Having lunch at elBulli with our children was an unparalleled way to celebrate our marriage of 25 years, but this anniversary called for us to take a little time for ourselves. We took a drive down from Barcelona to Bocairent (outside of Valencia) to spend the night at the beautiful and romantic Hotel Ferrero, home to the restaurant Paco Morales. I had been wanting to visit the combination hotel and restaurant ever since I ate at Paco Morales’ previous restaurant, Senzone, in Madrid; shortly afterward he made the move to the countryside of Valencia.
The hotel is beautiful, luxurious and absolutely romantic – a perfect spot for a honeymoon or a brief re-creation of one. With a world-class restaurant like Paco Morales, it is a place to linger.
It was 9PM when we entered a rather private dining room. Of course, as Americans eating in Spain, we were on the early side. Although the dining room did get busier as the evening grew older, it was never overwhelming which lead to a comfortable and relaxed dining experience. The white linen covered tables were spacious and the white upholstered seats commodious. Make no mistake, this restaurant has its focus solely on fine dining, which seems to be a rarity nowadays especially considering the restaurant’s youth. While I enjoy today’s more casual dining experiences as much as anyone, I found this refreshing. The room and the atmosphere were elegant, but not in the least bit stuffy. After all, we were in Spain, a country that has perfected the art of relaxed luxury. I wore a jacket, but it wasn’t entirely necessary. With plenty of glass looking out over the burgeoning orchards and gardens and a sky slowly dropping towards darkness, the mood was set for our quiet commemoration.
Spain has gone crazy for gin and tonics. While I have always enjoyed a good G&T, I had never realized how distinctive they could be. At Paco Morales, we couldn’t resist starting with this very cocktail and continuing from there as we were each invited to customize our G&T’s via their rather impressive gin and tonic cart. Loaded with an incredible array of the top gins of the world, a variety of different tonics and an assortment of additional aromatics, it was an almost overwhelming proposition. Deciding to go with a gin I hadn’t tried before, I sampled a few before opting for a wonderfully aromatic product of Spain, Gin Mare. I chose to complete my cocktail with Fever Tree tonic and small additions of clove, cacao nibs, nutmeg and rosemary flowers. My wife, having grown up with the canines, elected Bulldog Gin and Fever Tree with citrus aromatics. Both cocktails were superb, albeit quite different from each other. I will never take this cocktail for granted again.
Our first nibbles came from an unusual bread service. The bread was sliced paper thin from an artisan loaf and toasted crisp. It was served with a soft cheese spread made from local goat and sheeps’ milk and topped with crushed Jamaica pepper. The cheese was smooth, rich and laced with the finest qualities of both milks. That is to say it had flavor and purity, but was not overwhelmingly strong. The pepper provided mild piquancy, while the creamy texture offset the crispness of the bread quite nicely. This snack was almost more reminiscent of dining in Scandinavia than in Spain. The cocktail and this light snack primed my appetite for the meal to come.
Our dalliance with Scandinavia at this table was pleasant, but brief – as the snacks streamed from the kitchen, we were brought unambiguously back into Spain. With spring comes mushrooms, and one of the most anticipated is the morel. This dish featured beautiful, large, local morels with some served intact as well as in a “nectar.” The nectar was actually a stock made from morels, caramelized onions and manzanilla sherry and “texturized” with xantham gum. A common misconception about Modernist cuisine is that it is all technique based and that primary product is unimportant. This dish serves as a great example of how wrong that idea is. The xantham gum is used to achieve texture, but it does so while respecting the underlying products and flavors at the heart of the dish. The xantham gum or xantana in Spanish is flavorless and totally allows the morels and other flavor constituents to shine. The dish was garnished with some lovely and tasty flowers from lemon thyme, wild garlic and melissa (lemon balm). The anchovies and mustard seeds played their supporting roles, adding nuance and complexity to this fine dish.
The black bread, served atop a black slab of wood, was toasted and stained with squid ink. This was hand food. The bread served as a base, and each component played a role without a single ingredient taking center stage. This was a dish of balance and teamwork.Served in a small pot, this thick soup was rich and utilized ingredients and flavors seldom seen outside of Iberia. The braised butter beans were augmented with a parsley pil-pil, the Basque technique for emulsifying a sauce from cod. The sausage was a local morcilla or blood sausage. While the flavors were superb, it’s texture really made it stand out. Everything was soft – there was no contrasting crisp element – and its array of soft textures played subtly against each other, providing a range and nuance of a single texture -softness, that I’ve seldom experienced. Yes, we were back in Spain and we were clearly in the hands of a young Spanish master.
