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.