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.
Having absorbed the rigorous deconstructive curriculum during his year at El Bulli, Raúl Aleixandre decided to adopt a less iconoclastic approach, surrendering his ego to the materia prima. "Seafood this grand you can't reinvent or manipulate; you just keep out of the way," the brown-eyed 32-year-old chef told me ever so quietly. He was being modest. It takes perfect pitch to cook the magnificent local lobster with split-second precision, and then to rhyme its nutty, pearlescent flesh with espardenyas (a delicate cephalopod), petals of cèpes, and a pine nut vinaigrette. To add lushness to raw oysters with microscopic slivers of pig's trotter and wrap them in a bright parcel of chard—bathing the dish in a velvety oyster foam punctuated with candied lime. To realize that the season's very first tuna, as red and as rich as Kobe beef, needs only a discreet flourish of a ginger-and-soy-perfumed oil and black olives to achieve the ultimate Mediterranean luster. Each of his dishes glows.
It helps that Raúl's dad, Sento—the larger-than-life maître d'—is fanatical about sourcing. He prods local producers into submission and prowls fish auctions at dawn. When he brings in cigalas (Norway lobsters)—the world's most delicious crustacean—Raúl grills them in an armor of sea salt, sealing in the vanilla-sweet juices. One can hear the ecstatic sighs of satisfaction around the room as patrons suck the shells dry. And don't forget mother Mari, who presides over her own part of the menu, indulging traditionalists with soupy mariner's rice, squid-ink vermicelli paellas, and brothy susquets (seafood stews).
17 Calle Méndez Núñez, Valencia; 34/9633-01775; dinner for two $140.
Mugaritz, RENTERIA, BASQUE COUNTRY
"How did you make that amazing foie gras?" I asked Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at Mugaritz, near San Sebastián.
An hour later, he was still talking—about working with the University of Granada, Spain's progressive institute for liver transplants, to study the DNA of duck foie. Aduriz discards 70 percent of the liver he gets from Landes, serving only the most genetically superior.
All this fuss about liver?Well, taste it. The texture—firm and shockingly smooth, without a trace of the tremulous fattiness Aduriz detests—derives from a staggeringly complex process of searing, roasting, smoking, and resting the foie, variously employing an oven, a grill, and a salamander. The flavor is an exercise in revisionism: warm foie floated in a Japanese-inspired broth of smoked bonito with a faint fragrance of Kaffir lime and barely cooked bittersweet cherries. The result is a slap in the face of convention—something that reinvents foie gras, the cholesterol-oozing fruit-sauced signifier of haute cuisine excess.
It is dishes like this—along with his reputation for being a technician, a scientist, a botanist, and a philosopher—that are winning the 32-year-old Aduriz a cult following and raves in French restaurant guides. That, and anxious visits from Gallic heavyweights such as Pierre Gagnaire and Olivier Roellinger. They wonder: Does the future really belong to young Spaniards?
It might. Especially if, like Aduriz, they are willing to spend two years researching the chemistry of coagulationto conclude that the ideal poached egg has to be just hours old and cooked at exactly 147 degrees Fahrenheit for precisely 55 minutes. Yet the dish is deceptively simple. Without knowing the backstory, all one tastes is the world's best poached egg in a concentrated truffled chicken gelée.
Another signature at Mugaritz is a ravishing composition of 40-plus vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs—some roasted, some raw, many grown and gathered by Aduriz—with a warm Emmentaler broth poured tableside. Neither salad nor soup, the dish has a deliberately unresolved edge, a question mark typical of Aduriz's rather metaphysical inquiry into the nature of flavor. "I'm looking to break the continuum of reference," he explains, "to create food that speaks to emotions rather than just the palate."
A protégé of the virtuoso chef Martín Berasategui of the Michelin three-starred eponymous restaurant, Aduriz cooks in a bucolic modern caserío (farmhouse) tucked into a lush emerald swath of Basque hillside. The restaurant doesn't break even. It's the banquet business that buys him the luxury of a staff of 20 to orchestrate exquisite eight-course degustation menus. Overconfident yet self-effacing, Aduriz shuns the limelight, rejecting invitations to cook in France and Japan. No need to travel; those who want him come to him. Like the couple I talked to who drove all night from Paris in a storm just for one lunch.
20 Aldura Aldea, Caserío Otzazulueta, Rentería 34/9435-22455; dinner for two $150.
El Bohío, ILLESCAS, LA MANCHA
In a dusty, drowsy pueblo between Madrid and Toledo sits El Bohío. With neo-Gothic stained glass, dark mirrors, and somber cast-iron fixtures, it's a macho Castilian mesón straight out of Central Casting—the sort of place that should serve sundry pig innards and big plates of jamón. Instead diners are treated to shellfish in exotic infusions or space-age petits fours artfully arranged in shot glasses, on skewers, and on spoons. Finding avant-garde cooking where you least expect it is what makes eating in Spain so thrilling these days.
