Bordering Spain’s most acclaimed culinary stronghold, the Basque Country, La Rioja is no less a gourmet heaven. The area thanks to its favourable climate is known to produce a great variety of vegetables, fruits, excellent charcuterie and meats whilst the proximity to the Atlantic also adds delicious fish dishes to the traditional local cuisine.
Add the regions connection to excellent wine, and you won’t be surprised to find many excellent restaurants in La Rioja. Ranging from simple Pintxos bars to fine dining, you can expect the quality of food that is served to be outstanding wherever you go.
If you are looking for a truly exceptionally gastronomic experience, though you should head to the fine dining restaurant of Hotel Marques de Riscal in Elciego.
Bodegas Marques de Riscal is one of the regions oldest wineries and it is safe to say it is one of the leading places that has helped to put the region on the international wine tourism map thanks to the Frank Gehry-designed futuristic Hotel Marques de Riscal.
Walking into Marques de Riscal Gastronomic Restaurant, you will get captured immediately by the bright red walls which add a touch of extravagancy to the otherwise minimalistic designed space.
Chef Francis Paniego together with executive chef Juan Bautista Penas create dished that are deeply rooted in the traditional local cuisine (and sourcing their produce strictly locally) but interpret them in a completely new and innovative style.
The restaurant serves two tasting menu options which are composed around either 14 or 21 ‘ideas’. Don’t worry though. This does not mean there are as many different courses. Indeed, several of the ideas are grouped together into themes serving one course.
We were a bit nervous that we would not make ti through the 21 ideas nevertheless, but in the end decided it would be a shame not to try the full range, with everything sounding so tempting.
The evening kicked off with a ‘reinterpretation of some of the restaurants classic tapas’ as stated on the menu. Indeed, we were served a selection of classic Spanish tapas that truly kept to the promise of being different.
A red berries infusion (non-alcoholic despite served in a wine glass), black olives, crunchy sandwiches with Russian salad, the famous Riojan potatoes (in no way resembling the traditional recipe), potato croquettes and sardines served in a curst of bread and cheese. All were absolutely delicious, setting the bar high for what had yet to come.
And certainly, the kitchen crew delivered!
Next came the ‘appetizers from the Rioja mountains’. What looked like a neat small flower arrangement indeed was all edible; at least the first part. On the plate stuffed with pinecones only the little cones filled with a delicious mushroom puree was eatable, the rest of the pinecones were indeed only decoration.
The first starter was a tasty red prawn carpaccio served on a tomato tartar, a very smooth white garlic cream and red wine caviar.
The green asparagus was perfectly cooked, soft but still a bit crunchy as I like it best, and wonderfully enhanced by a smooth creamy mushroom mayonnaise.
Artichoke hearts were presented over an innovative cream of potato and little rolls of delectable smoked salmon.
The Norway lobster with its subtle flavour and delicate texture was one of my favourite dishes.
I am not a huge fan of oysters, so I asked the next course to be changed. The kitchen came up with a salmon topped with a very smooth mushroom cream that I truly loved for its delicateness and rich taste.
The sequence of hake that followed was an absolute dream. It kicked off with hake cococha served with a vanilla scented cream with hot pepper that made for an tantalizing flavour mix.
A roasted hake served on a nectar of peppers was also absolutely delicious; its flesh still moist and juicy whilst the skin had a perfect little char.
I loved the sweet ravioli of snout paired with squid noodles that offered a real flavour explosion.
Nest came a roasted, succulent squab (which refers to a young pigeon, typically under four weeks old) that was enhanced with a rich reduction of gran reserva wine from the Marques de Riscal winery.
A peach granite with mulled wine kicked off the dessert section, followed by a white chocolate mousse served in a soup of white chocolate, and finally a dark chocolate mousse with pepper. The fist was clearly my favourite thanks to the tasty mix of soft mousse and sorbet with the freshness of the peach.
The menu ended with a selection of sweet nibbles that not only looked gorgeous, it also offered a great taste mix of several classic desserts, ending the evening on a high note.
I truly loved each of the dishes and it’s safe to say Restaurant Marques de Riscal delivered on one of the best tasting menus I’ve ever eaten.
Marques de Riscal Gastronomic Restaurant
Calle Torrea, 1 – Elciego – Spain