AponienteFirstCourse

Sweet, creamy plankton piped into nori: one of the starters of our multi-course dining adventure.

“Do you know what course we’re on?”

“I think this is 14. The first five dishes counted as one.”

“And how many courses are there total?”

“Twenty-two, I think.”

“Oh, look. Plankton.”

So went the conversation at our table that afternoon in Cadiz. Ten of us, including Sebastian, were lunching at Aponiente, a beautifully modern, two-star restaurant in a rustic, converted tide mill. We had arrived in the industrial area of Cadiz at 2:30pm and settled in for a four-hour, 22-course seafood meal with sherry pairings.

Our group of 10, too large for one table, was seated separately: Zandra, James, Kati, and Sebastian at one table; Bob, Dorothy, Kyle, Roxanne, Jeff, and I at another.

“You know,” Dorothy said when the waiters were out of earshot, “Kati isn’t the biggest fan of seafood. I wonder how she’s doing.” We mused, sipped our sherry, and readied ourselves for the next bold creation from the kitchen.

FinoSherry

A crisp glass of Fernando de Castillo’s fino.

***

That morning, Sebastian met us at our hotel in Sevilla and we drove south toward Jerez, the epicenter of global sherry production. After the memorable Flamenco night, Sebastian was eager to show off his home turf and introduce us to the diverse world of sherry. “Most people think of it as the sweet stuff that their grandmother drank after dinner. But here, people drink sherry like the rest of the world drinks wine,” said Sebastian.

Our driver deposited us in chilly but sun-drenched Jerez de la Frontera under an azure sky near a shop-lined corner. A clutch of local gentlemen sipped coffee (or perhaps sherry) and regarded us with the familiar countenance of locals, curious but wary.

F&CSherryTasting

Sebastian (left) and Jan Pettersen prepare for our tasting.

We trailed Sebastian down a curved alleyway flanked by hulking bodegas and entered through the open iron gates of  Fernando de Castillo, our destination. Jan Pettersen, the tall, dapper Norwegian proprietor, greeted us in the tasting room. Sturdy wooden chairs clustered around low tables set with glasses and bottles of sherry promised good things to come. Before we commenced with tasting, our charming host led us across the road to visit the production area. Here the sherry is aged in dark casks and bottled for distribution.

In the cool, damp aging cave amid the familiar smell of earthy oak casks and wine vapor, Jan told the story of the Fernando de Castillo winery: Opened in 1837, it was run by the same family until 1999, when he took over. “I’m a sherry romantic,” he confessed. Romantic: a term echoed from last night’s gypsy performance. Passion and romanticism were recurring themes on this trip, and Jan’s devotion to his work was apparent in the pride with which he spoke. 

JanandBob

Sherry’s classroom.

He described the sherry-making process: The Palomino grape, grown in Jerez de Frontera, is pressed in early September and made into base wine, which is fermented in steel tanks. By February, the wine is fortified with 40% to 80% alcohol and put in American oak barrels to age.

“Sherry is radically different from other kinds of wine, and goes well with various foods,” Jan explained: Grilled vegetables, oysters, and hard-to-pair foods like artichokes, match well with fresh, young manzanilla. Earthy flavors like mushrooms go with darker amontillado; and richer foods like fois gras are lovely with oloroso.

BobandDorothySherry

Cheers, Bob and Dorothy!

After our tour of the caves and the bottling facility, we arrived back in the tasting room and sat around the low tables. Jan slipped foil off plates of salty snacks and pulled corks from bottles. As we nibbled cheese, crackers, and jamón Ibérico,  we sipped the wines our host had described, and noted their differences in color and flavor: crisp, saline fino, reminiscent of a dry white Bordeaux; palo cortado with its slightly richer color and nutty, caramel flavors; and finally Pedro Jimenez, the throat-coating sweet brandy whose grapes are sun-dried for four to six days, concentrating the sugars.

“In Spain, sherry has always been a regular food wine,” Jan said.

AponienteFish

A very kissable fish graces the entry hallway of Aponiente.

That afternoon, at Aponiente, we had the chance to experience sherry’s capacity to pair with food, although Aponiente’s menu is anything but “regular.” Chef Angel Leon’s innovative seafood-driven concept makes generous use of bycatch and underused sea organisms like plankton.

If you’ve never considered plankton a human food source or flavoring agent, you’re not alone. We hadn’t either, and two among us were marine scientists. Of course, the nonmotile sea organisms are a critical source of nutrition for many aquatic creatures, and you’ll occasionally see boxes of dried plankton in well-stocked health-food stores. But this meal portended to be a wholly different beast.

AponienteEntranceGarden

Sun-drenched courtyard.

We arrived at Aponiente in midafternoon — lunchtime in Spain. Located next to the train tracks near the Guadalete River, in an industrial part of town, Anponiente is an oasis in a severe landscape. We passed through the minimalist, desert-inspired courtyard and through the grand doors. Inside, sun flooded through windows embedded in the original stone walls, providing views to the surrounding river marsh. A hole in the floor covered with thick glass revealed the retired mill, which once harnessed the power of the tide to process grains. The long entry and hallway leading to the dining room had whimsical under-the-sea touches such as a giant bronze fish sculpture and overlapping metallic fish scales on the some of the walls.

