Ricardo Sanz is a Spaniard, always has been and always will be. He also happens to be an outstanding sushi chef. He has been intrigued for quite some time by sushi, so much so that he spent four years working with a Japanese master to hone his craft. What Sanz has done since has been to take those skills and apply a distinctive Spanish culinary sensibility to them. The result is an original, unique and delicious hybrid cuisine that works extraordinarily well. That it does so should not come as a great surprise though, as Spanish and Japanese cuisines share a number of congruities. Both countries are major seafood consuming nations, maintaining extremely high quality even in the face of declining stocks and ever more expensive product. Both cuisines are well versed with small plates and both utilize rice as major staple starches. These similarities were expressed during the 2006 CIA Conference on "Spain and the World Table." Both cultures have recognized this to some extent showing increasing fascination with each other's cuisine. For example, outside of Catalan and Spanish culinary influences, no culture has exerted a greater pull on Ferran Adria and elBulli than that of Japan.
We arrived for lunch directly from Madrid Fusion. The first ones in the restaurant, we were seated at Chef Sanz's sushi station. He had just beaten us back to his own restaurant from the Congress, where he had spent the morning himself. The restaurant is stylish and reasonably well lit. Though empty at first, it wasn't too long before a sophisticated lunch crowd started filtering in and filling the seats. As there was plenty of work left to do in the afternoon at the Congress we did not indulge in alcohol.
We chatted with Chef Sanz while he started slicing beautiful pieces of fish. We would be going omekase all the way. It wasn't long before the small plates started filing out, seemingly from nowhere. The first course provided a truly spectacular beginning, SASHIMI DE CIGALA, a nearly raw, langoustine lightly poached in sake. The tail was minced oh so fine, such that it was easy to eat with chopsticks and share. While the tail was served on ice on a separate plate, the head and carapace was brought out as well making a magnificent display. The flavor of the meat maintained the sweetness of the langoustine with the sake adding an extra mildly bitter element that played with the silky meat.
Our palates were then cleansed with a seaweed salad and some fruit before we moved on to USUZUKURI SALMONETE CON SU PIEL TOSTADA or thin sliced red mullet served with its toasted skin and a little ponzu. Sanz started to show a glimpse of his approach here, offering contrasting textures and harmonious flavors.
The chef's Spanish instincts started peering out more forcefully with USUZUKURI CON ACEITE DE ARGÁN, thinly sliced white fish served with tiny, flavorful potatoes from the Canary Islands and a sauce made from North African Argan oil and pine nuts. The textural contrast of this dish was much more subtle as the crispness of the fish skin from the earlier dish was replaced by a softer, but still contasting potato. The flavor combination was simply lovely.
Is there anything more classicly European than the truffle? Sanz took that ingredient and added it to thinly sliced John Dory for his stunning USUZUKURI A LA TRUFA. The late season white truffles added a decadent earthiness to the seabourne fish.
The next dish, so classic, so simple, so novel and so delicious, totally blew me away. USUZUKURI "FISH AND CHIPS" was brilliant and delicious. Combining white fish with rice vinegar, a little ponzu, deftly fried panko crumbs and fried potatoes offered a sense of humor to go along with the chef's skill.The flavors and textural contrasts were at once familiar and novel. Did I say that I loved this dish?
I ate the next dish with a guilty conscience. I had failed to say that I did not want tuna at the beginning of the meal. Unfortunately much of Spain remains willfully ignorant of the plight of the much beloved bluefin tuna, a fish too delicious for its own good. Chef Sanz served us USUZUKURI DE TORO, tuna belly inspired by the Catalan favorite pa amb tomaquet or bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato. The tuna belly was served with bread crumbs, olive oil and tomato pulp. Not wishing to be rude, I ate it and truthfully enjoyed it even as much as I wish that it hadn't been served. I can certainly be criticized as I should have anticipated the possibiliy, no probability, that tuna would be served and declined from the beginning. I simply did not think until it was too late. I am not aware of any of the other seafood items that we were served as having the same existential crisis as the blue fin tuna, so did not suffer any major guilt over any other aspect of the meal.
A different twist was taken next. SASHIMI DE CALAMAR consisted of tenderized raw squid forming a tube around caramelized onions served with fresh wasabi and a sea vegetable, whose name I unfortunately forgot, though it grows alongside percebes or goose barnacles along the northern coast of Spain and shares some of their same flavor profile. Once again the different ingredients offered textural contrast in addition to what they contributed in terms of flavor.
An impressive array of lightly dressed raw scallops, cockles and clams followed, SASHIMI DE MOLUSCOS. The shellfish were pristine and delicious, relying more on their inherent flavor traits than the light treatment provided by the chef. Each mollusk had a distinct and delicious flavor.
Just prior to leaving for lunch, a wonderful presentation was done at Madrid Fusión by New York chef Sotohiro Kasugi, much of which focused on using sea urchin and some of their distinctive characteristics. One of the uni varieties Soto happened to mention was that from the coast of Galicia in the northwest of Spain. Soto described the uni as softer, slightly more bitter and very mineral-like when compared to the uni available from U.S. waters. Our next dish just happened to be, SASHIMI DE UNI, the very same Galician uni that Soto had just described. The uni was, in fact, different than any I had previously eaten, described quite accurately by Soto. I found it to be delicious, in much the same way that I find a good flinty Chablis delicious.
Sanz shifted back to classic Japanese for his next offering, NIGIRI DE CHICHARRO, or horse mackeral. This fish can often be somewhat strong and overpowering. This nigiri had flavor, but it never overpowered, a testament to the quality and freshness of this oily fish.
NIGIRI DE GAMBA ROJA, or Mediterranean red shrimp from just south of Alicante was done in two parts. The tail was served raw nigiri style, while the head was grilled and served with its innards intact and perfect for sucking all the juices from. I know of no shrimp tastier than those from the western Mediterranean. People can and do argue over the specific provenance of the best of these shrimp, though my experience with them is not sufficient to offer an opinion beyond how wonderful they all are!
A tradition in the south of Spain is to roast a suckling pig on a spit with the drippings raining on and cooking a fish. Chef Sanz served us his version of that, NIGIRI DE MERO CON CINTURÓN DE TOCINO IBÉRICO, in which he wrapped the white-fleshed fish with bacon from Iberico pigs and then used a blow torch to lightly sear the bacon and melt some of the fat onto the fish. The result was sublime.
Unfortunately, time was passing rapidly. I was still intrigued by the chef's novel offerings, but we needed to return to the congress. Our last plate consisted of a few small, fun and tasty items including a small fried quail egg with truffle paste on some rice and a Spanish wagyu "slider" with sushi rice substituting for the bun and a little tomato pulp for additional flavor and body. These were tasty endings to a mostly delightful meal, the only fault being the serving of the bluefin. We would have loved to sample dessert and tea, but unfortunately, we had already overstayed our time with a need to return.
That a non-Japanese could turn out such wonderful and creative sushi isn't shocking though it is unusual. I suppose some purists could quibble over the style and originality of the offerings or perhaps even the chef's technique and knife skills. I certainly had no cause to quibble, though, as I found Chef Sanz' food to be beautiful, fun, creative and delicious. I found the marriage of Japanese tradition with a Spanish sensibility to be fruitful. Now if only both cultures could become more sensitive to sustainability when it comes to the fruit of the oceans before it is too late for magnificent creatures like the blue fin tuna.