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When your flagship restaurant is run by Raül Balam, the prodigiously talented son of multi-Michelin-starred Carme Ruscalleda, your more low-key bistro is always going to find it a tough act to follow. So the arrival of Ángel León—better known as El Cocinero del Mar for redefining fish and seafood cooking at Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa Maria—as consulting chef, had me smacking my lips with anticipation.
Sustainable ethics have always been part of his allure. Instead of established fish favourites, León uses the unwanted catch being hurled from the trawlers in the Bay of Cádiz, and spent years working with the local university and science labs to make plankton edible (at the last count he had devised five different types fit for human consumption). His food is certainly out-there—at last year’s Madrid Fusion he presented a dish inspired by bioluminescence that glows blue in the dark—yet retains a certain robustness that still feels down-to-earth and accessible. El Pais’s Jose Capel calls León “the most powerful chef of his generation”, he recently received his second Michelin star at Aponiente, and international critics, including those at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have declared his seafood cookery among the best in the world.
It works, too, within the context of Patricia Urquiola’s eye-boggling interiors at the Mandarin Oriental. Set within a central atrium—formerly the trading floor of a bank—and enclosed within snow-white cut-out screens that recall the lavish contemporary riads of Marrakech, with oyster-grey high-backed armchairs, it’s hard to think of a more luxurious spot to hole up and eat for a few hours. And so the bistro formerly known as Blanc, headed by the late Jean-Luc Figueras, is now BistrEau—a ‘bistro marítim’—and homage, of sorts, to the Mediterranean Sea, with twists and turns that are classic León. With so much gastro-design cred now going for it, the temptation would be to ramp up the prices, but the lunch menu (Monday to Friday) is good value at €35 (not including drinks) and even à la carte, which consists of the greatest hits from the mother ship, things don’t skyrocket too alarmingly.
Among the highlights are León’s signature fish-based charcuterie—chorizo, longanissa, botifarra, and sobrassada based on a fatty, white fish called albur (otherwise known as mujol), which filters plankton through its gills—octopus ‘pancetta’ and wafer-thin versions of Cádiz’s famous tortillas de camarones that crunch seductively, before melting away into a balm of salty savouriness on your tongue. Squid ink croquettes are darkly delicious, creamy and crunchy—the perfect nibble with a minerally Manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda (if you’re a fan, as I surely am, there are some great bottles of sherry on the list)—while pinky-finger sized sardines on toast topped with aubergine caviar come in a puff of smoke. There’s even a joke in the shape of León’s take on the ‘fish stick’, or ‘surimi’ to go by it’s proper name, which he vastly improves by marinating butterfish in beetroot and lemon. And, of course, there’s the jewel in the crown, a plasma-green plankton rice that gives new meaning to the term ‘umami’. Think oceans and seaweed, cockles and caviar, spinach and watercress, all mixed up together in one gloriously unforgettable taste.
Having eaten at the mothership twice, these were all dishes that stirred evocative memories. León’s cooking, for me, is up there with Ferran and Albert Adrià (El Bulli and Tickets), the Roca Brothers (El Celler de Can Roca) and further afield, Rene Redzepi (Noma in Copenhagen), but of course it’s not León in the kitchen. Not usually anyway. With his new location in El Puerto de Santa Maria due to open in the spring, the experience is being put together by head chef, Ismael Alonso, who executed everything down to a tee, save for a couple of new additions that were not quite so thrilling. Pescaíto frito with jamón works a treat, but seems a little pedestrian alongside the rest, and pristine langoustines with kimchee, dubbed ‘Bravas del Mar,’ sounded like a hit, but turned out to be somewhat heavy and cloying, in truth, a bit of a waste of fabulous seafood.
Still, all in all, BistrEau is an exciting new addition to Barcelona’s increasingly complex and diverse dining scene. Indeed, it has all the hallmarks of being somewhere really very special where you can actually afford to eat.