In Lieu of Gifts, Please Send Wine

14 04 2013

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We fist visited Lieu precisely one year ago. Easter Sunday feels just right for a proper degust, and there’s nowhere we like to do it more than at Daniele Scelza’s place in Madrid de los Austrias.

This time we succeed in bringing along a guest, and yet fail to remember a proper camera. It’s a blow – the lunch is certain to be a visual treat – but we’re running slightly tight on time, and the iPhone will have to suffice.

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We’re startled to note that we’re the only ones here. Lieu’s certainly not a place for rowdy lunchtime cañas, but the absolute stillness is stark. Of course, it’s an honor to be the center of attention – like last time, we’ve specifically requested the barside chef’s table in order to maximize connection with the kitchen. However, we badly want to see this place make it big, to not only weather the crisis but to sail through in high style.

Darío and I trawl through the excellent wine list, noting many current favorites. Juan Gil makes an appearance, so we inquire as to what else among the offerings might be in the same vein. Daniele recommends a 2010 Clio, and, my god, yes. Like its murciano brethren, it seems to expand in all directions at once, licorice and smokiness, overripe red fruits and dusky vanilla. The fledgling oeonologist within is positively giddy.

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An amuse of breaded morcilla dotted with apricot, followed by suckling pig canelone with crumbled pork cracklings and red pepper air. Weight mediated with lightness.

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Every single spring, I’m smacked across the face with a mad craving for asparagus. This visually stunning arrangement celebrates the stalk in both white and green incarnations, the fresh grassiness counterweighted by panna cotta and dots of creamy yolk. Spring’s stirrings, plated.

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Sheets of potato and bacon draped in velvety beef sauce. Oh, and a pair of juicy escargot. Yes. I love snails this way; their earthy umami is most successfully underlined for me by other robust flavor combinations. It calls for a second bottle of Clio, which keeps displaying different facets depending on its accompaniment. For sheer versatility, I think I even prefer it to my beloved Bierzos.

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The fish course is hake with herbs de provençe, resting on a bed of stoplight red tomato compote and topped by green quinoa. I ask where one acquires this variety of quinoa – because, wow! – which makes Daniele grin, and he reveals they make it in the kitchen by blending up herbs (duh).

The pork shank’s thickened juices form a yin-yang with the creamy yellow polenta, lifted with greens and a scattering of rogue raisins.

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Daniele and the newest member of his team come out for chat re: wine, business in Madrid, the jazz classics playing in the background. He’s a consummate host and, quite frankly, my favorite professional chef in the city. Note that each and every dish on the tasting menu is completely different from those a year prior. Daniele seems to take this as a matter of course – seasons change, and so should menus. Plus, why get into the restaurant biz at all if not for the opportunity to surprise your public with something new?

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The first dessert course is exactly this – something new, a kir royale like we’ve never considered it before. Icy berries huddle in the bottom of a glass layered with cassis sorbet just this side of sour. Champagne foam floats ethereal. It’s the hidden ginger chips that shock you, though, a sudden crunch of obstreperous spice that runs parallel to the otherwise angelic concoction. We goggle.

Our final sweet is Lieu’s cold and creamy rendition of arroz con leche, complete with puffed rice grains and slices of kumquat.

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We’ve picked Daniele’s brain regarding the world of professional oenology – I’m thinking it might make a very nice Next Step – and he emerges with a bottle of Rioja, and presents it to me. Wha! We spoke about Rioja Crianzas normally being much too woody to suit our taste, and he tells me this Viña Eizaga is anything but, and that I should give it a go.

I reel at the kindness. Can’t wait to pop the cork.

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The rain that’s been so unrelenting all of Semana Santa refuses to abate, and we figure we’ll wait it out in nearby Café de Oriente. Espresso and a corner table and belly laughs round out the afternoon: wholly idyllic.

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Lieu: Afternoon Degustation with Daniele Scelza

11 04 2012

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.