Is This the Best Little Restaurant in Spain?
Chef Pepe Solla takes Galicia’s simple, rustic cooking to the next level.
Excerpted from Everything But the Squeal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A woman dressed in all black greets me. She is friendly but not wordy, and there’s a hint of jujitsu in the way she moves. The room is muted Zen: dark wood surfaces, minimalist furniture, a single camellia on each table. One wall, entirely glass, looks out across an intensely green valley; we seem to hang in midair, the atmosphere just a touch otherworldly. Then there’s the rest of the calm-but-firm, black-clad staff, all women. To the left another window gives onto a shiny steel kitchen where five silent chefs work.
Amid the whites I spot my man, José “Pepe” González-Solla. His Restaurante Solla is close to the city of Pontevedra in Spain’s semiautonomous region of Galicia.
Spain is currently living a kind of long and involved honeymoon with food. It started with Basque chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, who married nouvelle ideas with the traditions of Spanish and Basque cooking. Ferran Adrià and the El Bulli phenomenon then emerged. And it just goes on and on, getting tastier.
With its robust approach to food, Galicia, in Spain’s northwest corner, has not led the way in this revolution. But things are changing fast. A new generation is doing the same with Galician food as Arzak et al did back in the eighties, modernizing, refining, reaffirming the best of traditional cooking. For a lover of the timeless tastes of Galician cooking, finding modern interpretations is like discovering a whole new brand of happiness that’s just gone on sale.
Galicia has always had great raw ingredients. The millions of cows have a lot of lush green grass to go at. Galician veal is valued throughout Spain. Then there is wild boar and a variety of other small and large game. The fish is tremendous and the seafood is of special significance, much of it from the rías—wide, meandering fluvial estuaries that give form to the many-fingered coastline.
Finally, there’s the wine. Albariño is the best known, a light, crisp varietal, the grape said to have arrived here in the 12th century with monks from Cluny. Since then the Albariño vines have been cultivated without significant crossing of the vine type, and the wine’s slightly acidic yet delicate fruitiness is a very subtle accompaniment to seafood.
If a chef wanted to base a style on the purity of his local ingredients, to abandon unnecessary culinary airs and get down to the essence of food, then Galicia is the ideal place. And chefs do not come much purer than Pepe Solla. He also happens to make the best ribs in the world.
The man himself greets me, smiling, relaxed. Solla has an erect, commanding stature, lots of black hair, and an intelligence, an acuity in his expression. Like a man quietly in command of his genius.
He suggests I have the tasting menu, plus an Albariño. The ribs are not on the tasting menu, but he’s going to make them for me anyway, which is rather like Sinatra switching around his set to include your favorite song. Off we go. Twelve courses.
Pepe inherited the restaurant from his father, also called Pepe. The old restaurant was a reference point in Galician cooking, doing classic dishes with the kind of refinement that led to a Michelin star and a reputation to match. There have never been many Michelin stars handed out in Galicia, but Pepe senior held onto his year after year.
The Albariño is poured and some snacks are brought: home-roasted peanuts (not thoroughly roasted; their freshness remains), salt-encrusted corn, a little cheese, and guacamole. After a brief pause I sample a small square of cockle empanada accompanied by a glass of hot bright-yellow pumpkin cream with a note of ham running after it. We’re rolling.
Young Pepe graduated with a degree in business studies. He did some front-of-housing for his dad but never formally trained as a chef. When he finally crept into the kitchen, it was to experiment with some of his own ideas. One or two of his strange avant-garde creations eventually found their way onto the menu. We’re talking here about the menu of Pepe Solla Sr., one of the most respected proponents of Galician gastronomy. Would you have let that happen? Personally, had I been Papá Pepe, I would have said, “Son, I love you dearly, but hands off my restaurant.”
An oyster arrives with a small crown of white foam. It seems a rule these days that to be taken seriously all Spanish menus must feature espuma (foam) at least once. Today’s froth is made from escabeche, a vinegar-based preserving medium, and it gives the oyster a cheeky kick. Yet it also manages to melt on the roof of the mouth rather unobtrusively as you are savoring the taste of the oyster below.
