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Salamanca – Restaurant Focus: El Alquimista and La Cocina de Toño

Cheesecake

Ever since Salamanca placed itself on the European cultural map when it was named European Capital of Culture in 2002, the city has actively promoted itself as a capital of gastronomic prowess, advertising itself under the tag line “Salamanca para comérsela” which literally means “Salamanca to eat”. I’d heard about the frog, the glowing sandstone, and the brilliantly baroque Plaza Mayor. Nonetheless, for gastronomy, I would have told you to head up north to San Sebastian (which, by coincidence, will be European Capital of Culture in 2016). However, no sooner had I started investigating restaurant options using the likes of Trip Adviser before jetting off than I realised that Salamanca is jammed back with high quality, innovative restauranteurs, littered with menus degustaciones (taster menus), and brimming with pristine white hatted chefs with a fastidious attitude towards their picture-perfect cuisine. More than once I read that a Salamanca eatery had offered the reviewing diner the “best meal they had eaten in Spain”. Encouraged, I booked up the best of them and went along to enjoy the ride. Here are my two favourites:

El Alquimista, Plaza San Cristobal 6, 37001 Salamanca Tel 923 21 54 93

El Alquimista's "urban" interior

I reserved a table at this very unique restaurant on the back of excellent trip advisor reviews which had placed the restaurant in second place out of some 100 restaurants in the city. When I turned up, I began to doubt whether this had been such a good idea. To say the restaurant is off the beaten track is an understatement. Up a steep hill, in a very residential square (surrounded on one side by some dubious looking flats), with a small arrow pointing the way – the restaurant needed this signage, as it could very easily have been missed – approaching the restaurant, one had to double take – it looked like a garage for the flats above. And upon entering, this illusion was not shattered as we were taken through to one of the most unusual restaurant interiors I have ever sat in – with exposed brickwork (newly built) trimmed with concrete slabs to form booths, over which industrial lights hung casting a somewhat unflattering and certainly unromantic harsh light. What was more, when we entered (at around 9pm) the place was empty. The face of my partner probably mirrored my own – concern – although I was trying to put a brave smile on things, not least because my personal pride demanded that my choice be a success, particularly as I boast of being such a good organiser of holiday dining experiences.

Verduras starter

They call the restaurant “the Alchemist” and at this point, it certainly looked as though some magic was needed. And as though the witching hour itself has come, we found ourselves becoming uncharacteristically merry. I think it was the wine we ordered – I wish I had taken a note of it – it was a Rioja with a mixed grape of around 90% tempranillo and 10% of something else – but it was so good that with one sip, the alchemist seemed to have cast his spell. It’s not that we were drunk – just merried, but certainly sober enough to appreciate the culinary joys which were suddenly to descend upon us, each dish one flurry of magic after another.

Tartar de salmon

We went for the menu degustacion which, at only €36 per person, was half the price of the sum we are used to forking out for a similar taster menu in Marbella (and far below anything you would pay in London). The first dish was verduras, brotes y hortalizas tibias con lascas de jamon ibérico y migas (Vegetables, sprouts and vegetables with warm slices of Iberian ham and crumbs). The dish was exquisite – the vegetables crunched to perfection, the ham providing a salty undertone and the crumbs a textural variant which provided all round satisfaction with every mouthfull. The dish was one of those perfectly simple but precisely executed why-haven’t-I-thought-of-this kind of dish that you just know you could never recreate so well at home.

Monkfish

Up next was the tartar de salmon marinado con citricos, chorizo y huevo poché (tartar of salmon marinated in citrus, chorizo and poached egg), a variation on a traditional dish, we were told, where an unlikely fusion of marinated raw salmon with minuscule chorizo pieces scintillated all of the senses with a fresh citrus splash searing lemony acidity through the smokey pimenton of the chorizo. Meanwhile the poached eggs – tiny things – possibly pigeon’s, were perfectly runny, creamy and sweet. Further scintillation was to be provided in the form of rape asado con puerros y polvo de aceituna negra (roasted monkfish with leeks and black olive powder), a fresh and succulent cleansing dish with a seductively rich dusting of black olive to import mediterranean piquancy onto the plate.

