At one time or another, we’ve all had a dining experience so memorable that weeks, months or years later, just the thought of it takes you right back to that place. I feel that way about the meal I had celebrating a good pal’s 40th birthday at Chicago’s own three-Michelin-star Alinea. I was transported back to hours spent with two good friends and my brother-in-law nine years ago at the incredibly unique Obiká Mozzarella Bar in Rome, after we stumbled around for 45 minutes trying to find it.
During a trip to Spain last month, I had another of those meals…one so incredible I’ll be thinking about it for years to come. On assignment for a travel article, I’d visited the medieval city of León, about 200 miles north of Madrid in the ancient capital of the Castile-León region. While the rest of my freelance travel writing companions were heading back to the States, I took a peaceful train ride to León and already had a lunch reservation waiting for me at Cocinandos, a Michelin-star restaurant in the city center. WOW…what a sensory adventure awaited me inside its hardwood doors.
Cocinandos, the brainchild of married Chefs Juanjo Peréz and Yolanda León, only has 10 tables. It looks like the sort of place you’d find in New York’s SoHo or perhaps on a trendy, cosmopolitan street in Milan or London. But here, in an old city best known for its stained-glass-adorned Gothic cathedral, is a dazzling display of culinary greatness. And each course was more amazing than the one before.
You can only order a 40 euro (about $55) degustation menu here, and the fact that you don’t choose your own selection is a wonderful thing, as the assortment of courses Chef Juanjo put together were fabulous. (Wine pairings are an additional 16 euro, or $22.) From the amuse bouche — a whipped foie gras topped with bites of eel, green apple and spiced bread — to the incredibly rich cream of artichoke soup served with perfectly crisped goat jerky, the start of the meal was all about the interplay between savory and sweet, between silky-smooth and crunchy textures. And the Spanish wines, some produced near León and surrounding regions, proved the perfect complement.
From there, a gorgeous plating of salmon, fennel, asparagus and an avocado smear followed. A dish of seared cod with a flavorful cabbage and tomato topping was next. My favorite was the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth lamb shoulder served with earthy, locally grown mushrooms and crunchy green peas and over a sheep’s milk cream. Thank goodness the portions were European-sized, giving me the chance to clean my plate while still having room for the next course. A palate-cleansing sheep’s-milk cheese course with tomato jelly — a bit salty, but pleasantly sweet — was served before the dessert, a creatively prepared slab of chocolate, bread, and olive oil served with ice cream and an arched cracker. Again, WOW.
Those seated around me were well-heeled professionals, savoring the cuisine (and wine!) during their work lunch breaks. Perhaps that’s why service was swift, much faster than we Americans might expect in a smaller Spanish town. And Chef Juanjo himself helped present these gorgeous dishes to his guests.
Of course, setting makes a difference, too. Cocinandos’ spare, clean-lined décor — hardwood floors, slate gray ceilings — lets the gorgeously plated food take center stage, and rightly so. You probably couldn’t eat this richly every day, but what an experience when you do. Next time I find myself in Madrid, I just might take the train back to León just to dine at Cocinandos. It’s truly that incredible.
What’s been your most memorable dining experience on the road?