Although I’ve been several times in Denia before, it is only OAD’s post that informed me about the existence of a gastronomic hotspot there. So one week after we’ve been to EL Bulli, we spontaneously went to EL Poblet – that’s the name of chef Quique Dacostas’ restaurant on Las Marinas road km3 in Denia – Soon to be one of the better-known culinary destinations of Spain and Europe. Quique Dacosta is known as a young, 35 years old chef who develops his own style of Spanish avant-garde cuisine but who is also known for his expertise in down to earth Valencian rice specialties (which he thoroughly analyzes in a special rice cookbook).
Since he also adopted some of the modern cooking techniques once established by the Guru of molecular cuisine Ferran Adriá, we were curious how the contrast to El Bulli would be. In particular we wanted to find out if Quique’s cooking style also affects the quality of the service and the atmosphere of the restaurant.
We had a very warm welcome from a very charming service crew who guided us to our seats.
Despite the modern architecture the discrete lightning of the tables created a cozy atmosphere. We were handed the menu, and quickly decided to order the Universo Local tasting menu which features a wider selection of Dacosta’s creations from the last 2 years. What was a definite plus is that wine is included in the price of the tasting menu, so we didn’t have to study the thick wine list (I glanced at it anyway, looks promising) and could lay back and relax, awaiting our menu.
Soon, a waiter came with a massive chrome bar shaker and poured us the aperitif which was a cocktail with lime, a Kaffir lime leaf and silver in it. It wasn’t only an eye-catcher but had a quite refreshing taste and fortunately didn’t contain too much alcohol (I think it was with Gin though).
Before our meal started, a waiter showed us a selection of olive oils from fruity to spicy from which we could choose. He poured it in a small plate on our side where we could then dip our bread slices.
The tasting menu started then with a Rum and Coke of Foie with a mist of lemon Zest and wild rocket. Some small toasted brioche slices were handed to us and we could basically just dip them in the foie cream which had a gelatinous layer of rum and coke on it in which came out small rocket leaves as if they were growing there. It was an excellent starter: The Rum and coke wasn’t too sweet, or just so that in combination with the brioche and the foie it created a perfect symbiosis.
Meanwhile our silver cocktail was refilled for the third time as we were served Crunchy Artichokes dressed on green olive oil with filaments of saffron gelatine and wild oranges. This again looked like a piece of art. The artichokes were standing on the plate and looked like the pickles ginger you would get at a sushi bar.
The wild orange came as an acidic powder which was positioned on the plate like a cocaine line (which I only know from the movies of course :=)).
The next course, The living Forest, came on plates which were covered by a cap. The waiter openend it and then we knew that these covers weren’t only for the visual surprise effect but they also retained scents which the chefs had put inside. A delicate scent of moss and forest came up to our nose and when we looked at the dish we saw a miniature forest made of mushrooms and wild herbs. Each ingredient adds another flavor-facet and gives the impression that it has been handled and processed separately before they were assembled to build this composition.
At this point we realized that this was more than just savouring food. It was an integral experience for all your senses (taste, textures scents, visual) Some kind of gourmet-food-adventure-park.
We also noticed that we had just right sized portions. Not too big, and not too small either. In comparison to EL Bulli, one could have the time to talk about the food while eating it and wouldn’t have to worry that the next dish arrives while you have barely internalized the last one.
Now, after a walk through the forest, a header into the sea should follow. The course was named Abstraction of the Sea, and had a somehow appropriate abstract design too. Its exact description is Seaweed and mushroom salad with rice vinegar on a layer of potatoes with almond aioli and a gelatinous seaweed veil; I assure you, the taste of it was much more harmonious than its description.
The Oysters inspired by the Guggenheim Museum were hidden in an edible golden shell. It was more and eye-catcher than a revelation for your taste-buds. At least for me.
Hoarfrost was again one of these holistic masterpieces. A waiter brings a plate, opens the cover, and an intense smell of burned wood would embrace you and transport you somewhere on the countryside. On your palate then it was a mixture of textures, temperature and tastes with some ice-cold green foam on top of warmer sweet shrimp.
Then, 2 Denia prawns cooked in 2 different ways were served. The first one, grilled just right, covered with flowers, the second one boiled. Both were excellent. I never had such tasty prawns I think. Its flesh had such intense umami sweetness and the broth was a perfect complement – Nothing too artistic in this dish, just perfectly crafted food.
