El Poblet and Restaurante Quique Dacosta

On a night in the last week of March this year, I had a bizarre dream. No grand political visions but rather, a blissful nightmare of sorts about eating at a fine dining restaurant with my mother and vanquishing demons in between courses.

Make of it what you will.

In the morning, I posted a solitary photo of one of the dishes from my dream – one that I had enjoyed in real life also – to Instagram. It’s recognisable enough if you know the chef but it was inconspicuous in all other respects. And like all dreams, this one soon fluttered out of my mind.

I received an invitation in the post a few weeks later in a surreal dream-come-true scenario to discover the Fronteras menu at Restaurante Quique Dacosta in Denia – the very same restaurant that I had been dreaming about. And by July, I was back in Valencia and ready to take up on the surprise offer.

El Poblet, Valencia

Leaves, El Poblet, Valencia

There was a prelude to my visit – a dinner at El Poblet, Quique Dacosta’s one Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of Valencia.

Situated above one of his other restaurants in the city, Vuelve Carolina, El Poblet was in a flamboyant bubble of pink embossed wallpaper. There were just a handful of tables where dishes from Restaurante Quique Dacosta’s past menus were served alongside head chef Luis Valls Rozalén’s creations.

For eighty odd euros, you get a tasting of around 12 courses – a steal compared to any offering you might find in London.

But it’s hard to judge El Poblet on its own merits given that so many of the dishes were in essence recycled but if you don’t get an opportunity to travel out to Denia for the three-star experience, El Poblet comes pretty close. Certainly, it is deserving of at least two Michelin stars.

It’s impossible to miss Dacosta’s signature dish, the petals of rose – the very one that I had dreamt about. On my visit, there were also revisited recipes like the red king prawn from Denia and Cuba Libre de Foie Gras. Crowd-pleasers if you will.

Perhaps one of the most visually appealing dishes was the head chef’s creation – The Haze.

It’s not a complicated dish – a small platter prettied up with peas, mushrooms, peashoot, lardon and crumbs. But it’s made theatrical with the addition of a bubbling mist from the dry ice.

In an instant, I was transported back a moment in the Basque Country when winter was approaching. Biting frost was as much on the grass as it was in the crisp air and the sun’s rays struggled to penetrate through the atmosphere. As the car I was in emerged from a tumble of fog, a flock of birds flew past overhead, breaking with the sun. A simple but glorious moment.

I very much enjoyed El Poblet. It was easy to get acquainted with but offered a few twists and turns too.

Restaurante Quique Dacosta, Denia

Strange flowers 2015, Quique Dacosta, Denia

While El Poblet was a cocoon of red hues, Restaurante Quique Dacosta was a vision in white.

The amuse bouche were taken outside the main restaurant with a choice between an air-conditioned room or the white garden.

It’s impossible to imagine devotees to summer picking anything but the exterior where white wicker furniture sat under the shelter of floaty white canopies. With each passing breeze, the fronds of the canopy waved and danced without a care in the world. It’s chic and joyful at the same time.

Delicate little dishes came out in no time at all and brought with them an assault of citrus and smoke flavours that danced with the cava that was served. I would have happily stayed in this state long into the night.

Raim de pastor and kalanchoe, Quique Dacosta, Denia

Inside the restaurant, more tiny dishes followed in quick succession.

Some of these focused on ingredients in minute detail, like the spoonful of fish roe and paper-thin slices of octopus tentacles. Others, like the tomato skin creation, broke the mould of what an ingredient ‘should’ look like. Others still, crossed the line of how many flavours or colours should be on a single plate.

Dish after dish arrived to assault my palate with hardly any time to savour the experience – it was overwhelming to say the least. But even more confusing for the mind, there didn’t seem to be a thread connecting the dishes, except perhaps this single idea of Fronteras, or borders.

By the end, I felt dishevelled and ravaged and was glad to be out in the sun to enjoy the Petit Fours. It was a return to normality after the delivery of a focused and intense symphony.

