Sensational Senzone

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Madrid Fusión was a spectacular mix of culinary personalities, theatrics and food, as usual. The ending of such an event is always somewhat bittersweet. In this case it was more sweet than bitter thanks in large part to a totally sensational meal at the small, intimate restaurant Senzone run by Francisco "Paco" Morales and his wife Rut Cotroneo in the Hospes Madrid, Plaza de Independencia 3. (As of this writing, I have learned that Paco and Rut are leaving or have left Senzone due to a disagreement with management).

Though he is young and looks even younger than he is, Paco is not a newbie in the kitchen. He has some serious chops. At age 20 he was chef de partie at the Guggenheim restaurant under Josean Martinez Alija. At 22 he was chef de partie for fish at Mugaritz and a year later at age 23 chef de partie for the cold starters at elBulli. At age 24 Morales returned to Mugaritz as chef de cuisine. He stayed there for two years before moving to Madrid in 2006 with Rut to open Senzone. Rut had been the sommelier at Mugaritz, a role she assumed at Senzone.

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Though there is potentially more dining room space, Senzone remains a small restaurant, just twenty covers per night. This is all Morales felt they could handle with a small kitchen and a small staff and still put out the kind of food that he wanted to. The dining room is in the the rear of the space. One must pass by the small kitchen to get there, but once there, it is quite comfortable and elegant. A nice touch for those who enjoy photographing such high quality food is the presence of small halogen spotlights over each place setting. Thus the food is well illuminated, showing off its full visual magnificence without undermining the overall ambiance of the restaurant.

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I was the first to arrive in the dining room. Warmly greeted, I was shown to my table and offered a nice glass of Palo Cortado. Shortly after the dining room began to fill, including a number of culinary notables such as Denis Martin, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Harold McGee and others. The pressure would be on Paco and Rut as they not only had to cook for their mentor, but the other notables as well.

Of course, we had a degustation menu as offered by the kitchen. The first dish, paired with the palo cortado, was a simple appearing, beautifully understated Light Parmesan Cream with Dry Mushroom and Fresh Chestnut. With pure, rich flavor, we were off to the races. This was a lovely, elegant start.

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Rut switched gears to a nice sake for the next course, Red King Prawns from Palamos (in Catalunya) with Chinese Cabbage, White Sesame and Lemon. The combination of the sweet, succulent prawns with the understated sesame was a revelation. The prawns were sheer perfection, while the overall flavor and textural composition of the dish was extremely well balanced.

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Rut shifted to a white wine, Lapena from Ribeira Sacra 2005. This
wine was good enough to be considered sinful, especially when paired
with the next dish, the devilishly wonderful, but visually simple Smoked Jelly Tuna Bouillon, Zucchini and Sea Caviar (spherified squid ink)  which deployed the power of the product to produce a dish that was light and ethereal with no ingredient overpowering any other.

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The next dish should be the definition of "guts and glory." Sliced pork fat (Iberico), trompetas, fried lamb brains and tuber melanosporum proved startlingly good, combining as it were the textural and taste loveliness of fried lamb brains (a first for me) along with unctuous pork fat, earthy mushrooms and heavenly truffles. Paired with a lovely Predicador blanco, this was another revelatory dish, subtle, balanced and delicious.

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The harmonious subtlety continued with Monkfish Liver with Cauliflower and Fresh Turnip Water. Admittedly, this description is not one to make my mouth water, though the memory of the dish does. This was the dish that most made me think of Aduriz' "insipid cuisine," subtle but effective.

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Morales is known for the freshness and quality of his ingredients as any good chef should be. "The Market in Your Dish" epitomizes that approach more than any other single dish that we had.Harmonious in color, texture and flavor, the dish is a symphony of the season, highlighting the best produce available to Morales and Madrid. Rut paired it with a lovely 2006 pinot blanc from Donhoff.

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 After the unusual salad course, Rut moved to a red, from California of all places, The 2004 Marimar Estate Don Miguel Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. It felt strange to go to Madrid to be turned on to a California pinot, but so I was. It matched quite nicely with a rich umami-filled Crusted Codfish Stuffed with Tender Onions, Lentils and Crisp Pancetta Bacon. Though it was perfectly fried, the potato starch crust of the codfish remained perfectly white.

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A non-intuitive palate cleanser followed – Nashi Impregnated with Black Garlic. Delicious as it was, I still not sure that I would consider something as strongly and wonderfully garlicky as that a palate cleanser. nevertheless, my taste buds remained unimpaired for the subsequent course. I suppose that rather than a palate cleanser, the garlic may have been intended as a palate prep for the course that followed.

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Though the next wine was called La Mala, it was anything but bad. This delicious red from  Ribera del Duero went beautifully with a perfect Pigeon Roasted with White Endives and Sweet and Sour Anises. As with all the courses presented, the balance of flavors and cooking technique worked exquisitely well together. I have never had more flavorful pigeon.

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Desserts were no less interesting or delicious. Coconut Ice Cream with Carrot Gel reminded me of India. Another dessert Cyder or Cedro (an unusual Mediterranean citrus used primarily for its peel) with toast sponge cake marked a return of sesame to the meal, albeit with a different, but no less successful balance. The most extraordinary dessert though was a reconstructed apple with an apple sorbet within a lovely green film skin. Served with 2006 Eiswein from Kracher, all the desserts satisfied on every level. The mignardises were no less worthy.

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Clearly this young couple is talented and dedicated to their craft and to each other. With Senzone soon to be behind them and their next stop uncertain, at least to me, there is no doubt that they will continue to be even more major players in the world of Spanish gastronomy and likely beyond. The only question is what effect the world economy may have on their maturation and their next move.

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For more photos, please see my Picassa album.


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