“No Reservations” season 4, episode 17: Spain

Location: It’s about time, Mr. Bourdain. Tony makes a culinary pilgrimage to one of Europe’s, and arguably the world’s, most famous culinary destinations of the moment: Spain. It is a country that is thoroughly grounded in the cuisine of tradition yet remarkably forward-thinking in its gastronomic outlook.

Episode Rating: Four and a half bloody meat cleavers (out of five). I’m sorry, perhaps I’m biased, but it’s hard to characterize an episode that features such fascinating, delicious, forward-thinking food as anything but awesome. If you’ve seen any episodes of Bourdain’s previous show, A Cook’s Tour, then you’ll know why this works so well. It’s enjoyable without trying too hard.

Summary: Spain is a country with a cooking style that is thoroughly traditional – we are talking after all about an area of culture that dates all the way back to the ancient Romans, Greeks and beyond. Yet recent years have seen the rise of a very different and highly original brand of cuisine that defies easy convention. Famous chefs like Ferran Adria have pushed what was once one of Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets into the pantheon of global “foodie hotspots.” in much the same way that people have long romanticized France or Italy, Spain is now arguably just as well-known for its local and delcious food culture. Tony comes to Spain expecting to be wowed and rediscovers a country that does not disappoint.Bourdain kicks off the Spain episode by describing Spain as “the best place in the world to eat,” and for anyone that has ever visited, its hard to argue with him. Particularly observant Spain travelers might have noticed this is a bit of generalization. The regions where Bourdain spends his “Spain” trip – Catalonia and the Basque Country are hardly representative of an entire country – but nevertheless, it would not be unfair to describe this region as among the most fertile and innovative culinary “zones” of anywhere on earth.

Fittingly, Tony begins his Spanish culinary odyssey in Vilassar de Mar, a small coastal town just northeast of Barcelona. Not surprisingly this town on the sea is well known for its seafood. Tony joins his friend for a snack at Ca l’espinaler, one of the region’s most famous tapas bars. The bar serves an assortment of some of the freshest ocean creatures on earth – razor clams, cockles, mussels, and toro-quality tuna. The most surprising perhaps, is that it all comes from cans. Though canned food is regarded as less fresh, Tony points out that seafood if canned at the height of its freshness can actually enhance the food’s flavor. And considering a 6 ounce can of seafood at the bar will set you back 156 euros (!!!) it better be damn good.

Finding himself satisfied with his main course, Bourdain returns to Barcelona to satiate his sweet tooth with some dessert. He meets up with the famous brother of Ferran Adria, Albert, to sample some of his famous dessert creations. Albert is working to “reimagine what is possible with food,” using combinations like flavored sorbet and gelatin to recreate strawberries that are then paired with a light fluffy sponge cake. It is not much of a leap from Albert then to understand Enric Rovira, a food artist who creates uniquely sculptural works crafted entirely out of chocolate. Not content to construct his creations by hand, Rovira makes his sculptures by hand and then sets them out in the sun to melt, resulting in a uniquely organic and artistic edible creation. An edible work of art.

To set a sharp contrast with the sweet chocolate and sponge cake, Tony heads to a field southwest of Barcelona to learn more about onions. In the spring, the nearby residents gather to feast on Calcotadas, a unique local onion that is roasted and grilled and then served with a healthy serving of romesco sauce and some flagons of red wine. It looked disturbingly like eating a blooming onion at Outback Steakhouse, but in a much more appetizing way.

However fun his Spanish eating experiences to date, Bourdain is ready to move on to more “serious” culinary experiences and heads north towards San Sebastian. He meets up with the Arzak family at Bar Haizea, one of the city’s better known tapas spots. Despite its simplicity, Tony finds the meal a revelation. Pickled peppers with anchovies, tortilla espanola, salmon mousse, and stuffed eggs are firmly grounded favorites of Spanish cuisine yet foods that are uniquely complex and surprising with their contrasting flavors and textures.

Tony then heads to the renowned restaurant Mugaritz to dine with head chef Andoni Aduriz. Bourdain is given the choice between two cards for his meal – 150 minutes “submit” and 120 minutes “revel.” Not one to back down, Tony chooses “submit” and is not disappointed. The courses of his meal, stretching from potato baked in an edible clay shell, to charcoal foie gras with sea urchin (blackout good), to beef served over cinders and crispy radishes, are exquisitely prepared yet still manage to be fantastically surprising and somehow still “traditional.” This is a theme that Tony returns to time and again here and it seems especially true of the unique food on offer at Mugaritz.

As if this one life-changing meal was not enough, Bourdain then proceeds to Asador Etxebarri, a restaurant named after the town where it is located that specializes in grilled foods. Despite the essential simpicity of the grilling technique, restaurant owner and chef Victor Arguinzoniz manages to create food that is at once creative, complex and delicious. Foods like beluga caviar and tiny eels are grilled quickly over an open flame, searing in a unique smoky set of flavors. We know Bourdain has a weak spot for grilling – it’s not a surprise he’s so enchanted with this place. He looks like he wants to be adopted by the owner as his next of kin.

Tony returns to San Sebastian for a final meal with his friends the Arzaks. It’s not even worth describing the mind-bending combination of flavors they consume. Instead, it is instead evidence of a larger truth about Spain. For a country with such fantastic local ingredients – produce this ripe, seafood this fresh, meat this flavorful – it’s a wonder the citizens of this diverse country didn’t just stop there. Why mess with a good thing? But an impulse persists in the Spanish psyche – something that pushes them forward, forcing innovation and experimentation, yet never quite
leaving behind the traditions of the past. An inspiring, delicious and simply awesome place to eat.