Bohío's kitchen brio shows that the influence of Ferran Adrià on young Spanish chefs extends well beyond futuristic techniques. More important than foams, gelées, savory ice creams, and visual puns is Adrià's concept of memoria gustativa (taste memory), which compels young cooks to dig deep into their culinary subconscious and reconnect with their regional roots. Classic dishes are subverted and reassembled into culinary couture. Yet they still retain the essence of something deeply authentic—tasting only more persuasively of it after having been recontextualized.
At Bohío, that's what happens to the rugged cuisine of Castilla-La Mancha, with its smoky notes of paprika, pork, and poor man's bread hashes. Take the sopa de ajo, traditionally a garlicky porridge of yesterday's bread, cured ham, and poached egg. With Technicolor flair, chef Pepe Rodríguez reinvents it as a glass of hot, ruddy broth dotted with light-as-air croutons and capped with "dust" (pulverized garlic and paprika ice cream). I marveled at the theatrical contrast of temperatures, the surprise of poached yolk concealed at the bottom of the glass—and that a dish that so completely defies expectations still epitomizes Castilian cooking. The suckling pig is reimagined here as a rectangular platter lined with a designer assemblage of mini-pork treats: a sweetbread salad, a bite-sized slab of roast Iberian pork with crackling skin, ethereal morcilla (blood sausage) hash, and a witty pastry tube with sweet porcine cream.
Formerly a famous taberna taurina (bullfighter's tavern), Bohío used to be filled with action-packed photos taken by the chef's father, a well-known documenter of the corrida. Ask and you'll be shown a picture of Dad with Ernest Hemingway. What would Papa think of the deconstructed sopa de ajo?
81 Avda. Castilla-La Mancha, Illescas; 34/9255-11126; dinner for two $147.
Tragabuches, RONDA, ANDALUSIA
Tourists flock to the city of Ronda, a two-hour drive from Seville, to admire the perfect proportions of Spain's second-oldest bullring and to gasp at the vertiginous Tajo gorge, which sent many a Romantic poet into a tizzy. A gourmand's idea of the sublime?Dinner at Tragabuches, an airy Moderne dining room named after a legendary local bandit and renowned for its chef's addictively subversive takes on Andalusian classics.
Though only 27, Dani García is already lauded in Spain as the father of the deconstructed gazpacho; his tasting menu offers an exhilarating series of riffs on the iconic Andalusian soup. Ajo blanco (a white-almond gazpacho) is poured around a floppy shrimp and caviar raviolo—the seemingly disparate flavors are held together by tiny threads of candied angel hair. Málaga gazpachuelo (a hot fish soup) presents an eye-popping study in white (squid), black (potatoes mashed with squid ink), and red (candied tomato), moistened with an earthy-sweet monkfish broth.
García's is a razzle-dazzle, high-wire juggling of ingredients and ideas, with perfection resting on the knife-edge balance of flavors. He never falters. The sweet-saline contrast in the vibrant red-cherry gazpacho, with a funky backdrop accent of anchovies, is mediated by the smokiness of cured queso de Ronda. The cheese garnish resembles snow—the improbable texture of dry ice cream "crumbs" is courtesy of a beloved modern-Italian kitchen contraption called Paco Jet. It's the soup of the century. And for dessert, a diaphanous citric foam loaded with diced passion fruit and set off by the crunch of crushed almond cookies. "My food can be wild, but I believe all the conceptual stuff should still translate into pure pleasure," García explains.
1 Calle José Aparicio, Ronda; 34/9521-90291; dinner for two $147.
El Poblet, DÉNIA, ALICANTE
In Spain, restaurant critics have seen it all. Suckling-pig foam at a church lunch deep in the plains of Castile?Sure. Yet even they describe the cooking of Enrique Dacosta at El Poblet as, well, original. Who else but this self-taught wunderkind would sauce a still life of sea urchin, baby favas, and trompette de la mort mushrooms with a sweet broth made of liquefied nougat?(A stunning dish, actually.)
El Poblet is hidden along the coastal highway of the Mediterranean province of Alicante best characterized as a postcard to overdevelopment. Inside, things improve with bright, sunny hues, frosted-glass panels partitioning the sprawling space, and crisp white slipcovers on chairs. Before it fell prey to German sun-seekers, Dénia was just a quaint fishing village. And Dacosta plunders the Mediterranean for the deepest, briniest flavors, amplifying them until they scream "sea!" and then sprinkling on hints of sweetness and smokiness: Oysters, mint granita, and salmon roe in bacon broth. A vodka-and-pepper-tinged cuttlefish emulsion over a stark composition of grilled sepia (cuttlefish) and purple-black onion confit. A complicated layering of fresh and dry-cured tuna, a Parmesan crisp, watercress, and dates. Brilliant?Bizarre?A bit of both. But for those who'd rather stay in safe waters, there's a whole roster of amazing seafood paellas.
Km 3, Carretera Las Marinas, Dénia; 34/9657-87662; dinner for two $125.
One might expect 27th-century food from an edgy, design-crazy place like Barcelona. But the clean, confident cooking at the city's newest chef-driven restaurant owes more to classic Catalan flavors than to the alchemy going on up the coast. The owners of Colibrí are veterans of Ca l'Isidro, Spain's best restaurante de mercado. It shows in the brawny, lusty, produce-focused cuisine coming out of a kitchen barely large enough to accommodate the spectacular sea bass or the basket of tiny chanterelles that chef César Pastor brings back from his morning jaunt to La Boquería market. Airy and impeccably gracious, this creamy six-table boîte—with Art Nouveau curves and droll paper figures of farm animals above the bar—wins you over immediately. Ditto the salad of unctuous slivers of pork lip, salt cod, oven-roasted tomatoes, and matchstick-skinny string beans. The creamy arroz strewn with spiced sausage nuggets and bosky morels is the apotheosis of Catalan rice cookery. The pig's trotters, as light as a soufflé, are cooked for six hours to melt away all the fat, and then stuffed with coins of duck liver and cèpes.
33 Riera Alta, Barcelona; 34/9344-32306; dinner for two $127.
Enamored of the culinary trompe l'oeil of Adrià, serious Spanish foodies tend to disparage the haute-traditional cooking of his archrival, Santi Santamaría, of the Michelin three-starred El Raco de Can Fabes near Barcelona. But now that Santamaría has opened a more casual place in the jazzy Hotel Hesperia in Madrid, installing his young protégé, Óscar Velasco, in the kitchen, the race is on. Even the most die-hard avant-gardists would be mad not to admit that Santceloni is the best restaurant in the capital. It's nice to see waiters—handsome, multilingual types—who actually carve and fillet instead of lecturing on refraction of flavor or a revolutionary snail-poaching technique. It's nice to sink into a plush taupe banquette surrounded by widely spaced tables crowded with bon vivant businessmen. It's even nicer to taste the shrimp ravioli: tiny, delicate pouches of minced cèpes with a wrapping fashioned from thinly sliced raw shrimp.
From the iridescent-green pea soup, to the tender roast baby kid, to the sprightly zucchini purée poured from a silver tureen over lobster, Velasco's razor-sharp skill and respect for ingredients shine through every dish on the menu. And while the avant-garde has declared cheese carts passé, Santceloni indulges with a long wooden table, laden with oozy crema del Zujar from Extremadura, smoked Basque Idiazábal, and a funky La Mancha cheese aged in pig fat. The warm tart of fraises des bois alone might be good enough to settle the tradition-versus-innovation debate.
Hotel Hesperia, 57 Paseo de Castellana, Madrid; 34/9121-08840; dinner for two $200.
Echaurren, EZCARAY, LA RIOJA
The 35-year-old Francis Paniego has trained at such progressive kitchens as Arzak and Akelarre, yet at heart he's a mama's boy, he says. That's not a bad thing, since Mom is Marisa Sánchez, a chef legendary in Spain for turning her family's old guesthouse and restaurant into the gastronomic emblem of the Rioja region. Food-lovers used to flock to Echaurren for Sánchez's famous chicken-and-ham croquettes and for the charms of Ezcaray village, which looks more Alpine than Iberian, with cheery half-timbered houses and geraniums in the windows. Now visitors are presented with a delicious dilemma: How to choose between mother and son?
Two dining rooms, two stoves, and two strikingly different menus under one roof. Mother cooks the best bacalao in Spain. Son excels at the kind of sharp, quietly inventive but relaxed wine-country flavors you always dream of finding in Burgundy or Piedmont and never do. The potato carpaccio is earthy perfection: aromatic paper-thin slices of tubers poached in truffle oil, with a masterly acidic kick from the red wine reduction. Paniego can serve something as disarmingly simple as a fillet of hake—barely cooked and lusciously moist—garnished with sweet roasted green peppers (an homage to his mother). Or he can wow with a complex arrangement of langoustines, Iberian ham aspic, and velvety artichoke cream—a dish that melds the sweet aftertastes of all three ingredients.
2 Calle Héroes de Alcázar, Ezcaray; 34/9413-54047; dinner for two $130.
ANYA VON BREMZEN's The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes will be published by HarperCollins in February. She is currently at work on a book about new Spanish cuisine.