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Marbella Twenty-Thirteen | Double-Starred Calima for the Big 3-0

For a relatively small town sitting in the shadows of the larger cities of Malaga and Seville either side of it, Marbella has an astonishing number of restaurants to suit every taste, and of those a large proportion find themselves glowing at the higher end of the gastronomic echelons. Yet only one restaurant in the whole of Andalucia can boast the glittering accolade of two Michelin stars, and that sparkling temple to gastronomy is to be found tucked away in the pine-tree sheltered gardens of Marbella’s Gran Melia Don Pepe hotel, with its large open veranda facing straight onto the Mediterranean Sea. I am talking about Calima by Spanish extrovert chef Dani Garcia, a restaurant which many have called “Fat Duck by the Sea” in homage to Heston Blumenthal’s innovative cooking style, a testimony with which the judges at Michelin would surely agree. And having read rave reviews about the place in the UK press way back in the Spring, I knew that this glittering gem in Marbella’s foodie crown had to be sampled – and when better than on the evening of the biggest birthday in my life so far!

En route to Calima

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Working under the tag line “Cocina Contradicion” Dani Garcia promises to bring to the table cusine embracing multiple contrasts, while savouring traditional Andalucian flavours and exciting the senses. A quote on his website pretty much says it all:

“Into a tradition-based sauce, pour opposing and unique flavours, add a tablespoon of intense nuances, a pinch of talent and a sprig of innovation. Add a mixture of disconcerting textures and sprinkle with thrill.”

He promised food theatre, flavour sensation and gastronomic thrill, but would Dani Garcia’s cooking live up to the mark? Well as we sat down at our sumptuous table, one of only four enjoying the stunning Mediterranean view (that’s what booking 3 months in advance gets you!) and saw the 22 course tasting menu with its €139 price tag, we certainly hoped that we were in for a treat. And, on the whole, we were not disappointed.

The prospect of eating 22 courses is somewhat alarming, until your realise that really, these courses can be called nothing really more than bitesize samplings. Consequently, by the end of the meal, it’s highly unlikely that you will feel full up. At Calima, it’s also highly likely that you would have forgotten much of what you have eaten. For while we were given a copy of the menu, we did at time feel as though we had a conveyor belt of food before us. No sooner had one course come, than it was whisked away by the very attentive waiting staff and another introduced. The overall result of this was that, first and foremost, we felt that the dining experience was too rushed to properly appreciate the complex flavours of each dish, and indeed to revel in the beautiful appearance of every course, but secondly, it means that in writing this review, my memory of the dishes consumed is scant to say the least. Luckily I took photos of each course, so that you can see, if not read about each tantalising sampling.

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So the tasting menu began with three little “snacks” – I felt a little disappointed that three courses had been served at once, but then that very much set the tenet for the evening: efficiency and speed. I wasn’t disappointed by the flavours however, starting with crunchy baby sweet corns layered with a “kimchi” seasoning which, much like Garcia had promised at the outset, popped and crackled on the palate with sweet and sour contradictions. Alongside that, a kind of aerated bagel seemed to melt in the mouth before I had properly appreciated what was inside, and a clustering of what can only be described as rice crispies enveloped deceptive flavours in their recreation of the traditional patatas bravas tapas dish.

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We moved onto a sensational reinvention of the typical caviar tin – this one filled with an unctuous cream combined with dates and caviar making for an incredible flavour balance, and something which should surely be tried at home. Following on, a little “empanadilla” again melted in the mouth owing to its “pastry” of sweet rice paper (contrasting deliciously with its smokey meaty interior). Next, the kind of theatre to be expected of a Michelin star eatery: “egg with no egg” – an apparently goey soft boiled egg which actually contained a foamy, fruity smoked fish concoction. Further theatre followed with a box full of almonds, two of which were frozen droplets of foie masquerading as almonds, but exploding in the mouth like a foie gras ice cream truffle. Serious yum. Such a beautifully multi-coloured fusion followed, as the vivid purples and sunshine yellows of tomatoes, and beetroot and oranges contrasted fantastically with the plumpest oyster of my acquaintance; while further theatre was presented in the form of a tomato which was actually a jelly-skinned fake containing a rich moussey interior.

