Whether roaming Barcelona or New York, perched on the Amalfi Coast or lost in the middle of the Basque countryside, we love to degust. MP’s expertise was proven once more with our recent foray into two-star territory at the impossible-to-book Diverxo in Madrid; its innovative interweaving of Spanish and Asian gastronomies lived up to its daring “butterflies in the stomach” motif and then some.
Word on the digital street regarding the less-than-a-year-old Lieu: get yourself there, the sooner the better – it’s absolutely ripe for a star. Trusting in the judgement of Chowhounders/TripAdvisors over those stuffed shirts at Michelin (kidding, please give me a job), we snag Easter Sunday lunch reservations at the chef’s table.
Chef Daniele Scelza emerges right away as we sip our perfunctory multi-million-bubbled cava, which utterly beats the pants off any of the prosecco we had in Italy. We talk personal history: his multi-faceted origins, late start in the world of cuisine, and family enclave tucked into a forest town not far from where we’ve just been on the Amalfi Coast.
We’re brought olives, two test tubes of light citrus cocktail, and a pair of chorizo magdalenes, plus two seasonal menus we’re invited to peruse. Our intention to check out the degustation menu has already been announced, but Chef Daniele suggests that we give the menu a glance anyway. After all, he says, even apart from allergies or flavor preferences, there can be ingredients that bring with them a strong association with memories – either positive or negative – you never know. I love this; it suggests to me that we will have the opportunity to build such powerful associations with what lies in store.
We give the list a cursory skim, but don’t sink too deep: Diverxo has taught us the pleasing power of surprise. We already feel at ease at Daniele’s table, and happily hand over the reigns.
Just to the right of the chef’s table is Lieu’s glass-walled bodega. After MP’s magic glass of Cepas Viejas at Poncelet, we’ve nosed out that the Bierzo region of Spain tends to produce intoxicatingly aromatic wines with a robust jamminess that we adore. This comment leads Daniele to select a bottle of 2003 Tilenus Pagos de Posada – bullseye.
I make a mental note to turn up as many Bierzos as the city has to offer; they’re infinitely more interesting to my palate than your standard basic Rioja.
The curtains part with an elegant, airy zucchini carpaccio. The earthy olive oil and pine nuts just barely keep this dish’s toes on the ground, while the mint aioli and crunchy stray flecks of sea salt insistently pull it skywards. The humble paper-thin squash might as well be the most delicate of aged cuts here, so exacting and thoughtful is the treatment.
The second appetizer, a mushroom foam spooned atop a base of sweet woodears and accented with olive oil and chives, makes it clear that we’ll be proceeding ever so gradually from light tastes to heavier ones. We love this approach in cheese courses too. It’s the most intentional I’ve seen this kind of progression in a degustation menu, and it successfully creates enormous intrigue as to the kitchen’s next move.
This “false ravioli” is the closest Lieu gets to what I’d categorize as molecular gastronomy. The transparent agar sheets house marinated cherry tomatoes and basil leaves sitting on parmesan cream. The waitstaff pours in a bath of cold tomato water, its pale red color a mask for an intense tomato punch: a prelude to spring.
I use cherry tomatoes almost exclusively during the fruit’s off-season, and it’s validating to note top chefs sneaking in ‘mater based dishes this way as well.
Fourth is a pork terrine draped with lentils in a vinaigrette, accented with frissé, radish shavings, and drops of mustard sauce. The combo conjures a multilayer pungent bitterness, softened by the velvety terrine. It’s dark, mild, and excellent, despite its focus on my least preferred selection of flavors.
The fish course is baked hake resting on sweetly acidic sofrito, surrounded by a thick cream of saffron rice. The microgreens and toasted grains add textural intrigue while the saffron quietly sings.
The final savory dish blows it out of the park with seared foie doused in an intense citric glaze. The darker dots on the plate are reminiscent of maple; upon inquiry, Daniele explains that it’s a reduction of sherry. He pulls a bottle out of the bodega and offers us a glass each to sample the original – the complex sweetness serenades with notes of ripe cherry and woody vanilla, so seductive that I neglect to keep track of the name.
The first dessert course is an ice cream based on the classic tocino de cielo (heaven’s bacon); its richness is offset by the zing of passionfruit sauce.
The final sweet plunges the palate back into demanding flavors, a medley of barely-sweet chocolate paired with icy red wine crystals. Deb‘s already taught me the enormity of this combination; here Daniele executes a haute version.
Midway through cocoa bliss, Daniele emerges once more from the kitchen to talk impressions, inspiration. He transmits such obvious affable energy – reminds me in ways of recently-met Luigi of Hosteria Il Pino in the playful attention to detail.
What’s impressed us most about Lieu’s degustation menu is that the entire procession of courses is so clearly designed to please by way of celebrating the ingredients. Upper echelon cuisine sometimes gets a bad rap – and sometimes deservedly so – for being little more than self-congratulatory show-off techniques. This can come at the expense of giving eaters, to put it simply, a delicious dining experience.
Not one of Chef Daniele Scelza’s dishes comes across as pretentious or boastful. The techniques employed in terms of design and execution are obviously gifted, and that makes the accessibility of the experience that much more impressive. Sitting at the chef’s table was also a joy; food nerds that we are, we love the opportunity to further connect with what’s on our plate.
I end gleeful, and high-step it outside under the impish Spanish sun.