L'Escaleta. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

One of the highlights of my trips to Spain in the last couple years was the discovery of L’Escaleta, nestled in a mountain valley setting in the small town of Cocentaina in the province of Valencia. It was really more like a revelation.

Not only that such an elegant, refined and at the same time inventive cuisine could be found in the countryside, but that it was executed at a world class level. And also with such relaxed elan so far afield from the culinary poles of San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid, for which Spain is well known.

The arched entrance to L'Escaleta. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The arched entrance to L’Escaleta. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

This is part of what makes Spain such a rich destination for food and wine lovers. The ingredients can be outstanding throughout Spain, but the level of cooking can be unexpectedly high, whether at a humble neighborhood bar or at ambitious restaurant off the beaten track like L’Escaleta.

My business partner, María Alvarez, and I were visiting Celler la Muntanya, our new winery partner for the first time in the nearby town of Muro. We were hosted by winery co-founder Juan Cascant, and his wife Inmaculada. Despite our fatigue from travel, Juan insisted that taking us out to L’Escaleta would be the ideal way to spend our first night in the area.

It was a rainy night. The arched entrance gate opened into a beautiful arbor-way covered in a night sheen of rain and light. As we walked across wet cut stone our anticipation grew. All was peaceful, still and the quiet only broken by the soft sound of rain and our footsteps. It seemed there only for us. The lights were the only clue that it was open.

The luminous night  arborway leading to L'Escaleta's dining rooms; used for alfresco dining during warm weather. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The luminous night arbor-way leading to L’Escaleta’s dining rooms; used for alfresco dining during warm weather. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives


Inside we were warmly greeted in a modern space featuring glass panels, yellow ochre walls and terra cotta tiled floors. As we entered the inner dining area it had more traditional elements of limestone columns, Mediterranean wall tiling and was furnished with elegant dark wood and red velvet touches. However, the main dining room was not empty of guests, but rather occupied by a mix of well spaced tables of convivial diners that included German wine importers, whom María knew.

It turns out L’Escaleta has a top wine list and an award winning sommelier, Alberto Redrado, which makes it a destination in the region for wine lovers. It had received 2 stars from Guia Repsol, which I find more accurate than Michelin for restaurants in Spain, and was listed as 10th of the top 25 best gastronomic restaurants in Spain (and one of the 101 restaurants to visit before you die!) by Condé Nast Traveler (Spanish Edition).

Our meal started provocatively with light, savory garlic ice cream cubes set between crisp dried Pericana sheets. Pericana is a very traditional sauce of  dried red peppers, garlic, cod and olive oil, but here pureed flattened and dried into sheets. It was a bright, nuanced and eye-opening start.  Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Our meal started provocatively with light, savory garlic ice cream cubes set between crisp dried Pericana sheets. Pericana is a very traditional sauce of dried red peppers, garlic, cod and olive oil, but here pureed flattened and dried into sheets. It was a bright, nuanced and eye-opening start. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives


Not realizing the extent of the accolades at the time, we had simply put ourselves in the hands of Juan, Alberto and his cousin, chef Kiko Moya. And we proceeded to be amazed. As the evening progressed it became increasingly clear that this was not simply excellent, but a restaurant operating at the highest level.

Next up were "bocadillas" (little sandwiches) of mildly cured blood sausage called Botifarra, here with caramelized onion, chocolate and truffle. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Next up were “bocadillas” (little sandwiches) of mildly cured blood sausage called Botifarra, here with caramelized onion, chocolate and truffle. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives


The delicious contemporary takes on classic Mediterranean flavors pictured above mark the modern edge of the chef Kiko Moya’s cuisine. They rely on heritage elements, such as the Pericana, but in this case re-conceived with brilliant technical skill as something like an aioli sandwich, where the bread is pericana wafer and the aioli center is milky garlic ice cream. Or with the Botifarra, a rustic, centuries old sausage recipe laced with truffle and chocolate tones.

