I was having lunch in a windswept fishing village in the middle of nowhere. Laundry snapped furiously in the breeze while seagulls circled over gaggles of fishermen tending their nets by tatty white houses. Viavélez—population 80—is so insignificant that even the most detailed maps fail to acknowledge it. And two years ago, the chilly Cantabrian Sea nearly washed away Taberna Viavélez Puerto, the restaurant where I was eating a meal that, in L.A. or London, would have critics leaping with excitement. I took a slow slurp of tea-and-chocolate soup, then broke the gossamer band of bitter chocolate encircling a tart tomato gelée and Szechwan pepper ice cream. It was the sharpest dessert I'd tasted all year. And this wasn't even the best restaurant I'd discovered on my trip to Asturias, the misty and remote region east of Galicia in northern Spain.
Having roamed Spain for almost a decade to report on its astounding gastronomic developments, I've stopped being surprised at the edgy inventiveness that flourishes in unlikely places. But Asturias?Spain's answer to the Scottish Highlands, this is where Spanish lovers of agriturismo come to hike in the Picos de Europa, Europe's last great mountain wilderness, go white-water rafting, and explore the cliffs and beaches on the 200-mile coast. The population is puro y duro and so is the food: mountain cheeses like the smelly blue cabrales, dense charcutera, never-ending beans. The regional masterpiece is fabada, the Asturian cousin of cassoulet, and the local tipple is sidra, a diabolically acidic apple brew consumed in dim taverns called chigres. Sidra is poured at arm's length into wide-bottomed glasses; you swallow your aerated inch, splash the rest onto the sawdust-covered floor, and start over. The average Asturian male consumes about 10 liters of the stuff a day. Napa Valley this isn't.
And yet. Madrid restaurant critics had whispered to me about a quartet of Asturian chefs who were cooking up a revolución conceptual among the pig farms, cornfields, and shepherds. I packed my bags.
First on my list was the village of Arriondas, at the foot of the Picos de Europa. Why this drowsy pueblo is home to not one, but two, Michelin-starred avant-garde restaurants is anyone's guess. Queasy after the previous night's intake of sidra, I walked into El Corral del Indianu and found it unexpectedly sleek—thick stone walls painted an electric Bermuda blue, white tablecloths set with Modernist tableware. José Antonio Campo Viejo, the chef-owner, has raven hair and an impenetrable mountain accent. I tasted his soup. One just-cooked clam floated in an iridescent purée of peas, releasing sweet-briny perfumes of the sea into the concentrated sweetness of early summer. It was heartbreakingly lovely. By the third course, I felt a rush of adrenaline: I've discovered a genius!
Whereas Ferran Adrìa, the guru whose Catalonian restaurant kicked off Spain's culinary revolution, operates in an abstract realm akin to theoretical physics, Campo Viejo constantly references the local vernacular: exploring its nuances of smokiness, rendering unctuous sausage-and-bean combos into crisp counterpoints, blurring boundaries between sea and woods, sweet and savory, high and low, liquid and solid.
Dusted in coarse cornmeal—an allusion to chicken feed—a little hunk of foie gras masqueraded as blood sausage in a pool of musky, hyper-reduced garbanzo broth; next to it was a chicken "bonbon" with a molten foie filling. Pote asturiano, a wintry extravaganza of cabbage and pig parts that normally cries out for Mylanta, was deconstructed into a Fabergé-pretty assemblage of porcine ravioli and quivery sausage mousses suspended in a diaphanous young cabbage purée.
This is food where each detail could be a star dish in itself—like the nuggets of lamb sweetbreads glazed with Pedro Jiménez (a raisiny sherry) accessorizing bream from the river Sella, in a play of sweet flesh against crisp skin. The pig in two textures was a study in altered states, the flesh "melted" in the oven to a smooth creaminess, the skin brittle—a savory crème brûlée from the fourth dimension. For dessert, Campo Viejo unveiled his latest experiment: a zany marriage of sweet peas and foie gras.
Save for a few master classes with Adrìa, Campo Viejo is entirely self-taught.
Before my second dinner in town, at Casa Marcial, I drove up to see the nearby mountain lakes. The serpentine road threaded beside plunging ravines and lookouts onto Kodak-moment alpine panoramas. El Casn, my lunch grail, turned out to be an idyllic shed with a view of glacial Lake Enol cupped by stony, primordial hills. Cowbells provided a Steve Reichean sound track to my meal of wild boar chorizo and baby goat, roasted until the meat fell apart into succulent shreds. When a monster cow approached and fixed its gaze on my wedge of pungent cabrales, I fled.
Casa Marcial, run by Campo Viejo's drinking buddy Nacho Manzano, is in an old farmhouse on a hill overlooking rolling foothills that are swathed in an eye-popping green. More green awaited me inside: an iced cucumber soup poured around a green pepper sorbet swirled with green olive oil. I went on to a silken-fleshed river salmon in a pool of melon gazpacho, and a backyard chicken braised a deep mahogany brown, its gizzards folded into one big raviolo. In retrospect, this was a fine meal. But after the bravura at Corral, Manzano's style felt a bit green.