The Cutlet from Denia wasn’t pork or beef, but a very tender piece of tuna belly flap. Grilled on the outside and juicy and tender inside. I had the impression it is a very fatty part of the tuna, which must be the reason it was so tasteful and melted in your mouth – Didn’t have such good Tuna-dish for a long time.
The Other Moon of Valencia was a course with several components, but all of them emanated from this cute little animal called sepia. Since it was all black and grey it really looked like a landscape at night with a small crunchy ball made of sepia ink representing the moon. It was a play on textures with crunchy rice, foamy foam as well as tender sepia pieces – All of the facets of sepia in one plate.
Sticky Senia rice on a bed of smoked eel with pearls of red fruits and wild rosemary flowers from Montgó was excellent. The rice is a variety coming from a village named Senia, explained the waiter; this made sense of course. It was very creamy rice linking perfectly the sweet smoky eel underneath with the sour fruity cherries and red fruit balls on top. The rosemary added a slight aromatic touch. This was really excellent.
The Hen from the golden egg. I only remember it as being very fluffy and light and of course impressed with its golden colour. Yes we have reached a certain level of “wininess” by now and my priorities switched from photographs to just..
..savour the food and the wine. That is why I don’t have any picture of the delicious Fregula Sarda with morsels of skin of Mediterranean monkfish and first choice peas with liquorice. Neither do I have pics of the succulent Lamb- a basic understanding of the lamb…sorry!
But this is maybe the right point to praise the sommelier who did a very good job. Not only did he choose excellent Spanish wine matches for our dishes including an excellent Spanish Cava which could compete with the best Champagnes and some excellent Spanish whites, but at one instance he also advised us about an interesting bargain in his wine-cellar; we couldn’t resist and he brought us a bottle of Flor de Pingus 2004, an excellent wine from Ribero’s star-winemaker Peter Sissek. The wine accounted for a dramatic yet elegant fruit explosion on our palates and a superb finish with an incredible length. It was perfect with the lamb. I guess this damn good wine was one of the reasons we forgot to take pictures of some dishes.
Now it was time for desserts. First came an apple dessert with Stevia Rebaudiana infusion, Stevia is also called sugar leaf in English and surprisingly Wikipedia says that it is forbidden as a food ingredient in the EU. Well the desert tasted very good anyhow, refreshing and no too sweet.
Aloe and violet was the second dessert. Violet ice cream and Aloe cream were a dream of lightness and at the same time very aromatic.
The Chocolate Panettone reminded me a bit the black sesame brioche at El Bulli with its structure and taste. But here it was bedded on a cream with intense chocolate taste – Beautiful hearty last course of the menu.
So was it better than EL Bulli? Hard to tell actually. The food was undeniably modern and avantgardistic, but it was a completely different style than El Bulli. Portions were slightly bigger, the menu had fewer courses (16 instead of 30-something at El Bulli) which I think is one of the reasons the dinner here was much more relaxed. On the other hand the excellent service also accounted for the relaxed atmosphere. At El Poblet, the waiter would be genuinely friendly and try hard to explain you something, even if his English isn’t perfect – he seems passionate about the food. At EL Bulli, the service crew just seemed stressed and had a forced friendliness. The sommelier at El Poblet, a young Belgian speaking several languages earns a special praise of course. He did a very good job choosing interesting wines and created perfect matches several times. But back to the food: I think Dacosta understands perfectly, not only to create interesting new taste combinations, but also has a very good hand for contrasts in textures, temperatures and in several dishes adds a new dimension with scents..
As Adriá, Dacosta focuses a lot on the usage of regional produce of highest quality such as Fish and Seafood from Denia, wild herbs and oranges from the surroundings or particular Valencian rice varieties. But at the same time he doesn’t push molecular cuisine as far as Ferran Adriá and only uses tricks where it really makes sense.
The Food at EL Bulli is undeniably genius and maybe not really comparable in the end to Dacosta’s who rather offers alternative molecular cuisine which is a little more compatible with comfortable dining – Still adventurous and thrilling, but also tangible.
Anyway, El Poblet has recently been acclaimed by the Michelin guide with a second star and from now on I’m really curious how this restaurant will develop in the future and in particular how other people see it in comparison to El Bulli.
I can only recommend a visit at El Poblet: Quique Dacosta creates multidimensional food experiences which are really worth the trip to Denia.