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Probably the most beautiful dish of all followed on: entitled simply “Rocky Seabed”, it appeared to be a rock clustering of sea life served on a decorative box of shells and sea salt. It was in fact entirely edible – the rock collapsed and melted in the mouth like a wafer-thin rice cake, while the treats on top, including Marbella-fished baby shrimps were an exquisite cocktail of jellies and seasonings. My favourite dish of the lot. Then came the “muffins” which contained a yellow smoked fish cream and whose paper cases were also edible. This was followed by a sensationally presented scallop dish, in which thinly sliced scallops were presented like a rose, surrounded by tiny edible flowers and served with a sharp and sweet citrus cream.

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Up next, a partridge foie dish – two explorations on the foie theme, one like a round truffle, the other a soft mousse in between two crispy wafers, both presented elegantly on a block of real wood. Then another of my favourite dishes: wafer thin potato pillows scented with lemon flavourings and dipped into an exquisitely rich, salty meat gravy. Eel followed: tender slices of eel buried in an avalanche of garlic cream, balance with blood red orange and again decorated with edible flowers.

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The “mains” were perhaps less exciting on presentation, but still excelled on flavour. The gacha-miga of crab sounded more like a painting by Gauguin, but was actually a sweet crab broth served on a vast gold platter (loving the plates throughout the meal…). Citric “Gazpachuelo” followed – a citrus cream enclosing pieces of smoked fish and served on a gorgeous plate of starched lace; while after that a piece of devilled fish was one of the most disappointing sights of the meal, and innovation wise, it had very little to recommend it. Finally, suckling pig did everything it should do, but little else besides.

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From a rather flat end to the savouries, desserts offered another injection of flavour sensation. The first: “lime-lemon passion” was a bowl full of ever texture and taste of citrus imaginable, together with textural variations and plenty of sherbet to make you feel like a child in a sweet shop. The second dessert was so pathetically thin it was barely worth its inclusion as one of 22 courses, let alone its description as a “Hazelnut cake” – it was actually a super thin wafer that disappeared in a second without much ceremony or flavour. But the meal went out with a bang, as “Banana Magu” gave us a banana mousse encased in a banana-flavoured jelly and served with rich dark chocolate. And of course it all ended with coffees, and petit fours served from a very theatrical, if not rather naff oversized tiered wedding cake, whose various layers contained the different treats which were served to us (eventually, when the evidently new waiter worked out how to open them).

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So in conclusion, Dani Garcia certainly served up a theatrical gastronomic performance which tantalised and inspired in equal measure. Was it the best meal I had ever eaten? Certainly not, although it was most definitely the most expensive. Looking back over the many courses, I feel that that the combination of dishes was altogether too soft, too creamy, too foamy – Dani Garcia lacked the balance of texture he promised, and the meal was way too fishy, with probably 80% of the savoury dishes being fish based, and some of them all too similar once you remove the jazzy tableware. I was also disappointed by the speed of the presentation – while efficiency is always appreciated, time to properly appreciate the skills of the chef is a must.

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Calima is, however, a Michelin and Marbella must for those willing to take a tour into gastronomy-fantasy land. And for me, well, I cannot think of a more sophisticated nor exciting way to initiate myself into the 30th year of my life. If you want a table, be sure to book in advance! A month should do it, but perhaps longer for mid-summer tables.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. milliega #

    So exciting!! And looking fab as ever! 🙂

    August 20, 2013
  2. How fascinating! Love that you told us every single detail about this experience. Sounds a bit too busy for me, but then again I have never had a meal with 22 courses.

    August 23, 2013
    • It wasn’t too bad – I felt surprisingly comfortable at the end of the evening. Neither overwhelmed nor too full. The chef struck the perfect balance.

      August 23, 2013

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