Photo by Richard Lee Owens
It's hard to think of a better name for a Spanish chef than Dani Lechuga, although in this case it might be more apt if his apellido was something along the lines of carne or ternera, since meat—particularly beef—is his speciality.
Followers of the Spanish system of accolades will know Lechuga’s name for winning this year’s Cuiner de l’Any at the Fòrum Gastronòmic de Girona, and last year’s Cuiner Jove at the Acadèmia Catalana de Gastronomia. He is, in short, the man of the moment and quite possibly Catalunya’s answer to Fergus Henderson of London’s esteemed meat house St John. Let’s see where he takes it.
Meantime, Lechuga’s interest in meat, its provenance, husbandry and, ultimately, butchery started young—his dad is a butcher—and in September 2010, he published his first book, La Cocina de la Carne. His menu at Caldeni is a direct reflection of his passion, and features Wagyu Kobe beef and Nebraska Angus as well as locally-reared Girona beef that he hangs for 48 days to achieve just the right degree of meaty tenderness. Dense marbling, mellow-yellow fat, a rich beefy flavour—it’s pretty marvellous stuff, though even I draw the line at eating meat for starter, main and dessert so I checked out the rest of the menu too.
A number of things ticked my boxes at Caldeni. Décor that used block colours ranging from sand to vermillion gave vibrancy to what could otherwise have been a fairly gloomy dining room. No music, but enough of a buzz to keep it from feeling overly serious. An interesting aperitif menu offered an unusual Italian beer laced with coriander, reserva cava and a bone-dry, slightly salty Gutierrez Colosia Fino (a new favourite for me) made an auspicious start to a similarly compelling wine list. We chose a Lagar de Merens made with the white Trajadura (otherwise known as Treixadura) and scarce Lado grapes from Ribeiro (€19.75); crisp, aromatic and well-matched to dishes that followed in cleverly synchronised fish-meat, fish-meat, fish-meat sequence.
The cecina, as one would hope given Lechuga’s pedigree, was beautifully marbled, delicately smoky and a rich, bloody red that left you in no doubt as to the beast from whence it came. Likewise the very finest bresaola you could hope for but way better (to my mind, cecina, like jamón iberico, is now outshining its Italian counterpart). Home-cured sardines followed, delicately brined in a tomato vinaigrette—sharp but not too acrid—and a better-cured sardine I have yet to come across. There were plenty of them, too.
Pulpo salad was fresh and lively and worked well with lightly steamed artichokes and asparagus spears, a slick of romesco sauce and the delicate kick of shiso sprouts. Velvety trinxat tortilla honed of potato, spring cabbage and pancetta was topped with a grilled scallop and a cube of slowly stewed oxtail. A delightful mix of porky, fishy beefiness.
My dining buddy thought the salmonetes a touch over-cooked. I rather liked the taut, tight flesh framed by crisp skin that would be the envy of crackling anywhere, and I liked the minerally mullet flavours on top of a thick patty of trotter. My only problem was the trotter itself. I’ve tried to love them, I really have, but the honest truth is that with very rare exceptions I can’t get my head around the gelatinous texture. My pal was a fan and wolfed down his own, plus mine too, declaring them magnificent especially with the intense prawn head, fish and pig bone gravy it came with: micro surf and turf you might call it.
And so to the beef. We choose the 48-month-old local steer over flashy imports, which came purely and simply seared, pink and juicy in the middle, tender as butter with the merest smear of Café de Paris sauce and a smoked potato on the side. Nothing more to say: pure bliss! We finished with mango and strawberry sorbets, which brightened us up a treat, paid the rather hefty bill and made a mental note to come back for the great value menú del día (€21) as soon as possible. Take it from me folks—everything they say about Dani Lechuga is true!
Caldeni—València, 452 (Eixample). Tel. 93 232 5811. www.caldeni.com
Mon-Sat 1.30pm-3.15pm, Thu-Sat 9pm-10.30pm. Approx €60 for three courses incl. wine.