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Spain's Undiscovered Food Destination

© Marcus Nilsson

In the Mediterranean province of Alicante, Departures finds what might just be the Spain’s last great undiscovered food destination.

I’m in paradise— or as close to paradise as I’m ever likely to come while sitting on a barstool. This particular stool is pulled up to a long, white marble bar at a bustling, unpretentious establishment called La Taberna del Gourmet in the port city of Alicante, on Spain’s south central Mediterranean coast. Overhead hang glistening shanks of jamón ibérico de bellota—the world’s best ham, made from acorn-fed black Iberian pigs—flanked by garlands of sausages and strings of dried, dark-red ñora peppers. On various counters there are bowls of artichokes, onions and oranges, a bucket of long bread loaves and a board crowded with cheeses. In a refrigerated case at one end of the bar there’s a profusion of fresh seafood.

This is one of those eating places where everything just seems right. The crowd is lively and happy; warm light and savory aromas suffuse the air; the wines are inexpensive, generously poured and excellent. Most of all, I am transported by the food. To start, I’ve had big, green, faintly spicy Tarragona olives; fried Marcona almonds (rounder and flatter than the conventional variety, these are a highly prized local treasure); and shards of paletilla—pork shoulder cured like ham—from Joselito, the most celebrated jamón producer, served with slabs of tomato-and-olive-oil-moistened toast so thin and crisp that it’s called pan de cristal, glass bread. Then things get serious: quisquillas, tiny pink boiled shrimp, almost buttery in flavor; lightly charred dried octopus tentacles sliced into discs and drizzled with olive oil; small grilled squid, their lacy tentacles lightly caramelized; a montadito—a slider-sized grilled sandwich—of Manchego and sobrasada, the spreadable sausage from Majorca; and finally grilled medallions of a fish known locally as negre, “black,” whose firm, intensely flavorful meat is in fact snowy white. Everything glows with freshness, and the impeccable quality of the raw materials is honored by the sure-handed simplicity of the preparation. This is my idea of restaurant perfection.

“The province of Alicante is where you eat the best in Spain,” Ferran Adrià told me last year, and as Spain’s foremost culinary genius, he ought to know. “It has the best products in the country,” he continued, “especially the seafood—and there’s so much of it. And there’s a restaurant there that serves the greatest paella in the world!”

Adrià and other celebrated Spanish chefs have turned the food world’s attention to Spain in recent years, helping to establish the country’s reputation as both a hotbed of avant-garde cuisine and the home of some of Europe’s finest food products and richest traditional cuisine. But the diverse culinary offerings of Alicante—the name applies both to the city and to the province that surrounds it—have thus far remained almost unknown, or at least greatly undervalued, outside the region itself.

Administratively part of the Community of Valencia, Alicante is one of the smallest provinces in Spain in terms of area, with just under two million inhabitants occupying 2,250 square miles. To many Europeans, it’s known primarily as a vacation destination, famous for the time-share villas and beachfront hotels of Benidorm and other overbuilt tourist towns along its sunwashed, 125-mile-long Costa Blanca. The city of Alicante is not particularly showy, and it lacks the cutting-edge architecture and the cultural institutions—not to mention the somewhat frenetic restaurant scene—that give its larger neighbor to the north, Valencia, its reputation as “the new Barcelona.” It is a very pleasant place, however, with a friendly citizenry and a low-key stylishness characterized in part by its graceful Explanada de España, a palm-shaded pedestrian passageway inset with mosaics and lined with cafés and shops, running parallel to the sea, and by its Casc Antic, or old quarter, a warren of narrow streets and pretty little squares defined by whitewashed houses with bright-hued trim and decorative tile and ironwork. The city’s most unmistakable landmark is the massive, forbidding-looking Castillo de Santa Bárbara, dating back to the ninth century, which looms atop Mount Benacantil.

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For several years I’d been hearing rumors about the great eating it was possible to enjoy in the shadow of this monolith, and Adrià’s enthusiasm only stimulated my appetite, so I arranged to spend a week in Alicante to see—and taste—the local bounty for myself. I came away convinced that I had discovered the most exciting untold food story in Spain.