I’ve held this piece for the best part of a year while ruminating over what I thought of my experience at Restaurante Quique Dacosta.

The impeccable style, from the well-chosen ties of the wait staff to the precise choice of the décor were all so Quique Dacosta. The food, bold, challenging and thrust upon its diner, reflects that. Honestly, I still don’t know if I liked it.

But one thing is for sure – it’s an experience you won’t forget.

Inspirations

Much later, I was researching an article in earnest when I stumbled upon something that I thought was very interesting.

During my visit to Restaurante Quique Dacosta, I was told about how the theme of the restaurant changes every year and has done for the past decade or so. And with the closing of this year, I suppose Fronteras will come to an end and give way to something else.

New for this year was also a chef’s kitchen, one created in partnership with Porcelanosa, where Dacosta could invite selected guests to dine.

Like other development kitchens, this one boasted a workspace filled with hidden equipment. But it’s also a space where Dacosta has started to experiment with lights and sounds akin to what’s happening at Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet. I can only pretend to imagine what might come out of these experiments for the menu for next year.

But the thing that I later discovered, which impressed upon me a new appreciation, was the fact that Dacosta started working at Restaurante Quique Dacosta in his mid-teens. Of course, it wasn’t his restaurant then and it was known as El Poblet. Eventually, Dacosta took over the restaurant and made it his, gaining Michelin stars and a whole host of other accolades in the process. But he has only ever worked in one restaurant, a feat that’s matched by few.


In Pursuit of Food travelled to Valencia with flight support from the Spanish Tourism Board and was a guest at El Poblet and Restaurante Quique Dacosta. For more information on what this means, read our Editorial Policy.

15 Mile Menu at The Kings Arms, Christchurch

A little while ago there were numerous stories in the property section about the UK’s most expensive beach shacks. On the market for hundreds of thousands of pounds and looking little more than glorified sheds, they caused quite a sensation.

The reason why I’m talking about this on food pages is because across the strait from these expensive summer homes is the harbour where chef Alex Aitken sources his fish. That row of beach-front property is some what of a local attraction and, when I went to meet the fishermen with Aitken, they were duly pointed out to me.

Mudeford coastline, Dorset

Perhaps in startling contrast to the expense of the property in the area, the food at The Kings Arms in Christchurch is remarkably good value. In fact, it holds a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide for precisely that reason.

Incidentally, the reason why I had travelled all the way to Christchurch in Dorset was to try out the restaurant’s new 15 Mile Menu. Costing just £15 for two courses, it’s something of a novelty for someone who’s used to dining at London rates. But Aitken manages to make it work.

Fishing boat in Mudeford harbour, Dorset

The two fishermen I met on the harbour, about 5 minutes drive from the restaurant, both sourced their fish on day boats. Their day was timed by the tides as it’s impossible to get in and out of the harbour when the tide is out.

The nature of the business is such that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get but Aitken works closely with the fishermen and buys up their by-catch. That is, the lesser known fish of the day. They tend to be much cheaper, which is the aim of the game.

Ten, perhaps 15 minutes drive from Christchurch and you’ll have reached Hampshire. There, just off the dual carriage way, is a pick-your-own farm where Aitken sources his vegetables. He doesn’t pick his own of course, but it’s how he manages to cut down the mileage of the fruits and vegetables he uses.

It’s helps to be hyper-seasonal when you’re working so locally and economically.

Aitken always knows what’s in season, not only because he drives past the farm daily but also because he has his own small holding, which he runs with his wife. There, he rears his own pigs and grows his own vegetables, some of which are used at the restaurant.

So just who is this Alex Aitken?

Alex Aitken cooking at The King's Arms, Dorset

He’s a man who, perhaps almost on a whim, decided to open a restaurant decades ago.

He had been a waiter with no culinary experience and his wife was on the verge of giving birth at the time. It has been no easy task but as far as culinary training goes, opening your own restaurant is a pretty steep learning curve. Aitken described how he started out by cooking everything à la minute, including the sauces. He quickly realised how infeasible this was and learnt to adapt.

