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.