I was fortunate to have as my gastronomic guide the chef-restaurateur María José San Román, the unofficial queen of Alicante cuisine. With her husband, former Olympic handball player José Perramón, she owns half a dozen local restaurants of varying sophistication, including the transcendent La Taberna, and serves as president of Alicante’s restaurant association. She readily introduced me to other local culinary figures, suggested restaurants outside the city and gave me a crash course in the region’s traditions.

“What’s so wonderful about our food,” San Román explained during my first evening in town, “is that it’s so diverse. Really, we have four cuisines, not one. In the city of Alicante, seafood is the specialty, and we get the best, right out of the water, from fish markets both north and south of here. In the mountains to the west, near the border of La Mancha, which is Don Quixote and El Cid country, people eat roasted meats and hearty stews. North of the city, toward Valencia, there’s a Catalan influence, and the dishes are more complex. And though rice is essential to our diet all over the province, in the south there are more ways of cooking it than you can imagine.”

To begin our tour the next day, San Román and her husband suggested we have lunch not at one of their own restaurants but at an Alicante institution called Nou Manolín, in the heart of the city. This is a classic, old-guard establishment, the one by which all other restaurants in Alicante were judged for decades. On the street level, there’s a famous tapas bar decorated with colorful tiles and featuring beer taps as elaborate as fin-de-siècle Parisian fountains. Upstairs is an immense dining room with brick walls and a ceiling of wood domes that recall the arches in the Oyster Bar at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station (whose designer, Rafael Guastavino, was from Valencia). Here, relaxing amid a bustle of businessmen and other locals, we had a long, multicourse meal that meandered comfortably between tradition and modernity.

We sat down to a platter of very salty, warm Marcona almonds and translucent slices of mojama—dried, salted tuna loin, a kind of piscatorial ham. Then, presumably to demonstrate that he is up-to-date, the young chef, César Marquieri, sent out spoons of barely cooked scallop concealed by coconut foam. Fortunately, we quickly returned to earth. Alicante is artichoke country, and Nou Manolín served baby ones, thinly sliced and deep-fried, wonderfully soft inside the crisp exterior. Plump, pink langoustines from local waters are much appreciated here, and we had them grilled and served on small slabs of hot slate—perfection. We progressed to a salad of pickled anchovies with green tomatoes and garlic; a gratin of spiny lobster, artichokes and cardoons (an artichoke cousin); rare tuna belly with lentils and bits of sautéed melon; a splendidly crisp piece of red mullet on a bed of couscous; rice with monkfish and clams; and finally a dessert of fried milk with turrón ice cream—turrón being the almond-and-honey nougat for which the Alicantino town of Jijona (or Xixona) is famous all over the Spanish-speaking world.

I was particularly taken, as I had been at La Taberna del Gourmet, with the quality and freshness of the fish and shellfish. “The secret of serving the best seafood is simple,” San Román told me over coffee and goblets of Venezuelan rum garnished with orange zest. “You have to be willing to pay for it. If you pay the most, you get the best, period.” She gets deliveries twice a day from two fishermen’s markets, which is not uncommon in this city. “What you eat in Alicante,” she said, “is usually caught the day you eat it.”

That evening I had dinner at San Román’s flagship restaurant, Monastrell, which occupies a beautiful space attached to the Hospes Amérigo, the city’s best boutique hotel, on the edge of the Casc Antic. Here San Román offers such simple pleasures as young peas grilled in the pod and seasoned with nothing but salt, as well as thin-sliced hueva de mújol—dried, salted mullet roe. But San Román also uses her imagination. The kind of dish that has earned her a reputation as a local culinary genius is her cream of Manchego cheese in jamón ibérico broth with tapioca, baby artichokes, black trumpet mushrooms, specks of crispy ham and, when it’s in season, wisps of Spanish black truffle—an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Then there’s her smoked green-wheat kernels with sweet, meltingly smooth bits of cumin-scented pig’s foot and her pressed, grilled lamb loin. She also does an extraordinary flourless lemon cake made from ground almonds, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil, served with a lemon–olive oil sorbet. Her cooking shows real vision but also lets the ingredients shine.

