El Puerto is also home to Aponiente, the best restaurant in the south of Spain. Owner Ángel León studied at Arzak and for his efforts was named Spain’s best chef at the Royal Academy of Gastronomy’s awards in 2013.
Aponiente (Advanced A), Calle Francisco Cossi Ochoa, www.aponiente.com
His restaurant inhabits an old 19th-century tide mill in a once derelict industrial area just south of the train station. Google map here.
Built in 1815, the Caño Mill was located in the salt marshes of the river estuary to produce energy from the wave power generated by the four daily tides.
For 150 years it milled sea salt, in addition to grinding flour for bakeries to make biscuits and cakes. However, after the mechanisation of the flour industry and the salt crisis of the 1970s, the building was abandoned until León repurposed it in 2005.
Entering the restaurant, one of the first things you see are these large glass tubes containing phytoplankton, the new buzz ingredient in modern Spanish cuisine which León is popularising. The plankton are rich in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, so health obsessives are all over it.
Next you come to the fish display where you can see what you are about to eat. The menu is heavily weighted towards seafood as befits León’s popular moniker as’ the chef of the sea’ (video here).
The portholes for windows make you feel like you are inside a ship.
Next you come to the open kitchen which seems very small in comparison to the wide expanse of the dining room after it. There are fifty staff for a maximum of thirty five diners (about twenty when I went for lunch), and while the high ratio is apparent, I think there must be a another main kitchen with more staff behind the scenes.
I had the eighteen course Menú ‘Mar en Calma’ (‘Calm Sea’ Menu) for 175€ with an added wine pairing for 70€. It’s the most I’ve ever spent in a restaurant but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was going to experience the best wines and ingredients in the region. There was also the Gran Menú ‘Mar de Fondo’ (‘Groundswell’ Menu) at 205€ and 90€ for wine but, while I hate to deny myself any experience, I couldn’t quite justify it on my wages.
Forgive me but I didn’t grade any of these wines and dishes as the staff were hovering around me constantly but suffice to say it was all fantastic (A/B+). Given the price tag is was nice to just relax and let the photos do the talking.
Upon being seated I was served a glass of Manzanilla ‘Maruja’ from Bodega Juan Pinero.
Then, and throughout the evening, the in-house baker came round with a basket containing a variety of wonderful, still-warm breads.
The next wine was a Fino en Rama (‘en rama’ means unfiltered; a current trend in Sherry production) which had been bottled specially for the restaurant by Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia.
A trio of starters arrived. As the ‘fishpig’ logo on the grease proof paper implied, the ‘Lomo en Caña’ was actually cured fish masquerading as pork loin, and they were remarkably similar.
With it, ‘Sobrasada de Pescado Azules’ (Blue Fish Sobrasada). Usually a Sobrasada is a raw, spreadable Balearic pork sausage, so not sure what the idea was here.
The ‘Patatas, Camarones y Limón’ (Potatoes, Shrimp and Lemon) was a take on the local dish ‘Tortillitas de Camarones’; a deep fried chickpea flour pancake containing tiny shrimp.
Here we have ‘Sardinas Asadas’ (Grilled Sardines), although I only count one sardine. Call me finicky but it’s false advertising to use a plural, not that I cared at the time.
Next the over-presented ‘Taco de Almendra y Salazones’ (Almond and Salted Fish Taco).
Lustau ‘Red Vermouth’ from Jerez.
With this, some fishy cakes. Clockwise they are a ‘Berlina de Choco’ (Cuttlefish Doughnut), a ‘Bollito de Calamares’ (Small Squid Bun) and a ‘Brazo de Gitano’ de Plancton (Plankton Roll). A ‘Gypsy Arm’ is the Spanish name for what we in the UK would call a Swiss roll.
Reverting back to the sherry theme; a Manzanilla en Rama called ‘Saca de Invierno’ by Bodegas Barbadillo.
Next came a Plankton dish which I think was additional to the menu as I don’t know what it was called. For me it was very interesting to taste the intense seaweedy flavour but it wasn’t great to look at!
Not sure what these things were sorry! Another off-menu experiment perhaps…
Then ‘Tres Formas de Comer una Caballa’ (Three Ways to Eat a Mackerel).
A glass of Champagne Brut Nature ‘Cuvée Solessence‘ from Jean-Marc Sélèque.
The ‘Royal de Erizos’ (‘Royal’ of Sea Urchins) was very pretty…
… but the ‘Sopa Fria de Aguaviva en Adobo’ (Cold Soup of Pickled Jellyfish) wasn’t particularly photogenic. I do like me a bit of crunchy jellyfish though.
The ‘Ostra Café de París‘ (oyster in a sauce of herbs, spices and butter) was presented in a barnacled bowl.
‘Cazón en Amarillo’ (Dogfish with Amarillo Chilli).
After this a glass of Fino ‘Perdido’ from Sanchez Romate. I want to buy a crate of this just for the beautiful label (£8 a bottle approx).
Descartes en Arcilla al Pan Frito (Fish in Clay with Fried Bread). León likes to use lesser known kinds of fish and I think the one in question here is Borriguete which has the great English name of Rubberlip Grunt.
Popieta de Morena en Grenobloise (Pieces of Moray Eel in the Style of Grenoble).
Amontillado ‘1830 Vors’ from El Maestro Sierra. A gem but very hard to get and retails at not less than £48 a bottle.
Pepino, Sandía, Hierbas (Cucumber, Watermelon, Herbs).
Vino de Licor ‘Tintilla de Rota’ from Bodegas El Gato. Rota is a town between Sanlúcar and El Puerto that is now home to an American military base. Many vinyards were destroyed during the construction of the base which is why the wines are quite rare. Tintilla has records longer than Rioja, over 500 years.
And with my coffee…
…Cereza y Chocolate (Cherry and Chocolate) served on an old anchor.
And finally a balloon of ‘Juan Sebastian Elcano’ a Solera Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez from Gutierrez Colosia. Bottles sell for upwards of £70.
With the bill you get a copy of the menu to take home.
This was unarguably an amazing meal but was it worth the money? The answer to that is how much you get paid I guess. On my wages 250€ is a bit too hard to justify (two days of work) but I’m glad I did it if only to see how the other half live. Once in a lifetime is enough for me though.