My next restaurant, El Cabroncín, took me from the Picos to a weird suburb of Oviedo (the region's industrial capital, with a medieval core) that made the Jersey Turnpike look almost lyrical. My taxi driver—I would never have found the place if I'd been driving—circled around a car dealership and a cosmetics factory, then finally located the proper dirt road and deposited me in a suddenly pastoral patch by a stone house and an hórreo, one of those raised wooden granaries that are to Asturias what covered bridges are to Vermont. Before long, I was sipping Quercus—a new bubbly from boutique cava-producer Agust Torelló—and admiring a tableau of clams, berberechos (Cantabrian mini-clams), and percebes (Galician goose barnacles) arranged on a delicate fennel purée.
A fragrant sauté of wild mushrooms came next, crowned by a Day-Glo—orange egg yolk in a crunchy serrano-ham basket. It was exactly the kind of smart neo-rustic dish I wanted to eat here, beneath old wooden beams supporting a pitched farmhouse roof. Gilding the lily was a glass of elegant '96 Roda I rioja reserva recommended by Pepe Vega, Asturias's star sommelier. Pedro Martino, the practically teenage chef, makes a mean salmon in sidra, but his true calling is meat—whether it's an ibérico pig, as spoon-tender as good Memphis barbecue, or Castilian baby lamb shoulder, cooked to the same jammy softness and paired with tiny rare lamb chops. I adored the wooden box holding shot glasses of iced herbal infusions; the funky dessert wine from the Canary Islands; the cool sophistication of apple cannoli in a bittersweet licorice sauce. I also liked the ridiculously low bill.
I didn't particularly like the idea of driving 100 miles to the Galician border for lunch. On second thought, a slow trip to nowhere would be an excuse to explore Asturias's little-visited northwestern coast, gorge on fresh-off-the-boat seafood, and sleep at a casona de indianos, one of the extravagant turn-of-the-century mansions that appear like fantastic white elephants all over the region. Built by indianos—Asturians who returned home with fortunes made in Latin America—some are being converted into inns.
I found such a casona, Villa La Argentina, in the old whaling town of Luarca, and ate pristine shellfish at the restaurant Sport. The following day I went on to Viavélez for lunch at Taberna Viavélez Puerto (where our story began). I was the only guest. Paco Ron, the chef-owner, greeted me on a terrace tented in billowy fabric. Ron has lived and cooked in Madrid, Barcelona, and San Sebastián. He appeared disheveled and disillusioned. His food was quietly dazzling.
First came a martini glass filled with frozen goat cheese foam that melted into the warm ethereal sweetness of beet mousse underneath. An egg yolk stuffed with smoky salt cod peeped from a bowl of asparagus soup. A cardamom-scented sauce of sweet corn and a reduction of blackberries flirted with the dark, chocolate notes of squab. Once a year Ron prepares a banquet for the town's fishermen; they reward him year-round with their prize catch, such as the hake that he served with a silky potato emulsion and peppery young turnip greens sprinkled with sea salt. The dish was the essence of purity and refinement.
That night, in the Art Nouveau guest room of Palacete Peñalba (designed by a disciple of Gaud), I tossed and turned in my bed, dissecting Ron's lunch. How can one actually stuff a poached egg yolk?Or produce ravioli out of cabbage—each the size of a bean!—that burst with a complex bacony reduction?And above all, how can anyone make a living cooking virtuoso Michelin-starred food in a windswept fishing village in the middle of nowhere?
PICOS DE EUROPA
Base yourself at the Parador de Cangas de Ons (Villanueva; 34-98/584-9402, fax 34-98/584-9520; doubles from $93). Taste sidra, chorizos, and cheeses at the bucolic El Bodegón del Dobra (Carretera Cangas de Ons, Punto Pontón, Km 150; 34-98/584-9195). Have lunch at El Casín (Lake Enol; 34-98/592-2927; $25 for two) and dinner at El Corral del Indianu (14 Avda. de Europa, Arriondas; 34-98/584-1072; tasting menu for two $72) and Casa Marcial (La Salgar; 34-98/584-0991; tasting menu for two $69).
Stay at the lavish Hotel de la Reconquista (Calle Gil de Jaz; 34-98/524-1100, fax 34-98/526-6380; doubles from $168). Dine at El Cabroncín (Carretera Paredes N1, Lugones; 34-98/526-6380; tasting menu for two $42). Consider visiting Gijón, the world's greatest repository of faded Art Nouveau architecture.
Drive to Luarca for dinner at Sport (8 Calle Rivero; 34-98/564-1078; $45 for two) and overnight at Villa La Argentina (Villar de Luarca; 34-98/564-0102, fax 34-98/564-0973; doubles from $45). Drive west for lunch at Taberna Viavélez Puerto (Viavélez; 34-98/547-8095; tasting menu for two $69), and end the day with seafood paella at Marisquera Peñalba (Figueras del Mar; 34-98/563-6166; dinner for two $40). Sleep at Palacete Peñalba (Figueras del Mar; 34-98/563-6125, fax 34-98/563-6247; doubles from $56).