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“I always tell people,” said San Román, “that Alicante is the luckiest region in Spain, for the variety and excellence of our raw materials and the richness of our culinary influences, but we must respect what we have. It’s fine to modernize our cuisine, but above all we should stay true to our roots.”

The next day, San Román entrusted my palate to her friend Lluís Ruiz Soler, a local food writer, and at lunchtime we drove north from the city along the coast, past Benidorm, halfway to Valencia, to the ancient port town of Dénia. Our destination was an unprepossessing tavern called Restaurante Miguel Juan, which turned out to be an immediately engaging place—a big, old-fashioned room with a long bar, bare tables, a menagerie of cured meats and dried fish hanging from the beamed ceiling and a high shelf full of spigotted wine casks. Chalkboard signs touted the superb house-made vermouth and the gin and tonic, arguably the most popular cocktail in Spain, which is served here with great pizzazz.

We were there, however, to eat. The Alicante region is famous for its salazones—dried and salted fish—and our most memorable courses were based on these specialties: dried melva, a variety of mackerel, stewed with sun-dried tomatoes; house-dried octopus; and dried, fatty tuna belly with onions. I would gladly return for the cooking but also just to sit at the bar and enjoy the scene.

The next afternoon I had a very different kind of lunch. Another friend of San Román’s, Jorge Canto, whose family is in the turrón business, led me about 40 miles inland from Dénia to Cocentaina, a modest textile-producing town near the regional business and cultural capital of Alcoy. In this unlikely location, in the elegant dining room of a restaurant called L’Escaleta, I found both a monumental wine list and some of the most original and sure-handed modern Spanish food I’ve ever had, as prepared by chefs (and cousins) Kiko Moya and Ramiro Redrado. Moya, who was in the kitchen that day, somehow took the Alcoy specialty of pericana, a homey salad of salt cod and dried red peppers, and turned it into crisp crackers, which he combined with garlic ice cream to make a strange but delicious ice cream sandwich. Then came almond-milk cheese with olive oil and honey, cubes of raw bonito faintly flavored with curry and surrounded by a piping of liquefied turrón, hake with fennel and bread soup, and a dessert of pumpkin sorbet with persimmons and mandarin meringue.

The restaurant’s award-winning sommelier, Alberto Redrado, matched every course, serving us wines from Austria, Germany and even Lebanon, as well as from three regions of Spain. One would be fortunate to find a meal of this sophistication and imagination in New York, London or Paris. In the backcountry of Alicante, it was astonishing.

When Ferran Adrià mentioned Alicante having Spain’s best paella, he wasn’t exactly being precise. Paella is Valencian. What’s eaten in Alicante is simply called arroz, or rice, and it has its own immense repertoire. One restaurant lists 170 variations divided into the categories of seco (dry), meloso (moist) and caldoso (soupy), and to at least some locals these preparations have no more in common with paella than spaghetti Bolognese does with chow mein. To begin with, San Román told me, “Valencians have rules about what can and can’t go into rice, while in Alicante anything goes. In Alicante we make rice with broth, while Valencians insist on using only water. We cook the rice less, too, more al dente, which we call perleta, meaning there’s a little pearl inside each grain.”

The rice dish Adrià raved about is served at a little restaurant called Paco Gandía, in a nondescript agricultural town called Pinoso, about an hour’s drive west of Alicante, near the Murcia border. Instead of 170 varieties of arroz, Gandía’s menu offered just two: rice with rabbit and rice with rabbit and snails, both cooked over hot-burning dried vine cuttings. On my way I picked up another of San Román’s friends, a kind of gastro-botanist named Santiago Orts, who raises exotic citrus fruits, like finger limes, calamondins and Buddha hand citrons, that he sells to San Román, Adrià and other top Spanish chefs. Orts is a Gandía regular, and he gave me an important tip: “For two people,” he said, “you must order three servings.” Why three? Orts just smiled and said, “Trust me.”

