“A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.”
There are few, if any, people in the world of food more deserving of this descriptor than Albert Adriá, the pastry wizard and one of the creative masterminds behind elBulli. His work creating new techniques and amazing culinary preparations certainly fit the above definition, but fewer people may realize the extraordinary talent he has in creating restaurants. At the moment, Albert Adriá and his team are operating 5 distinct restaurants in a single neighborhood of Barcelona, with a sixth, 41º/Enigma, in redevelopment and relocation, and a new project on the island of Ibiza in conjunction with his brother, Ferran, along with the Cirque du Soleil. Each and every one of the restaurants is truly exceptional in terms of the quality of the experience from food, to service, to environment. What really makes Adriá and his restaurants stand out, though is that while they share a consistent style and approach, they are, each and every one, totally different in culinary conception. I have been extremely fortunate to have experienced each of the existing restaurants as well as 41º before it closed for its overhaul. I recently had the opportunity to dine at Adriá’s two newest restaurants, both of Mexican provenance. It is Adriá’s ability to take wildly divergent culinary influences and create restaurants that channel authenticity with originality, creating outstanding dining experiences in each, that make me consider that the word “genius” may apply to him in this capacity as well as his capacity of directly creating food.
A person may be brilliant in thought, but still ineffectual. One of the keys to Adriá’s success is his ability to recognize, attract and retain top talent, both in running the business side of the restaurants as well as the creative side. With the likes of Pedro Asensio, until this past week, the chef at Bodega 1900, Jorge Muñoz and Kyoko Li at Pakta, Fran Agudo at Tickets and Paco Mendez at Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa, Adriá has chefs behind each of his restaurants who have a deep understanding of both the cuisine in question and Adria’s style and approach to food. As such, each restaurant is unique, but with a consistent approach, style and commitment to the utmost quality.
I recently posted about my meal at Niño Viejo, the more casual taqueria that does a terrific job capturing the nuances and spirit of the high quality street foods from throughout Mexico. At Hoja Santa, chef Paco Mendez ups the ante to reflect the very best of what contemporary Mexican cuisine has to offer. Utilizing the best that is available from Mexico and supplementing with the best available from Spain, Mendez has managed to put together a menu that truly expresses its Mexican roots, while complementing it with the best of Spain. The result is a marvelous marriage of culinary culture, with a real taste of Mexico and the Adriá touch, leaving things alone when best and adding Vanguardist techniques and style to enhance when appropriate to elevate the experience.
Our meal started, in the Adriá fashion with a series of snacks. Four were brought out to us in quick, overlapping succession. It was recommended that we eat the snacks in a particular order, based upon the force of flavor of each snack. The first, looked like it came directly from the elBulli canon. It was a transparent envelope of pork cracklings with leek ashes and a touch of chile chipotle. it was ethereally light and tasted of Mexico.
The second was a riff on an elBulli classic that I never tire of – the spherical olives. These olives taste better and more like olives than just about any other olives that I have ever eaten and the ones at Hoja Santa, of course, added a bit of a twist. These had been flavored with chipotle chile and a grating of lime zest and were as good as any I’ve had, which is high praise considering how much I have loved these from the time I first tried one. If there is any one preparation that speaks to me of the magic of elBulli, it is these spherical olives.
Corn is part of the trinity of basic Mexican ingredients along with beans and squash and one preparation in which it sings is as an elote. Typically, an elote is a piece of corn boiled or roasted whole and served with a series of condiments. Taken off the cob and served with the condiments, the dish is more typically known as esquites. Both ways, when using heirloom corn varieties from Mexico, like had been used here, are delicious. So was this dish, in which the corn had been puréed and poured into a jicara made of corn and topped with pipicha and chipotle caviar for a Vanguardist touch. The result was packed with the wonderful flavor of elotes, but very different textural experience. It wasn’t truly either elotes or esquites, but was reminiscent and evocative of both.
Haling from the Baja coastline, aguachiles are lighter than ceviches, but just as delicious when well made. This one, using top quality Spanish shrimp, was extremely well made and extremely delicious. The shrimp marinaded briefly in lime juice flavored with serrano chiles and were placed atop a toasted corn tortilla with radish, red onion, cilantro and avocado. I could devour dishes like this any time, day or night with its crisp, bright, creamy and spicy notes.
Finishing off the round of delightful bites was a wonderful sip of a seeductively spicy shrimp broth rounded out by a squeeze of lime.
In recent years I have become a devotee of the complex and smoky accents of Mezcal. I noticed on my way in to the restaurant that they had an exceptional selection of Mezcales rarely seen outside of North America and decided to sip them rather than wine or cocktails along with my meal. I left myself in the hands of Chef Mendez and his staff to select their favorites for me. I wasn’t disappointed. The first up was a Joven (young) Mezcal from Rey Tampero served with a classic sangrita of fresh orange juice with sal de guisano (worm salt). It was a luscious start, with appropriate smoke and complex, herbal notes. While I have not developed an adequate vocabulary for describing the nuances of Mezcal, I love how each one has its own distinct personality. They also happen to pair extremely well with Mexican flavors.