He also worked on the Limewood Hotel, the site that’s later become The Pig at Limewood.

With proven experience and expertise, Aitken was drafted into rescuing The Kings Arms, of which he’s now the chef/patron. When he took over, the restaurant was making a loss in the hundreds of thousands. Now, with just over 100 covers, it’s turning a profit four times that of the loss it once made.

Well let’s talk about the food that makes this business work.

It’s simple British food, reminiscent of gastro-pubs, with butter and cream usage that would make the French envious. But there are plenty of greens on the menu too. It’s on the right side of fancy; that is to say it’s up-scale enough to be considered everyday luxury but not quite so innovative so as to alienate its loyal following. Ultimately, it’s real food – food you could identify.

When I visited, Aitken cooked up young broad beans in their shells, which we plucked from the pick-your-own farm earlier in the day, with bacon and plenty of cream. It was then followed by the last of the season’s asparagus and foraged greens, tossed with fresh cheese. From the fisherman’s fodder, we had Asian inspired crab claws, still in their shells and needing to be carefully extracted.

After tasting the day’s pickings, I tried a couple of starters from the 15 Mile Menu. Following the seafood theme, I had the crab croquettes, made with the brown and white meat of Mudeford crabs. Next came Alex’s twice-baked soufflé, a rich and cheesy rendition of the classic. Needless to say, the dishes were packed with the flavour of the season.

Finishing off the meal was a very classic sticky toffee pudding.

Actually, the end of the meal was probably a cocktail at The Bar where they also served 15 Mile cocktails made with local spirits like Dorset Black Cow vodka and the recently launched Conker gin.

The whole thing is probably as local as it gets.

The Kings Arms, 18 Castle Street, Christchurch, Dorset BH23 1DT www.thekings-christchurch.co.uk

 


In Pursuit of Food was a guest of The Kings Arms, Christchurch, part of the Harbour Hotel Group. For more information on what this means, read our Editorial Policy.

Island eating in Grenada: the restaurants

(This is the second part of the Island eating in Grenada post. The first was on the island’s raw ingredients.)

Being in Grenada for the Grenada Chocolate Festival meant that there were a lot of chocolate related meals but I also had an opportunity to explore some of the local fare.

Rhodes Restaurant at Calabash

Most of the places I went to were pretty casual so I’ll start with the one fine dining restaurant – Rhodes at Calabash Hotel. It’s open for dinner only, although with its beautiful, green-canopied veranda, it should really be open for lunch too.

Under the guidance of celebrity chef Gary Rhodes, the Rhodes Restaurant is suitably European with the occasional Caribbean flavours peaking through. Actually, I was surprised about how good it was because attempting European-style food outside of Europe rarely works. But this did. The chocolate banana pudding with salted caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce was, for a lack of better clichés, to die for.

BB’s Crabback

Swinging to the other side is the ultra-casual BB’s Crabback, which of course everyone reads as crabshack the first time round. It’s a fun little lunch spot in St George with views out over the bay. Just about everything on the menu is named after one member or another of chef/patron Brian Benjamin’s family but it’s hard to pick favourites.

The crabback is basically crab meat baked in its shell with herbs and sauces but the restaurant also serves up other typically Grenadian dishes such as lambie (conch) and callaloo (a local plant with spinach-like flavour). I had a wonderful lunch there but it’s definitely not the cheapest place to go to for lunch.

Patrick’s Home Style Restaurant

The one that really impressed me was Patrick’s Home Style Restaurant. It’s a casual, home-cooking type of place with sharing portions and bad lighting, which means it’s bad for photographs but good for just tucking into the food.

Ms Karen is the chef now but the restaurant was opened by her father Patrick. There’s strictly speaking no menu. Instead, you get between 15 to 20 dishes, served “tapas style”, to share between the table. Normally this really gets my goat (yeah I said it, sharing is not my thing. And the pun too.) but the portions are so generous that no one will miss out.