With the gin and tonics in our past we moved on to wine, starting with a lovely, classic amontillado from Sanlucar de Barrameda, one of the principal areas in Andalucia for making sherries. It was a delightful match for the next few courses. With a slightly bitter finish it had a character reminiscent of very dark chocolate.Morales and his food are firmly rooted in Spain, but he is worldly enough to borrow ideas and influences from other parts of the world. Described as a “deconstructed guacamole”, this beautiful dish served mini-avocados dusted with tomato powder along with the bulbs of the wild garlic plants whose flowers were used in an earlier dish, “citric” onion, micro-cilantro leaves and, to add a bit of a Valencian element, a little almond milk. Though the dish was conceived and constructed in an entirely different way, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jose Andres’ unique take on guacamole at minibar. Andres’ deconstruction was more of a riff on a traditional Mexican guacamole, while Morales’ was purely Spanish. In Morales’ version, the avocado was not the central flavor element. That distinction belonged to the citrus onions, which paired stupendously with the almond milk. The avocado flavor was so mild, it was but a creamy accent to the vibrant tomato powder surrounding it. While this was not a dish to replace a great traditional guacamole, it was marvelous in its own right. To call it a guacamole is only to give it some context.
The toasted bread and cheese we were served at the beginning of the meal was really more of an opening snack than a true bread service. At this point we were offered a choice of two types of bread, a “linum” bread and a “cereal” bread. The “linum” was a bread made from flax. It was absolutely delicious, as was the cereal bread.
I used to think that Spain was a country in which it would be difficult to eat well as a vegetarian. I can’t believe how naive I was. While true vegan meals are rare, Spain’s farmers and cooks do an amazing job with vegetables, but few cook them as well as Morales. While the description of the gravy as “unctuous” amused me, it turned out to be quite accurate. This dish incorporated a variety of vegetables including carrots, beets and other vegetables to create a very rich and delicious plate. Though predominantly vegetable-based, the “meatiness” from the Iberian lard and the unctuous gravy made the dish indisputably Spanish. My initial thoughts on Spanish vegetables may have been wrong, but the role of meat and meat flavors is still prominent on the Spanish table. The amontillado was a particularly good match for this intricate dish that somehow was both rich and light at the same time.
The next wine, 100% albariño from Portugal saw no wood in its development. Clean and refreshing, it was delicious with the next few seafood based courses.
While the Spanish are clearly passionate about seafood, oysters have not typically been the first item I think of when I think of Spanish seafood. However, like my earlier preconceptions regarding vegetables (which existed and were exterminated well before this trip), I have enjoyed some of the best oysters (and most remarkable preparations of them) that I have experienced anywhere. From Quique deCosta’s “Guggenheim” oyster to Joan Roca’s Oyster with distillate of earth to the more simply prepared, pristine beauties of Albert and Ferran Adria’s Tickets and on to this beauty from Morales, the oysters of Spain have been simply stunning. If this pearl doesn’t come to mind so quickly in the future when considering Spanish seafood, it would only be because there are so many other incredible water-born delights there.
This particular service had pesto hidden underneath the large Galician oyster. Arrayed on the plate around the oyster were small dollops of raw sheep milk and spice bread croutons. The concept of mar y montaña, or surf and turf, is a long-standing culinary tradition in eastern Spain, but this is a combination I could never have seen coming. It blew me away! The oyster flavor was perfect and somehow enhanced by its accompanying players. These strange bedfellows somehow made the oyster taste even more like an oyster. The individual components tasted of themselves, but when eaten all together they served but to enhance the oyster, to make it into a super-oyster.
Another dish, another unintuitive combination of ingredients, another winner. The tender beans were fresh favas. This dish featured what I have come to regard as Morales’ signature: a subtle balance of flavors. The favas and red pepper juice provided sweetness to counter an underlying bitterness from the char on the squid, while the non-traditional to Spain spices added haunting nuances.I have no doubt this dish will become great, but when Morales served it to my wife and I this was the first time it had actually been served at the restaurant. A wonderful gesture, but it remains a work in progress. The shrimp were wrapped in spinach and tasty. The snails were crunchy and slightly gritty and the broth was a snail broth with mint and wild fennel. The problem with it was that it hadn’t quite achieved the impeccable balance of Morales’ other dishes. This was most clearly felt with the beautiful, but overpowering wild garlic flowers which dominated the after-taste. This is a dish with clear potential, but unlike Morales’ other, finished dishes, it had yet to achieve a fluid harmony of flavors and textures.
This next dish included small, unusually flavored mushrooms known as perechicos. The mushrooms were nutty and woodsy. The artichokes were sweet and the egg yolk added richness. The green leaves were carrot sprouts. the garlic sprouts had been poached and seared and as a result was less pungent in this dish as a result. Once again, the components meshed together in a beautiful synergy. Each of them was fine on its own, but together, they achieved great harmony.