It’s a good example of Solla’s approach to food. Sourced from a nearby ría, the oyster is as local and fresh as you can get. But the escabeche harks back two thousand years, to a time when the Romans collected oysters from the very same rías, preserving them in escabeche and sending them far and wide across their dominions. Solla’s goal with this dish was to maintain the simple freshness of the local oyster and combine with it the historical reference to escabeche. How to quote both yet lose neither. The foam is added right at the last minute. They don’t mingle. It’s perfect.
By 2003 Pepe senior was ready to hang up his whites. The restaurant was gutted, its classic country-house elegance replaced by an assertive but not strident minimalism and a gleaming stainless-steel kitchen. In pure business terms, if one takes into account the reputation that Solla already had, and the very conservative nature of Galicians when it comes to food, this fell somewhere between walking the high wire across Niagara Falls and just throwing yourself straight into the water. It worked, though. José Carlos Capel, food critic at Spain’s national daily El País, observed that seldom had a generational transition of this sort “been accomplished with a grace so sensitive to the rhythm of two eras.” Young Pepe’s intellectual, essentialist style lost some of the old customers along the way, he admits, but he did not lose his one-star listing in the Michelin guide, an achievement of which he is rightly proud. Since taking charge, Solla has become one of Spain’s most exciting and individual chefs. The second star is said to be merely a matter of time.
A small section of lobster tail comes next, bobbing in a thin, clear broth composed principally of the lobster’s own juices. At the bottom of the dish are some extra-thin noodles, which are intriguingly firm. The taste, the texture…I don’t quite believe it, but they seem to taste of turnip. I deliver this brilliant observation after the meal when I talk to Pepe. Here’s a tip: Don’t tell a Michelin-starred chef that his fine Chinese wheat noodles cooked to a decided firmness in soy broth taste like turnips.
Fifth course is calf’s molleja, which at the time I believe is part of the cheek. Ignorance, bliss. It is crazy good, a soft cube of all the tastes in the world—salt, sweet, fat, meat, curry, floral. It has been cooked with nothing but a little stock, oil, and the finest touch of powdered Sichuan pepper. (I am not, after the turnip/nonturnip noodle debacle, going to pretend that I knew this at the time; I asked.) It tastes, though, as if every spice known to man—East and West, ancient and modern—has been injected into the nodule of fatty-soft flesh on my plate.
Back home my Collins Pocket Spanish Dictionary is no help with molleja, and my medium-size Oxford says “sweetbread” and “gizzard.” As far as I know, bovines don’t have gizzards, which goes to show that if you intend to take a dictionary to a fancy foreign restaurant, it’s Larousse or nothing, although you’ll need an extra place setting. Larousse says “sweetbread.” But sweetbreads are normally in the neck, and Pepe subsequently makes a point of explaining that these mollejas are not from the neck. I consult the Oxford-Duden pictorial dictionary to clarify matters. I am so glad I didn’t know I was eating pancreas at the time because it is such a vile word, one that we most often hear in its adjectival form (“There’s no hope for him, it’s p——”). Just to complicate matters, further correspondence has failed to clarify whether it really was the pancreas. I have not insisted.
There are no specialties at Restaurante Solla, but there is a signature dish: a poached egg on toast. I’ve read about this egg far and wide, it is a famous egg, and it is absolutely nothing more than a large egg yolk poached at 64 degrees centigrade (147 degrees Fahrenheit), served on a piece of deeply toasted bread with olive oil brushed on it. The French might have three hundred, three thousand ways of cooking an egg, but they can go shove it; Pepe does the perfect egg. Dribbled around it are some tiny bits of black olive in oil. More than the oyster, the egg sums up the essence of Pepe Solla’s essentialist style. It is more egg than an egg. It has gained semantic depth, an extra line or two in the dictionary. More meaning. Egg? No, egg-plus. Egg-Solla.