I think I liked this place so much because it did feel like eating at home, but with Caribbean food obviously. We had, amongst other things, a rich and earthy callaloo soup, a garlicky green banana salad, fish cakes, crab salad, chicken salad, creole fish etc. It was a big menu, showing off the diversity of Grenada’s ingredients and the flavours that can be created within Caribbean cuisine.

Other places

I stayed at two very different hotels during my time in Grenada, True Blue Bay and Blue Horizons, and had my share of meals there. There were self-catering facilities on site for both but it’s a little impractical without a car.

Blue Horizons had a casual westernised bar and a slightly more formal creole restaurant called La Belle Creole. It’s simple food and some of it inspired by the owner, Arnold Hopkin’s mother. True Blue Bay was much more international in its offering at Dodgy Dock with anything from Mexican (the owner Magdalena Fielden is the Honorary Consul of Mexico for Grenada) to pizza.

On one of the nights, I went to the Sandals La Source Resort to try their Japanese teppanyaki offering, Kimonos. The chefs were clearly well-trained to entertain and the food was delightful but it just wasn’t Caribbean. That said, sushi is apparently very popular in Grenada because of the fresh fish.

I also popped into Coconut Beach, a French creole restaurant on Grand Anse Beach. I heard it’s more of a lunch spot because of the view but, as I had already eaten, I thought I’d just have something light and see what it’s like. Although the service was very attentive, the food sadly didn’t compare well to the highlights from the rest of the week.

Last thoughts on food in Grenada

My week in Grenada has been a diverse mix of local and international food, some of which has been surprising and others surprisingly good. I think the best way of describing it is that it’s wholesome comfort food. It’s not diet food but it’s delicious stuff. And if you wanted to stay in shape, the island has plenty of ways to keep you fit like the weekly hash.

I can’t say that I’ve uncovered Grenada’s true culinary identity but it’s certainly given me a lot of flavours to think about.


In Pursuit of Food was a guest of Grenada Tourism Association. If you want to know what this means, check out our Editorial Policy.

Island eating in Grenada: the raw ingredients

In the UK, Caribbean food pretty much consists of plantains, jerk chicken, rice and peas and curried goat. That is, if you manage to track down a Caribbean restaurant. Out on the islands however, every nation has its own culinary identity.

Spice stall at St George's market

Spice stall at St George’s market

I went to Grenada, nicknamed Greens amongst the Caribbean islands, for the Grenada Chocolate Festival but I also wanted to sleuth out its culture and food.

Tropical produce

When people think of an island, they have two contrasting ideas in mind about its food. One is a scarcity in ingredients because of the lack of space, like in Singapore where many things are shipped in. The other is a tropical bounty that would make Robinson Crusoe green with envy.

Green vegetation, Grenada

Green vegetation, Grenada

As you’ve probably gathered from its nickname, Grenada falls into the latter – it’s lush with vegetation. Not the homogeneous manicured orchards you see in other places but a diverse ecosystem of unkempt fruit trees. As you drive along the winding roads around the island, you’ll pass by branches laden with mango, papaya, cocoa, breadfruit, soursop, coconut and, not to forget the country’s most famous produce, nutmeg.

I’ve been told that a big part of it is down to Grenada’s rich, volcanic soil. It’s a sort of ferrous red that makes me wonder how tea would fare on it, having recently discovered the tea trade in Hawaii. The locals grow all sort of things likes cabbages or corn in small plots right outside their homes. There’s a certain wildness about the whole thing that gets you excited about foraging. But don’t. The majority of the land on Grenada is privately owned so that perfectly ripe fruit within arms reach? It probably has an owner nearby.

The spice isle, or is that aisle?

Grenada’s other and better known name is the spice isle of the Caribbean. This is in no small part thanks to the burgeoning nutmeg industry on the island which reportedly account for 20% of the world’s production of nutmeg. For a population of some 100,000, this is pretty substantial.

