The second you set foot in the city of Alicante, you appreciate the nearness of the Mediterranean Sea. Salty and refreshing sensations take over your senses, mixed with the intense warm light of the Spanish Levante (eastern Spain), provoking a feeling of well being that is difficult to put into words. It's even more enigmatic when you realize that the essence of the Mediterranean also takes over your sense of taste. This is evident upon embarking on a tapas tour through the city center, following a route that will take us to some of the most interesting bars in the entire Valencian Community
Before we get started, it’s important to explain this concept of a "bar", and the best way to do so is with a little history lesson. During his holidays on the coast of Alicante more than two decades ago, the great French chef Joël Robuchon visited Nou Manolín (calle Villegas, 3), a tapas bar in Alicante. He was absolutely fascinated by the fresh products, the simple and flavorful dishes, and the local custom of having lunch or dinner seated on stools at the bar. Tables and tablecloths were replaced by a unique view: that of an open kitchen where customers and chefs made eye contact.
This discovery led Robuchon to create his L’Atelier restaurants, which are located around the world. In the spirit of this fascination, we have reproduced this culinary experience by visiting various different bars in Alicante; places where casual dining, quality fresh products, traditional tapas, avant garde creations and pure Mediterranean flavors unite.
1) Damasol and Racó de Pla, near the Mercado Central
The first thing to do in Alicante before throwing yourself into the city’s gastronomy is to visit the imposing Mercado Central, which was built in 1921. This central market has hundreds of stands selling products like vegetables and fruit from the orchards of eastern Spain, fresh and cured meats and sausages, traditional pastries, etc. However, the stars of the market are undoubtedly the fish stands, with their incredibly fresh fish and seafood from the Mediterranean Sea, and the stores selling salazones (salted, cured fish), some of the most traditional foods from the coast of Alicante, Murcia and Andalusia, which have been made in this area for more than two-thousand years.
Behind the market is the bar Damasol (Balmes, 5) where one must try these cured salazones – specifically mojama (tuna) and hueva (roe) – served with fried almonds, as well as the ensaladilla rusa, breaded shrimp and grilled cigalas. Very near the Mercado Central, I also stop by Racó de Pla (calle Navas, 40) and have a seat at the bar to enjoy a fantastic tapa: grilled fresh cheese, fresh tomato, a salted anchovy and extra virgin olive oil; the perfect Mediterranean equation. If you’re in the mood for something more intense, try their tapa of Ibérico ham, longaniza (a kind of traditional, fried sausage), green pepper and fried quail egg.
2) El Portal Taberna & Wines, in the oasis of the plaza Puerta de Elche
I head towards the sea, crossing pedestrian streets bursting with activity, shops and bars. There are many small and pleasant plazas in which to stop, giving me the sense of being transported to an urban oasis: large palm and ficus trees that shade passers-by, plants and flowers, inviting benches where you can stop and read the paper to the murmuring sound of fountains. One such plaza is Portal de Elche, and one of its corners shelters my next destination: El Portal Taberna & Wines. The fist thing that strikes me about this establishment is its ultra sophisticated decor (almost too much). The manager finds me a place at the bar and from here I can watch a group of chefs moving confidently and quickly with appetizing dishes in their hands. The background music is more apropos of a jazz club than a tapas bar.
It’s time to choose and I can’t resist the Denia shrimp (from a coastal town less than 30 kilometers away from Alicante), which is served almost raw with a touch of rock salt and just a moment on the grill. Its flavor and texture are spectacular. I can feel the Mediterranean in my mouth again. Next is an artichoke poached in olive oil and braised with a touch of lime and salt, and a grilled eggplant with goat’s cheese and almond slivers; vegetables at the service of simple culinary techniques.
3) La Barra de César Anca, a style of its own
This establishment’s (Calle Ojeda, 1) name is enough to give you an idea of what you’ll find here. There is a splendid bar covered in vegetables and fresh fish, with tall stools where you can sit and enjoy the cooking of this chef, who trained in Basque Country but is enamored of the products of his native Alicante. César Anca's cooking has clear influences of avant garde culinary techniques, and his flavors are very Mediterranean. His salmorejo (cold tomato, bread and olive oil soup) with Mutxamel tomatoes (a flavorful local variety) and chunks of salt-cured fish is extremely interesting, as is his tapa of octopus on a potato torrija with alioli gratin, and the tuna tartar (made from Mediterranean tuna) on a bed of seaweed and guacamole. The floral aroma of the kataifi-wrapped shrimp brochette with rose petal emulsion is striking.
4) La Barra del Monastrell, Mediterranean elegance
One-Michelin-star Restaurante Monastrell (Almirante Julio Guillen Tato, 1) is in a beautiful site, recently moved to the citiy's promenade. Stewarded by the great Alicante chef Maria José San Román, Monastrell also has a long bar that pays homage to this local eating culture, mercifully dotted with comfortable stools. Here I decide to order a very traditional creation from the Spanish Mediterranean, a coca (a thin, rectangular-shaped dough that many consider to be the forebear of Italian pizza) layered with Spanish cheeses and tomato slices. I also try the famed ensaladilla rusa, the cigala cannelloni with black truffles and vegetables, and finally, a tapa that brings together María José San Román's three favorite foods: a cod taco with black truffle and saffron alioli. Delicious.
5) La Taberna del Gourmet, temple of flavor
This well-known establishment (San Fernando, 10) also forms part of the restaurant group owned by María José San Román and her family. La Taberna del Gourmet has a lively bar with views of the kitchen, adorned with fresh foods and shellfish and a wonderful display of quality preserves and interesting extra virgin olive oils. Here I try a fantastic pan de cristal rubbed with tomato and topped with pure Ibérico bellota ham, an escalibada (roasted vegetable salad), a goat cheese gratin with herbs and níspero honey (Spanish loquats cultivated in the province of Alicante) and some grilled green asparagus with that very Mediterranean sauce, romesco.
I can’t leave Alicante without going back, one last time, to the tapas bar that so-fascinated Joël Robuchon and sparked the passion for bars in this city. Nou Manolín is a must-visit classic for food lovers, the mecca of a culinary pilgrimage. I look for a space at the enormous square bar, packed with usual customers and tourists, and succumb to the waiters' recommendations: today there is tuna tartare with pistachio alioli, grilled sepionet (small, very fresh cuttlefish) and a tomato, sardine and avocado salad... Pure Mediterranean soul.
Before we get started, it’s important to explain this concept of a "bar", and the best way to do so is with a little history lesson. During his holidays on the coast of Alicante more than two decades ago, the great French chef Joël Robuchon visited Nou Manolín (calle Villegas, 3), a tapas bar in Alicante
Translation: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX