D’Berto — A Galician Seafood Temple
This is possibly one of the two best restaurants in the Western world for shellfish. That is, the variety as well as the pristine freshness are the hallmark of D’Berto. I know that it is a strong statement to call a restaurant “the best”, but I have dined there five times, four in the last year, and Brandon twice this Spring. We believe that what makes D’Berto so special is, first, the quality of the Galician shellfish and, second, the precise cooking skills in handling them. When one converses with the owner, Alberto, the third element underlying the quality becomes clear. He has a curious and distinguished palate, and he travels not only throughout Spain but also to other countries in search of perfect ingredients and possesses the knowledge of where and when to find great products.
For instance, he was generous to share with us some cherries he received from a friend’s garden in Lerida, Spain. They were the size of plums, very firm, juicy, and actually amazing. Alberto is also a wine lover, and it is possible to pair your shellfish with some remarkable Galician white wines (like Emilio Rojo, Do Fereiro, Albamar, Pazo Senorans) or well-chosen champagne. One key feature of this restaurant is consistency. For example, in all my five visits we ordered large cigalas. They were always live and the length of an arm from the elbow to the fingertips, as you see Alberto placing one on his arm. They are also grilled perfectly (a la parilla).
If one sums up the experience of seafood at D’Berto, we can simply say that most dishes constitute a reference point against which to measure dishes made with similar products. Take cigalas. They are firm, sweet, juicy, and not cottony. I have seen the same level once in Table d’Aki in Paris and once in La Taupiniere in Brittany. These are reference points. Akihiro served langoustines, like his master Bernard Pacaud of L’Ambroisie, with a sesame tuile, crisp spinach, and a lightly curried beurre blanc. Is this better than, or preferable to, grilling with sea salt? We believe there is no easy answer to this question. Messieurs Pacaud and Aki are able to retain the purity and elegance of this special creature while achieving a layered taste. But perfect grilling which, as a technique, is well suited to this product, achieves the same result. When one takes a bite of cigalas at d’Berto, one can appreciate the elegance of its texture and the multi-dimensionality of its sweet-minerally saline taste which is fully brought out when it is grilled (as opposed to being eaten raw). One can argue that the terroir of the Galician sea for shellfish is akin to the terroir of Vosne Romanee for grand cru. Obviously nobody in his/her right mind would advocate to blend the pinot noir of La Tache with another cepage. Yet it is acceptable to take risks with a perfect live langoustine to combine it with a sauce and other elements. When this succeeds, which is rare, it is as good as a perfect “a la parilla” version. What we are objecting to here is the perception that “grilling” is considered “simple” and fine dining style combinations are considered “sophisticated” and more worthy of gastronomic attention. Our claim is that the best examples of both styles are equally hard to achieve and worthy of gastronomic praise. To call the d’Berto treatment of shellfish “simple” is simplistic to say the least. This perception also gives the wrong incentives to restaurants as “perfect product” restaurants become harder to sustain in the face of competition and attention given to the trendy, PR-conscious places that put a premium on photogenic dishes.
At d’Berto, one finds many different shellfish of premium quality. Some are served raw; others are boiled, grilled or fried. Other than the empanadas which are merely serviceable, everything is remarkable. That is, the shellfish retains the purity and the essence of its taste. So what one likes the most depends on taste, such as a preference for cigalas or centollo, or both.
Based on the enthusiasm Vedat showed for D’Berto in our correspondence, I visited the shellfish and crustacean restaurant on a rather bare stretch of O Grove during a two-week trip to Northern Spain this March. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, along with Mannix for suckling lamb (make sure to preorder the costillas (ribs) for the fatty explosion of flavor) in Ribera del Duero; Ibai for the incomparable whole lenguado (dover sole) and kokotxas en salsa; Asador Etxebarri for grilled guisantes de lagrima, palamos prawns and cold chorizo, pig trotter at Zuberoa; and grilled grouper at Güeyu Mar. Each of these restaurants excels in a dish to three, but D’Berto was consistently impressive, provided one does not solicit “recommended dishes”. The cigalas and shellfish were world-class, so we returned the next day for lunch to explore the menu further.
The discoveries were a fried lobster and spider crab with caca de centollo or innards sauce (like a kani miso but more raw and unrefined than the Japanese version which incorporates sake), preparations where the quality of the produce really shines forth; therefore, not unlike Japan. The grilled lobster is good as well, but I would recommend the fried one, even as that recommendation would not be intuitive to my own ears. It works here. D’berto was the most consistent of the exclusively seafood restaurants I have visited in Northern Spain. Indeed, the ingredients are exemplary, the cooking on (a sharp) point, so when Vedat proposed a joint review, I was eager to spread the word about this seafood temple that should make it on an itinerary for any trip to Northern Spain, and simply a required visit if you are anywhere near Galicia.
