This post is one of a series from a road trip I took summer 2018. For the introduction, read this.
‘Lo sencillo es tan sencillo, tan sencillo, que es complicado.’
We leave Bilbao far behind and head west for a couple of hours along the Cantabrian coast, into the green of Asturias. We skirt the edges of the Picos de Europa, countryside mountainous in a way which is dramatic, breathtaking at times: mountains seem to erupt from the earth, thrown up as if by monstrous subterranean fists, the peaks and crags like the aftermath of some titanic battle between gods or primal forces. Our destination: Ribadesella, a small town on the Cantabrian Sea, facing the Bay of Biscay.
For centuries, scallop emblems have marked the ‘del Norte’ route of the Camino de Santiago journey, a followed by hundreds of thousands over hundreds of years. Our secular pilgrimage brings us in search of a place where flesh meets fire in the best Spanish asador tradition.
Some restaurants quietly shout their prestige. It’s there, in the tastefully muted Farrow & Ball tones and the way the staff move soundlessly on the thick pile, the air of hushed reverence. Güeyu Mar wears its prowess remarkably lightly. Unassuming but hard to miss, what with the huge fish head bursting from the first-storey wall. You could easily wander up from the nearby beach and mistake Güeyu Mar for another humble beachside café-restaurant, somewhere to have a cold beer and a Kas for the children before heading for home. Indeed, we need more than one double-take to confirm we have found the right place.
This? This is the place I’ve heard so much about? This kitchen belongs in Opinionated About Dining’s top 60 in Europe? One which Asador 44’s Owen Morgan recommended as the best fish Asador in the country? This is where one of my food heroes José Andres brought another, Antony Bourdain, to film and eat this year? Here?
If you’re one of those who are (over)interested in these lists, you may be impressed that OAD ranks this place higher than Mirazur, or Mugaritz, or Hedone, or Araki, or L’Enclume or Nathan Outlaw, and so on. But these are far grander, more imposing places; in short, it’s hard to imagine a place you might find genuinely great cooking, while you still have sand between your toes.
There’s no meat or rice on the menu- it’s all about ‘El mar a la brasa’ (‘From the sea to the grill’). This is certainly not a place for those are after a paella, or who shun fish: there is nothing but here. It’s our token nod to healthy eating in a week which will be dominated by frankly ludicrous quantities of wood-fired roast meats.
There’s no English on the menu- you’ll need some rudimentary Spanish, and even that might leave you needing some help (the Castilian Spanish ‘cangrejo’ for crab is here substituted by ‘andaricas’, or ‘walkers’, which is as good a name as any for the local velvet variety.
We are hungry. Some of their home-cured sardines are rather good, firm, lightly seasoned, and plump. There’s a take on salmorejo using red fruits and some local cheeses. Various breads come with olive oil from the south, Hojiblanca from decorated producer Melgarejo. It’s by turns lively and grassy, and slightly acrid on the palate if too much is taken at once. This stuff needs to be handled with respect.
Tiny pot-caught chipirones (€4.50 each) would surely be easy to overcook. We are told these baby squid mustn’t be cleaned- just caught, put on the plancha, salted and eaten.
If we are sceptical, our doubts soon prove baseless. They look fragile, but are delicately yet distinctively meaty. The trace- and it is only a hint- of ink lends them a meaty yet unmistakable ‘of the sea’ savour which stays with you. (There’s so little ink in truth you would only just have enough to record The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson in longhand. But only twice.) They are small enough to be pinched between your fingers, but deliver a wealth of flavour in return.
Percebes (€50/racion) or gooseneck barnacles look like something brandished by an amorous goblin- perhaps ‘priapic gremlin’ would be more apt. Put it his way: they aren’t lookers. There’s something primeval about them: it’s easy to imagine they have looked like this for hundreds of millions of years.
They are rarely seen on British menus, but seen here as a delicacy which sell at up to €200 per kilo- and more during holidays- not least due to the danger involved in gathering them. They arrive ‘planted’ in crystals of sea salt stained purple (soaked in red wine and then dehumidified) to mimic their native rocks.
It’s a messy business: their fibrous ‘body’ needs a grasp and a firm pull, but their innards are tender and something like a clam in flavour, but richer. The moments on the grill have turned their salty juices into a broth just begging to be sucked down. A few are enough for me: P falls on them like a hawk on a vole.
A single oyster speckled with caviar (€9) sits in a razor clam broth, the woodsmoke from under the cloche lending it a real heft among the more subtle tones of the soup. This isn’t grilling so much as the briefest kiss of fire: the texture is that of raw oyster, but it’s been caressed by heat so that it is just- just- warmed through, while keeping that salty-sweet jolt of the sea. This is a light hand, a sure hand on the grill: it’s a remarkable dish.
A salad of the local lobster (€45) is a lovely thing. Minced raw onion in a light dressing, a dash of smoky red pepper sauce: it plays the sweetness, the firmness of consummately delivered blue lobster off against the acidity of the vinaigrette and is about as simple as it gets. It’s more putting-together than cooking per se, but to impressive results. It’s a lovely thing nonetheless, an exercise in balance, a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved by knowing when to leave things alone. To accommodate our gluttony- and let’s call it what it is- they serve us half of the usual portion (€25) shared between us, a substantial amount nonetheless, which reflects better on the price than at first glance.
Intensely smoky aromas wafting in our direction precede the main attraction. King fish (€48/racion) is their signature dish and a truly inspiring piece of cooking. It’s everything you’d expect by now, and more. The flesh is rich, buttery, lusciously fatty; the skin as brittle as any pork crackling, the steaks by turns meaty and gelatinous.
Our server wants to take us on a guided tour of the flavours and textures within this one fish. He comes up with estriación which is rather beautiful; the idea of layers upon layers, of furrows of flavour, is one he demonstrates with aplomb. It’s almost impossibly rich at times- a little goes a long, long way- but something to be savoured, lingered over. These are transitions.
We think we have finished, done it justice; we are wrong. With a series of deft, well-practised movements he skillfully uncovers little jewels left behind. Nothing goes to waste: lips, cheeks, sundry other scraps it would be a crime to neglect.
It’s potent stuff- voluptuous even, a memory instantly treasured. An expensive meal, perhaps- with spiny lobster on €140/kg, we get away lightly in comparison- but one to ponder over.
In relaxed surroundings, with none of the stifling over-formality of ‘fine dining’, and in the course of one evening, Güeyu Mar redefined fish cookery for me, forcing me to reset my expectations. With a minimum of elaboration and of interfering with natural bounty, Abel Álvarez changes my understanding of what fish cooking can be.
It is a stark reminder that sometimes the entire business of eating out becomes needlessly convoluted and ego-driven, when it should be simple.
‘Lo sencillo es tan sencillo, tan sencillo, que es complicado.’ ‘The simple is so simple- so simple- that it’s complicated’.
Restaurante Güeyu Mar
Playa de Vega 84
T: 985 860 863
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.