Dining out in modern-day Spain offers a taste of what it must have been like to experience the avant-garde fervor of early-20th-century artists' studios or visit Tokyo's "deconstructive fashion" ateliers of the eighties. Radical chefs are forging new flavors by melding brainy theory, futuristic techniques, and provocative wit into dishes that challenge traditional perceptions of food the way Picasso's portraits refracted and reconfigured the face.
It had to happen. The Spanish food revolution began in the seventies in the Basque seaside resort of San Sebastián, where chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana translated nouvelle-cuisine ideas from France into nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cuisine). Some two decades later, Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli on the Costa Brava, appeared on the scene—and now it's the French who are doing the borrowing. A self-proclaimed heir to Salvador Dalí, and the most influential chef in the world, Adrià creates a stir every year with his outrageously inventive 30-course menus, legendary for their high design and groundbreaking scientific research (Adrià spends five months of the year in a laboratory in Barcelona, where he develops new dishes). The genie Adrià released from the bottle ensures that, now, anyone under 40 in Spain who whisks and sautés treats cooking as a daring conceptual play of ideas, colors, and textures. (It doesn't hurt that the Spanish economy is booming, or that the country's restaurant critics have embraced the new with a vengeance.) Only a few years ago, however, much of the food was too far on the wild side, too derivative of Adrià. But as the 10 restaurants below demonstrate, the vanguardia comes in a rainbow of flavors as each chef creates intensely personal food that plays tradition against innovation without jolting the palate. Welcome to the new frontier.
El Celler de Can Roca, GERONA, CATALONIA
Some young pastry chefs hang out at classic cake shops; others get ideas from jewelers. Jordi Roca, the 25-year-old pastelero at Celler de Can Roca, in the beautiful Catalan town of Gerona, spends his free time at Sephora. No, he's not buying face creams. His obsession results in intellectual yet sensuous sweets that precisely mimic the scent of popular fragrances.
First, diners are handed a paper swatch scented with perfume. Then appears Roca's composition of loquats, apricot sorbet, and warm peaches—layered with notes of honey, roses, lilac, and mallow—which perfectly matches the flowery fragrance of the Lancôme Trésor they've just sniffed. A mélange of eucalyptus, orange blossoms, nutmeg, and mint tastes like granita from heaven and smells like Ralph Lauren's Polo. Or how about Anarchy: 45 different flavors and textures arranged in squiggles and dots on an undulating rectangular plate. As you mix these at your whim, each spoonful brings another flavor sensation: citrus and licorice, herbal and floral, crunchy and soft. One can play with these pairings forever.
And to think that dessert isn't even the most memorable course at Can Roca—a Michelin two-starred restaurant that, in the decade I've known it, has quietly blossomed into one of the finest in Europe. Jordi's brother, Josep, has assembled a remarkably wordy three-volume wine list that's wheeled around on a whimsical movable lectern. In the kitchen, Joan (at 39, the eldest brother) experiments with novel cooking techniques, coaxing nuances and modalities from ingredients other chefs hardly knew existed.
A parfait of squab liver fills in for chocolate mousse under a gelée of Harveys Bristol Cream and a crisp shard of spice cake. Using the same type of hyper-high-tech bain-marie designed to heat vaccines in medical labs, wild salmon is cooked at a temperature so low and precise that it arrives on the table in that fleeting transitional state between raw and cooked. Childhood memories of walks along the Costa Brava, with its salty-sweet scents of the sea and wild fennel, inspire Joan to suspend berberechos (cockles) in a silken anise-spiked velouté embellished with tears of emerald herbed-seawater aspic. This is food that lingers in your mind, maybe for years.
Amazingly, despite Bulgari plates and the decorator's stab at worldly chic, the place retains the feel of a provincial family restaurant. Witness Joan's pride that his punky-rebellious kid brother has finally found a worthy vocation. "Sephora...who knew?" he mutters with a wide, bemused grin.
40 Carretera Taiala, Gerona; 34/9722-22157; dinner for two $140.
Arzak, SAN SEBASTIAN, BASQUE COUNTRY
Eating your way through Elena Arzak Espina's degustation menu is like taking your taste buds to Cirque du Soleil—so modern, so cheekily entertaining. A daringly reinvented sardine escabeche is tricked out with pistachios, grated honeydew rind, and secret drops of coffee aspic that make the dish soar. A riveting mixture of pumpkin and squid ravioli changes color—miraculously—from murky-gray to bright orange under a stream of warm broth.
Elena, 34, pretty and always composed, now directs the Michelin three-starred kitchen of her mythical father, Juan Mari Arzak—the founder of new Basque cuisine. (He's still very much here, advising, critiquing, hugging friends of the house.) After spending her youth breezing through stages (internships) in the best kitchens of Europe, Elena returned to San Sebastián in 1995 to be groomed for succession. Today, she may well be the most exciting woman chef on the planet—especially since the other two female chefs of three-starred restaurants, both Italian, still cook as if in a different century.
Elena fashions a sleek "potato accordion" from smoked potato confit, hiding a few sizzling prawns between the Miyaki-style pleats. She creates a poetic quartet of vegetables, arranged in four thin stripes on the plate, each a stanza in an ode to the seasons. "You can eat it vertically, horizontally, or all mixed up," she instructs, eager for the guest to have fun.
Add to this a refreshingly laid-back vibe—maternal apron-clad waitresses instead of penguin-suited garçons; wine choices that include $24 bottles of a fizzy local white called Txakoli; guests who are as likely to be burly local fishermen as they are grand Parisian toques—and you get the most lovable haute cuisine temple in Europe. And for all its technical somersaults and global allusions, the food remains as soulfully Basque as a plate of bacalao al pil-pil (salt cod in garlic emulsion).
21 Alto de Miracruz, San Sebastián; 34/9432-85593; dinner for two $217.
Hidden on an obscure street in Valencia, Ca'Sento is a pale gray eight-table box of a room with distressed abstract art and cool Japanese window shades that lend the place a cosmopolitan air. None of it really matters. Even if this were a gas station canteen, regulars would still drive here all the way from Madrid and Barcelona. The lure?The most pristine seafood in the Mediterranean, cooked with astounding finesse.