Another measure of culiary excellence is the quality of the bread and butter. This rustic sourdough boulle was superb. The crust was thick, crisp and crunchy without being hard. The interior moist and flavorful. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Another measure of culinary excellence is the quality of the bread and butter. This rustic sourdough boulle was superb. The crust was thick, crisp and crunchy without being hard. The interior moist and flavorful. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The house  butter made with Mediterranean herbs from Mariola and a rosemary sprig on top was addictively good. I had a whole one myself. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The house butter made with Mediterranean herbs from Mariola and a rosemary sprig on top was addictively good. I had a whole one myself. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

 

2009 Celler la Muntanya Albir white. Crisp and bright with stone fruit, melon and wild herb notes, capped by a mineral laden finish. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

2009 Celler la Muntanya Albir white. Crisp and bright with stone fruit, melon and wild herb notes, capped by a mineral laden finish. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

As we were with Juan, we were freed from the need to puzzle through the extensive and impressive wine list to make pairing choices. We were treated to a progression of Celler la Muntanya wines. The bright bold, yet refined flavors of the food was balanced beautifully by these rich yet elegant Mediterranean wines.

I was glad we were in Juan’s hands. He had chosen the “traditional” tasting menu (though with opening modern flourishes). As we delved deeper into the culinary traditions of the Muro and Alicante area we were increasingly impressed with how well these relatively understated wines for the region were showing with the meal.

Next was a simple but exquisite serving of rich and silky Iberico cured ham on excellent bread. This is one of those great Spanish ingredients that can be found all over Spain, but rarely this supple and delicious and served at the perfect near melt in your mouth temperature. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Next was a simple but exquisite serving of rich and silky Iberico cured ham on excellent bread. This is one of those great Spanish ingredients that can be found all over Spain, but rarely this supple and delicious and served at the perfect near melt in your mouth temperature. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

This was Pericana in traditional form, unlike the flattened, dried version we had tried at the start. The heady mix of garlic, the earthy soft spice of dried Alcoi red peppers (from the nearby town of Alcoi), superior olive oil and dried cod was so simple but utterly captivating. The most vivid and vibrant dish of the evening for me. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

This was Pericana in traditional form, unlike the flattened, dried version we had tried at the start. The heady mix of garlic, the earthy soft spice of dried Alcoi red peppers (from the nearby town of Alcoi), superior olive oil and dried cod was so simple but utterly captivating. The most vivid and vibrant dish of the evening for me. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

This beautiful Almond "Cheese" preparation looked like a ball of fresh cheese, with a smooth creamy rocotta like texture. Actually, it was only almonds with honey and more superb olive oil. Bravo to the chef for devising this creamy delight out of almonds. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

This beautiful Almond “Cheese” preparation looked like a ball of fresh cheese, with a smooth creamy ricotta like texture. Actually, it was only almonds with honey and more superb olive oil. Bravo to the chef for devising this creamy delight out of almonds. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

 

2009 Celler la Muntanya Lliure Albir white. This rich barrel aged white showed apricot, pinapple and honey flavors with vanilla, lavendar and anise notes, and paired very well with the richer seafood dishes. caption. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

2009 Celler la Muntanya Lliure Albir white. This rich barrel aged white showed apricot, pineapple and honey flavors with vanilla, lavender and anise notes, and paired very well with the richer seafood dishes. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Tuna tartar with almond nougat, basil oil and curry sprinkled with fresh chive. This was a gorgeously rich, bold and complex dish. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Tuna tartar with almond nougat, basil oil and curry sprinkled with fresh chive. This was a gorgeously rich, bold and complex dish. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Cocochas (Hake cheeks) are a Spanish delicacy because of their expense, rich succulence and flavor. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Cocochas (Hake cheeks) are a Spanish delicacy because of their expense, rich succulence and flavor. Here with a Mediterranean oil and pepper sauce, which highlighted the Cocochas deliciously, providing a sharper contrast than the classic and delicately creamy Pil Pil sauce they are typically served with in the Basque country and Catalunya. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