Caesar salads are making a comeback and deservedly so, as they can be quite delicious and satisfying. Once a staple of “Continental” restaurants in the US, they had developed a quasi-European association. The truth is, though, that the salad originated in Mexico, even if it was by an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in both Tijuana and San Diego. In any case, this was a rather original version of one using crisped chicken skin in lieu of the croutons and a spherification of the dressing along with some romaine and bread crumbs sprinkled on top.
Carnitas is a staple of Mexican gastronomy, served both street-side and in fancy restaurants. It is a long simmered pork packed with flavor. Here, Chef Mendez paired his fabulous Guajillo laced carnitas with a crisp chicharron, black beans, radish, corn and lime. The presentation was true to its homey background, served as finger food, but with a panache that belied the dish’s origins. It was a two bite delight.
This was another complex, rich and smoky mezcal served to me as a personal favorite of Chef Mendez. I find that sips go really well with the varied nuances of the cuisine. It was superb and one I will search for for my own liquor cabinet.
This infladita with the Yucatecan pork classic, cochinita pibil, was the essence of Mexican cooking, Adriá style. It incorporated vanguardist elements, most notably the crunchy and airy infladita itself, a spectacular corn crisp, while staying true to and enhancing its roots. This was a spectacularly fun and delicious dish that is a reminder of why Vanguardist cooking became so popular in the first place. The cochinita had been marinated in orange juice with adobo and served atop black beans with pickled onions crowning the beautiful presentation. It was another delightful two-biter.
Cardoons are not, to my knowledge, a staple of Mexican cuisine, but they are seaasonally common in Spain, especially in the northwest of the country. Spain has certainly had an influence on Mexican cooking over the years and this dish represented yet another marriage of Spanish and Mexican cuisines. Crisp cardoons had been thinly sliced and served in a shallow bowl with a cream-enhanced black bean soup poured on the side. It was a lovely marriage of textures and flavors, mostly, but not purely Mexican, though they were not inconsistent with Mexican flavors. With slices of jalapeño as part of the dish, the level of “picante” could be modulated by eating the chiles or not. Incorporating them gave the dish a pleasant, but not overbearing heat for my palate. On the whole, the restaurant was not over the top with the picante elements, but there was enough to represent.
The truth is, while Mexican food CAN be very spicy and hot, it is also a cuisine of great nuance. These “ravioli” of snow crab and chipotle mayonnaise were wrapped quite delicately in a case of folded avocado slices and served atop an equally delicate totopo made with wheat. The dish also included chia seeds, orange zest, cilantro sprouts and a Mexican peach and chile based chamoy sauce. The flavors were ethereal, unique, complex and exciting. This was a dish, that was creative, authentic and marvelous all rolled into one.
“Coyote” refers to the variety of agave used in this, another brilliant mezcal, my last of the evening. A shake of the bottle left a fine, lasting perlage of air bubbles, a sign of the alcohol content of the mezcal, which should be 40% at a minimum. This one was 47.5% by volume. Despite its high proof, neither this nor the other quality mezcales left a strong sense of alcohol in the mouth. They were smooth and lacking a harsh burn. The complex flavor notes were pleasurable and complemented the food quite nicely. All of the mezcales were served in traditional style in jicaras, the small cups in the same shape as those fashioned from gourds.
The dishes at Hoja Santa cover a lot of Mexican geography and cover it very well indeed. Like the cochinita pibil served earlier in the meal, recado negro or chilmole comes from the Yucatan. It is a black sauce, considered by many to be a precurser to the moles from further north in Mexico, and is typically served with turkey. This dish, however, was a major departure from that traditional application, to a more recent one, marrying the recado negro with seafood. Here, the recado negro was fortified with clam juice and served with a ceviche of sea bass augmented with kumquats, cilantro shoots, cubes of cucumber and granny smith apple and avocado. This was a dish best eaten with a spoon to capture as much of the sauce and as many of the different ingredients as possible.
