Madrid was a little lighter this past weekend and Dallas a little fuller as chef Sergi Arola of Spain traveled here to dispense his passion for food, music, Harley Davidsons and life in general. Through Central Market's Passporte España event, Arola hosted three cooking classes locally and one in San Antonio enlightening us in the art of tapas and Spanish bravado.
Bearing a resemblance to Al Pacino, the chef sports a rock-star look with tattoos, black boots and aviator sunglasses. Visiting Texas for the first time, he quickly became enamored by the state and likened it to Spain by way of size and food -- noting that just as Texans have barbecues with friends, Spaniards have tapas with amigos.
"One thing I tell you, in Texas you would never eat barbecue without friends, right?" said Arola. "Well, the same goes for Spain. You always eat tapas with friends."
See, we're practically cousins.
As you may know, in Europe the best of the best restaurants are ranked with Michelin stars. (Yes, the same company that makes the tires. In 1900 the Michelin brothers made a restaurant guide for travelers, which was the inception of the now revered reviews.) Well, Arola's restaurant in Madrid called Gastro has been awarded two Michelin stars, which is considered outstanding. He has a bevy of highly impressive awards and successful restaurants in his back pocket, but the thing that caught my attention on his bio was that he is a "leader in the molecular gastronomy movement." Fearing his class may be like day surgery, I did a little research and watched a video that actually was part cooking and part science lesson.
Curious about Texans' reception to this concept, I asked Arola if, after teaching a few classes around the state he thought people "got" this molecular gastronomy movement? Well, Sergi obviously didn't write the marketing brochures that preceded his visits because he shied away from the label.
"First of all, all cuisine in general is molecular," he said. "If you take a T-bone and put salt and pepper on it, it's a chemical process. And to be very honest, great food doesn't need any extra label. There are only two types of cuisine. Right and wrong. Good or bad."
So, no need for the Bunsen burner, flask and goggles I brought. Bummer.
That settled, we moved on to the easy stuff. Like tacos. Crazy as it may sound, Spain doesn't do tacos, so while in San Antonio Arola demanded to be taken to a good local joint, which rumor has it, they have a few of down there. He was sent to La Gloria and said, "It was amazing."
I asked him what kind of taco in particular he tried: "All of them."
And on Dallas cuisine Arola said, "The best piece of meat I have ever had in my life was at Pappas Brothers." Well, well. How about that?
So, boasting aside, let's see what Texas had to learn from Arola.
The cooking classes he hosted at Central Market were actually one-third history lesson, one-third cooking technique and one half Spanish grandiosity. With the help of five assistants and two flat screen televisions, Arola led the class of about 30 through a five-course meal as we sat back and sipped wine. Here's what they made.
Each dish we sampled was paired with a wine from the Muga vineyard in the Rioja Alta region of southern Spain. All of them were wonderful (except that I still think the best white wine is a red one). However, our last glass of the evening was a 2001 Prado Enea Gran Reserva, which is also from the Muga vineyard ($75.99). I've never understood why anyone would pay more than $25 for a bottle of wine. Then, I had this. If you are in any way free to spend at-will on bottles of wine, I can't advocate Muga enough. I refuse to use language like "lingering hints of oak on the back of the palate" or whatever. All I'll say is -- it's fantastic.
The most inspiring bit of this experience was watching the orchestrated chaos conducted behind the chef. The attention and detail that went into each and every plate was mind-boggling. At one point, I turned to the woman next to me and said, "I can't believe that any kitchen would put that much work into one plate. For me."
To which she responded, "That's the difference in dining at a restaurant like his."
Of course, it comes at a price. And I'll be honest about all of this. Was it the best food I've ever had? No. I'm more of a purist and prefer things I know well like strong coffee, a ripe peach and good tacos. But, was this an amazing experience? Heck yes. Would I eat at Gastro in Madrid, or a place similar? Absolutely.
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Everyone at some point should savor the distinction of a kitchen run by a chef who is passionate about every dish he sends to a table. Not that you have to spend a lot a money to get that experience -- there are family restaurants out there that offer that same thing. But, going to this class allowed me to see the fluid madness necessary to feed a room full of people elegant food. And it gave me a whole new level of appreciation and expectations for the next "nice" meal I have.
Watch out Denny's.
Passporte España continues this weekend with chefs and winemakers at various Central Market locations throughout the metroplex. Check one out.