I think I was around twenty when I first heard of the Michelin Guide and decided that sometime in my future, somewhere along my travels, I would experience a Michelin star meal. Just once would do. At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I had that first experience. What I didn’t know at the time was that there would be more to follow; lucky lady, eh? Many, including myself, would say that the Michelin guide is just that, a guide. It’s just another list of recommendations so definitely not the be all and end all of restaurants, but I do think it provides a fairly solid benchmark of quality. We’ve had one experience that we didn’t think was quite up to scratch, another couple which were so-so but overall, they’ve been worthy of the recognition.
Now, at the riper, older age of thirty, my current count of Michelin star meals is twenty-three – I’ve comfortably exceeded my goals by a smidge, don’t you think?! Our latest one was in celebration of my big 3-0; until I get the call up to be a Michelin inspector or have no cares in the world about my finances, these meals will still be reserved for special occasions only. I toasted to the end of my twenties and welcomed by thirties in beautiful Seville with some of my nearest and dearest friends, and we ended the day at the city’s only star adorned restaurant – Abantal.
Our merry party of six was getting quite accustomed to letting a certain someone lead the way and us to follow, his natural sense of direction has not been corrupted by over-reliance on Google maps, but even the most trusting raised an eyebrow as to where he was taking us this time. You don’t expect Michelin star restaurants to be in obscure parts of the city, away from any other restaurants, and down a seemingly commercial street. But then, one of the criteria for two stars in particular is that they’re worth a detour as well as being very good in their category. This, in an otherwise compact central Seville seemed a little out of the way to us, but I’d say it was worth it.
Polished and quiet; this was my first impression upon walking through the door. The latter was simply because we were the first table of the night (the Spanish may be able to stomach a tasting meal starting at 10pm but these Kiwis can’t) and the former I think epitomises Abantal’s modern and creative approach to Spanish cuisine. We started with a round of bubbles and snacks, these were not as inventive as I might have expected – breadsticks and a mashed potato are never going to wow your guests but they were a solid introduction. The pungent yet comforting garlic soup and razor clam with cauliflower puree however, gave a better indication of what the kitchen was capable of.
The red tuna tartare raised the bar another rung. The fish was meticulously cubed and seasoned generously but serving it alongside a sorbet with the slightest hint of strawberries was quite adventurous. A few years ago, I would have scrunched my face up at the thought of eating fish and fruit, but a few smart chefs have delivered smart dishes which have made me rethink that stance. The appearance of an oyster was met with a mixture of delight and hesitation around our table, and it had nothing to do with the bug-like popped grains sitting on top of the sweet potato puree. Oysters are so potent in flavour and distinct in texture, I completely understand why they’re not to everyone’s tastes but Abantal added an extra challenge by combining its natural sea-ness with sweet and sour elements. I would probably prefer my oysters to be less dressed up, but it was an interesting dish none the less.
Visually stunning dishes come in all shapes and forms, sometimes they are a sensory overload of elements and other times they catch your attention with their bold simplicity, as this next dish did. A single large red prawn with its lacquered red head and equally striking exposed red flesh sitting on top of a smattering of nutty red and brown rice, dressed with a few blobs of alioli is what I call bold. So I didn’t hold back either, I pulled its head off and sucked out the rich juices before savouring the sweet, pert flesh. I liked the restraint the chef showed by accentuating all the prawn’s best bits. If I wasn’t already convinced by the quality of the seafood round these parts, this certainly would have been the smoking gun in its favour.
That was a tough act to follow which might explain why I felt the fish and meat mains were a little safe. I thought the fillet of grouper with snow peas and iberian pork dewlap was a well conceived balance of soft and crunchy, and salty and sweet, but it lacked the impact of the red prawn on sight and taste. And while I thought the meaty slab of fish was well looked after, a crunchy skin would have been more pleasant than the chewy one we had. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have lamb in a tasting menu and the number of times I found it too rich when part of such a feast. This lamb neck stuffed with chards, stewed apple and fennel salad was on the cusp of being too much – the slow cooked meat and gravy was packed with that intense, fatty lamb flavour but that was counteracted by the sharp fennel to result in something quite harmonious.
A bowl of passionfruit cream intertwined mint frappe and tiny cubes of chocolate cake acted as a palate cleanser. All very appropriate given the tartness of the passionfruit and the refreshing feeling given by the mint. This then paved the way for a much sweeter dessert offering – an orange wine zabaglione with an anise cookie, tangerine and cinnamon for most of us while the mango cannelloni stuffed with cheese and chocolate mousse and lemongrass soup was the alcohol-free alternative for another. I wasn’t anticipating to like the zabaglione as much as I did but this messy assortment of creamy, crunchy, and zesty tasted much better than it looked.
They were also kind enough to bring out a little cake complete with lit candle to wish me a happy birthday – always a nice touch when restaurants make an effort to acknowledge special occasions. It’s an act certainly not confined to Michelin star restaurants, but I find they rarely fail to do so which I guess is all part of that extra something we expect for places of this calibre. The service was a little shaky to begin with but warmed up once we got over the dietary challenges, and a slight language barrier. I can confidently say this is not the best of our twenty-three Michelin experiences: the courses were well executed, some had real wow-factor, others didn’t. However, I can also confidently say this is of a higher standard than easily another twenty-three non-star restaurants and this is firmly in the ‘worth the recognition’ category!
What’s your view on Michelin star restaurants – have you been to any? What was your experience?
Thanks to my friends for helping me celebrate my birthday in Spanish style, and a huge thank you to a certain someone for treating us to dinner!