We live in a world of trends. They get started by one or a few and once they get going it is sometimes difficult to separate the creators from those who follow. Fusion cooking, that is the deliberate mixing of cuisines from different cultures was huge in the late 1980’s, but then, as most trends do, it lost a lot of its steam as the market got saturated with restaurants creating their own versions – some good and many bad. Fortunately, though, fusion cooking never totally died out, even if it lost some of its cachet (some would say, and I would agree, that all cooking is in some way, shape or form “fusion” cooking) and remains as difficult as ever to do well. One place where fusion has thrived over the past five or six years or so is DiverXo, Chef David Muñoz’ combination of Spanish, Hispanic and Asian cuisines located in a residential area of Madrid, Spain.
Muñoz and his restaurant first came across my radar back in January of 2008 when I attended my first Madrid Fusión. He had done a fascinating presentation, been awarded the title of “Revelation Chef” and his restaurant was one of the “go-to” restaurants of the Congress. I wanted to go too, but the restaurant was very small and I didn’t get the chance then nor again at Madrid Fusión in 2009, when I had last visited Madrid. I ran into him again in NYC in late 2011 and this time in Madrid I was not going to be denied. My son and I flew in two days before the Congress specifically to dine at DiverXo, which had since moved (to an equally small dining room) and garnered two Michelin stars.
Muñoz, who has a very diverse culinary background including London’s Hakkasan, the restaurant that probably influenced his cooking more than any other with the possible exception of Madrid’s Viridiana, which led him to his cooking career in the first place. His influences are many, including those of various Asian traditions, Spanish cooking, Vanguardist technique and modernist presentation including the plateless service of Grant Achatz at Alinea, but he has fused them in a way that is truly unique and personal.
Earlier in the day we had tasted a few dishes at Muñoz’ more casual restaurant StreetXo in the El Corte Ingles just off the Gran Via. This was a restaurant designed to convey a sense of eating street food in a place like Singapore. The flavors, colors and textures were bold and powerful. The experience was tasty and fun. Ultimately, it resembled the meal that we would have at DiverXo most significantly by the geographic origins of culinary influence. That is not to say that the food at DiverXo lacked intensity of flavor, color or texture. Far from it. The difference was that the food at DiverXo was more complex, subtle and ultimately creative. It was as it should have been given the difference in aspirations between the two restaurants.
We arrived right as the restaurant opened at 9PM. It was our first day in Madrid after an overnight flight. While it was still relatively early as a dining time for us (3PM in New York). we hadn’t slept much on the flight nor since. Nevertheless, we were both excited and looking forward to this meal. We were amongst the first to be seated for dinner. Each table had a centerpiece of a pig with wings – the whimsical and fabulous flying pig. In addition, the dining room had even more whimsical elements. There was a swirl of metal butterflies along the wall and over the ceiling. This set a nice lighthearted mood.
Upon being seated we were each poured a glass of Juve y Camps cava. This nice Catalan sparkler was a delightful welcoming gesture. Its yeasty body and fine bubbles further enhanced the mood of playfulness that was already so apparent.
An amuse was brought to the table in short order. Edmame were brought smothered under chives, nutmeg and a thick ponzu. They were accompanied by a dipping sauce of a green tomato and jalapeño emulsion. Muñoz had come at us right away with his brand of fusion. The surprise, though, was that at this point this was more of an Asian-Latino fusion than an Asian-Spanish one. These edamame have become a sort of a signature of DiverXo having been present in one form or another in various reports including ones from The Spanish Hipster, No Soy Otro Gourmet and Gastromondiale with slight variations of the dish, principally the sauce.
After the amuse, we were given three choices of tasting menu – 7, 9 or 12 courses. Given the time it took me to get there and a desire to try as many dishes as we could, we obviously chose the 12 courses, the “DiverXo menu,” which was billed as ten savories and 2 desserts. In lieu of menus, we had been given silver sheeted descriptors of the DiverXo experience. The opening words echoed the room’s decor – “Roller Coaster” – “Butterflies in the Stomach” – “Flying Pigs” and “White Canvas.” The sense of playfulness and whimsy was reinforced explicitly – “The Diverxo world is a magical world. Our world of imagination and fantasy.” The sheet goes on to set up the philosophy behind the meal that would be forthcoming. We were to expect “single-minded sentiments” of flavor with expected sensations coming from unexpected sources. Animal proteins would be present, but would be the supporting players and not the central components of the meal. The paper promised an intriguing meal.
The first course brought us to southeast Asia with a fresh young coconut filled with a creamy seafood soup. We were encouraged to scrape the coconut from the walls and eat it with the rest of the soup. This was good advice as the fresh coconut was delicious and texturally rich. The very act of scraping it lent a tactile feel not typically associated with fine dining and all the more fun for it. Each bite was different and intriguing containing different combinations of seafood, beans, herbs and spices. I expected this to be somewhat sweet given the coconut, but it was only slightly sweet with very savory accents that elevated the dish well beyond the one dimension it easily could have been. This was a delicious introduction, but only the first part of the course.
Served alongside the coconut, these onion rings with prawn crackers and mustard seeds were billed as “incomplete.” We were instructed to eat the coconut first then turn our attention here.
It became quickly apparent that this would be a meal that would accrue a lot of interactivity with the kitchen. One of the cooks came out with a crab salad in the shell of a spider crab and spooned it over the prawn cracker, onion and mustard portion of the dish, but it was still not quite finished.
This was accomplished with a bit of sauce squeezed over the components. The sauce was a combination of Japanese mustard and miso. This was a tasty combination that also presaged Muñoz’ agility with combining textures and flavors. It was also the introduction of a conceit that would be repeated throughout the meal – plates that were very un-platelike. Reminiscent of Grant Achatz’ use of the table as canvas and plate at Alinea, Muñoz used thin, square flat plates that appeared to blend in with the table. It was a clever way to emulate the effect that Achatz used at the end of a meal without being untidy.
The next series of dishes really played to the strength of the plating scheme. Two pieces of nigiri sushi, billed as “Japanese dim sum” were brought out on the flat plates that had been dotted with splashes of a red sauce. Each piece of sushi had rice, steamed cod and a fried quail egg along with shreds of seaweed. One of the pieces had black smoked “something” (later revealed as beet) shaken on top and we were instructed to eat this one second. These were both delicious, chewy and satisfying with the smoked beet adding just the right level of depth to finish on a high note.
We were finished with the sushi, but not the plates. When the sushi had been brought out, so had a small cardboard container in the style of a Chinese restaurant “to-go” box for each of us. This remained on the side of the plate until we had eaten the sushi. At that point the contents were dumped out onto the plate where the sushi had been. This was fried white and black rice. On top of the rice, a cook placed “bacon of the sea” and jabugo “cream” was siphoned on either end of the rice. We were instructed to mix it together with the red sauce (ketchup of tomatillo and tabasco) and eat it. Somehow this dish fusing elements of China, Japan, Mexico and Spain worked and worked well, incorporating one of the elements that made Vanguardist cooking at its peak so much fun – whimsy and surprise. I never did discover what “bacon of the sea” actually was and other than for the sheer act of knowing it doesn’t really matter. It was a dish unlike any I had ever had. Using chopsticks it was Asian – but it wasn’t. It was Spanish – but it wasn’t. What it was, was tasty and fun.
These first few courses were paired with this 2009 Chenin Blanc from the Penedes region of Catalunya, a crisp, tasty, high acid wine that worked well with the varied flavors present.
The next course came as two separate dishes. The first one to the table was a beef cheek glazed with ginger that reminded me of tuna belly. It was served with diced root vegetables covered with slices of black Perigord truffle, sansho pepper and pureed olive oil.
The second part of the dish, which we ate first was a silky soft Canarian potato served with aji amarilla and bone marrow. This was totally decadent and fabulous, a nice set-up for the beef cheek. Though the dish had Asian trappings, it was ultimately a meat and potatoes dish, dressed up and elevated.
The two phased course theme continued. This time, the first part of the course was served on a white board that had been jigsawed in two, alerting us that a second part of the course was likely to follow. This part was served in an oyster shell, but it wasn’t an oyster. It was braised oxtail with a mozzarella cream and sobao, a Cantabrian bread. We were expecting oyster as the dish had been described as such upon presentation, but we were surprised to find the meat.
The second part of the course, which was served on the matching plate, completing the puzzle, did not have an oyster shell, but it did have an oyster along with grilled vegetables and an oxtail-filled steamed bun. and more of the mozzarella cream. This playful dish had me reeling, not knowing what was what and feeling topsy-turvy – but in a good way. My mind was being blown.
Good food is all about balance of both flavors and textures. When thought of in this way, it isn’t really all that difficult for someone who is technically proficient to create good dishes. Yet it remains revelatory to encounter a chef who can create dish after well balanced dish and still give the sense of real creativity. David Muñoz is such a chef. It wasn’t that long ago that creativity due to the application of novel technical applications was the easiest way to highlight a chef’s culinary genius, but that is no longer the case as it has become more difficult to achieve bona fide astonishment with that approach. Now, the most heralded creative chefs are lauded because of their combinations of ingredients or the sheer quality of their ingredients and their abilities to make those ingredients shine. Muñoz uses fine ingredients and they do shine, but they shine primarily because of the way he prepares and combines them. Here, he took cod cheeks and rather than prepare them with a traditional Basque pil-pil using dried cod, he used foie gras. This made an incredibly rich dish that needed to be tamed somewhat. Muñoz accomplished that with the help of Australian finger limes to add acidity and English horse radish to burn through the fat. Black trumpet mushrooms added depth. This dish was all about balance, but a balance that would have been very easy, in lesser hands, to screw up. This dish was wild, rich, imaginative and very well executed. Creativity lives.
As oddly and wonderfully creative as the kokotxa with foie gras pil-pil was, this dish was even wilder and just as effective. The squid had been lightly charred over a hot wok fire, leaving the interior still raw. The combination of fermented strawberries, yogurt and coffee supplied all the elements needed for balance. This was also possibly the single most beautifully presented dish of the evening, which is not small praise.
