“THE first thing I’ll do if I meet Jamie Oliver is to give him a big hug for what he has done to paella.“
This is the surprising confession spoken by chef Quique Dacosta as we sit at the top table in Deessa, his newly opened fine dining restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Ritz in Madrid – which won its first Michelin star on December 15 – and where I have just enjoyed one of the most memorable meals of my life.
There is no paella on the menu here, but Quique is referring to an incident that threatened Anglo-Spanish relations almost as much as the issue of sovereignty over Gibraltar after the British chef posted a recipe for paella that included chorizo.
The inclusion of the Spanish sausage in the traditional rice dish deeply wounded Spaniards and led to an almighty spat with one commentator declaring that ‘wars had been declared for less’.
“My point is that Jamie has had such a huge influence on promoting world cuisine, even if he made a big mistake with that recipe,” explains Quique with a wink.
“The paella incident was an opportunity for us to really talk about one of our emblematic dishes, and that can only be a good thing.”
The stylishly bespectacled chef has since opened an arroceria restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia where he serves 10 different paella dishes – none of them with chorizo but all made using 48-hour stock and premium-grade bomba rice, cooked over vines and citrus-infused orange-tree wood for that signature Valencia flavour.
The 49-year-old is the culinary genius behind the Valencian region’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, his eponymous Quique Dacosta in Denia as well as El Poblet in Valencia’s old town which has won two Michelin stars.
Not bad from someone who started out as a pot washer in a trattoria at the age of 14 and is entirely self-taught.
“I trained myself from classic French recipe books and then combined those techniques with the simplicity of Spanish dishes.
“I cooked instead with local produce, substituting the expensive ingredients required for French haute-cuisine with what was available.”
He showcases simple flavours such as Denia’s famous red prawn – paired with a saki rice wine in an inspired stroke of genius by sommelier Gustavo Garcia – in the dishes included in a tasting menu at Deessa that includes an entire course dedicated to caviar and fish roe.
His alchemy is epitomised in a dish named simply ‘hard boil egg’. The outer white shell made from a delicate skin of white asparagus bursts at the press of a fork to reveal an oozing rich interior of yolk enriched with the flavour of a caldo.
Oysters are served on a verdant green gel of celery aspic topped with a delicate foam and exquisite frozen spheres zinging with the flavour of fresh apple and seaweed.
While his Melba peach and gold leaf dessert has been created especially for the restaurant at the Ritz in homage to its legendary chef, Auguste Escoffier.
And like Escoffier himself who turned the Paris Ritz kitchens into standards for excellence, Quique is set to do the same at the Madrid Ritz where he is gastronomic director across all the dining ‘universes’ as he calls the different restaurants.
In the Palm Court, Quique has designed a classic menu including traditional favourites such as sirloin beef wellington while a champagne bar offers bite size tapas of oysters and elvers.
The luxurious cocktail bar, Pintura, is dedicated to what Quique describes as ‘liquid cuisine’ while the Jardin restaurant offers more casual al fresco dining with a menu that gives you the chance to try his paella.
“I was given complete freedom to create what I wanted here in Madrid. It was an incredible opportunity to bring the same ambiance and dining experience of the Denia restaurant but place it in a hotel environment and with the vibe offered by the capital city,” he said.
“It is something entirely different, but I hope with the same soul”.
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