Monastrell, the name of the Spanish grape variety grown in this region as well as the name for what was the best meal I had during my time in Spain. Ok, Restaurante Monastrell and La Taberna del Gourmet next to it were responsible for 2 of my best meals, but they are both owned by Chef Maria Jose, who is renown for her usage of saffron. It is here that she sat with us and gave us a little lesson on saffron and its magical qualities that have changed how I use and approach saffron.
It is thanks to my Mexican brother, Joel, Pastry Chef at Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York that we took a rare saturday off and came here to eat. It was not cheap, but it was worth every euro, and what was even better was that Chef Maria Jose speaks flawless English.
The best thing to do at restaurants like this is to order the menu degustation, that is, the chef’s tasting menu and she knew we were with Paco, so boy did she feed us well!
Whilst she was teaching us about saffron and how to use it, these lovely Marcona almonds came to the table in two guises, plain and salted. Gently roasted overnight in a 60 degree celsius oven, their delicate crunch gives way to a lovely bouquet of flavours. Marcona almonds are native to Spain and are round (Some say heart shaped) instead of the elongated, american football shaped Californian almonds.
They owe their delicate texture and milkiness from the higher than normal fat content of the Marcona almonds. I was told it was between 60 to 70% fat (Good fat!), but have no conclusive evidence. The best way to treat such delicate gems is to give them gentle roasting, just enough to bring out the natural flavours without being ‘roasty nut’ tasting. This was lesson 2 after Saffron.
The first course was foie gras on a potato sauce accompanied with a saffron tomato ‘bloody mary’. The foie was melt in the mouth, rich with delicious fat and a seductive browned meat flavour. The potato sauce gently carried these flavours to be enhanced by the bloody mary, accentuated by a slight touch of saffron. The tomato flavours came alive with just a hint of saffron and were a perfect counterpart to the foie, its acidity cleansing the palate for 2 more gustatory assaults to follow. I wanted more.
The kitchen seemed to have heard me and brought out a foie mousse with tomato-saffron aspic with ‘ketchup’. Even though the flavours of foie, tomato and saffron mirrored the previous dish, this one was a world apart. Served chilled, the mousse was clean, light tasting with a wonderfully delicate foie gras flavour. The tomato saffron aspic was equally delicate and sent the flavours popping out. Was the juice from the tomato’s seed area used in this aspic? Restaurants usually discard the seed and jelly part of a tomato without realising that this is one of nature’s greatest sources of natural ‘umami’. Was it this umami that enhanced both the gentle fragrance of the saffron and foie?
Following two seemingly rich courses was cucumber rolled fresh oysters topped with lemon granite in a lemon saffron potato soup. The refreshing lemon granite and crunch of the cucumber gave way to the flavours of the sea as the oyster surrendered its juices. The cucumber’s green notes greatly complemented this ‘taste of the sea’, which reminds me of how a sushi chef in Japan similarly paired ‘Sea pineapple’ with cucumber. Different cultures, similar approaches.
The tang of the lemon soup was like the squirt of lemon on an oyster in the half shell, but this one had a more sophisticated edge to it. With the lemon’s acidity tempered by the potato, the saffron’s floral qualities could peek through and round off this amazing course of textures, tastes and temperatures.
A change of gears followed with a Brioch sandwich of squid with caramelized onion emulsion, tomato ketchup and squid ink aioli. The buttery, crisp brioch hid the tender squid below and the ink aioli gave a jolt of iodine. The onion emulsion’s sweetness and brown flavours complemented the whole dish as the tomato ketchup provided the required acidity. Though a tiny portion, this dish was rich and full of flavour.
Next came a painstakingly simmered octopus for tenderness that was grilled a la minute for the flavour boost. This came with fried egg with liquid yolk and a curry mash with a bit of saffron with the consistency of thick cream. Now how did they fry an egg, keep its spherical shape and have a liquid yolk you ask?
The egg was cooked in a water bath with an immersion circulator at probably 64.5 degrees celsius so that the whites jellify but the yolks remain liquid. The eggs are then shelled and quickly flash fried in the deep dryer.
Chef Maria Jose has visited Malaysia before and she absolutely adores the oyster omelette and other seafood dishes of SE Asia. Her son actually lived in Malaysia for a year and this dish was inspired by her travels there. The mediterranean treatment from the octopus going really well with the spicy, aromatic curry sauce. This is modern Spanish food at its best, honoring tradition but looking forward.
The highlight of the meal was none other than a seafood paella, redolent of the sea infused with a deep saffron flavour. The quintessential paella rice ‘Arroz Bomba’, was born on this land just for this dish. Having a remarkable ability to absorb all that rich seafood stock, yet retaining a discernible bite to it that the Italians call ‘al dente’, or ‘to the tooth’. Truly a perfect marriage of Spanish land and sea that surely cannot be improved?
Dead wrong. The crowning glory of this dish came in the form of dehydrated, sun ripened lemon slices. Paella usually comes with a squeeze of lemon, its citrusy flavour dissipating in a whiff, leaving behind only its bland acidity. Chef Maria Jose uses the dehydrated lemon (Which has a tinge of sweetness) because its lemony flavour gets released with every bite, lasting longer in the mouth and bringing a different dimension to the dish. What a revelation this simple change in preparation was!
A green tea jelly with sour apple dessert refreshed our palates, readying our senses for the dessert courses to follow. This refreshing concoction’s slight tannic green tea and sharp apple did a great job of ridding the tongue of any remnants from the hearty meal.
Increasing slightly in intensity was this Bagatelle of Saffron with root vegetables and lemongrass ice cream. I have no idea what Bagatelle means, but the root vegetables were pleasantly sweet and crunchy reminiscent of the chinese rojak back in Singapore. In a strange twist of fate, my Costa Rican evil twin, Juan, just asked me if I knew what ‘Napicol’ was. It turns out that it is a ‘Swede’, or ‘Rutabaga’, a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. He told me to try it as it is a really sweet tuber. Now, I am sure the root veg in this dessert is Napicol, as he probably saw it whilst working at El Poblet in Spain.
Saffron here plays a dual role, as it supports both the earthy tones of the root veg. and the floral tones of the lemongrass. Chef Maria Jose told us about how fresh Saffron’s floral properties age into earthy ones as time goes by. Perhaps saffron’s characteristics formed the backbone of this dish?
The last dish for the day was a heavy hitting gianduja ice cream with a coffee Baba and cognac foam. It was the perfect dessert to round off the meal, and its classic flavours were deeply satisfying.
Having a quick chat over tea, we were then whisked into the kitchens to see the chefs in action and have some glamour shots. Chef Maria Jose is one of the warmest, most gracious chefs I have ever met, and it was an enlightening experience to have eaten there. She was so open with her knowledge on saffron that we went away with so much more knowledge on maximizing those expensive little pistils. Its not so much what you use it with, but rather, the deeper whys and hows you use it that is the crux of it all.
If you are ever in Spain for a seaside holiday, head straight to Alicante for Monastrell and the tapas bar, La Taberna del Gourmet next door. For me, the only reason to return to Alicante.