During our extreme eating tour of Costa Brava, Spain, one of our meals truly stood out. The Hotel Aigua Blava restaurant offered to host a table of chatty travel bloggers, in their very nice restaurant, for a multi-course gastronomic feast, unlike any meal I had eaten in a very long time.
Costa Brava is at a geographic crossroads, where the sea offers ample seafood, the countryside offers meat and cheeses, and the plains offer orchards of fruits and vegetables. It’s also at a gastronomic crossroads. It’s a region proud of its traditional cuisine and recipes, while on the forefront of modern techniques. It is home to plenty of top, Michelin star restaurants, including the best restaurant in the world in 2015. These restaurants explore cuisine in a way that is not all that common on most traditional Spanish menus.
The Hotel Aigua Blava restaurant offered us just a glimpse of this cuisine.
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Meeting Chef Lluis From The Hotel Aigua Blava Restaurant
During our blogger stay at Hotel Aigua Blava, we enjoyed a tasting menu created by the hotel Chef. When we returned to the hotel for a stay a few weeks later, we had the chance to sit down with Chef Lluis, to get to know him and his cuisine better.
We are always curious about what a chef thinks are the key dishes of his region, particularly with such an emphasis today on fusion and creativity. Luckily, we had two of the three local dishes he recommended, including suquet, which was the core of our fishermen’s lunch and Pals rice, which we ate at Casamar just the night before we the Chef.
The third dish Chef Lluis mentioned was interesting, something that translates roughly to sea and mountain, or mar y montana, a dish generally prepared with prawns and chicken, a quintessential grandmother’s dish, and something he grew up on.
Our discussion with Chef Lluis focused so much on the traditional foods of the region. And, considering our setting, the outdoor patio of Hotel Aigua Blava, an extremely traditional and historic hotel, this totally made sense. But, when I tried to reconcile his answers, and his demeanor, with the tasting menu he offered us the week before, I was baffled.
I know that Chef Lluis is part of a local association of chefs. He had just come from meeting with the other chefs where they discussed how to work together to promote the kitchens of the region. They all know each other, and work together. And, it seems they inspire each other as well. Because the techniques that Chef Lluis used during our tasting menu were anything but traditional.
Our Tasting Menu at the Hotel Aigua Blava Restaurant
Considering the traditional and historic feel of Hotel Aigua Blava, I was pleasantly surprised at the meal. Well, more than pleasantly surprised. I was down right stunned at the gustatory delights.
The menu, translated into English seemed traditional enough in its descriptions. The dishes that arrived, though, were beyond my expectations, making me jot down notes on the menu to remind me of the unique layers of flavors.
We started with tomato water with strawberries, which tasted like a strawberry cream gelatin, but with the addition of popping candies. It was the first time I had eaten a dish with popping candies, like the Pop Rocks I ate as a child. It appears to be a trend, which has not made it to the street food I am used to in Southeast Asia.
I asked Chef Lluis specifically about this dish. Traditionally, it was a dish made with avocado and shrimp, but he fine tuned it over time to make it more creative. The avocado would get brown, so they turned to tomatoes outside, then they continued to increase their creativity, adding and substituting different ingredients. He was experimenting with different textures and flavors. He added the tomato pop rocks in order to create a surprise. It was firmly a traditional Catalan dish, but with a very new twist.
When the next course arrived, I looked at the dish, and the menu description, and then back at the dish, trying to make some connection between the two. A free range chicken, with “Mi-Cuit” duck liver, was set on a bed of pistachio gelatin. Most unique, the dish included a little plastic tube of port wine sauce to squeeze over the dish.
The prawn carpaccio was one of the more traditional dishes, served with clams and fresh pasta, along with crispy pork rinds. The clam was more of a clam reduction, and tasted of the sea.
The menu then said we would have a parmentier of celery with Palau Sator’s ecological eggs. I knew vey few of these words. I understood celery and eggs, but that was about it. A parmentier is generally a soft, potato soup. The eggs were a local Catalan egg. The dish did not match the description even after I asked questions and did my own research. It looked almost like a pasta, topped with a celery foam and layers of truffles. Whatever they called it, I did not care, it was one of my favorites of the night.
What followed were two traditional dishes, with interesting twists. A coastal sole was served with a pepper “tear”, queso (cheese), crispy fish skin, and black garlic. The pepper tear was just that, a pepper in the shape of a tear, served as a garnish next to the the clove of soft black garlic. The crispy fish skin was propped up on the edge of the plate, like a movie screen at a drive-in.
The next, more traditional dish, included a tatami of Angus ox entrecôte. It was an ox steak, served with a Sichuan pepper sauce, which had a little unexpected kick of spice, something I am not used to in traditional Spanish foods.
Our dessert was a white chocolate sphere stuffed with cream of raspberries. It appeared to be a simple pink ball.
But, when I used my fork to break into the sphere, the center oozed deliciously.
At this point, I had almost lost track of the number of courses we ate. The evening was getting late, too, especially after our long day touring Costa Brava. And, I never had the opportunity to take my nap, which is a must most days of the week. I was tired, and perhaps a little buzzed after Hotel Aigua Blava served us what seemed to be an unlimited supply of Emporda wines, including a sparkling wine from Perelada, along with a full magnum of Finca Malevina Perelada.
Along with our dessert wine, though, Chef Lluis sent out an impressive display of petit fours to finish up the meal. The server delivered several plates of treats, most of which I could not identify. I just gave up at that point. I gave up trying to understand what Chef Lluis served and instead just submitted to enjoying the last bites of a surprisingly amazing meal.
What I continued to marvel, in my Emporda wine stupor at the end of the night, was how creative this meal was. How gorgeously prepared the dishes were. When I looked at my surroundings, though, it was such a traditional setting. I am continued to be amazed at the meeting of tradition and modernity in the Catalan cuisine.
We were supported by Costa Brava Tourism and Hotel Aigua Blava during our time exploring Catalunya, but my views, my yummy sounds, and my belly rubs are, as always, my own. Our tasting menu differs from traditional dinner menu at Hotel Aigua Blava, but can be arranged for special occasions on consultation.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.