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.