The story behind the restaurant is a mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. The extraordinary is the terroir, O Grove, a place that is particularly blessed for the cultivation of flavorful shellfish. To read Borja Beneto and Carlos Mateo’s account, the formation of this geological confluence appears miraculous:
O Grove is situated on the southern shore of the Arousa river, in the region of O Salnés; it is a small peninsula attached to the land by the isthmus of O Vao. On this tiny plot of land a coast exists where the confluence of a variety of geographical traits turn its coast into a bountiful source for shellfish: on the one hand, the isthmus itself produced by the Umia river’s sand deposits, with its freshwater stream loaded with nutrients; and on the other hand, the shallow depth of the waters and the existence of islets, such as La Toja, which allow sand bivalves such as cockles and clams to proliferate in the sandy bottoms. In addition to the considerable production of phytoplankton at this locale, the marine current that these shallow waters facilitate endows the Arousa estuary with a lush marine bounty and with the largest world production of species such as mussels. (Trans. B. Granier)
Although this sounds like the ideal geological fount for a world-class seafood restaurant from its very inception, D’Berto actually opened as a humble churrasquería when Alberto’s mother, Lola was serving a simple lunch set menu. Over the years, the restaurant continued to evolve, along with a vacationing clientele of means who began to make a product-driven restaurant a possibility. The transition from rustic home cooking to product-driven temple appears to have been facilitated when Lola’s daughter Marisol took the reigns in the kitchen. While Lola was more than capable satisfying with her home stews, Marisol’s touch in the kitchen was more conducive to the precision a la plancha grilling for the region’s bounty of seafood. It appears Marisol’s son will take over in the kitchen after she retires, and one can only hope he has been a close observer of her technique. Of course, Alberto’s presence in the dining room is strongly felt, and it is a joy to speak with him. I would ensure that he will be present during your visit. He may after all be enjoying txuleta at Capricho during lunch service!
Here is a list of what we tried in our last several visits, all of which we would love to repeat in future visits.
1. Camarones. These small and firm shrimps and are available in late fall and winter.
2. Zamburinas negra. They have an amazing depth in taste. I have only seen this level wild small scallops at Güeyu Mar.
3. Raw Almejas fina and Galician wild oysters. The former is a very tender and sweet. It is a breed of clam with a complex taste and long finish. The flat Galician oyster is crunchy, slightly bitter and with mineral flavors. They are a perfect accompaniment to an Albariño from the region (Rias Baixas) with a chucked raw oyster and fresh almond nose and intense saline mineral notes, combined with restrained fruitiness.
4. Longueiron a la plancha. If one likes navajas (razor clams), this is a must.
5. Gambas alistado. These are gambas rojo from Huelva which are less sweet than those from Denia or from Palamos, but still very good.
6. Berberechos. These are clams that are not as complex as almejas fina, but delicious when they are so fresh.
7. Percebes. They are salty and chewy, among the best I have had in Spain.
8. Cigalas. These are live and a no miss.
9. Fried Galician lobster. This is another reference point.
10. Centollo (spider crab). Ask for the version that is not cleaned as one should not miss the juice in the body. To me this is an amazingly complex natural fish soup. Personally I prefer this dish to the great lobster.
11. Cheese cake. This version is rustic and quite good.
Visiting in the springtime as I did, a season when in my adopted home of Japan most shellfish are served as sashimi with wasabi (or as nigiri sushi) or boiled in the case of hamaguri clams with a reduced tsume sweet sauce, and often paired with bitter mountain vegetables in Kaiseki, unadorned versions at D’Berto of such magnificent shellfish as my favorite zamburinas negras and pristine razer clams were a welcome variation. It’s like seeing the unexpected side of an old friend, or the uncanny resemblance of a beauty from your past.
The zamburinas negras, plump, are perfectly cooked, and as you can see in the photo still glisten translucently, and the clams were clean and impeccably steamed. The garlic broth with the clams could convince any Italian American palate.
Cigalas here are meaty and retain a firm texture due to the precise a la plancha grilling, as Vedat had indicated.
We did not drink Galician/Northern white wines because I had tasted my share of Emilio Rojo/Pazo Senoranss during the trip and because D’Berto has a small collection of champagnes about which he is enthusiastic. We opted for a Bereche et Fils “Rive Gauche” extra brut made from pinot meunier 2014 millesime. If you drink bubbly, and you have not finished the bottle by the culmination of the savory courses, order their cheesecake to pair along. It is not a refined cheesecake like Zuberoa’s but satisfying in a hedonistic way.
The only disappointments were pedestrian fried calamari with onions (I am generally not a fan of fried foods outside of Japan, and most Portuguese-style fried ingredients I have had in Macau are heavy-handed with thicker batter than I would prefer) and slightly better empanadas with a filling of the fish trimmings. A refined crab hash amuse with red pepper sauce, on the other hand, was a nice foil to the champagne, as was the mussel escabeche from the first evening.
In sum, the highlights were the best-in-class cigalas, zamburinas negras (especially as I cannot taste these unique beauties in Japan), spider crab with caca de centollo, fried lobster, razer clams, and a clams in garlic broth, cheesecake to finish.