There are few, if any, foods that I enjoy eating more than top quality shellfish. Cracking open a just-from-the-sea lobster in Maine, slurping down a lightly dressed Gillardeau oyster in Paris, Barcelona or Lyon, devouring a grilled carabinero in Madrid, and diving into my my mother’s bucatini with blue crab sauce, amongst other great shellfish dishes, all bring deep smiles of pleasure at the memories and induce intense salivation as I recall them. With few exceptions the most memorable bites of shellfish have been those that have been treated modestly with the inherent flavors and textures allowed to shine forth. I have enjoyed great shellfish dishes in many places, including my own kitchen, but it is not so easy to find a restaurant that is brilliant through a wide range of the creatures. Perhaps the finest shellfish meal I have ever had, rivaled in memory only by Lisbon’s Restaurante Ramiro, was the one I had recently in the small Galician coastal town of O Grove. The restaurant was d’Berto, which is already well known to connoisseurs of shellfish and fish, but perhaps not so much to others.
There are two keys to a perfect shellfish meal. The first is, of course, the quality and freshness of the shellfish. While great things can be done with preserved and dried scallops, shrimps and other delicacies, to me any shellfish is at its very best when just plucked from its natural, briny home. Examples of great shellfish can be found from throughout the world, but there is no place better than Galicia, the northwestern extent of Spain and the Iberian peninsula, for outstanding quality and an astoundingly wide variety of these creatures. The Galicians have also perfected aquaculture techniques for many shellfish species in their nutrient rich ria aquifers. In the case of a restaurant like d’Berto, these top quality specimens come from rights outside their doors. In most cases, the shellfish and fish arrive nightly by 8:30PM just before the doors open, brought by the fishermen themselves. It’s not for nothing that d’Berto was named “The Best Seafood Restaurant in Spain” by Madrid Fusión in 2014.
The other key element to a superior shellfish meal is the quality of the cooking. Here, precision is critical, as it doesn’t take much to make a superior specimen anonymous or worse. It is also critical to know when to leave well enough alone, to not cook at all, and when to limit other ingredients and or when other ingredients and treatments will truly enhance the product. I find the very best shellfish products generally beg for the least enhancements and treatments. At d’Berto, perfection was achieved with each and every dish.
While we perused our menus, we were brought a bowl of pickled mussels and vegetables to pick on. These were tasty with appropriate textures, signaling a nice meal ahead.
Walking into the restaurant, one could not help but notice the tanks of live crabs, lobsters and other moving denizens of the deep located right at the entrance to the restaurant, as well as displays of their recently deceased swimming cousins lined up o display in cooler in conjunction with the immobile, but still living mollusks just inside the door. It all looked enticing and tempting, but we could only eat, and perhaps more importantly, pay, for so much.
My favorite oysters in the world are those raised by the Gillardeau family in France. With deep bowls, meaty oysters and mineral-rich brine, they are, for me, as close to perfection as I have encountered in oysters. Not far behind are the oysters of Galicia, which opened our meal. These too were meaty, juicy and rich in minerals, enhanced by nothing more than a squeeze of Spanish lemon. They were well shucked and clean, an oyster lover’s delight.
Cockles are special. Not often seen on this side of the Atlantic, they are not simply baby clams. They are a bivalve with a character all their own and these were as fine an example of the culinary delights the species has to offer as any. Barely, but sufficiently cooked , these were plump, juicy and totally delicious with nothing but a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
I adore scallops in a wide variety of preparations and love those available on the American side of the Atlantic, especially small, sweet bay scallops from Nantucket or the Peconic off Long Island. They are indeed special products. As wonderful as many of those have been, I have never enjoyed scallops more than these broiled zamburiñas negras at d’Berto. These particular scallops are a Galician specialty and we had them elsewhere son this trip. The other preparations were very good, but these were extraordinary. Overcooked, scallops can be leathery. These were perfectly tender, sweet and possessed of an otherworldly scallop flavor. Like many of the other preparations served these were dressed minimally, leaving the fabulous scallops to speak entirely for themselves.
Razor clams are another favorite. Before their preparation in the kitchen, Berto Domínguez García, the “Berto” of d’Berto, brought them to us for inspection. These were quite frisky and active. When they returned to the table a short while later, they were no longer frisky, but they were the most delicious and clean razor clams in my experience. Often cooked on the plancha, these showed no signs of grill marks or cooking oil. I believe that they were steamed to their plump, tender and juicy ends. It is not uncommon to find sand or grit in fresh razor clams, but I detected none of either in these, which had been well purged and were nothing but pleasure.
Almejas, the Spanish equivalent of littleneck clams that came next received the most embellishment of any dish that evening. Cooked until just open, they were nearly raw, but not quite, sitting at the apex of doneness. The embellishment I refer to was nothing more than fantastic olive oil and garlic, which happen to be my ideal accompaniment for the bivalves. The combination certainly was here.
I love percebes or goose barnacles, which come from Galicia, but I love great crab even more and had recently had excellent percebes in Madrid. As I had written above, we could only eat and pay for so much and these were amongst the priciest items on the menu. Ordering both was prohibitive, though that was never actually discussed at the table. Ordering the live spider crab was determined to be the more unique and special choice. Berto fished it from the tank then brought it to the table for our inspection before leaving it with his sister, the chef, Marisol Domínguez García.
Frozen king or spider crab isn’t bad and can, in fact, be quite tasty, but ultimately pales next to a fresh crab like this one, prepared as expertly as this one was. Tender, sweet and meaty, this huge crab put the already spectacular meal completely over the top. Beautifully presented with the cracked legs surrounding the carapace, which was filled with the cooked viscera, this was the very definition of crab, the epitome of the culinary treasure of the genus. Its’ savory sweetness made it both the ultimate savory course and perfect dessert at the same time.
The food was totally spectacular and did not require anything beyond water to wash it down, the key word being “require.” The meal would have still been outstanding if that was all that we had to drink. Happily for us, though, it wasn’t and we had with u not only the perfect wines to accompany this meal, but the men who made them. The best seafood generally imparts a wonderfully complex mineral essence evoking its marine origins. So too, the best viniferous accompaniments share that same minerality. Chablis has developed a reputation as a classic accompaniment to oysters and from a bit further south in Burgundy, vanilla rich Chardonnay tends to complement lobster, but for my money, the wine varietal that goes best with a wide range of fish and shellfish is a well-made, natural yeast, un-oaked albariño, exactly like the ones that we had with us tonight. The wines, a range of vintages from Paco Dovalo’s Cabaliero do Val, Manolo Doval’s Rozas, and Antonio Gondar’s Avó Roxa, all shared crisp, flinty minerality that provided a real synergy with the precious shellfish. It was an ideal marriage of wine and food, with each elevating the other.
See here for the entire d’Berto Photoset on Flick’r.