I had my first meal with Quique Dacosta in 2009. At that time the restaurant was still called El Poblet. And while I just returned from a more recent visit, his cuisine left such a strong impression on me that I’m going to share my experience from two years ago based on my notes first, with a more extended write up to come later this week. Last week’s planned lunch at Quique Dacosta quickly turned to a 3-meal multi-day gluttonous gastronomic excursion. 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.
White truffle from montgo - A truffle-shaped dehydrated parmesan mousse with the strong fragrance of white truffle. The concentrated aroma was noticible even before the truffle was placed on the table. This was Dacosta's version of a gougère, the French cheesy puff pastry. The flavor of this dish was a bit too sweet for me, but its fragrance was intoxicating. It was also light and fluffy -- no more than two bites.
The Living Forest - A collection of mushrooms and greens laced with black truffles julienne growing from an edible dirt floor. The dish was beautiful and evocative of a crawl through the forest floor. It was an edible piece of art that transported us to the forest. Despite its beauty, I thought this course too was a little too sweet. I was beginning to get worried that Chef Dacosta had a heavy hand with the sugar. Thankfully, this assumption turned out to be wrong.
Primavera - "Spring on the plate" - Lobes of foie gras mixed with raw local prawns, decorated with candied leaves and flowers. Oh my god! The creaminess of the sweet prawns blended with the fatty foie gras making them taste even richer. The buttery taste of the liver amplified the prawns' sweetness. This was a dish where the very subtle sweetness from the candied leaves worked -- they complimented the shellfish. Overall this was an excellent dish, both beautiful and delicious.
Essential oyster - A thick slab of oyster atop an oyster leaf, topped with a transparent oyster gelee. This dish took everything I like about oysters: the soft meaty texture, subtle brine, and sweetness, and amplified them. The algae used to make the gelee seemed to pair perfectly; it extended the texture of the oyster making it taste like a single piece of enormous shellfish, without diluting the flavor. The oyster leaf further fortified the briny taste. This was a strong taste of the sea, fresh and briny without too much salt. I loved this course.
Iceberg "evoking a hit of the sea" - Continuing with the shellfish theme, algae and sea barnacles covered by a crab and almond "cloud." This was another awesome dish, a play on textures concentrating on the taste of the ocean.
The Haze - A miniature sweet pea forest of almonds, mushrooms, small flowers, black truffle, and edible dirt. The "forest" was served over dry ice creating a fog that covered our table. The fog actually added to the fish by re-creating the wet damp feeling of walking in the forest in the early morning. We were transported to the woods.
Our waiter brought a pair of specially made tweezers to eat this course item-by-item which heightened our appreciation for the ingredients; it forced us to eat carefully. The diversity of textures on this plate, from crispy peas to soft mushrooms made it really balanced. This was one of my favorite courses of the afternoon. Every bite was different.
Wood - A generous lobe of roasted foie gras with the skin from toasted Jerusalem artichokes in a duck bouillon. The toasted skins added a smokey flavor that helped counterbalance the fatty mouthfeel from the foie gras. The duck broth helped to rehydrate the artichoke skin. This dish ushered in a sharp transition from light seafood to creamy offal. I thought the portioning of the dish was a bit large, but then again, can one have too much foie gras?
Ashes - A play on texture and colors in this dark dish. The ink-black and charcoal colors combined with the crispy squeaking from the dehydrated chips made the experience of eating this dish feel like rummaging through a pile of spent firewood. The landscape was fantastic. The flavor was salty with hints of sweetness and a deep earthy flavor from the mushrooms. The drying of the mushrooms to create this dish actually concentrated their flavor.
Denia shrimp - It's worth visiting Denia just for this local variety of shrimp. Gorgeous colors of red, orange, and brown streaked by green and lavender inside. These prawns -- lightly boiled in seawater -- were sweet and meaty. They were served by themselves -- no garnish or saucing. We were instructed to eat as much of the shrimp as possible -- head, brain, tail, and even some of the softer legs. The only thing this course was missing was a second round. These were some of the sweetest shrimp I'd ever had.
Denia's pink prawn - It was this course that showed me Quique Dacosta sure knows what he is doing, or at the very least, has an uncanny ability to pander to my palate. The previous course introduced the raw natural beauty of Denia's local shellfish. This course improved upon it without distracting from the natural flavors. Both courses and their succession showed that Dacosta has a very fine understanding of the area's local ingredients, when to step in to enhance their flavor, and when to step back and let them speak for themselves. The prawns were sauced in a broth made from the shrimp's brain and decorated with local edible flowers. This dish was stunningly beautiful and was probably the best tasting prawn I've ever had. This was my favorite course of the afternoon.
Sea beet - Sea urchin in a beet root emulsion. This presented sea urchin in a way I hadn't tried before, with a sweet vegetal foundation. This course was a bit heavy on the sweetness, and the cooked flavor of beet distracted from the sweetness of the sea urchin. It wasn't my favorite of the afternoon but I was still in ecstasy from the previous courses that I didn't think much of it.
Coral - Sea urchin, crab, salmon roe, and algae. This was a fantastic course -- a collection of shellfish brought together by the subtle vegetal bitterness of algae. A potpourri of textures from the sea. This course was also served cool which made it particularly refreshing. It was like a briney seafood palate cleanser.
Mark Rothko Saffron - If this course doesn't represent "art on a plate," I'm not sure what does. A generous filet of pan fried red mullet with a puree of celeriac on a transparent glass plate. Underneath the plate was a maroon-red color gradient used to visually turn the dish into a piece of art similar to the work of Rothko. This dish tasted great too: smooth and juicy red mullet that developed a shellfish like flavor crowned by crispy skin.
Senia rice - Black rice topped with black truffle, braised woodcock, and black truffle caviar. This was an incredible dish similar in appearance to the previous "ashes" dish except topped with gorgeous black truffle. The aroma of truffle was incredibly fragrant, and this paired very nicely with the more mild senia rice. The crispy "truffle caviar" added textural contrast making this one balanced dish. This was another highlight of the afternoon.
Orange in the winter - Bright and sweet blood orange in various textures: foam, crisp, cold sorbet, whole fruit. This was really refreshing and the acidity from the citrus completely reset my palate.
Litchis - A tasting of lychee with different textures: meringue, gelee, powder, foam, and cream. The sweetness of this course was more pronounced, but the sugar helped to bring out the flavor of the lychee. I loved this dessert.
Matcha tea - A matcha tea sponge with matcha tea ice cream. There was a very subtle bitterness from the green tea which tempered the sugar making this a balanced dessert.
We finished this meal with a great big smile on our faces. The creativity of the plating in combination with the clever flavor combinations made this one of the most memorable meals I've experienced. Even more, the creativity wasn't random: the dishes had a strong focus on local ingredients and the natural gifts Denia had to offer.
In just a few hours Quique Dacosta had jumped on my radar from a relatively distant chef to one with whom I was already planning a return visit. I left the meal in awe of my experience and the flavors I had tasted. There was something special here. And I don't think the restaurant is getting the attention it deserves.
But it wasn't until my most recent visit last week that I discovered why, I believe, Quique Dacosta is soon to become the most interesting chef in the world...
To be continued ...