I have not been in any experimental restaurant for a long time that excited me as much as Diver-XO. The last time was in MUGARITZ in 2007, but since then Andoni Aduriz adopted a totally new and artificial style, which may be apt to feeding astronauts on their way to Mars in that the food there bears no resemblance to what we can eat on earth or what we do not eat with good reason.
People also do not eat David Munoz’s food on everyday basis. It is actually very hard to characterize David’s cuisine. On the face of it, he cooks FUSION. I, for one, am not a fan of fusion. I may even be overly critical of chefs who derive ideas from Japanese and other Asian cuisines, which mostly strike me as conceptually interesting but as half baked ideas. To use a metaphor, it is like interdisciplinary research in social sciences. One gets ideas from other disciplines and tries to integrate them into your discipline. It is rarely successful.
But when it is successful, some of the best works/breakthroughs come from interdisciplinary research. If you are familiar with social science research, think of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” by Albert O. Hirschman. It is neither economics, nor psychology, nor sociology, but maybe all. And there is also a philosophical dimension. But the work is unique, and it defies narrow boundaries. It is not only original, but it has great depth and is very grounded (in history). It does not matter if the rather narrow minded committee members which distribute Nobel Prizes in Economics appreciate it. This book alone renders Hirschman as one of the most distinguished minds of the century. (He has many other great works.)
Well. There is no Hirschman in cuisine, and there may never be. The nature of the art is very different and unlike the written text. The creations of chefs live only in memory.
Like Hirschman, not every institutionally recognized food writer will appreciate David’s cooking. (His restaurant does not figure in Rafael Garcia Santos’ book, but garners two stars from Michelin.) But I know why I liked it so much.
For one thing, the cuisine is grounded. It is fusion, but it is also unmistakeably Spanish. The chef does not try to, say, out-Japanese the Japanese, like many Michelin three star chefs of today. He just integrates what he finds elsewhere in his style of cooking.
In this sense he is more like Pierre Gagnaire. But his cuisine is not as fussy and overly complex as Gagnaire, in general.
Another reason I liked this restaurant very much is that the ingredients are astoundingly good: truly seasonal, truly Spanish, and very good. The cooking, for the most part, does not mask the greatness of the ingredients. Unlike the chefs who follow molecular gastronomy (although no one admits it or uses this term—but taking Ferran Adria as the reference point reveals all), David’s cuisine is not geared to post-modern theatricality, but is grounded in a nostalgia for heads to tails type countryside-rustic traditions, which are getting lost in the new global village.
My other reason is personal and relates to this last point. David clearly loves gutsy-fat-gelatinous-rich tastes, and but does not try to lighten these tastes by cutting their edges (in the name of balancing) as almost all multistar chefs are doing nowdays.
He gave me the impression that he is almost obsessed with cooking. This is his way of life. He cannot help but cook, first, to please himself. I am sure he tastes everything he cooks and does not send dishes to the table if he does not like them. I don’t think he is apologetic about proteins either, as too many of the vegan chefs, who nonetheless learn how to sous vide meat and fish without electrochuting themselves.
Here are the highlighs of our end March meal there. The descriptions are not perfect as it would not have been possible to concentrate on note taking and enjoy the meal as much as I did. (There is no written menu.) I sent my available notes to Rogelio Enriquez who was present at the dinner (together with my wife and Pedro Espinosa), and without his help this write up would not have been possible.
1st course. We started with steamed Edamame beans with yellow aji, a Peruvian chile sauce and their own version of the XO sauce, and also shrimp rice crisps with Jabugo jam mayonnaise. This was the amuse.
2nd course. The fritura came next, which contained frog legs, squid, baby soft shell crab, ancovy bones, and salicornia.
3rd course. Next we had pulpitos shabu shabu: baby octopus the size of finger tips. You dip them in a hot fish soup made with the same components as the previous dish, and also in a Ponzu sauce. These were outstanding quality pulpitos. Pulpitos are traditionally eaten on a skewer with thyme (best were at the unfortunately closed JOAN GATELL) or with sweet onion puree (ETXEBARRI). But this version also worked and did not overwhelm the sweet taste.
4th course. They then brought us tapioca with coconut milk. We poured the soup that we had used for dipping on top, and added mint, lime and Thai chile. They also added flying fish roe and fresh shiso (a very short season) on top. This is a very refreshing sweet-hot-sour soup, better than any similar version I had in any Western Thai restaurant.
5th course. Sweet fresh sea urchins were served with celeriac and coconut milk mousse and topped with chives. There were also jalepanos and black garlic on the side. I had a conversation with the chef about the dish. I am not sure about the pairing between coconut mousse and sea urchins. David and I agree that sea urchins are not fat (like oysters or percebes) and the taste is very sweet, very subtle. So they may benefit from pairing with something fatty. I gave the great examples at LEDOYEN, where the chef uses avocado mousse with sea urchin and also cauliflower mousse and cauliflower pieces (separately). I think they work better as they brought out the saline/iodized/salty tasting component better (cauliflower) or emphasize the inner richness and sweetness of sea urchin (avocado). I thought the coconut was overpowering. David did not agree. At any rate, I love sea urchins so much that to me they are best consumed raw.
