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.
Amuse bouche - The meal started with a collection of amuse bouches and a glass of cava. A rapid-fire succession of cinnamon basil, kalanchoe greens and oil, cold hibiscus tea with chicory, pickled raïm, snails, shrimp cakes, kumquats filled with flying fish eggs, and hazelnut oil. The amuses hit all the spots on the palate: sweet, savory, salty, hot, and cold.
An assortment of delicatessens - Our first course was salty: a colorful gradient of cured roes and fish. From left to right, we had salt-cured and sun dried fish roes of bonito, lingfish, and sea bass. We were also served aged octopus with a drizzle of olive oil; the octopus had a bitter taste and the dab of sweet olive oil helped to temper it a bit. The saltiness of this course seemed to increase my appetite, by the end I was starving.
Cereal paper - A thin crispy wafer of grains to accompany our salty fish roe.
Pickled spring onions - Served alongside the salted fish roes and cereal paper were sweet bulbs of spring onion. The assertive acidity of the onions seemed to reset my palate between bites of the roe salty.
Dehydrated figs - Our second course, a crumble of dehydrated green figs served atop a fig leaf, was a light sweet and crispy snack.
Dew - Chilled salicornia and ice plant beneath a shaved ice caipirinha. My dining companion, the ulterior epicure, immediately commented that the gelee tasted "leathery" and could possibly contain a dash of tequila or mezcal. This dish was cool and refreshing with vegetal undertones. The crisp of the ice plan bridged the gap between the gelee and the smooth sea beans.
Piquillo Pepper - After our first bite, our waiter asked if we knew what we were eating. Only that point did I realized it wasn't piquillo pepper. What we were eating was dehydrated watermelon re-hydrated with charred piquillo syrup. The texture was indistinguishable from grilled piquillo pepper. The dish was adorned with small whole mustard seeds which looked like pepper seeds that had spilled out. The seeds even developed a thin albumin-like coating, really completing the effect. The syrup was extremely sweet, but the subtle spice from the mustard seeds helped to temper that a bit. The concept of this dish was brilliant.
Avocado - A smoked wedge of firm avocado bathing in a light bonito broth, topped with shaved smoked avocado seed. The avocado was firm enough to require a knife, but still very creamy. Its texture was very buttery but the shaved smoked seed helped cut through the fatty mouthfeel. The dashi-like broth also helped bring out the latent meaty flavors in the vegetable. This was a very simple but somehow very satisfying dish.
Chufas - Cocoa-covered foie gras and sliced tigernuts floating in a truffle-oil cream. Tigernuts, or "chufas" in Spanish, are a starchy and fibrous nut with a crunch like watercress but a flavor like watered-down peanut butter. They were a bit pasty when eaten raw (our waiter brought us a few to try) but when sliced thin they complimented the creamy truffle broth. The cocoa-foie gras consisted of chilled chocolate just barely holding together a thin foie gras cream that spilled in the mouth. The sweetness of the foie gras with the nutty flavors of the tiger nuts and the aroma of truffle oil made this dish intoxicating. This course catapulted my view on the meal thus far from outstanding to awestruck; Quique Dacosta is not only creative and original, but has the palate and understanding of textures and flavors to match. Just wow.
Tomato - Frozen shavings of distilled tomato snow covering sun dried tomatoes. The dish was drizzled with what tasted like pepper-infused olive oil. As a whole, it tasted like frozen gaspacho, with a subtle cheesiness coming from the pepper oil.
Peas - This plate embodies spring: a cool sweet pea cream broth with wasabi-infused tobiko roe and spring pea shoots. The fish roe, which usually clumps together, dispersed evenly in the broth adding a short-lived spice to each bite. I didn't taste much fishiness from the roe, rather, it seemed they were used more for the textural component -- miniature bursts of spice with each bite. The fresh pea shoots amplified the dish's apparent freshness. This was one of my favorite courses of the meal, a dish that at first glance appears simple, but is far from it.
Local baby squid - Local squids dunked in boiling water to partially cook them, served with a concentrated shellfish broth. The squids were creamy and mildly salted. The concentrated seafood shot was very salty, and helped bring out the shellfish flavors in the squid. I loved this dish.
Oyster - A plump oyster gently cooked in its own seawater. The oyster was served on a bed of piping hot rocks with seaweed found from the area where the oyster was harvested. This oyster had no saucing other than its own natural salty and briny juice. This was simply delicious, perhaps the first time I truly enjoyed a cooked oyster.
