All in Spain


Hisop, what the Spanish refer to as a "bistro gastronómico," serves an avant-garde cuisine with a firm basis in its Catalan roots. Some of the dishes on the menu are hundreds of years old, only prepared with updated modern cooking methods. The restaurant is informal while still remaining serious about the food it offers. This was my first Spanish gastronomic bistro. It definitely won't be my last. The menu read very straight forward: a handful of dishes with a single main ingredient supported by a fruit, vegetable, liquor, or combination of the two. The beauty of this menu lies in its apparent simplicity; it was refreshing to not have to read a laundry list of ingredients, or an ironic single-word title.

The service was a bit odd. At first it seemed like the wait staff had just gotten home from work and we were intruding in their living room. There was a sense of lethargy or general lack of enthusiasm. But as the clock crept towards midnight (the Spanish eat late) and the restaurant's service calmed, things livened up.

Sant Pau

A short drive North of Barcelona lies one of Spain's best kept secrets. Sant Pau, restaurant of chef Carme Ruscalleda in Sant Pol de Mar, serves incredibly creative French and Japanese-influenced Spanish cuisine. My most recent meal sits right alongside El Bulli and Quique Dacosta. It's one of the best experiences in a restaurant I've had. Chef Ruscalleda has a unique ability to isolate and enhance an ingredient's natural flavors and present them in a very imaginative way. We sat in the smaller of two dining rooms overlooking the Mediterranean. Subtle crashes of waves mixed with the whispers of waiters sliding about setting the remaining tables and bringing apéritifs for other early diners. The tone was calm and collected, and felt in many ways as if we were eating in a restaurant in Japan. What broke through the quiet was a sound I will never forget, the crisp crackling of our waitress slicing through our table's loaf of bread.

Quique Dacosta Revisited

I first visited Quique Dacosta in 2009. That write up is here. Since then, the food has only gotten better. The menu has been redesigned and simplified with more focus; it now tells a story. The dishes have less added sweetness and really take advantage of the restaurant's location by the sea. Reflecting back on my recent meal, I was deeply moved by Chef Quique Dacosta's ability to use local ingredients, combine them with local Valencian traditional cooking, and build from that base a truly inventive and modern cuisine. His cooking is inspirational and, to date, this is the best non-Japanese meal I have had. Over the course of three meals, we were brought on a comprehensive and well-organized tour of Chef Dacosta's cooking. My first visit meal started with a dinner. The following day my friend the ulterior epicure and I basically hung out all day at the restaurant. We had two more meals. I am writing about the second of those three meals, which was my favorite. You can see photos of the other two meals here.

Quique Dacosta

Quique Dacosta, at first, seems out of place. It’s in the center of a tourist town and the tourists don’t eat there. During high season, a large portion of the town is foreign: most signs are in German. Regular ferries carry young club-goers eastward to the Balearic islands, while older couples stay behind to enjoy the serenity of the Mediterranean. Except the restaurant is in exactly the right place; it's clear that the local seafood has had a profound influence on Dacosta's cooking. Though Quique Dacosta doesn't receive nearly as much hype as his compatriot Ferran Adrià, I'd argue that his cooking is equally as exciting. And he's just getting started. When I made it to Quique Dacosta in 2009 I was blown away by his creative use of local shellfish and vegetables. When I returned in 2011, I was even more impressed.

Our meal began with Universo Local, the more extensive of the two tasting menus.

El Bulli Revisited

My recent meal at El Bulli was the most fun I have ever had at a restaurant. I said the same thing last year because it was also true. My two meals at El Bullí have kept the table laughing, analyzing, discussing, and chatting in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. Our experience was both intellectually stimulating and novel. There were flavor combinations I had never tasted before. We were kept on our toes throughout the entire lunch. It started as a lazy morning. Waves crashed and fizzled on the sun-drenched shore as we drank tea and coffee at our seaside hotel in Roses. Lunch at El Bullí was the only activity on the day's agenda. Unlike last year where we (embarrassingly) overestimated the Costa Brava's formality, this time, we left our suits and ties at home. At one o'clock we would casually drive no more than ten minutes to our lunch. We were ready, but in no hurry.