I have to admit, when I saw the name of this dish on the menu, I was skeptical. Fresh sea urchin is one of my favorite things and rarely, if ever, is it better with some fancy treatment than it is by itself with maybe a squeeze of lime or lemon. Earlier the same day, my wife and I enjoyed some sensational sea urchin, very simply prepared and served at Niño Viejo. That was tantamount to perfection. The problem is that sea urchin is so delicate and is easily overwhelmed. Treated gently, the sea urchin toast at Aldea in NYC comes to mind, modest treatments focused on texture can elevate the ingredient even further than its lofty simplicity. How gently can it be treated when paired with guacamole? The answer is, in the hands of Paco Mendez (like George Mendes), it can be treated with all the respect it deserves, yet still be made into something even more extraordinary. Such was this dish, an early contender for my favorite dish of the year and at least a sure-fire top 5 finisher! There was enough sea urchin to withstand an army of ingredients, but the guacamole was added with restraint. This was brilliant, as it served to accent the subtle flavors and soft texture of the expertly served gonads. With some drops of olive oil, a small garden of flowers and “much, much love,” as Marion, our superb server said, as she described the dish, this was purely delicious! I could eat this dish prepared with these quality ingredients and with this skill, any time and anywhere, if I could.
The sea urchin was a very difficult dish to follow, but the pulpo con salsa negra did yeoman’s work in that roll. Nowhere is octopus better than in Spain and this dish was another standout. The tender octopus had seen time on the parilla and was here served with sauces made from tomatillos to give a great acidic bite and huitlacoche for a wonderful, earthy element. The dish was rounded out with an assortment of three different seaweeds. The finish on the dish was one of citrus. It blew me away.
Mexican food, as I hope I have made apparent in this post, is much more than just tacos, but tacos ARE a very important and delicious part of the cuisine. What I find particularly wonderful about them as a class of food is their variety and versatility. This tlacoyo, a taco variant, is made from two layers of fried masa sandwiching a layer of black beans. Layered on top of the tlacoyo were slices of veal tongue with onion, coriander flower, crema, guacamole and salsa de chile de arbol. Pinched from the sides, the tlacoyo was picked up and devoured in about three generous bites – another winner!
The versatility of tacos was further expressed by this rabbit-centered on. While I was enjoying it while I was eating it, it wasn’t until the finish that I experienced its full flavor explosion and experienced it as another standout.
In Mexico, when serving a mole, the mole is the star of the dish. Any meat or vegetables served with it are accents. At Hoja Santa, our penultimate savory course was a Oaxacan mole accented by strips of Wagyu tenderloin with radish, squash and pickled onion. The mole had been cooked over three days and was strong enough to accept the overtures of the fine beef. The dish had a finish that reminded me of the Mexican herb, papalo, which is often found in the fabulous cemita sandwiches of Puebla, but it was from pipicha, a cousin of papalo.
Our final course was another Oaxacan mole, this one a mole negro accented by nixtamalized pumpkin, which gave the pumpkin meat an outer shell with a creamy interior. Finishing the dish was a combination of sesame seeds and pecans. The mole had incredible depth of flavor and was truly delicious. The pumpkin played its role perfectly accenting primarily with texture. This was true classic Mexican with the kind of twist one might expect in an Adriá restaurant.
Albert Adriá made his name as a pastry chef, so I would expect the desserts at any of his restaurants to excel and they do. These at Hoja Santa were no exception to that rule. The first, centered around sweet and tart mango was totally refreshing with a bit of queso fresco to add body.
The piece of “corn” evidenced in the photo above, is actually corn ice cream! The combination of flavors and textures, all individually known and discernible, was combined synergistically. This, along with the corn husk ice cream and meringue at Cosme in NYC, are two of the absolute most delicious and enjoyable desserts that I’ve had in some time. They are both extraordinary in their conception and execution, adding strong elements of fun and whimsy to sheer deliciousness. I don’t eat a lot of dessert anymore, but when I do, I want them to be like this.
We finished with these little puffs of chocolate, a light and lovely way to bring this fabulous day of Mexican eating to a close.
To say that Hoja Santa is a great Mexican restaurant for Spain would be doing the restaurant a grave disservice. It is not just a great Mexican restaurant for Spain, nor is it merely a great Mexican restaurant. No, Hoja Santa, both alone and especially in combination with its more casual sister, Niño Viejo, is a great restaurant, period, as is the case with each and every one of the restaurants put together by Albert Adriá and his team. They need no qualifiers. Eating the food at Hoja Santa and Niño Viejo, I could easily have closed my eyes and pictured myself in Mexico, most likely in a hip and swanky part of the D.F. like Polanco or somewhere similar. That I wasn’t in Mexico made the meals that much more astonishing, but no less wonderful. This may be the real gift that Albert Adriá has when it comes to putting together restaurants and even dishes. He has redesigned the former 41º space adjacent to Tickets into a dessert parlor in which clients from Tickets go to finish their meals. It is a fantastic design that purposely pays homage to Willy Wonka. In many ways that is a perfect analogy for Adriá, though it is not limited to the world of chocolate or even pastry. He has extended himself well beyond those worlds into the highest echelons of quality and food fantasy, creating some of the most magical environments and foods to be had anywhere. He has a real genius for it.
Avenida Mistral, 54, 08015 Barcelona
Tuesday and Wednesday from 19:00h to 22:30h
Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 13:00h to 15:30h and from 20:00h to 22:30h