The town of Gouyave in the parish of St John has a nutmeg factory that’s open to visitors. There, you’ll get an idea of how the nutmeg fruit is processed from start to finish (though they like to keep some details secret) including how the fruit shell can be used for jellies and the core is dried and split into nutmeg and mace. You’ll also be able to buy a serious amount of nutmeg to take home. They say that a good nutmeg, with its shell intact, can keep for 10 years – that’s a lot of Christmases sorted.

Grenada doesn’t just produce nutmeg and mace though. It also produces cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, turmeric and ginger. In fact, if you walk through the market in its capital St George, you’ll be greeted with the heady scents of the spices which are ground and packaged into pouches, gathered into bunches and sold whole or strung together and touted as aromatic necklaces.

Diverse culinary influences

Turmeric and ginger are more commonly associated with the Indian subcontinent but they’re also deeply assimilated into the local cuisine. Grenada’s incredible history of being a French and later a British colony has certainly played a large part in this. You’ll find the spices liberally used in curries, rotis and French Creole dishes, all of which are widely available on the island. And yes, you’ll be able to find the staples of plantains, jerk chicken, rice and peas and curried goat too but you’re more likely to see vendors selling BBQ grilled sweetcorn cobs on the side of the road.

Click here for the second part of this post on Island eating in Grenada: the restaurants.


In Pursuit of Food was a guest of Grenada Tourism Association. If you want to know what this means, check out our Editorial Policy.

A world of chocolate in Grenada

I travelled to the island of Grenada recently for the second Grenada Chocolate Festival. It’s not the first time I’ve been to the Caribbean, or to a chocolate plantation, but Grenada had something different to offer – Grenada was the first cocoa producing country to do the whole cocoa bean to chocolate bar process. (You can find out more about the process itself in the video further down.)

Cocoa pods in window

(I was in Grenada for a whole week of chocolate related events so brace yourself for a long post. More to come on Grenadian culture, rum and cocoa tea. Meanwhile, you can read my posts on chocolate in the Dominican Republic here.)

The Grenada Chocolate Company

In 1999, something big happened for Grenadian chocolate. An American man by the name of Mott Green, born David Lawrence Friedman, founded The Grenada Chocolate Company. Like many people, Green had this idealistic vision of producing organic, fairly traded and sustainable chocolate. The only difference was that he made his vision a reality.

Grenada Chocolate Company

Using locally sourced organic cocoa beans, The Grenada Chocolate Company created the first bean to bar chocolate made in a cocoa producing country. The beans were as fairly traded as they could come – everyone in the company was paid the same salary as part of a co-operative system. The resulting chocolates were of such high quality that they won awards from the Academy of Chocolate in 2008, 2011 and 2013. Things didn’t stop there though.

Green wanted to increase the sustainability of his business in a big way. The chocolate company relied heavily on solar power whenever possible. Green also enlisted the help of Tres Hombres, reportedly the world’s only engineless sailing cargo ship, to transport his chocolates out of Grenada for sale. (They’re available online from the Chocolate Trading Co and a few other places.)

Edmund Brown outside Grenada Chocolate Company

Edmund Brown outside Grenada Chocolate Company

It was Green’s pioneering vision which really put Grenada’s chocolates on the map and enabled other chocolate companies on the island to follow suit. Unfortunately it was also a work-related accident which ended his life prematurely.

Grenada Chocolate Festival

Back to happier thoughts and the Grenada Chocolate Festival. I know what you must be thinking and you’re right – there was a lot of chocolate during my stay in Grenada. In fact, I have probably consumed more chocolate in a week than I do in a whole year. But it’s not just about the eating of chocolate but rather, the appreciation of cocoa.

Russ at Magdalena Fielden at Grenada Chocolate Festival

Russ at Magdalena Fielden at Grenada Chocolate Festival

This second Grenada Chocolate Festival was hosted by Magdalena Fielden at True Blue Bay and took place from the 8th to the 17th of May. Fielden is the owner of the boutique resort and the Honorary Consul of Mexico in Grenada. Thanks to Fielden’s influence, Mexican chocolatier, architect and founder of the Mucho-Chocolate Museum in Mexico City, Ana Rita García Lascuráin, was in town to lead tastings and talk about the health and beauty benefits of chocolate.

