Spain’s celebrated chef, Angel León, from the two Michelin-starred restaurant Aponiente, has brought his passion for the flavours of the sea to his Bistreau restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona while creating a casual yet radical chef’s table
Angel León, known in Spain as El Chef del Mar (Chef of the Sea)
I first met Angel León four years ago, having heard tell of a chef who had apparently gone mad with a pile of fishy discards and plankton. Rumour had it that he was like a young Ferran Adrià: seemingly boundaryless and determined to dance to the beat of his own drum despite the obscure location of his restaurant. Even now that he’s well and truly on the map, few people respond to ‘El Puerto de Santa María’ with more than a ‘Huh?’ Twenty years ago you’d have said the same regarding El Bulli’s remote cove on the Costa Brava; that is, until The New York Times asked if Adrià’s cooking made Spain the new France. As for León, he already has two stars, and it feels as if he’s a legend in the making.
The seldom-visited Andalusian fishing town of El Puerto de Santa María, located just across the bay from Cádiz, southwestern Spain, is a handsome little place best known for its salt, sherry and vinegar. And today for the cuisine of El Chef del Mar, Angel León, whose radical fish cookery at his restaurant, Aponiente, draws adventurous diners from all over the world. But that wasn’t always the case. When he first opened in 2006, few people understood what he was trying to do, which ranged from using by-catch to create a pescatarian fine-dining tasting menu, to serving fried fish scales as bar snacks, to experimenting with ways to make plankton edible. Even fewer wanted to eat it. ‘The restaurant would be empty night after night,’ recalls León. ‘My friends, my family, they begged me to give up, but I believed what I was doing was right.’
Marine Ravioli with Temaki
Everything changed when he won his first Michelin star in 2010, with an article in The New York Times declaring that Aponiente was ‘worth getting on a plane for’ despite its simplicity. The 45-cover restaurant has white walls adorned with a striking fish sculpture, wood floors and snowwhite table linen, but this year it reopens at a new venue, El Molino, in an old water mill among the salt flats that surround El Puerto. It will be a homage of sorts to where León’s story began: the place he went fishing with his father as a child; where he first realised how much by-catch was being thrown overboard in the Bay of Cádiz; where he conducted his first experiment with plankton, and eventually sought the help of a local science lab and the University of Cádiz. Together, they came up with two edible forms of plankton; these days that number is up to 15 – and you need to plan well in advance to get a table.
Alternatively, you can book at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, where León celebrates his first year. Although he had options when looking for a second venue, ‘Mandarin Oriental is where I like to go when I travel, so I already felt close to it,’ he explains. ‘In fact, Mandarin Oriental were not only extremely open to my food, they had exactly the right audience for it: guests who are knowledgeable and adventurous about what they eat, and lots of local foodies who want a challenge. It’s a chef’s dream.’
A place setting at Bistreau
The interior of León’s Bistreau restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona
In Barcelona, his stage – once the trading floor of a former bank – is enclosed by designer Patricia Urquiola’s Moroccan-style cut-out screen, which filters the light from the giant skylights onto plush carpets and whimsical, peacock-back dining chairs that could be straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Welcome to Bistreau, a fittingly playful space for his more accessible cuisine, like green tomato gazpacho with king crab, sensational oyster fritters and a succulent collar of red tuna in a sticky périgourdine sauce, combined with a handful of dishes that come sprinkled with that León magic. For the more adventurous, the chef’s table, known as La Mesa, looks onto the open-plan kitchen and allows interaction with head chef Ismael Alonso and León himself, for four days every two weeks. Many of the dishes are prepped right there at the table and they mirror what is on the menu at Aponiente.
Mandarin Oriental is a dream: its guests are adventurous about what they eat
During my stay, I ate at both, immersing myself – heart and stomach – into León’s creative genius and sommelier Jesús Gómez’s expert hands. After all, these are the only two restaurants in Spain that offer boutique sherry pairing of some of the rarest and best bottles in the world – an extraordinary drinking opportunity for those who love them. Combined with service that is more about passion than formality, Mandarin Oriental is shaking out its feathers and aligning itself with the evolving fine-dining scene: more comfortable, less formal, and heaps of fun.
Succulents make for natural table decorations
Lunch at Bistreau begins with pumpkin ravioli and pickled anchovy ‘tacos’ with aioli – a natty little appetite sharpener that even the most conservative diner would be hard pushed to resist – followed by León’s signature ‘marine cold cuts’. These fish-based interpretations of the Holy Trinity of Spanish charcuterie – longaniza (cured pork sausage), chorizo (pork sausage flavoured with smoky pimentón) and morcilla (blood sausage) – are made from the Albur fish that thrives in the Doñana National Park not far from Aponiente. Its diet of almost exclusively plankton gives it a particularly fatty flesh that makes excellent sausages. ‘It’s definitely one of our great triumphs of the early days,’ León confides, even though his cooking has evolved way beyond this by now. ‘We get a lot of interest from Muslims, in fact, as it’s an alternative to charcuterie. It’s also a great way to get kids to eat fish. They think they’re eating hot dogs.’
The service station at Bistreau
Another regional classic, indeed the dish that Cádiz is most famous for and earned it gastronomic kudos long before ‘molecular gastronomy’, is tortillitas de camarónes – lacy, fried pancakes made with wheat and chickpea flour for extra crunch and tiny, silvery grey prawns hauled from the bay. In León’s hands the pancake is so crisp it snaps, the prawns devilishly savoury with a salty tang. It’s contrasted by a glossy chunk of salt-cured mackerel and harissa – a nod to another of León’s key influences, Morocco, with its proximity across the water to the southernmost tip of Spain – bathed in a seaweed emulsion. Triggering memories of high-end Japanese meals, it’s curiously familiar but unlike anything else, which is testament to León’s extreme originality. In fact, his dishes have been declared the stars of the Madrid Fusión food congress for two years on the trot, yet he’s so far ahead of the game that nobody dares to copy him.
Paired alongside is a half bottle of the sprightliest Fino (crisp, white sherry) from an all-female winery, El Maestro Sierra, in Jerez de la Frontera, which, Gómez says, enables you to ‘taste the salt air of the south.’ I believe him and it holds its own, too, alongside aguachile and corn – a ceviche crafted from red mullet, jalapeños and pickled radish gelatin that is mixed with an aji amarillo cold broth at the table. Inspired.
Tortillita de Camarónes
León preparing tortillita
For the heavier dishes, Gómez switches up the sherry to a Solear Manzanilla (also white, but with a bone-dry structure, from Sanlúcar de Barrameda), made from grapes picked in the winter of 2014. Ours is bottle number 43 out of only 100 and it packs a punch with a dish of tender, raw squid ribbons on an inky aioli and an almost grassy-tasting, forest-green plankton risotto, which one could argue is the very essence of umami. For dessert, Gómez pours a generous glass of Quo Vadis Amontillado, a very old and rare sherry that was discovered behind a bricked-up wall in the cellars of Delgado Zuleta (established in 1744). By the time we’re done, I feel as if I’ve not just eaten but literally absorbed chunks of Spanish history alongside scientific breakthroughs. It leaves me chomping at the bit for my experience in a few nights at La Mesa.
At La Mesa, we can offer more radical tastings and I can really deliver
‘Barcelona is so close to the Mediterranean it’s given me the chance to work with products that we don’t get back in El Puerto, like octopus and sea cucumbers,’ says León of how the two dining formats work together, ‘but the city on the whole is more international and open, so it’s a great opportunity for me to expand as a chef. At La Mesa, we can offer more radical tastings and I can really deliver the experience and my philosophy in a very direct and interactive way with the customer. If you can’t eat at El Puerto de Santa María, this is the next best thing.’