We were poured this Palo Cortado sherry, which was deep, rich and full of lovely caramel notes. I’ve felt for some time that sherries are some of the finest and most versatile food wines on the planet. This did nothing to dissuade that opinion.
The deep golden color was as gorgeous as the flavors hidden inside.
The plating of the next course, while not quite as colorful or inherently beautiful as the kim chee course, was spectacular in its own right. The hot plate was placed upon four rings acting as trivets. The design of the plates reminded me of a sea bed with ripples from a current. There were two small wells in each plate that held soup.
The soup was a broth of partridge escabeche with smoked eel, ginger, tomato seeds and gelee and elvers, billed as “sea noodles.” The soup in the second well was a bit more peppery than the first. The cracker between the wells was made from eel skin.
This dish was delicious, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty eating it as the angullas, or baby eels, while delicious, have become quite rare and are considered to be at risk.
The second part of the course was a sandwich with a crispy cracker around partridge meat with more angullas atop the sandwich. The partridge center had a citrusy flavor to it that cut through its richness.
This next course was the most purely Mediterranean of the evening and somehow I failed to get any good close-up photos. Despite the significant presence of the espardeñas and the red mullet, the dominant element of the dish was white asparagus. The bergamot rind was grated on top.
A crisp cracker with red mullet liver was the second component of the dish. This had a strong flavor that came close to being offensive, but stayed firmly on the side of the border of utter deliciousness.
This was another brilliant sherry, a bit crisper than the rich Palo Cortado. Both wines are fortified wines, very dry and high in alcohol.
Spain is a land of great pork – possibly the finest pork on the planet. Muñoz’ pork dish was one of the simplest appearing preparations of the night and one of the most purely delicious, coming across to my son and I as “barbecue on steroids.” It was one course where the meat protein clearly played “first fiddle” despite the written philosophy of the meal we received at the beginning. The Amontillado was a superb match.
As with most of the courses, this one had a second part. Here, suckling pig’s ear was crafted into a sweet and sour salad along with Mangosteen and dried baby Spanish shrimp. The shrimp had great concentrated shrimp flavor. The overall effect was pure deliciousness. The combination of the two elements of this course made it our favorite savory course of the evening. It was both Spanish and Asian at the same time – bringing some of the best elements of the various culinary cultures together in one super-dish.
The sole was fried in a wok “a la Romana,” however, unlike a more traditional approach, they did not use any flour and they only used the yolk from a duck egg that had been marinated for a week in a soy base, dried and grated leaving the cooking action in the wok to coat the fish with the grated egg yolk. Adding to the fun, the sole, which had an appearance similar to a banana, had slices of banana pepper laying on top. This was another great dish. This course did not come with a second part.
Spain is more widely known for pork, but the best beef I have ever had is the beef from aged oxen. This dish was centered around similar beef.
The herring topped with tomato was a key accent for this dish that featured the butter-tender beef cheek that had been cooked for 112 hours at 55˚C. It was key, but it wasn’t something that particularly enhanced the dish for me. I found the fishy flavor of the herring to be too strong, though my son did not. He tasted more of the sweetness of the tomato. This was a daring dish, but ultimately, for me, the least successful of the meal.
This next dish looked too much like a chocolate cake to actually be one. It was the last of the savory courses, but it was unusual for being a fish dish following beef. It was black cod that was cooked in a wild boar stew with blood and which assumed very meaty flavors, while maintaining its fishy texture.. In fact, it tasted more like beef than the ox cheek did, especially as that had been served with the fishy herring. The second part of this dish was parsnips with vanilla, licorice and aji chile. This was a totally amazing and totally savory dish. Everything taken together was true synergy.
The Oloroso, the most alcoholic of sherries, was a brilliant match for the cod. It is a rich, oxidated wine with strong caramel tones that worked particularly well with the vanilla accents of the parsnips.
Given the fact that it is a fruit, has sweetness and good acidity, I am surprised that tomatoes rarely see time in dessert courses. They have been firmly entrenched in the savory world for a very long time, but if this dessert is any indication, they should be equally at home in the world of pastry. This was truly outstanding, novel with a subtle interplay of flavors and textures, great acidity and a light hand with the sugar.
This naturally sweet Malvasia from Valencia was paired with the tomato based dessert and proved to be a brilliant pairing. The wine, by itself, was a bit too sweet and lacking in acidity for my preference, but together with the acid rich dessert, it was inspired.
This was a wonderfully refreshing dessert salad and a perfect way to end the evening with another brilliant balancing of acidity with sweetness.
Meals like this are rare and what dining at high end restaurants is all about for me. The environment was fun, relaxed and casual, but the food was seriously interesting, beautiful and delicious. Service was warm and efficient. DiverXo has two Michelin stars. It could have three and if it were in the United States, I believe it would. It might take a bit longer in Spain, which has been a bit of a harder nut to crack in regards to Michelin, especially for some of the most non-traditionally creative restaurants. With fusion cooking not currently all the rage, Muñoz’ style is unique and one that belies trendiness as delicious, creative cooking is always in fashion.