6th course. We had mejillones tigre, a classic tapas dish, i.e, deep fried mussels served in the shell with spicy béchamel. David served them with a béchamel foam enriched by kaffir lime and Peruvian chilis and croutons. Good.
7th course. The Dim Sum course included milk curd/skin stuffed with caramelized ox meat and topped by enoki mushrooms. While I may not say that it was memorable, I should claim that this was the best “pork bun” in recent memory.
8th course. A memorable dish followed, which was an oxtail consommé with tomato seeds, smoked angulas (baby eels look like noodles and they don’t tell you beforehand that they are angulas), some greens (maybe arugula), and crackers made from eel skin.
9th course. Next we had fritura/shabu shabu. They serve the meat from the soup (crunchy ox tail) with angulas on a crisp toast, with some micro greens on top. This was also memorable.
10th course. We had bonito belly smoked over vines (almost raw). It was topped by quail egg ravioli, bottarga, and kimchi. It was served with black garlic aioli. It was not on par with the grilled tuna belly served at ETXEBARRI, but was a very good dish. The combination looked fussy, but it worked.
11th course. We then had Kokotxa Sezchuan: bacalao kokotxas (jowl of the fish) with duck tongue. The kokotxas were roasted and served over a cod brandade. The sauce was thick and very tasty, containing veal jus, sezchuan pepper, black bean puree, and cod tripe. A slice of avocado was served on the side. Excellent.
12th course. Next we had spinach cannelloni. There was no dough. Spinach was stuffed with spider crab, beer mousse, and tomatillo, and topped with hibiscus flowers and spider crab chips. This dish was served with a side dish of “quisquilla” or baby prawns, which turned out to be firm, excellent Galician “camarones,” wrapped in algues and sitting on beer foam. I found this dish a bit too crowded, but the slight bitterness due to the malted barley taste actually worked. The best pairing for this dish may have been a glass of matching beer.
13th course. We then had baby squid cooked in flames in a wok with shaved black truffles. This dish was of outstanding quality and cooking technique. The sauce was excellent too: sweet onion puree, yuzu and hot pepper. Memorable.
14th course. Next we had salmonetes (rouget, triglia, tekir). I think it was rock rouget as I am very familiar with this fish, and it is one of my favorites. You have to consume them very fresh. These were very fresh and barely cooked, served with white asparagus braised in “bitter sheep’s milk,” tomatoes, capers, and some micro greens. I also tasted some browned butter, which goes very well with rouget. It was not among the most memorable rouget dishes of my eating career, but a very very good one, with excellent quality ingredients. The white asparagus, in particular, were excellent.
15th course. The next dish was rape (monkfish-lotte-fener baligi) express glazed, that is, glazed in the wok for only a few seconds to sear in all the juices without losing them. I believe it was glazed with miso and sake. The sauce was prepared from the head of the fish and various sweet spices. The dish was served with baby leeks, purple potatoes and arugula, with some pulverized pepper on the side. Memorable.
16th course. The last savory dish was black cod. The sauce was wild boar civet. It was served with wild strawberries, lily bulbs, and chipotle chile. This dish is a candidate for my top 10 list in the last two years or so. A classic!
1st Dessert. First, we had milk curd, marshmellow foam, and galanga root sorbet.
2nd Dessert. Second, we had white chocolate mousse, green apple and celery sorbet, black olive puree and caramel.
Both desserts were good, but not memorable.
1. Champange Selosse VO. (I recommend at least one bottle of champagne throughout the meal.)
2. 2007 Keller Riesling-Rheinheser. Kirschpiel. I had this for the first time. This is a very good match with many dishes due to the wine’s rich acidity and mineral profile.
3. 2008 Miguel Gelabert. Mallorca. This is a rich and onctous New World style Chardonnay. It did go fine with dishes number 10 and 11.
4. 2010 Pena Caballera from Bodegas Mananones in Madrid provence. This is a fruity and balanced Grenache (garnacha) and a fine match with the last two dishes.
5. Manzanilla sherry.
Ideally David should offer a wine matching program consisting of sherry, sake, beer, champagne, old world Riesling and Gruner Veltiner, and some creative choices depending on the course. This is a much easier cuisine to match with alcoholic drinks, than, say Adria followers’ cooking. A perfect matching program would be a challenge, but it should pay off. Personally I was lucky because both Pedro and Rogelio are clients of the restaurants and wine lovers, so they chose very appropriate wines which enhanced our overall enjoyment.
EVALUATION: 18/20 (The equivalent of Michelin three stars.)