 

2009 Celler la Muntanya Negre red. Juicy, supple flavors of red cherry and bold blackberry with touches of pine needle, black olive and spice. Elegant and medium-full-bodied. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

2009 Celler la Muntanya Negre red. Juicy, supple flavors of red cherry and bold blackberry with touches of pine needle, black olive and spice. Elegant and medium- to full-bodied. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Hunter style dried rice with wild mushrooms. Valencia is rice country and home of the original Paella. This style is drier and more concentrated than Paella, but still moist in sort of a sheet form. And it does seem a lot easier to drag around on a hunting trip than Paella. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

Hunter style dried rice with wild mushrooms. Valencia is rice country and home of the original Paella. This style is drier and more concentrated than Paella, but still moist in sort of a sheet form. And it does seem a lot easier to drag around on a hunting trip than Paella. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The purebred roast lamb, another of Spain's great ingredients, was done to perfection, crisp on the outside, moist and tender on the inside and loaded with rich lamb flavor. And what a display with the reduction sauce and  lavendar honey  roasted eggplant cubes topped with little thyme blossoms. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The purebred roast lamb, another of Spain’s great ingredients, was done to perfection, crisp on the outside, moist and tender on the inside and loaded with rich lamb flavor. And what a display with the reduction sauce and lavender honey roasted eggplant cubes topped with little thyme blossoms. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

 

2006 Celler la Muntanya Almoroig red. Full-bodied with deep cherry and black plum flavors. Long and balanced with vanilla, red pepper and spice notes. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

2006 Celler la Muntanya Almoroig red. Full-bodied with deep cherry and black plum flavors. Long and balanced with vanilla, red pepper and spice notes. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

At the end of our meal, from left to right: Sommelier Alberto Redrado, María Alvarez, Juan and Immaaculada Cascant and Justin Berlin. Photo: © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

At the end of our meal, from left to right: Sommelier Alberto Redrado, María Alvarez, Juan and Inmaculada Cascant and Justin Berlin. Photo: © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives


This was a great meal. From top to bottom, from the wait staff, wine service, relaxed atmosphere and lively company to the outstanding cooking and forays into the culinary past and the cutting edge of the present. There was not a single weak dish as can often happen in a long tasting menu such as this, and my least favorite plate was still delicious. So many perfectly done details, like the butter, the bread, great olive oil, the little thyme blossoms on the eggplant cubes, all combined to help make for a magical evening.

For Maria it was the finest meal she has had, and this after many years of fine wining and dining in the trade. For me, a longtime patron of San Sebastian’s finest dining (and top spots in the US, France and Italy), its difficult to make a clear ranking of greatest meals.

As with so many special food and wine high points the difficulty is remaining objective through the soft blur and shimmer of memory and putting your finger on all the many elements that came together to make one night’s magic greater and more enduring than another’s. What I can tell you is that our evening at L’Escaleta was one of those nights.

The rain had stopped and we made our way back through the arborway, and we were happy. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives

The rain had stopped and we made our way back through the arbor-way, and we were happy. Photo: Justin Berlin © 2012 Spanish-Wine-Exclusives


Disclosure: While I have no interest in L’Escaleta restaurant, some of the wines of Celler la Muntanya mentioned in this article are part of the Spanish-Wine-Exclusives portfolio, which I co-founded. While I have tried my best to be impartial, my views should not be considered wholly objective.

 

About Author

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Justin is a Co-Founder of Vino247 and has been a wine professional for more than 12 years. He has a background in filmmaking, print and web publishing. But his passion for wine led him to move professionally to the wine world. First at one of the top retailers in the US, where he cut his teeth learning the wine business, honing his palate and writing about wine. Later he co-founded importer Spanish-Wine-Exclusives. He is also a regular taster on Wine & Spirits Magazine’s industry tasting panel.

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