Photo by Lee Woolcock
Montalbán “Casa José” is, to be frank, a bit nondescript. Frosted glass bricks serve as rudimentary windows, a slither of a door reveals curiously few signs of life for a place that is invariably rammed. Once inside however, it exudes the nautical charm of decades past. It’s a simple room furnished with well-scrubbed tables, wood-panelled walls and a handful of cheerful pictures of the big blue. The stainless steel bar, chill cabinet and kitchen—no more than eight foot long, perhaps three foot deep—is laden with spanking fresh, Galician seafood and fish.
My friend and I sit down and grin. How could we not have known about this place? On later enquiry, I learn from a Catalan friend that people flocked here 10 years ago when it was known for its no nonsense seafood fests, but times and budgets have moved on, along with punters’ discovery of sushi and the designer restaurant experience. But I for one am happy these places still exist, not least because it’s remarkably fairly priced.
“Turbio or albariño?” asks our waitress smiling broadly. Most of the room is on the albariño so we follow suit and find an excellent example of the grape: fresh and lively with just enough ozone to bring out the natural saltiness of the food and indeed of the place itself. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it, but since there’s only one, you can’t go far wrong.
As I work my way down the chalked-up board I get carried away; “We’ll have that, and those, oh and those.” Our hostess gently raises her hand: “Señora” she says softly, “Es bastante.” More gold stars for those who know to tell you when to stop I say.
When I realise that each dish is somewhat large, will be individually cooked and brought in precision-timed courses, I couldn’t be happier. No fried chipirones congealing in greasy pools while you frantically suck down navajas before they turn rubbery. No flaccid, grilled sardines, or clammy patatas bravas. Casa José is nothing if not meticulous in its cooking standards.
We start with a Frisbee-sized dish of purple-lipped clams that pop with flavours of the sea and vine from the splash of wine they’ve been steamed in. Some good, crusty pan Gallego comes on the side. It is only when we have finished these and mopped up all the juices that a platter of thick, creamy navajas come off the grill, sweetly blackened on the outside, tender as butter in the middle.
Chef José keeps one eye on the cooking, the other on his guests, his eyes darting from one table to another to see when the next course should be started or another sent out. He pops his head over the bar to see where we are before shaking out a heap of crisp and juicy butterflied boquerones, contrasting cleverly with a wooden trencher of the meltingly tender pulpo that comes next, sprinkled in smoky pimentón from the Vera valley, and layered over waxy Galician potatoes.
The best, like all good things, was saved for last. Gambas de Palamos are the only marisco in Casa José’s repertoire that don’t arrive on the daily shipment from Galicia. These are cooked on a protective layer of sea salt, piled in drifts into the pan with the prawns lain on top. “It protects them from the heat of the pan,” José told me afterwards when I asked about it. “Stops them from overcooking.”
Hot on the outside, almost raw in the middle, the technique achieves the concentrated flavours that molecular gastronauts spend years perfecting in their “labs”. And it’s non-negotiable. Like the fiercest French chefs who serve their steaks rare or not at all, seafood at José’s is his way or no way. And that, I think you’ll find, my friends, is just how it should be.