Fish next. Cooked only until it is exactly just done, a step or two up from the texture of ceviche, the grouper’s flesh retains that very slight chewiness we home cooks avoid because it often leaves a taste of low tide. With a grouper that was still swimming in the sea 12 hours ago it is heavenly. The fish comes with a thin, watery sauce of seaweed, plus cockles. There are two distinct tastes of the sea in operation, and that’s before you even get to the cockles that loiter in the sauce.
Pepe Solla has cooked for the world’s diplomats at the United Nations building in New York, and this January he will again appear at Madrid Fusión, the big culinary jamboree attended by all of Spain’s great chefs. He is undoubtedly a star. Yet he is understated, unpretentious, and his food is not flashy. He is not a celebrity chef. His ribs, on the other hand, are celebrities. They were on the menu at the 2007 Madrid Fusión gala dinner. Food critic José Carlos Capel is also the organizer of Madrid Fusión, and his verdict on the ribs was that they were the best pork dish he had ever tasted.
As an impromptu eighth course, then, I am served two half ribs sitting on five pea pods and half a potato. The quantity, after so much fabulous stuff before, is just right. They are cooked sous vide, and they make you cry when you eat them. The pea pods are also staggeringly tasteful, and I can guarantee you that I have never considered them to be even remotely surprising, let alone staggering; another semantic shift on the plate, then.
The key to this dish is ibérico pork. As the ribs sit in the gentle heat, that glorious, fat-infiltrated meat is slowly transformed into one of the most spellbinding dishes I have ever eaten. Yet Solla talks about the ribs with a touch of self-reproach. He is, above all, a chef concerned with fresh local produce, yet his most famous creation uses pork produced only in southwest Spain.
Do I care? I do not. As he reproaches himself, I am thinking: The ribs in question are cooked sous vide, a technique being embraced by some of Europe’s best chefs (Bocuse, Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca); Spain is arguably at the European culinary vanguard, and at the country’s premier gastronomic celebration (Madrid Fusión), the most celebrated pork dish was Pepe Solla’s ribs. Hence, the ribs I have just eaten are the best sous-vide ribs in the world and their creator is currently the world’s master at cooking them.
A black-clad one arrives bearing cheese. Four kinds. She extends an index finger and explains thus—cow, cow, goat, sheep.
A deconstructed apple tartlet next: base of cream with apple slices on it, a tiny cinnamon biscuit on that, topped with a light, milky ice cream, whizzed up using the ubiquitous high-tech Pacojet mixer. The Pacojet allows milky ice cream to be made at around 18 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the minus 4 that ice cream normally demands. The result is a substance that leaves your mouth ringing with taste and not shrieking with cold. Ordinary ice cream can sometimes be too icy. And its low-low temperature masks some of its flavor; when it does melt, it’s far too sweet. The Pacojet means that your ice cream can taste of something other than corn syrup or the North Pole.
An assemblage of soft, freshly made chocolate creams follows. Then petits fours. With coffee I inadvertently order some Carlos I brandy, a sort of tic I have when it comes to the end of meals. As an added digestif, Pepe Solla emerges from the kitchen and talks to me until after six in the evening.
So what sums up Solla’s cooking? There are no adornments. There is nothing added that could be left out, no fancy flavor-play, no overly evident spices or herbs. He uses words like “empirical” and “intellectual” to describe his work, and these do not sound out of place. There is no gasp factor in the presentation, no showiness. Humility, intimacy, precision, essence, simplicity—the same qualities, one suspects, that could be ascribed to Solla himself. The result is truly special, and its originator, too: a chef who has never worked in another restaurant and who has never seriously considered moving elsewhere. A chef who lives on the banks of the very ría where some of his freshest ingredients are harvested. Close to home.
Restaurante Solla is at 7 Avenida Sineiro, San Salvador de Poio, Pontevedra, Spain (34-986/872-884; Restaurante Solla).