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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.