AponienteChefs

The Aponiente kitchen staff at work.

Tall glass barriers separated the hallway to the dining room from the kitchen, where a team of chefs in crisp toques tweezed, piped, and frothed. In the dining room, well-spaced, linen-topped tables were encircled by high-backed upholstered chairs shaped like blue fish tails. We arranged ourselves at our two tables and settled in for an adventure.

Our decorous servers, dressed in dark suits and matching wooden bow ties, offered greetings. Their English was limited, but we were grateful for the effort, given that there was no printed menu. They uncorked the first bottle and the sherry started to flow, starting with a crisp, slightly saline Fino César from Bodegas César Floridio, located in Chipiona on the Atlantic coast of Cadiz.

AponienteTinSeaUrchin

A tin of beautifully mild sea urchin garnished with caviar.

The first course comprised five dishes that set the tone for the meal: yellow meringues resembling Twinkies were filled with a creamy, savory hake filling; beautiful half-moon sardine ravioli were single bites of salty ambrosia; small tims of silky sea urchin pate arrived garnished with caviar. The fino’s hint of salinity complemented the briny flavors and our seafood extravagance was off to a promising start.

The second course featured martini glasses with “seafood cocktail”: a saffron-laced prawn tartare resembling pink ice cream, topped in airy foam that disappeared on the tongue. This dish, like many of those to come, had a deceptively strong seafood flavor despite its flirtatious appearance. We realized this was not going to be an easy meal for the seafood novice. 

AponienteMackerel

Mackerel, sea asparagus, pickled radish, and dehydrated photoplankton dust.

Dry manzanillas dominated the first several courses, allowing the forceful flavors of the food to shine and resetting the palate with every sip. Dishes manifested in inventive and unusual presentations. Course six was a colorful, minimalist composition, with a morsel of mackerel framed by sea asparagus, bright pink pickled radish and fine lines of dehydrated photoplankton dust. Even the ceramic tableware commanded attention, with unexpectedly chunky shapes and textures. One bowl resembled the sea floor, with a pitted surface and jutting barnacles.

Many plates were completed by our tag-teaming waiters pouring broth or sauce at the table. Course 11 required diner participation. Our waiter instructed to us make a fist, on the back of which he placed small clear gelatinous disks. He piped a bit of plankton accented with wasabi and lemon on to the disc and instructed us to slurp the bite all at once.

“Algearific!” exclaimed Kyle.

AponienteInnovativeBowls

Cockles and clam cutlets in creamy tomato-water gazpacho.

Some dishes hinted at seafood flavor, like the cuttlefish ravioli served with bright lemongrass-coconut broth. Others were bracingly pungent like the creamy bycatch liver mousse topped with ground coffee, which was offset by sips of complex amontillado. We remarked on the flavors and techniques Chef Leon used to transform and elevate the food, which ranged from humble plankton to sweet crab. We didn’t have the chance to meet him, but we imagined he might describe himself as a romantic as well, lured by the endless complexities of the sea. Innovation was central to his mission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood components sneaked into the dessert courses as well. A small, crisped meringue cylinder was dusted with plankton powder. When cracked, the meringue revealed tangy green apple ice cream. Creamy, mellow pear ice cream was served atop sea algae, olive-oil soaked bread, and ginger. Though we were too stuffed to fully enjoy them, we were grateful that the chocolate petit fours that capped the meal excluded any hint of plankton. 

OutsideAponienteAfterDinner

Twilight in front of Aponiente’s iron gates.

Our 22-course marathon complete, the late-autumn sun slipping over the horizon, we strolled out into the twilight and snapped some photos in front of the restaurant’s iron gates. Back in the bus, we recounted the day and the meal. Kati survived, and even confessed to liking a few dishes. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t eat seafood again for a while. We applauded her for having put on a brave face.

We also agreed that the meal would go into the annals as one of our most memorable. If there’s one thing we’ve learned traveling with the Weises, it’s that experiences are priceless, especially when dusted with plankton. 

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Smoked eel

Smoked eel, red rocoto, white-coconut ice, and creamy coconut broth

El Club Allard was the first Michelin-star restaurant on our itinerary, and we were brimming with anticipation.

If only we could get in.

Blame it on jet lag, but it took us longer than necessary to enter the building. A sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate on the corner said, “Use other door.” The other door appeared to be locked. It was dark. Our cabs had departed. The street was not deserted or decrepit, but at the moment there was no one around to ask for help.

We checked our phones. A couple of us set off on an expedition toward the other end of the block – perhaps there was another door? Wrong night? Wrong time? We shrugged. One of us was dialing the restaurant when an amiable couple waiting inside the foyer apparently lost patience with our Keystone Cops routine and let us in. Saved!

Then, not a moment before 9pm, the ornate door at the top of the foyer’s marble staircase opened and the staff welcomed us inside.

