvée Camps Brut Pinot Noir Reserva from Penedes which was truly first rate. The vineyard is at 1,650 feet and was planted in 1993. Just 20,000 bottles are made annually. Service was good, formal but friendly; the décor was tasteful, if a bit too safe; the linen was of the very highest quality, with napkins the weight of a table cloth. The chef is Maria Marte from the Dominican Republic. She moved to Madrid in 2003, took as job as a dishwasher in El Club Allard and worked her way up to become Head Chef. I’m sure someone will make a film of her life before long. She has fourteen chefs in her kitchen team and she offers one tasting menu with an option for 10, 12 or 14 courses. With dinner we drank LaFon Els Amelore Garnacha Blanco, Terra Alta D.O. Catalunya 2014 from winemaker Joan Soler. The wine is styled like a southern French Grenache Blanc – full bodied, with complex aromas of white flowers, nuts, grapefruit and a whiff of flint. It had good acidity and a really long finish. Kept on the lees for seven months in 300 litre barrels with 10% of the wine being aged in slightly toasted barrels for four months, it was a very skilfully made wine with bags of character.

Our dinner comprised: smoked eel with rocoto and coconut; a shot of butterfish with white asparagus foam, olive oil caviar and fine biscuit; cupcake of quail egg yolk and truffle; sea rice with crisp shells of seaweed; wild duck breast with corn; monkfish stew; black roast pork; hibiscus flower and pisco sour; winterley mountain; blackboard.

The shot of butterfish, the sea rice and the black roast pork were stand out dishes for me. The last two dishes, effectively the sweets, were least impressive. We finished with tea from a choice of fourteen. The total bill was 250 Euros.

The next evening we went to Celso y Manolo Manolo tapas bar which had a thoughtful selection of unusual organic and natural wines by the glass which I wanted to check out. This is a really great little tapas bar with lovely food. Staff knowledge of the wines was excellent and the staff are really friendly and helpful. Pre-book or arrive early as this place is deservedly packed out.

Vina Bosquera Ecologico Vinas de Madrid 2014 was an Arien/Moscatel blend. It was fresh and dry, which surprised me given how much Moscatel is in the blend. Ser Vino Natural Tinto 2015 Ribera del Duero was a 14% alcohol Tempranillo with a deep colour, notable tannins and lots of fruit. It was well structured, surprisingly beefy and thoroughly enjoyable. A Neno di Vena Somoza 2014 Godello from Valdeorras was the best Godello that I have tasted: slightly earthy, full bodied, dry with good acidity. A Demontro Cantorres Ampurdia Natural Garnacha was the most memorable wine of the evening. The wine is made without sulphates. It’s a dusky, faintly cloudy pinot noir coloured wine (sort of crushed raspberries and brick dust) with really alluring fruit on the palate and soft tannins. An Erasmus Tempranillo Vino Ecologico Roble from Ribera del Duero 2014, weighed in at 15% alcohol. A deep garnet colour, the wine was very well balanced and seemed medium bodied with what tasted like a lower alcohol level. With these hugely enjoyable and pretty unusual wines we ate a great tomato salad with papaya and mint, several plates of fried calamari, some delicious clams, rare beef steak with rosemary roasted sea salt potatoes and some Queso Tierno Pasigo cow’s milk cheese from Maria Jesus and sons (production 12 litres per day).Celso y Manolo was a ten out ten success for what I was hoping for from a tapas bar and it was great to have found some exciting new wines. If we didn’t have a plane to catch the next day I would have lingered until closing time.

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