“Squeeze it out like toothpaste onto the cracker.” Not instructions expected in a Michelin starred restaurant. But when confronted with a white tube of “olive oil butter” and a boat shaped receptacle, one follows directions without undue questioning. The tube looks like an over-the-counter cream, suspiciously unmarked. The “olive oil butter” even appears akin to antibiotic ointment, translucent yellow and gelled. This rather medicinal, almost surgical procedure feels creepy, because the juxtaposition of medical objects and food products is, to be frank, revolting.
At La Terraza del Casino, chef Paco Roncero follows in Ferran Adria’s footsteps, preparing a menu similar to El Bulli’s: cocktails, snacks, tapiplatos, desserts, and morphings. Of course, Adria consulted on the restaurant back in 1998, so his strong influence comes as no particular surprise. Nevertheless, rethinking Spanish cuisines within an avant-garde framework seems tired in 2010. However delicious a “sphericated green olive” tastes, mimetic canapes no longer shock, especially since chefs like Grant Achatz introduced Adria’s best known tricks to Americans.
Therefore, Roncero’s techniques typically stray into familiar territory: liquid nitrogen tableside? Jaded diners have seen it all before. Roncero does manage to chart new cartographies of gustatory sensation though, manipulating ingredients without inducing the freak-out factor.
For example, “meringued cashew with soya” (picture far right) concentrates the known universe of nuts into a singular, crisp bite. False “espardeña” (center) mimics a sea cucumber with nori and puffed rice, an intellectual approximation of fishiness without the fish. Finally, pumpkin seed and yoghurt sponge (far left) billows in the mouth, the softest pumpkin bread imaginable, its sweet squash flavor tightening the platter’s composition.
After the olive oil butter tube debacle, Roncero’s kitchen slams out a rapid streak of winners. A lacy crisp that flutters in the balmy Madrid breeze, truffle and corn dentelle features a thick, musky layer of shaved summer truffles. Pleasurably tinged with grease and salt, this three-bite creation recalls warm, muddy grasses and wading through humid fields. Next, two quarter-sized scallops played host to a beetroot and yoghurt dome, refreshing in its understated complexity. Salmon marinated in miso with a cucumber, pineapple, and fennel salad reminds me of lox, cured to a dense texture.
Indeed, Roncero succeeds where his “progressive” philosophy remains nearly invisible. In a dish of pesto gnocchis with cuttlefish, plump green dumplings alternate with baby cuttlefish, mottled white and purple. Each “pasta” piece ruptures in a burst of pine nut and basil, while the cuttlefish surrender reluctantly, creamy and oceanic. Swirls of parmesan and squid ink punctuate the plate—and the entire course feels harmonious, a complete culinary thought, no crazed fragment or run-on sentence that overflows with extraneous concepts and allusions, too much to handle, so much so that the diner barely breathes in between lofty gastronomic musings.
Unfortunately, Roncero makes a few bad bets. For instance, foie gras “noodles” with smoked eel and apple ice-cream provokes grimaces; the mind simply fails to parse such an overload of contrasting flavors, miscues, and gustatory puns. , Logic indicates that the noodles should be crispy, like breakfast cereal: after all, they appear rigid, thin and short and browned. Instead, spoonfuls of noodles collapse on a probing tongue that then encounters aggressively smokey eel and sour chunks of green apple. Utterly unpleasant, and unfortunately unforgettable.
That tableside freeze show, “lemon and cava-nitro,” is unforgettable too. For this dish, however, the diner strives to encapsulate each sensation in some elusive hippocampal vault. A solar flare of thousands of lemons flashing up through the roof of the mouth into the nose into the brain where it vibrates in a dusty recess of popsicles, ice cream trucks and bomb pops, grass poking through toes and a mosquito hum that never relents. Other desserts fail to compete, so perhaps unfavorable judgments of “cinnamon, orange and roses” and “spiced chocolate with coconut and passion crumbles” deserve reconsideration. I’d rather just reflect on that first smooth caress of lemon ice, as wonderful as memories of suburban childhood.
Rather than mignardises, Roncero (and Adria) serve “morphings,” little morsels to conclude the dining experience. Fizzy lime sweet stands out from an increasingly blurry crowd, fragile corals of citrus that slowly effervesce.
La Terraza del Casino is one of the most beautiful restaurants in which I’ve ever dined. Upon arrival, we waited for our table downstairs in a lobby that Ian Fleming might have designed. Baroque staircases, elaborate moldings, rich marbles and rugs await Le Chiffre’s sinister entrance. On the terrace proper, a view over the rooftops of old Madrid distracts diners from overwrought ponderings.
Although my mother never prepared classic Spanish dishes for me, and I’m sure no Spanish mother ever reverse spherified olive purée, Roncero’s food feels vaguely comforting. Like a new friend returning a phone call just to say hello, La Terraza del Casino reaffirms my confidence in the aesthetic of the avant-garde. No more tubes of butter though, please.