What if you were to take the Japanese concept of kaiseki — that is, the full panoply of its gustatory and aesthetic sensibilities –- and transplant it to Valencia, Spain? I don’t mean simply taking Valencian ingredients and using them to produce derivatives of sushi and sashimi that have become globally representative of Japanese cuisine. That would not be too difficult to achieve, because Spain’s eastern coast is blessed with such a wealth of fish and other seafood with which to create these. In fact, the Balfego Group based in Ametlla de Mar in Catalonia, just a few hours north of Valencia, exports its offshore-raised tuna to Japan. What I mean is devoting the same meticulous attention to the minutest detail that is the hallmark of that epicurean Japanese dining tradition known as kaiseki (懐石、also 会席).
And that is precisely what our exquisite meal the other day at the Michelin-starred Ricard Camarena Restaurant in Valencia city called to mind. Although not exactly a Japanese meal, it embodied the very spirit of kaiseki. We chose the 7-course (for M) and 5-course (for me) tasting menu that came with an array of diverse appetizers (Preludio). Every single dish was a gem — melding colour, flavour, texture, and adornment with a surprise twist in the subtle use of a spice or herb that normally would not be associated with such a dish. And what’s more, they were prepared from local ingredients in season. Befitting frames for such jewels were diverse hand-made vessels by a Valencian female ceramicist, Mónica of Per Amor a L’Art. I wanted to find out more about her work, but her website is still under construction.
The interior of the restaurant itself was true to the Japanese aesthetic of shibui — simple, serene, unostentatiously elegant. The kitchen was open, and there was none of the noisy flurry of hectic activity usually associated with restaurant kitchens. It was surprisingly quiet, the staff conversing in low, modulated tones. It was almost like the calm performance of tea masters at a tea cerony. It helped that we were the first guests and had the place to ourselves for a good while.
But over and beyond these, what marked this as a truly satisfying experience was the kind and solicitous attention of the staff — from immediately taking charge, as soon as we entered, of M’s heavy backpack (we’d been stocking up on Japanese food items in Valencia’s Chinatown) and my scarf, to producing a stool expressly for my handbag. The demeanour and behaviour of the staff are elements I always make a note of wherever in the world Japanese restaurants have been established by non-Japanese. The restaurants can, to a certain degree, approximate the taste and look of iconic Japanese dishes such as tempura and sushi and sashimi. But what they cannot quite so readily pull off is that uniquely Japanese way of warm welcome and devoted attention called motenashi, all accomplished without any hint of condescension or effusiveness throughout a meal. Although Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant is not a Japanese restaurant, what was astounding was the way the staff achieved a similar manner of welcome — motenashi Valencian style.
I shall highlight just a few outstanding aspects of that repast, and cover others in a later post, beginning contrary-wise, with the sweet offerings. The shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice chilli powder) sprinkled on fresh mango slices in the dessert surprised me. I had erroneously detected galangal, and asked the waiter (whose name I later learned was Carlos), who then put me right. I’ve had chilli with mangoes before: in Chiapas, Mexico, ground dried chillies and salt are sprinkled over ripe fresh fruits, including mangoes. So why did I taste galangal? Could this have something to do with terpenes from the mango?
Looking up mango terpenes, I came across an interesting bit of trivia. Apparently eating a mango beforehand heightens a cannabis high (read more here). How? Because both contain high levels of a specific terpene called myrcene. Incidentally myrcene is also found in lemon grass (and basil, ylang ylang, and hops among others; see the list here). That would somehow explain the galangal, whose flavour is not too far removed from that of lemon grass.
Another eye-opener was rosemary pollen, which I’d never known of nor read of being used for flavouring. Rosemary leaves yes, but pollen? Or perhaps they were actually seeds? A brief online search didn’t uncover any reference to the pollen’s or the seed’s culinary use. A sprinkling of the brown granules topped the fine-as-snow lemon crumble dessert. Their faint hint of rosemary complemented the lemon and honey very well.
With my coffee came a selection of petits fours all whimsically fashioned from seasonal fruits and nuts — figs, melon, peach, pistachio. I was glad there were no baked pastries among them. Not that I have any objection to pastries, but they would have been too rich and somehow out of keeping with the preceding dishes that focused on freshly prepared ingredients. Notwithstanding the number of dishes we’d enjoyed, we came away feeling not at all over satiated, perhaps because the majority were based on local vegetables and seafood — only two on beef and wild duck.
This first experience of dining at Camarena’s restaurant was aesthetically satisfying on a number of levels. As someone who adores hand-thrown pottery, I was impressed with the table ware. I especially found it pleasing that, as in the Japanese way of dining, there is not just one uniform set of dinnerware employed, but a diverse array of receptacles of various shapes and colours and textures. I don’t know whether Ricard Camarena specially commissioned the ceramics to his specifications, but whoever coordinated the vessels to the food reminded me of the unerring eye of one of my food heroes, Rosanjin (1883-1959), a Japanese chef-aesthete who created table ware with forms and glazes intentionally designed to complement the food they would eventually hold. If Rosanjin were alive today, I imagine he might be pleased that the spirit of kaiseki can be found in even so far removed a place from Japan as Valencia. In Camarena’s restaurant he would find himself among kindred spirits whose discriminating taste encompasses all aspects of a dining experience — from exquisitely prepared and presented seasonal food, surprising seasonings, handcrafted ceramics, and a quietly elegant space — to the elusive art of welcoming a guest extraordinarily well.