Modern Spanish cuisine’s rise to prominence in recent years has at this point become somewhat of a global phenomenon; the playful and whimsical style of cooking is surpassing its stiffer French and Italian counterparts by a landslide, the cuisine being praised by the most prestigious critics, and new restaurants mushrooming up faster than one can keep track of.
It’s easy to understand the allure – with its varied regions, favourable climate and geography, Spain offers some of the world’s best quality produce that’s available year-round, while honouring traditional cooking methods laced with innovative touches has landed the country firmly at the forefront of international gastronomy.
It should come as no surprise then that Bangkok, too, has jumped on the Spain-train, with multiple new venues opening in recent years. One of the most promising ones, Islero, offers bold and authentic flavours, with the aim of setting a new standard for Spanish cuisine in the Thai capital.
Named after the legendary Miura fighting bull that in 1947 killed Manolete – arguably one of the greatest matadors in history – by thrusting its right horn in his groin and thereby severing the femoral artery moments before its own death. Although Manolete was immediately rushed to the hospital, he died on the operating table. His passing became a national event. General Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain at the time, ordered three days of grieving following his passing, during which only mournful songs were played on the radio.
The restaurant, although marketed as “Michelin-level”, is a much more playful affair, with an open kitchen, gracious use of greenery, and wood and marble sprayed throughout. While the rustic yet modern décor is nothing that hasn’t been seen before, the venue wouldn’t feel out of place if it were to suddenly change places with a tapas bar in Barcelona or Madrid.
The real focus here, however, is the food, as the original menu was concocted by chefs Eduard “Lalo” Bosch and Pedro Luis Rodriguez Serrano. While both come from a long lineage of Michelin-star restaurants, it is where their paths intersected that makes this project so exciting – the legendary elBulli.
The three-Michelin-star restaurant on the north Catalan coast near Barcelona was considered one of the most controversial and experimental restaurants in the world, which in its heyday received as many as one million reservation requests per year.
Islero got off to somewhat of a rocky start as soon after opening, Serrano, who was supposed to helm it, realised he couldn’t leave his previous posting due to contractual obligations.
Luckily, Bosch had managed to reach out to a former elBulli colleague and protégée, chef Emiliano Gabriel Vignoni Alvarellos, who rose to the occasion and replaced Serrano as Islero’s executive chef in October.
Alvarellos, an elBulli veteran – having worked at both at the iconic Girona restaurant as well as elBulli Hacienda Benazuza hotel in Seville – is now tasked with completing Bosch’s work, while slowly but surely replacing menu items with his own signature dishes.
For Alverallos, coming up with a new dish begins with a product or technique.
“My cooking philosophy is to take traditional, home-cooked meals and modernise them in one way or another. The crucial part of this is to have a comprehensive understanding of the traditional way of cooking before you can improvise and build on it. What is most important for me is the flavour and the ability to replicate it. Even if I’m using local rice, it has to remind you of the flavour of an authentic rice dish that you may have enjoyed at a beachside restaurant in Valencia.”
And the food at Islero doesn’t disappoint. From the tapas-style menu, the one thing that Alverallos says is a must try, is the grilled scallops.
“It is a typical mar y montaña plate, combining sea scallops, jamon iberico, saffron, potato, cooked with Spanish olive oil. It is the quintessential Spanish dish because the regions are extremely varied and this dish combines its best parts. My intent is to take one technique from each region and apply it in unexpected ways.”
He says it isn’t clear how far he can take experimentation in the new menu, nor how receptive the patrons will be – he considers it an evolving, interactive process, but if his passion to tackle this challenge is any indication to where things are headed, Islero could very well be pushing the limits of Spanish cuisine in the near future.
Although Adriá’s days of dazzling diners with an array of increasingly unexpected dishes may very well be behind him – for the moment anyway – it is clear that the legacy he created at elBulli is going strong, and it will be up to the next generations of young chefs like Alverallos to carry the torch forward, so we can be both surprised by and reacquainted with familiar flavours in his savoury dishes.
(Islero is open daily for dinner from 5pm to midnight, and for lunch on weekdays from 11am-2pm. Set menus are available for lunch.)