El Club Allard exuded classic elegance. Comfy-looking upholstered chairs surrounded well-spaced, linen-topped tables. Glowing chandeliers reflected to infinity in mirrors on opposing muted gray walls trimmed in creamy white.

Amuse-bouche

Amuse-bouche at El Club Allard: an edible card with flavorful aioli.

We were seated in a room of our own, with a view through French doors into the general dining area. As we settled around the large, square table for eight, waiters drizzled bubbling Cava into flutes. Propped before us were place cards embossed with the restaurant’s logo.

A waiter placed small bowls of creamy spread on the table and explained: “Tonight you will find that our chef likes to have a little fun, and this amuse-bouche reflects that. The cards in front of you are edible. You are invited dip your card in the seasoned aioli and eat it. Enjoy.”

Well, why not? The potato-starch cards themselves were unremarkable, but they were made delicious by the aioli. We were undeniably amused.

After the Cava the waiters poured Naia Verdejo. Throughout the evening they ensured we rarely saw the bottoms of our glasses.

Servers glided in and out as the plates of our 10-course meal began to arrive. The first was a shallow bowl arranged with three triangular bites of smoked eel, crowned by red flower petals and accented with red rocoto peppers and tiny balls of coconut ice. Servers finished the dish with a creamy coconut broth, making a beautifully cool, composed soup.

Butterfish ale

Butterfish “ale” with Japanese salmon-egg crostini

Course two brought liquid comfort – a shot glass of “amber ale” alongside a crostini jeweled with Japanese salmon eggs. The ale was actually a warm butterfish broth beneath a white asparagus foam — a warming umami treat, craveable on a chilly, windy night. The staff promised without hesitation to package an order of the broth for Bob, who was under the weather and resting in the hotel. We couldn’t imagine anything more therapeutic.

Next came heavy stone bowls containing a single tiny pea ravioli and a light broth of Iberian dewlap, also poured at the table. (Dewlap, we found out later, is part of the pig’s neck. Who knew?)

Quail egg and truffle mushroom

Quail egg and truffle mushroom: the cupcake that made everyone cry

Everything was delicious, but the fourth course generated an unexpected reaction. Servers brought in chunky porcelain pedestals shaped like cross-cut logs standing on end. Atop each stood a mini-cupcake frosted electric green and studded with small crisps resembling Lucky Charms cereal.The scent of truffle engulfed the table. It was campy, a little gaudy, and slightly psychedelic.

“Here you have a quail egg and truffle mushroom, best eaten in one bite,” our waiter said.

We popped the morsels into our mouths and the table fell silent. Then came a chorus: “Mmmm,” “ahhh,” “ohmygod.” The cupcake, made of yucca, featured a moist canelé-like texture that transitioned to a soft interior, where the quail egg resided. The frosting was airy truffled custard. A bite of heaven. Sniffles came from the head of the table.

“Mom, are you crying!?” Kati said.

Her eyes brimming, Dorothy laughed and said, “I really needed that.” One charming bite had justified the effort of trip preparation, and perhaps released some of the stress she felt for her ailing husband. Soon nearly everyone teared up. Roxanne, sniffling and laughing, said, “This will be remembered as The Dinner With the Cupcake That Made Everyone Cry!”

Calamar "risotto"

Calamar “risotto”

Next, another gastronomical slight of hand: What appeared to be herbed risotto was really calamar cut to resemble rice. Alongside were green seashells that glistened like jellies, but were actually crisped rice. The flavors and textures were the definition of balance.

Orube Rioja began to flow as we moved to heartier flavors. The next dish was a beautiful plate of flaky black cod resting in a blue-tomato-infused broth, garnished with tiny scallions and a single purple flower.

Black cod

Black cod with blue-tomato infused broth

Following that: collagen-rich confit of suckling pig that melted on the tongue, accompanied by sweet-savory onion compote. Would it be bad form to lick our plates?

Desserts began with a refreshing, palate-restoring pisco-sour ice in a hibiscus flower cup – a nod to the chef’s Latin American roots.  The second dessert, understatedly billed as “chocolate clusters,” was a playful presentation of color and flavor: chocolate “rocks,” green minty “sponges,” olive toast, and pepper ice cream. Finally, a whimsical slate of petit fours – marzipan shaped like chalk, erasers, and refrigerator magnets.

Kati, Chef Marte, Dorothy

Kati, Chef Maria Marte, and Dorothy

Our meal complete, we asked if we could meet the artist behind the flavors. Chef Maria Marte obliged with a stop at our table, where she humbly accepted our praise. Dominican Chef Marte’s story is remarkable. Ten years ago, she was a dishwasher at El Club Allard, piecing together a living, working mad hours, trying to get ahead. Today she is the head chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain’s capital, a testament to her drive, determination, and talent.

Of all of our meals in Spain, this one would stand out for the elegance and gracious service; Chef Marte’s whimsy, creativity and humble kindness; the colors, flavors, and balance; and, of course, the cupcake that made everyone cry.