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A series of little snacks arrived while we waited for the main event. First came a few of the white-shelled snails called serranas, seared on a griddle and seasoned only with salt, but also tasting of thyme because they’re kept alive in crates full of thyme branches. Next was a small plate of eggs scrambled with blood sausage and green garlic shoots, followed by shreds of rabbit liver with caramelized onions and, finally, a rabbit loin hash. The main course arrived, a layer of rice no more than half an inch thick in a pan at least two feet wide. It was salty, warm with saffron, browned on the bottom, faintly smoky and definitely perleta. The snails were more of those thyme-scented serranas; the small pieces of rabbit were tender and juicy. Positively soaked in flavor, this was quite possibly the best rice dish of my life. I’d choose it over risotto with white truffles in an instant. And I understood why Orts had ordered three portions: not because we wouldn’t have had enough but because it was the kind of dish that should be enjoyed to wonderful excess.

I felt the same way about Alicante itself, I realized as we drove away. I’d had plenty of great things to eat in my days in the province and was well-sated. But I wanted more and had already started planning my next visit the following morning before my plane took off for Madrid.

Getting There

By plane, the city of Alicante is an hour from both Madrid and Barcelona, with several direct flights available daily. By train, it’s a three-hour-and-15-minute trip from Madrid, and from Barcelona the quickest route is four hours and 45 minutes. For train schedules, go to renfe.es.

The Details

Restaurants

La Taberna del Gourmet: Named Spain’s best tapas bar by the prestigious Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía guide, this is the place to go in the city of Alicante: lively, friendly, superb. Dinner starts at $50; 10 Calle San Fernando; 34-965/204-233; latabernadelgourmet.com.

L’Escaleta: Some of the best contemporary cooking in Spain today, accompanied by a world-class wine list. Worth the trek. Dinner starts at $55; 205 Pujada Estació Nord, Cocentaina; 34-965/592-100; lescaleta.com.

Monastrell: The best modern Alicantino dishes in the city, in elegant surroundings. Dinner starts at $75; Hospes Amérigo, 7 Calle de Rafael Altamira; 34-965/146-575; monastrell.com.

Nou Manolin: An institution, with a large menu based on the best local and seasonal products. Dinner starts at $50; 3 Calle Villegas, Alicante; 34-965/200-368; noumanolin.com.

Paco Gandia: Food lovers from all over Spain come here to eat rice with rabbit and snails, but the appetizers and gaspatxos (rich stews) are excellent, too. $ Dinner starts at $70; 2 Calle San Francisco, Pinoso; 34-965/478-023; pacogandia.com.

Restaurante Miguel Juan: This 1929-vintage urban tavern serves traditional local fare with an accent on seafood. Be sure to order a gin and tonic. $ Dinner starts at $35; 39 Calle Loreto, Dénia; 34-628/948-232.

Additional Suggestions

Casa Canto: About an hour’s drive up the coast from the city, a handsome place with a great view and a varied menu, strong on regional cuisine. A specialty is octopus puchero, a two-course dish of rich soup followed by tender octopus cooked with assorted vegetables. $ Dinner starts at $45; 237 Avda. País Valencià, Benissa; 34-965/730-629; casacanto.com.

La Sirena: A former fish market a half hour inland from the city, transformed into a sophisticated seafood restaurant with a lively tapas bar up front. Dinner starts at $70; 14 Avda. Madrid, Petrer; 34-965/371-718; lasirena.net.

Hotels

Hospes Amerigo: A delightful boutique hotel with contemporary-style rooms and, in addition to the excellent Monastrell restaurant, the informal Monastrell bar and tapas bar. Rooms start at $90; 7 Calle de Rafael Altamira, Alicante; 34-965/146-570; hospes.com.

Hotel Melia Alicante: A large, well-equipped property in the middle of the port of Alicante, near the beach and close to restaurants. Rooms start at $140; 3 Plaza del Puerto; 34-965/205-000; melia.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.