The fatty pork

Things went a little awry while the main course of pluma de cerdo ibérico con ragout de verduras y salsa de miel (iberian pig “pen” with vegetable ragout and honey sauce) which was a little too fatty for us. Some people like fat, and crackling and all that porky sinfulness – I’m not a fan, and, embarrassed by my meek attempts at consumption (and by this point being a little tipsy) I then spent the next 20 minutes trying to hide much of the fatty pork in my napkin so as not to offend the chef. In hindsight, he probably would have forgiven me. He may not, however, forgive the pork-filled linen napkin which he finds in the toilet later.

Back on track for piña a la piña con piña (Pineapple with pineappley pineapple), a dessert which presented pineapple three ways – sorbet, form and carpaccio. Not the most innovative dessert I’ve ever seen, but a welcome palate cleanser after all of that semi-masticated fatty pork.

Piña piña piña

La Cocina de Toñoc/ Gran Via, 20, Salamanca  Tel 923 263 977

Strawberry gazpacho

Number 1 on the trip adviser list is this restaurant, the kitchen of Toño, another location which, upon arrival, looked a little speculative – to get into the restaurant you first pass through a very local-looking tapas bar, with a TV, and plenty of old men chatting up at the Bar. Passing through into the restaurant, things get a little better, but the place remains very traditional – old wooden furniture, dark walls, dated decor and a few drinks refrigerators to boot. But the food, ahhh the food. Toño’s kitchen provided nothing short of a culinary spectacle, a carnival of flavours which danced upon the plate, a flurry of gastronomic fusion which was a pure festival for all the senses.

First up was the aperitivo de la casa, a new take on the traditional andalucian gazpacho, the cold tomato based creamy soup successfully fused in Toño’s imaginative kitchen with strawberries. It made for a tantalising combination accompanied by a delicate ricotta for added creamy indulgence. Next up was a bombon de foie relleno de higos (Foie gras bombons with figs), a starter of such flavoursome sophistication that I felt compelled to lose all of my well-bred english inhibitions and gorge upon the delicate creamy form in a few enthusiastic mouthfuls.

Foie gras bonbon

Ensalada de melon y langostinos

Pez mantequilla

Onto the ensalada de melon con langostinos y vinagreta de yogur (melon salad with prawns and a yoghurt dressing), a delicate but multilayered combination of sweet unctuous prawns and a thirst quenching melon with silky, salty fish roe and sharp strawberries. The fish course came next, a pez mantequilla con arroz meloso con setas, vinagreta de vinagre de trufa y chip de jamon (fish in butter with sticky rice, mushrooms, truffle vinaigrette and a ham chip), a moist perfectly seasoned piece of fish on a creamy risotto base, with a salty ham accompaniment and sticky sweet viaigrette.

The main course spectacular

But at the Cocina de Toño, the piece de la résistance came with the main course, a dish which, upon first presentation, I didn’t think I would be able to eat, so full was my stomach and so little my remaining appetite. But as I cut beneath a bed of rocket and a perfectly crispy roll of melted cheese, I found a piece of meat so perfectly seasoned, so sensationally juicy and tender, that I could not help but scrape the plate clean – yes, Toño’s presa ibérica con cigala, canelon de queso y melaza de vino (iberico steak with rocket, cheese cannelloni and a wine reduction) was a sensation, a waltz of salts doing a tango on my tongue with a red wine reduction that was a syrupy sweet seduction. Not to be outdone, this was followed by a yoghurt “digestive”, a shot of fizzy, sparkling, sherbety, foamy pink delight, which was like being a child again. It reinvigorated senses which have long lost grown bored by adult life, and tingled down my throat and throughout my body making me shiver with delight. This was real willy wonker magic.

Fizzy yoghurt digestive

One dish more – a dessert of cheesecake, a surprisingly light springy construct, cross-pannacotta and creme brulee with a cheesecake touch. Delicious. But it beat me. This meal was spectacular. I feasted like a king. But felt roundly stuffed like Humpty Dumpty. I nonetheless was so excited, so almost emotional about the fine quality of the food that we had received that I actually kissed the waitress on my way out! Who can ever say that the english are inhibited? (She could I suppose just assume that I’m a typical english drunk).

Oh well, hats off to you Señor Toño. You’re certainly my Salamanca no. 1.

Cheesecake

So that’s it, my blog’s meandering journey through my trip from Madrid to Salamanca is at an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, at least as much as you can without actually sampling the gastronomic delights, the golden glow, and the distinctive smell of a town steeped in history at every masterfully stone-masoned house, church and lowly street corner. Time to start thinking about where comes next. Until then…

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