Under the Michelin Stars The Gourmet Dining Scene in Spain

By Damon Banks

Spain experienced a record year for tourism in 2013 with more than 60.5 million foreign visitors, and one of the main reasons it’s “trending” is the burgeoning culinary scene that is continuing to gain more attention internationally. And for good reason: The sophistication of Spanish cuisine and the delectable dishes being created by its world-class chefs has resulted in numerous awards including a galaxy of Michelin stars shining above the Iberian Peninsula.

The tapas craze is a quintessentially Spanish notion that has become a global phenomenon, and the bar continues to rise as chefs experiment with innovative, intense flavors packed into every dish. From Singapore, to Hong Kong and at home in the United States, a growing number of Spanish restaurants are making themselves known. Looking beyond the tapas concept of eating, the Spanish diet leans heavily upon the Mediterranean way of life with fresh seafood, olive oil and vegetables, and it’s simply delicious. Traditional dishes like paella are often served internationally, but rarely duplicated. Fruits are plentiful year-around, with several favorites during the spring and summer being peaches, melons, figs and apricots. Ham is ubiquitous in any Spanish city or town, with the delicacy of the acorn-fed Iberian pigs (jamón ibérico de bellota) being world-renowned. Finally, the creamy elegance of the famed Manchego cheese comes from a sheep of the same name in the region of La Mancha. .

To drink, Spain is home to an abundance of remarkable wines – being the third largest producer of wine in the world – as well as the tourist-favorite sangria that is a delicate combination of wine, brandy, sweetener and fresh fruit. ˇBuen provecho! While there are delicacies specific to each region of this diverse country, Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country provide dynamic destinations complete with fascinating people, places and activities, along with sensational dining experiences.

Madrid

While there are more than 3,000 places to eat in Madrid, it’s still amazing to see the number of Michelin stars distributed throughout the Spanish capital. Chefs developing menus and restaurants at this level are the very reason Spanish cuisine continues to expand globally, and become more appreciated by an international audience. The many culinary excursions are waiting to be explored throughout the entire city, making a centrally located hotel key to the experiencing the true Madrid. The Hesperia Madrid is at the center of the action providing a sophisticated and chic place to call home while visiting this exciting city. Not just a stylish hotel for visitors, but also an ideal meeting place for locals, Hesperia Madrid offers a unique selection of restaurants and bars to satisfy almost any desire. However, when only the best will do, the ultimate culinary destination when in Madrid is Santceloni (Paseo de la Castellana, 57; Tel: +34 91 210 88 40) – the shining Michelin star of the Hesperia Madrid. The history of this restaurant is almost as stimulating as the food served by Chef Óscar Velasco and his team each night. Opened in 2001 with Santi Santamaría leading the way as one of the country’s most famous chefs and owner of Can Fabes, Santceloni earned its first Michelin star within a year, followed by a second in 2003. Since then, the restaurant continues to wow guests each night with their beautifully inventive cuisine.

After the unfortunate passing of Santamaría, Velasco has continued to develop a menu each season that has a clear multicultural emphasis that represents the cultures that have converged in Madrid.

“Santceloni is an elegant and stylish dining experience with great harmony,” described Velasco. The entire team collaborates each night to continue the traditions and standards established by its maestro, Chef Santamaría, where they “respect raw materials, give importance to local produce and use techniques in the kitchen service, while maintaining authenticity as the standard.” Striving to delight both locals and international tourists, Velasco’s all-time favorite dish is his Segovia-style roast suckling pig from the region where he was raised, and a seasonal favorite is the restaurant’s famous artichoke, celeriac and black truffle with ham and rye juice. When in Madrid, feel the pulse of the city like a local by visiting either one of the buzzing destinations where it’s all about seeing and being seen; or slip away to enjoy a quiet coffee with a decedent dessert. Two local favorites are Ramses (Plaza de la Independencia, 4; Tel: +34 914 35 16 66) and Café de Oriente (Plaza de Oriente, 2; Tel: +34 915 41 39 74), which both offer a variety of dining and drink options. At the end of the night when only the trendiest place will do, The Roof at ME Madrid (Plaza de Santa Ana, 14; Tel: +34 917 01 60 20) is a must-visit while savoring the fresh night air and rooftop views.



Barcelona

As the second-largest city in Spain and capital of the semi-autonomous Catalonia region – also serving as one of Europe’s principle seaports – Barcelona is a culinary delight any time of the year. Catalan cuisine obviously has a rich history with the availability of foreign foods arriving on its shore combined with the rich local ingredients from the mountains and sea. Spring and summer launches an exciting vigor to the culinary scene in Barcelona; bringing together the traditional dishes with the modern and experiential techniques, but all based on the Mediterranean ideals of fresh and local.