The time came to move to a red. When this one came out, I had a bit of a déjà vu experience. I had enjoyed a Predicador once before at Senzone when Morales cooked there! When I mentioned that fact, the sommelier offered to serve another, but I declined since the one I had in Madrid was a white and I looked forward to trying their red. It is clearly a winery that Morales likes and with good reason.This next dish also elicited a pleasant feeling of deja vu. This is a Morales signature for which he uses a constantly evolving palette of local, seasonal vegetables. I had sampled an interpretation based upon “winter in Madrid” at Senzone. It was extraordinary then and the “spring in Valencia” interpretation, though very different, was no less extraordinary here. Clearly, the concept behind this dish is not original to Morales. I imagine he was influenced by his mentor Andoni Luis Aduriz who in turn was influenced by Michel Bras. With Bras’ influence this type of dish has become almost a rite of passage that has evolved further into the Nordic inspired foraging movement popularized by Rene Redzepi and others. Morales’ interpretations have been as good as any that I’ve had. All of the components were from the hotel property, which includes the gardens, the farm and the orchards. Each bite was different, but each was united by an underlying tomato base, which was a surprise given the lack of color in the base. Another surprise was the bite of bacon that came at the end.
I initially thought that the light green discs were bone marrow, colored green, but those were pea skins, which covered the bone marrow. Morales returned to textural contrast here with crunchy peas and the soft bone marrow and pea skins. The chicken stock added flavor balance along with a wonderful mouthfeel. The bone marrow was used as advantageously in this dish as in any dish I can recall, emphasizing its rich, delicious flavor. In the future when I wish to think of spring, I will likely think of this dish.
Mar y montaña returned to the table with this gorgeous mullet, porcini, black olives and fresh “peeled and re-peeled” walnuts. The technique perfectly showcased the spectacular quality of the fish. The quantity of the sauce was muted enough to avoid overpowering the delicate fish, but sufficient to add highlights and flavor nuances. Even the walnuts, notoriously a bitter nut, lacked overt bitterness and added texture to the dish, which made up for the skin’s softness. The fish had been cooked sous vide with an oil made from the fish’s spine and was redolent of itself. It was a dish of refined elegance with a subtle balance to go with its minimalist presentation.
The final savory course was a red meat course of pigeon with Raf tomatoes and Arabian spices. The tomatoes had been coated in bread crumbs made with the ink bread that had been used earlier when toasted with the green figs. Once again, Morales proved to be a master of technique and innovation. While it is difficult to surprise in today’s kitchen, Morales managed to do so throughout the meal. On his printed menu he has a little saying, “innovation = provocation.” While his cooking does indeed provoke, it doesn’t jar. The surprises are all happy ones.The savories were finished and the first dessert course served was berry-based. I’m not generally a fanatic about berry desserts, but this one was superb. Sprinkled on top were pulverized wild strawberries.
The wine served with the desserts was actually a cider. Even more accurately it was an ice cider from the Basque country in northern Spain. It was well balanced with good acidity and was another very pleasant surprise. I knew of the strong Basque cider making tradition, but had been unaware of its ice cider component.
The cake was actually dried dates around the circumference of the disc of ice cream with the two small dollops being the burnt yeast – tasty.
This final dessert was my favorite of the three: the smoke came through sufficiently to make itself known, but did so without overpowering the other elements.
At the end of the meal, the staff rolled up with a tea cart showing a choice of loose teas to rival the choice of gins on the gin and tonic cart. I chose a chamomile infusion. We took our tea and petits fours outside the dining room in the lounge off the hotel lobby.
The service, while not as polished in the technical details as at some restaurants of the same caliber, was quite pleasant, informative and warm. Our main server, a young man from Argentina named Eduardo, particularly stood out, sharing many insights into the details of the food. He had been at the restaurant for only a month or so and was there to be in the kitchen, helping out occasionally in the dining room as he did on this evening.
It is clear to me having eaten his food at two different restaurants that Paco Morales is a serious culinary talent with a clear vision of what his food should be like and the skill and savvy to make it happen. While still young, Morales is no longer a prospect as a top chef. He has arrived. His food is beautiful, original and delicious. While he shows influence from the likes of Andoni Luis Aduriz and the Adrias, he has forged an identity of his own with a distinct and recognizable style. He also works in a place that is allowing him to grow. The hotel and the restaurant are still new and Morales has great plans for what he hopes to do there. His vegetable and flower gardens and fruit and nut orchards are well maintained, and Morales hopes to do even more in the future by incorporating a top notch farm into the grounds as well as creating his own taller on the property to develop dishes and take his cuisine and the restaurant further – in this, he is greatly inspired by chef Dan Barber. Morales has the talent, the tenacity and the drive to make this happen. He also has a place that has all the potential to become a true destination restaurant with not only the food, but incredible accommodations to attract a discerning clientele. It is a place that has everything a pair of honeymooners or even 25th anniversary celbrants could want.