Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
In the world of “alta cocina,” (translation: high-class cooking) one of the greatest achievements to which chefs aspire is earning a Michelin star.
A Michelin star is a global stamp of approval that says “This food is capital G “Good.” Two Michelin stars means “This food is even better,” and three Michelin stars, which are rare bestowals, means “This food is bucket list good.”
The stars are serious business. They can make or break careers and reputations. They can elevate chefs from obscurity to popularity almost overnight. They are, for some travelers, the axis around which their trips are organized (a colleague on my recent trip to Spain told me that she knows a couple who travel the world solely by Michelin stars, their goal to eat at every Michelin starred restaurant in the world).
Spain has a respectable share of Michelin stars and Valencia, the country’s third largest city, located on the Mediterranean coast, is home to 13 Michelin starred restaurants at last count (January 2011). I ate at a few of them on my trip to Valencia last week, including La Sucursal and Vertical. The former is included below in a round-up of excellent Valencian restaurants– with and without Michelin stars.
Restaurant: Agua de Mar
Location: Puerto Deportivo Marina de Denia
Atmosphere: The restaurant, located inside the marina at Denia, has indoor and outdoor dining; outdoor is best, as you’re overlooking the Mediterranean and the collection of fancy sport boats and leisure yachts at rest here. Plus, the outdoor tables allow more room to spread out… which you’ll need.
Tip: Finish the meal with muscat, a sweet dessert wine, served here in chilled shot glasses.
Best Dish: One of my first meals in Spain contained this monstrosity, which was a “starter” plate:
Filled with onions, potatoes, and local ham, then topped with not one, but two eggs, this could have–and probably should have– been its own meal. It was the first dish that made me certain I’d never get any work done if I lived in Spain.
Restaurant: La Matandeta
Location: Carretera Alafar-El Saler, Km. 4
Atmosphere: This family owned restaurant is located inside a nature reserve, and if you doubt for one moment that paella is the house specialty, just step outside on the patio to confirm that the restaurant is surrounded by Valencia’s famous rice fields.
This is the kind of restaurant best enjoyed with friends or family; the tables are large, as are the portions, made for sharing. If you don’t have anyone accompanying you, the owners’ family will make you feel at home; the restaurant is an extension of their own homestead, and children play on the patio while you eat.
Call in advance and ask if it’s possible to have a tour of the rice fields before your meal (you’ll be too stuffed after your meal to enjoy such an excursion). If you prefer hands-on activities, La Matandeta also offers paella-making workshops.
Also, ask if there’s a special menu; when I visited, there was a special menu on which every dish was accompanied by some type of ice cream.
Best Dish: Paella
Cooked slowly outdoors over a wood fire, you can choose from several different paellas. I tried two–the vegetarian paella and the paella with rabbit, duck, and snails– and both were dense, rich, and smoky.
Restaurant: Casa Montana
Location: Calle Jose Benlliure 69
Business in the front, party in the back.
This tapas taberna (tavern) is old-school in the front, with antique-type details and a bustling waitstaff dodging among tables. The newer “Sala de Barricas” is more sleek and modern, with long communal tables perfect for sharing tapas.
Be sure to taste the tapas that you wouldn’t be inclined to try. I resisted the mussels but when I finally gave in, I was glad I did; they were creamy, not at all fishy, and melted in my mouth.
Best Dish: Codfish
I’ll eat codfish, but it’s not my favorite. I dipped into this dish hesitantly at first, but after the initial bite, I surreptitiously pulled the plate closer to my side of the table for more. And more. And more.
Restaurant: La Sucursal
Location: Guillem de Castro 118
La Sucursal is located inside the Institute of Modern Art of Valencia. Decor is modern and minimalist, allowing almost complete focus on the food.
Pair your visit to the restaurant with a visit to the museum, which is on the smaller side and can be enjoyed in an hour.
Best Dish: Molecularized gazpacho
Molecular gastronomy is popular in Valencia, and this dish shows off how fun a well-executed dish can be. The red dots quivering in these spoons are mouth-pops of delicious gazpacho.