According to García Lascuráin, chocolate was thought to have been good for the head, the heart and the stomach. Of course chocolate in Maya Mexico was consumed rather differently from today.

García Lascuráin demonstrated how cocoa beans might have been ground with the metate (flat mortar stone) and mano (stone pestle) before being used in cocoa tea. She also talked about the different cocoa products used in beauty treatments today. Cocoa butter for example, might be used in lip balms. We had a recipe to make this and a couple of other beauty treats but it’s hard not to feel like the finished product might taste better on toasted crumpets.

There were other cocoa related activities too including expert led chocolate tasting, yoga and chocolate meditation, hash (run, or hike) along a cocoa trail and of course visits to the plantations.

Belmont Estate, Crayfish Bay and Diamond Chocolate Factory

I visited two cocoa plantations while in Grenada – Belmont Estate and Crayfish Bay.

Belmont Estate

Belmont Estate is a co-operative of farmers who produce organic cocoa beans and other crops, like the island’s famous nutmeg. It’s where the Grenada Chocolate Company is based and sources its beans. They have a huge restaurant on site with a visitor’s centre, museum, shops and a goat dairy where they make cheese. This is the place to go to if you’re visiting with children and want to learn about the bean to bar process.

Crayfish Bay

Crayfish Bay is a much smaller farm in comparison. Right now, their beans are shipped to the UK and made into chocolate by Pump Street Bakery but the estate’s owner, Kim Russell, is also building a chocolate factory of his own. It’s a real grass-roots sort of operation where the farm manager would roast the beans in a pan over open fire. The cooled beans are then cracked, winnowed with the help of a vacuum cleaner and then ground into paste. That paste, along with sugar, coconut milk and a shot of rum makes the best cocoa tea that you’ll ever taste. It’s something that you’ll probably be unlikely to taste, unless you stay in the little B&B on the estate. That is, until the chocolate factory is completed in 2016.

Diamond Chocolate Factory

I also visited Diamond Chocolate Factory, which, from what I gather, doesn’t have its own plantation. Instead, the focus is on producing chocolate from locally sourced beans. It’s perhaps the most technologically advanced of all the chocolate producers, offering a full factory tour. It’s also producing the smoothest chocolates of those that I’ve tasted.

Check out this video I made of a shortened version of the bean-to-bar process at Diamond Chocolate Factory:

Tasting Grenadian chocolate

As I’ve already mentioned, I tasted a lot of chocolates over the course of the week. They were all dark chocolates with upwards of 60% of cocoa, each with their own distinctive character. It’s apparently a special feature of Grenadian chocolates that they contain no dairy products.

Finished chocolate, Diamond Chocolate Factory

There were two things that I noticed about Grenadian chocolates. In the main, the chocolates left a drying sensation similar to that of tannin although the flavour is perhaps closer to that of cigar or sometimes black tea. The second is a textural thing.

I’ve tried a lot of chocolates from two years of judging for International Chocolate Awards and one of the things you have to look out for is the smoothness of the chocolate (think of that Galaxy advert). Grenadian chocolates always left this slightly grainy mouthfeel, which is perhaps that tannic deposit on my palate.

I’m not sure whether this was because of the length of conching, the lack of dairy in the chocolate or something else altogether. In general, a longer conche time (emulsifying with the help of giant wheels) means a smoother and richer tasting chocolate but this can also be manipulated by adding other ingredients such as dairy and fats. Either way, there’s was a rawness about the chocolates that I’m not quite used to. But then again, just as for wine, just because you’re not used to something doesn’t mean it’s not good. By and large, these dairy-free Grenadian chocolates are much better for you than the over-processed over-adulterated stuff that we see so often.

And, as I wrap up this post, I feel like I’m missing a little chocolate in my life.


In Pursuit of Food travelled as a guest of the Grenada Tourism Authority. If you want to find out more about what this means, please see our Editorial Policy.