An oyster dish at the chef’s table, La Mesa
Squid Noodles in Ink Hollandaise Sauce
So it was, that after drinks in the Mimosa Garden, a lushly planted, deeply secret place, I found myself directed to La Mesa: a sexy, shimmering spot at the far end of Bistreau’s spacious dining room, where a long black table was laid for 12. Gómez was already whirling around, pouring the first of several sherries and explaining that he sees them as a ‘family’: ‘You start with the kids and work your way up to the patriarchs.’
We open with a lip-smacking Gutiérrez Colosia Fino, bottled especially for Bistreau at source, while head chef Alfonso mixes tomato water and liquid nitrogen in a giant copper cauldron to create a sorbet. He then adds mojama dashi (cured tuna loin from Barbate, a coastal town in Cádiz) to cold miso to pour over the top, with a tiny sprig of mint to provide a waft of freshness.
Barman Rafael Tapia pours a pre-dinner cocktail at Banker’s Bar
Patricia Urquiola’s cut-out screen in Bistreau
It’s a deeply refreshing and elegant start to the parade of sparkling round-the-world flavour hits that follow: baozi – a bite-sized steamed bun smeared with kimchi mayo and a lozenge of just-seared tarantelo (a speciality of tuna belly from the Almadraba fishing season); grilled marine sausages with an egg-yolk base, a cheeky nod to the great British breakfast (and fabulous it is, too); raw razor clams drizzled with yogurt, lime and wasabi and wrapped in a shiso leaf (probably the best sort-of-sashimi ever); pot stickers stuffed with razor clam entrails (sensational and deeply savoury, like the taste of the shells hot off the grill); sweet plankton ‘nori’ stuffed with creamy tuna belly tartar; pumpkin ravioli bright with pickled anchovies, aubergines and aioli; cubes of country bread dipped in a fish soup that sang of the sea and recalled the fisherman’s soups you eat all around the coast of Spain, but here came topped with lightly steamed percebes (goose barnacles, a rare Galician treat); and a ‘pimiento piquillo’ made of beetroot and squid ink jelly, stuffed with salt cod and served on a puddle of lobster bisque. And these were just the appetite sharpeners!
Refreshing Apple and Fennel Sorbet
Gómez poured a more complex La Panesa Fino from a 15-year-old flor (yeast) as we moved to the more solid dishes. First up, grilled baby cuttlefish (insides not removed, so as to harness every nugget of their Mediterranean freshness) and ink hollandaise, ingenious in its simplicity, but exactly the kind of dish that the bolder sherries need to shine. Then he surprised us with a glass of fizz to go with Iodic Soup. Imagine a base of gazpachuelo (a cold, fish soup from Málaga, not to be confused with gazpacho) into which goes a quenelle of sea water, mollusc juice and a hint of fragrant, vine-ripened tomato; crowning the top is a clam so taut and fresh it was as if it had spent its life working out. Rarely do dishes achieve a state one might describe as ‘perfection’. This nailed it.
Another cork pops, this time to reveal an intriguing 30-year-old Palo Cortado by the Bodegas Tradición in Jerez. Both sweet and savoury with an immense finish, it proves a match made in heaven to an Iberian ham-infused potato broth topped with cuttlefish noodles and egg yolk. It cut right through the creamy textures, making room for a rich and sticky hunk of red tuna collar that had been cooked sous-vide then baked – just like a slab of pork belly – into unctuous tenderness.
León at chef’s table La Mesa, making Iodic Soup in a copper cauldron
With most tasting menus I’m fading by this point, but curiously the fish-based dishes allow for a vamped-up degree of greediness.
A refreshing sorbet of apple and fennel is just the trick for the finale: bananas baked in sea salt – one last fond farewell from El Chef del Mar, for this, of course, is how fish is traditionally prepared in Cádiz – cracked open at the table and scooped into a waiting bowl of salted caramel.