It’s been awhile since a meal has made me think: WTF?
From the first bite of my five-course lunch at El Club Allard, I thought to myself “what did I get myself into?” And not in a good way; I worried about where this lunch was going.
But then things changed and my taste buds tingled and I thought “what is this chef doing to my mind?” And definitely in a good way.
I found myself at this refined dining spot away from the tourist sites on the first day of my Spanish vacation (I’m spending time in Madrid and then Barcelona). My sister and niece from Honolulu are joining me, but they weren’t arriving until Wednesday evening, giving me the whole afternoon free to myself.
So I decided to splurge for a dining experience, especially after spending more than 13 hours on an airplane eating airplane food.
El Club Allard, which opened in 2003, is the playground for Chef Diego Guerrero. In many ways, he represents the chefs who benefit from the legacy of Spanish great Ferran Adria, who redefined Spanish cuisine – and around the world for that matter – through creative uses of molecular gastronomy.
The meal I experienced by Chef Guerrero, who talks of a silent revolution on the restaurant’s website and on a greeting card at the table, is the kind of meal I expect from places like Alinea and WD-40 in the United States.
Only tasting menus are offered, ranging from 74 to 98 euros. Since this was just a lunch for me, I went with the “Allard tasting,” which cost 74 euros ($93.70). This included two snacks, two starters, one fish dish, one meat dish, and two desserts.
The restaurant, up a short flight of stairs of a grand apartment building, has the feel of a historical hotel, ornate but not overly so. The service is formal but approachable. And because my server didn’t speak a lot of English and I only had a Spanish phrasebook, I couldn’t get all the details of the ingredients of the dishes and mostly am describing what I’m guessing beyond what was printed on the menu.
The meal always begins with the same amuse – Chef Guerrero’s foam with an underlining taste of peanut butter. My server told me to dip the greeting card on the table (the one with the call for a silent revolution) in the foam and eat the card, which is made with rice paper.
While the idea sounded fun, it was a bit trying to dissolve the card, and the texture of eating paper wasn’t that promising. Then a snack of foie gras with flecks of game truffle presented in a sphere of pine incense was amusing but off in flavor.
Creativity shined in a butter fish “tapa” served like sukiyaki. The one-inch square of butter fish was placed on a thin sheet made of sugar. Underneath it was what I would call a dashi broth, though a bit more salty than most dashi broth I’ve had. The dish was brought out over a votive candle like an Iron Chef presentation.
A tolosa bean ravioli surprised me when I bit into what I thought was a bean and instead found liquid squirting out with flavor. The ravioli itself had a nice bean filling but the skin had a texture similar to mochi, the sticky sweet Japanese rice treat.
Things started to shift, in my eyes, with the “egg with bread and pancetta,” a dish that actually won a culinary prize in 2001. I can see why. A delicate yet crispy bread is presented over a light potato cream sauce. When I cracked the bread, a soft yellow yolk oozed out to my delight.
The main fish dish of a turbot was presented under a dome. When the dome was lifted, basil smoke came wafting out. (Yes, more smoke.) The fish, a white fish similar to halibut or sea bass, was probably the best cooked piece of fish I’ve ever tasted, perfectly flakey yet still tender and moist.
The crispy skin on top was crispy on the edge, leaving the center still chewy to retain some of the fish’s natural integrity. A light broth was filled with seasonal spring onion and what looked like sea greens or seaweed that added a slight tang to the overall dish.
The “taco” hare was a taco filled with shredded rabbit meat. The presentation was amusing and mind-blowing with a tiny red carrot and baby corn on top, and then on the side three dollops of what tasted like fava bean puree but what looked like a garden ready for a rabbit to explore and munch away.
Chef Guerrero’s revolution takes height toward the end with the desserts, starting with a transition course of a rompope (a type of liqueur), which looks like a tiny shot glass, but is made of granita. I was instructed to break down the shot glass and mix it with the chocolate shavings underneath.
Then Guerrero’s “fish bowl” arrived like a little seascape in glass. Everything inside was edible, as I munched on coral made of white chocolate and cranberry, and a mussel shell also of white chocolate. Dining on the sea foam and some kind of green crunchy grass that reminded me of cereal, I thought that only a genius like Guerrero could make me eat this in wonderment, both playful and thought-provoking.
The dish, just like the “poached egg” that followed, made me wonder what others would thing about food that came almost like play things. Does this take away from the tradition of enjoying ingredients as they’re naturally made?
The poached egg was a white chocolate egg, but as I cracked it (it took me a bit to get through the chocolate shell), I was surprised to find “egg whites” made of what tasted like custard or gelatin, and this continued with oozing yellow yolk that I was convinced was a sweet but couldn’t say for sure.
Reading up on El Club Allard, I heard that Chef Guerrero typically came out to greet the guests and ask about food allergies, but I didn’t see him do that while I was there. (My server checked on my food allergies, of which I thankfully had none.) But because I was taking pictures and scribbling notes to remember this once-in-a-lifetime meal, the servers must have thought I was doing some kind of review (somewhat true), so I think they told the chef because he came out to greet me at the end of my meal. It was a brief conversation since he had to rush back to the kitchen, but Chef Guerrero impressed me as a modest and almost shy man and nothing like the mad scientist that I imagined in my head as I dined on his food.
Chef Guerrero’s food has garnered much attention, so his silent revolution is far from that. While not every dish worked in flavor (although beautifully presented) many others did, along with serving up a side of imagination. It’s the kind of meal that made me want to talk about the future of food and the forms it takes. In that sense, Guerrero’s revolution is well on its way.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
El Club Allard, Calle de Ferraz, 2, Madrid. PH: (34) 91.542.95.89. Tasting menus only for lunch and dinner. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. Metro: Plaza de Espana www.elcluballard.com
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