After taking in Barcelona’s architectural wonders like Gaudi’s Modernist masterpieces and the Gran Teatre del Liceu by day, at night an exquisite culinary experience awaits your discovery at Dos Cielos (Pere IV, 272 286, 08005; Tel: +34 933 67 30 70), the pride of the Meliá Barcelona Sky. Many view Dos Cielos as being twice as good its competitors by bringing twice the star power to the menu with Michelin star-rated chefs who just happen to be brothers, Sergio and Javier Torres. Their pain-stakingly fresh and eclectic menus dazzle guests each night, while maintaining the traditions that have made Barcelona a leading gastronomic destination in Europe.

Situated on the 24th floor, Dos Cielos diners find themselves mesmerized by tantalizing views of the Mediterranean, the mountains and the impressive Barcelona cityscape. The brothers’ imaginative haute cuisine together with an attentive team and breathtaking views have earned the restaurant a Michelin star, and was voted Best Restaurant of the Year by the Catalan Academy of Gastronomy. Their love for local ingredients has also lead to the brothers cultivating an impressive organic herb garden on the roof of the hotel and a new sister restaurant, DO2, in the lower level of the hotel where they use the freshest Mediterranean ingredients to create homestyle comfort food for guests.

Typical Barcelona-style dining and drinking is done outside whenever possible, and two favorite terrace destinations are Mirabé (Manuel Arnús 2; Tel: +34 934 34 00 35) for an extensive cocktail menu after 7:00pm and a splendid view from the balcony at the end of the Avenida Tibadabo; and when available and open to the public, The Terrace (Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuďc; Tel: +34 936 22 03 60) at Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) has the views that provides the true essence of Barcelona.

Finally, for any foodie visiting Barcelona, perusing La Boqueria Market (Rambla, 91; +34 933 18 25 84) is essential to experience all the amazing Iberian ham, cheese, seafood and more just beyond its large iron gates. Here, you shop among – and learn from – the locals.





Basque Country

Food is at the heart of the Spanish culture, and this proves truer than ever when given the opportunity to experience the culinary lifestyle of the northeastern Basque Country. From the celebrated chef, to the family on the farm, to the fisherman’s family along the coast, natives of Basque Country eat, breathe and live food. To further prove this point, Basque Country boasts the most Michelin starred restaurants per capita in the world.

A stylish hotel option when visiting this region is the Silken Gran Domine Bilbao, sitting opposite the Guggenheim Museum and an artistic masterpiece in its own right. The feeling of creativity here is simply inspiring. There are several special dining opportunities at the hotel for those not wanting to leave the property. Under the guidance of Chef Martín Berasategui, with seven Michelin stars to his name, options include DOMA and the more casual, yet very chic Le Café Metropol.

Tucked among the exhibits and instillations of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, works of culinary art await at Nerua (Avda. Abandoibarra, 48009; Tel: +34 944 00 04 30). Chef Josean Alija is a maestro both in the kitchen and with a variety of other creative projects done outside the walls of Nerua. Characterized as a purist in terms of aromas, textures and flavors, Alija continues to push the envelope to also appeal to the avant-garde style. Paul Bocusse, the famous French chef best known for his nouvelle cuisine, has identified Alija’s inventive menus as "one of the best cuisines he’s experienced in his life."

For a unique Spanish wine excursion a few hours south of Bilbao, Comenge Winery (Camino del Castillo s/n 47346 Curiel del Duero, Valladolid; Tel: +34 983 88 03 63) is located in Curiel de Duero, where guests can walk the grounds; enjoy wine tasting courses; savor specialty gastronomic events; or take part in workshops and equestrian activities. The team here creates very intimate bespoke experiences, and have the ability to teach the art of winemaking to the wine experts and novices alike.

“Wine has always been an fundamental part of our gastronomy and culture,” explained Álvaro Comenge, Sales Manager of Comenge Winery. “Different indigenous varietals have existed for several thousand years but it was during the times of the Roman Empire that the production was intensified in order to provide all the empire with the precious beverage produced in what is today Spain.”





The Future of Spanish Gastronomy

Following several years of questionable economic times for the country, both the number of tourists and chefs earning Michelin stars continues to rise. “The economic situation in our country has effected everyday life, and of course the cuisine too, but a firm commitment from the customers to quality remains firm,” added Chef Óscar Velasco of Santceloni Madrid.

While Spanish flavors continue to radiate globally, there will be an increased demand by foodies of the world to visit Spain and experience this complex cuisine for themselves. Spain has a tremendous amount of attactions and activities to offer tourists, but at its core is a reverence for food as an artform that will permeate the experience of every visitor.

--------------------- Damon M. Banks Damon’s involvement on multiple levels within the travel, hospitality, business and lifestyle industries allow him to provide a unique perspective as an editorial contributor, freelance journalist and industry expert to a variety of international print publications, online media and news outlets. DamonBanks.c