-Marques de Riscal restaurant is located in the fantastical 5-star hotel and 156 year old winery of the same name in Elciego Alava in the heart of Rioja.
-Run by Chef Francis Paniego, the restaurant has been granted 1 Michelin Star serving dishes from northern Spain.
-If you haven’t seen this hotel for yourself, it’s hard to describe it as anything short of magical. Designed by renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, the outside features sand coloured brick supplemented by topsy-turvy silver and purple metallic awnings, and wonky windows that will make you feel like you’re looking at yourself in a fun-house mirror.
–To enter the restaurant, you arrive through an exterior elevator where you are immediately taken aback by the expansive refrigerated wine rack. A few more steps and you’ll enter the lovely bar with a breathtaking view of the medieval town and the famed Saint Andres church.
-As expected from the unusual architecture outside, the inside space is quirky, artistic and eclectic. The walls are terracotta red, illuminated by the drop lamps hung from the grandiose ceilings, and complimented by the regal onyx stone counters.
-Service was very friendly, personable, professional and efficient- in a word, it was perfection. We had a few gentlemen assisting us at lunch, and each had very good English and were able to describe the dishes to be in substantial detail.
-Our plates and cutlery were removed immediately upon finishing each course, and replaced before the next arrived, and water glasses were consistently refilled. I liked that I didn’t feel pressured to drink excessively as I find some restaurants can be pushy about ordering cava, then wine and more wine, but rather, they let us take our time with our one glass each.
-The meal moved at a comfortable lunch pace- we had a three course meal with amuse in about an hour and 10 minutes, with the longest part being paying the bill. The wireless credit-card machiene was having a difficult time connecting, which sent one of the servers into a bit of a frantic apologetic state. I felt really bad that he was so distraught, and in the end we just paid for the meal by cash.
-The wine cave beneath the restaurant is home to 8 million bottles of aging wine, while the refrigerated wine rack conserves over 200 varieties from over 5 continents.
-Obviously, the house wines are the 8 Marques de Riscal varieties, but there are over 300 other options to peruse. Consulting with the sommelier, we selected two different whites that would suit our individual tastes- for me, the fruity 2013 Sauvignon, and for him, the more buttery smooth 2013 Limousin. Both of them were perfect with our food selections and our preferences.
-Chef Paniego’s menu offers classic Riojan cuisine using local seasonal products like Hake and Cod, but often prepared and presented in unexpected ways.
-The tasting menu option (available for 85 €) is a five course (plus petit fours) nature-themed meal with courses named for Garden, Mountain, River and more.
-For those who don’t want to commit to a full spread, there is the option of dining a la carte, with the menu divided into Starters, Fish, Meat and Desserts with at least a few selections in each. This was our plan of attack as we didn’t want to get into a food coma with a good long drive through the mountains home.
Squid Ink & Cheese Breadsticks (Complimentary)
A savoury breadstick with an impossibly light and crisp texture.
Wine Caviar with Foie Gras (Complimentary)
Cheese, Chicken & Ham Croquettes
I wish I could have ordered a few extra plates of this, because it was absolutely divine. The sweet and tangy wine caviar helped cut the richness of the buttery foie and made the already decadent salty croquettes even more addictive.
Cornbread with House Olive Oil (Complimentary)
Some of the most incredibly delicious bread we had all trip. Here, the crust was crusty and sweet, while the innards were spongy and surprisingly light. I would kill someone for this recipe.
The Seeds (25€)
Langoustine, Avocado, Quinoa and White Garlic
A light dish, but probably the least exciting of what we sampled. I found the langoustine here a touch overcooked, and the quinoa a bit underseasoned, though I did like the hint of vegetal avocado to smooth out the texture of the grains.
Alava’s Potato Puree (19 €)
Mushrooms, Foie Gras and Egg Yolk
Talk about decadence- the satiny smooth puree was made even more luxurious with the unctuous egg yolk, and bits of seared foie lobe. Thank goodness for the sautéed mushrooms for their hint of earthy relief to all the richness going on in the bowl. A must order, if you ask me, but do share it with at least one friend.
Hake in Batter (24 €)
Candied at 45 Degrees on Roasted Peppers and Rice Soup
I wasn’t crazy about this preparation as I found the batter a bit soggy and soft, and the fish luke warm at best. It may be what they were going for, but it just didn’t do it for me. I did, however, love the sweet bright sauce against the bitterness of the roasted green pepper flesh.
Roe Deer Loin (27€)
Chestnut Puree and Half Roasted Red Onion
Hands down, one of my favourite meat courses of the trip. The blessedly tender deer was perfectly cooked and seasoned with an addictive little sprinkling of course salt. Pair that with the rich, sweet, dense chestnut puree and the sprightly pickled onion, and I wished I had ordered a second plate.
Sweet Toast with “Cameros” Cheese (10 €)
Green Apple and Honey Ice Cream
When I look at this dish, I yearn to taste this delicate tatin again. The pastry was so fine, it was like someone had taken the time to separate a few layers from a regular sheet of puff pastry to yield an impossibly light and crispy bottom crust. The combination of the crisp apples, luscious tangy cream, beautifully aromatic ice cream, and a gently-burnt-caramel sauce left me doing my little sweet-stuff happy dance in my seat.
Iced Grapes (8 €)
A very unique and beautiful dessert for those who prefer something light to end the meal. Below the layer of eucalyptus candy were poached grapes and a bold fruity sorbet that when combined yielded a very satisfying contrast in textures.
-For 2 glasses of wine, 1 bottle of water, 2 appetizers, 2 mains and 2 desserts, the bill was 130 € ($180 CAD) – no, it’s not a cheap meal for lunch, but worth it when all was considered. The food, while a bit hit and miss, was overall quite good, the service was attentive, friendly and efficient (big plus in my books), and the space alone made it well worth the stop. Overall, I was quite happy we had come and would recommend it to other visitors when touring the area.
-The next time I am visiting the Rioja region, I would definitely do my best to pay the premium to get a room at the Marques de Riscal and try the tasting menu for dinner next time I dine.