At the risk of cries of outrage from men throughout Cantabria, I’m going to put it out there and say that the best food of the region is not in fact their mothers’ tortilla, or even their grandmother’s age old, six hour to cook recipe for cocido montanes. Tucked away in the small village of Villaverde de Pontejos culinary maestro Jesus Sanchez, chef at restaurant Cenador De Amos is creating innovative food good enough to impress even the most devout mummy’s boy.
The restaurant is located in Cantabria in Northern Spain, in a small village where every second building seems to be for sale. This along with the fact that the restaurant is not exactly on the beaten track (read: very tricky to locate!), it is surprising that the restaurant receives enough custom to keep its doors open. It really must be the food. Cenador de Amos has a range of menus ranging from molecular gastronomy to more traditional fare. We opted for the Menu de Degustacion, deciding previously to go all out and live off lentils for the rest of the month. Although it must be said that by the end of the meal we thought we may not need to eat at all for the rest of the month.
The restaurant is housed in a restored stone building, with the dining room decorated in a modern, simplistic style. Simple white table clothes, polished silver and rustic tiled flooring made for pleasant surroundings that weren’t over done. Other than the food, the stand out feature was definitely the service. We were greeted and seated in a manner suited to the style of restaurant (coats taken, chairs pulled out etc), but whilst very polite and helpful, the server and sommelier also proved to have a sense of humor; not always the case in these types of restaurants.
All the courses were explained simply in a mix of Spanish and English, suitable wines were recommended crumbs were removed, and subtle jokes about Manchester United’s recent loss to Bilbao were made. The friendliness of the staff made the dining experience hugely more enjoyable since we didn’t feel like we were being watched constantly and creating too many crumbs on the table (we are pretty messy eaters).
Now to the food. The menu we chose consisted of 16 small and surprisingly multicultural courses, featuring dishes ranging from traditional Cantabrian with a gastronomical twist to Moroccan and South American style courses. There was a great range of flavours, colors and plates. All the courses were handily printed on a take home menu, not only useful for blogging purposes as it would be impossible to remember the names of all the dishes, but also to remind you of what to expect next during the meal.
I will apologize in advance for the photo quality. Although I have a camera which in theory should do all the hard work for me, I don’t seemed to have quite mastered the art of food photography yet. Rest assured the food did not all have a slightly blue tinge up until the 9th course- this is just when I realized the camera was on the wrong setting.
The first dish was Crema de ave y foie (Chicken and foie soup). This was creamy, rich and utterly delicious, giving us high hopes of what was to follow. There is nothing more worrying when you sit down to 16 courses than receiving a bad soup to start, it makes you a little uneasy of what you are in for next if they can’t even nail a simple soup, but this did not disappoint.
The second entree was Morcilla sin sacrifico (Black pudding without blood). This seemed like a puzzling concept, as far as I knew Morcilla was made of pretty much only blood, with a bit of rice thrown in. However it was soon clarified that the Morcilla was in fact an olive tapanade, shaped exactly into the form of a small slice of morcilla. It’s amazing the surprise you get when you bite into something that looks exactly like Morcilla, but tastes like olives- even when you know what it is, it seems like your brain is programmed for the flavour you associate with what your eyes see. This was served with La guindilla (a pimiento stuffed with tuna), typical Cantabrian fare, but shaped into a perfectly smooth sphere.
The next entree was Tomate pimiento del cristal (Glass tomato and pepper). This was a thin green pepper stuffed with a fresh tomato salsa,very light and tasty.
We then started the second part of the menu, (second entree, first main course? I’m not exactly sure what to call it!). The first dish was one of my favorites of the night, El Juego alrededor del foie (loosely translated, foie three ways). These included a piece of fresh pate like foie, sandwiched between to thin wafers, a cooked piece of foie and a creme brulee made from…foie! With a little meringue in the corner, just for fun.
We were then served with what was my least favourite dish of the night, La Ostra Margarita (Margarita Oyster). I don’t like oysters, so this wasn’t totally surprising. I was hoping they would do something magical to change to way I saw oysters forever, but it still tasted like sea water to me! I liked the little spherification pearl though.
This was served with a little wafer basket filled with guacamole.
Then the main courses started to arrive. All of these were totally different and included dishes made with meat, beans, fish and vegetables for total variety.
The first was a rather improved version of french onion soup, Cebolla tierna con queso ‘Divirin’ y oregano fresco (Onions with Divirin cheese and fresh oregano).
The next had a South American flavour, Pochas en caldo de arroz venere (red beans in stock with little ‘rice’ like crumbs flavoured like popcorn). It tasted a little like a corn tortilla filled with beans…but much better.
We then moved onto a more Morrocon inspired dish of Como un ‘cus-cus’ la lenteja (like a cous- cous made of lentils). This was indeed just like cous- cous but with a lentil flavour. It was served with melting pork belly pieces and grapes. I don’t know what they had done to the grapes, but the result was like an explosion of grape in the mouth.
The next course was Ravioli de apio-nabo con brandad de bacalao (Ravioli of celery and turnip filled with cod)
This was followed by a fish course of Rape en adobo de aceituna negra (Monkfish in a marinade of black olive). This was delicious despite the skid marks.
Then came the meat course in the form of Molleja de ternera con alcachofas y queso almendra (veal sweetbread with artichokes and almond cheese). The cheese was the stand out part of this dish, fresh and light, but with a distinct almond flavour.
Then at last it was time for the last savory part of the meal. La albondiga de pichon y anchoa, (Meatball of baby pigeon and anchovy).
Time for dessert!
The first course of sweets was a delicious Yogur con manzana e hinojo (Yoghurt with apple and fennel). This was a frozen apple flavoured yoghurt with a variety of yoghurt and apple flavoured accompaniments, and what seemed to be a contact lens on top.
The second dessert had a Cantabrian flavour- Sobao caramelizado, leche y tapioca. (Traditional Cantabrian sponge cake caramelized with milk and tapioca). Still not a big fan of the tapioca, but the rest was delicious.
Finally, the icing on the cake, entretenimientos dulces (sweet entertainments!),served with tea and coffee. These featured a variety of meringues, chocolates, Turkish delight, strawberry yoghurt and their own version of the ‘Filipino’, a popular chocolate coated, dohnut shaped biscuit in Spain.
We left full, relaxed and thoroughly impressed with what is without a doubt some of Cantabria’s best food.