Fresh spring onions - Three sheets of spring onion bulb acting as a bowl for a drizzled shellfish sauce. This was a dish where the dominant ingredient was the sauce, and the onions merely a vehicle to collect it. I didn't understand the concept of this dish, and its flavor was not particularly exciting.
A tasting of local prawns - This is a dish where Quique Dacosta teases us with the local ingredient quality. Denia's shrimp, langoustines, and prawns are perhaps the sweetest I have ever had. In this dish a single prawn is presented in three different parts: first the tail, lightly blanched in its own seawater on a sauce made from its roe. Then the deep-fried head and legs with part of the shell holding a reduction made from the brain. The third part is a shellfish reduction with Cognac filled with a gelatinous liquid dumpling filled with juice from the shrimp brains. This dish was exceptional, just the fresh taste of prawn presented from three different angles.
Arroz de galera - Uni-infused risotto with sage, crowned by thin layers of raw mantis shrimp. The rice was firm and chewy giving it structure to support the sea urchin without it turning into a goey mess. The interlaced uni had a clearly defined shape. The mantis shrimp, unlike the Denia prawn, was not sweet, rather it tasted strongly of the sea. There was also a temperature contrast between the warm risotto and cold shrimp. This was one of the highlight courses of the meal, utilizing Valencia's traditional rice recipes with local shrimp.
Seaweed stew - This was a repulsive course, that I actually enjoyed. I hope that makes sense. This was a stew made from algae and barnacles served with seaweed toast. The stew tasted like licking a dock that had been submerged in the seawater for a long, long time. It tasted slimy and salty, like algae from a wet rock. I didn't like the flavor, actually I hated it. But I loved how, for a few brief minutes, I felt like I had gone for a swim in the adjacent Mediterranean. Its flavor was very intense and concentrated. It was very challenging to finish this course, two bites was more than enough.
Monkfish - Thick medallions of breaded monkfish in a shellfish broth with sheets of seaweed and a crustacean roe paste infused with mint. The generous chunks of monkfish were pan seared making the surface crunchy and leaving the inside lean and moist. The portioning was very generous making it tough to finish the entire course knowing we still quite a few to go.
Almonds - A Spanish ajo blanco of shaved frozen white almond milk with garlic. The dish was generously seasoned with olive oil. This course was light and refreshing without any sweetness. Condensation began to form on the frozen plate as we ate this course, which made the course seem even more refreshing.
Beet root - By this point in the meal it was clear we weren't going to be served much, if any, meat. Maybe that's one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. This next course, a deep red beet root violently splashed with a meaty beet sauce captured the essence of a heavier meat course without meat being the principal ingredient. The sweetness of the beet and saltiness of the beef reduction went together quite nicely, creating a flavor much like during Thanksgiving when cranberry sauce brushes against gravy. This was a pretty cool concept.
"Which came first?" - An egg-shaped white asparagus gelatin carrying an amber-orange colored chicken stock "yolk" that poured out when eaten. Halved blanched almonds dotted the yolk. Despite looking and textually "feeling" like an egg in the mouth, this tasted like an asparagus cream soup. This was a remarkable concept.
Bone marrow - This was perhaps the coolest course of the night, even if it shaved five years off my life. On the plate we saw what appeared to be a rather large veal bone filled with some kind of liquid. In reality, it was a gelatin made from heavy cream and bone marrow shaped like a bone, filled with a veal stock. Chef Dacosta really got the texture of the gelatin right -- it glistened in the light as a bone would, even with the same color striations. The plate was dotted with a concentrated licorice paste, and our waiter told us to taste a bit of the paste after eating the bone marrow gelatin. The licorice's concentrated stevia-like sweetness combined with the residual fattiness in my mouth to create an almost sweet meaty butter flavor. I loved this dish; I just wish I didn't have so much guilt for having finished it.
Matcha tea - A trio of matcha tea desserts: a green tea macaron, an apple foam dusted with green tea, and a compressed granny smith apple soaked in green tea. Overall a nice transition from savory into sweet.
Orange blossom honey - A light and fluffy honeycomb-shaped spongecake drizzled with orange blossom honey. Interestingly, the honey tasted more like citrus than it did like honey. It also wasn't overly sweet.
And just like that the meal was over. Hardly any meat, lots of shellfish, and very light on the dessert. This man was reading my mind.
This was a magical meal and certainly at the same level as El Bulli. And when El Bulli closes it will be quite sad; but one door closed opens another. I am confident that Quique Dacosta will finally garner the attention it deserves.