07 January 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: la carbona, jerez

I tend to distrust large restaurants - places where, if you scream, no one would hear a sound. Even at the grandest, most expensive large restaurants, one feels like yet another mouth on the feedlot.

Sometimes my distrust is misplaced. In Paris, the Bourse location of Terroir Parisien operates at an impressively high level, for such an enormous, multifaceted complex. And in Andalusia, the most enjoyable meals I've enjoyed in the region have been at La Carbona, a cavernous family restaurant housed in a former bodega in Jerez.

Incidentally, in five years of writing about restaurants, I can't recall ever having used the term "family restaurant." It evokes Olive Gardens. But the term is inescapable when discussing La Carbona. Its size is a direct reflection of the Andalusian tradition of dining out en masse, with several generations at the table at once. La Carbona is also owned by a family, with chef Javier Munoz' mother Ana running the dining room and the wine list with winning warmth and attentiveness. The menu is as broad and deep as the room, but I never look at it for long. For La Carbona's opulent and unstinting sherry pairing menu, at 5 courses for 32€ with serious wines included, is an unforgettably great deal, one which transcends, in both quality and generosity, the entire overwrought, hucksterish pairing menu genre.

Before I lapse into rapturous praise of what the Munoz family achieve at La Carbona, I ought to justify my disdain for pairing menus, which is characteristically manifold...

I have the idea that many diners participate in pairing menus for the wrong reasons. Pairing menus can constitute an expensive way to avoid interacting with a menu and a wine list, and to experience as much service (good or bad) as possible. So pairing menus exert a particular appeal to those who wish to be pampered for their largesse, without necessarily being obliged to demonstrate any familiarity with what it is they are experiencing.

Some would argue that pairing menus allow each dish of a meal to be enjoyed in the ideal context, alongside a wine perfectly suited to its particular balance of acid and sweetness. I associate this microscopic, dish-centric perspective on flavour accords with a certain risible pharmacological attitude towards cuisine, prevalent in overdeveloped nations... The ideal context of a dish is not a wine, it's an entire meal, and meal's natural accompaniment is, at most, several wines, not nine... For a meal at a restaurant is best considered to be a curated expression of a meal, removed from its natural context, which is arguably the home. Severing that connection entirely strikes me as lavish, and unhealthy.

Furthermore, I know from having worked alongside sincere, ambitious chefs and sommeliers that truly revelatory wine and food accords are rarer than unicorns. And once one has been located, it remains a moving target, as both the wine and the ingredients are changing with the passage of time and seasonality.

I remember a friend once showing me iPhone images of the wines he'd been served with the pairing menu at Restaurant David Toutain in Paris, and being surprised to note that, by miraculous coincidence, the wines 'best suited' to Toutain's cuisine were inexpensive glass-pour French natural wines, i.e. the same stuff on offer at 90% of Paris' ambitious young restaurants. But the fact is it's not uncommon for restaurant pairing menus to consist merely of whatever the restaurant offers by the glass at a given time. In other words, it's usually a big hoax.

Sherry, however, has several factors in its favour that help make La Carbona's pairing menu stand above others.

For one thing, all sherry styles save Manzanilla and Fino hold up well when rationed out in glass pours over time. La Carbona can therefore offer some profound gems as part of its tasting menu, like Sanchez Romate's nervy, forceful Palo Cortado, which Munoz serves alongside modest chipolatas 'n' chips.

It's a surprisingly effective match, and counterintuitive in the sense that one usually wouldn't open a Palo Cortado with hangover food. But the keen, savoury hazelnut intensity of the wine demands that level of comfort fat.

A sherry-pairing menu like La Carbona's is also inherently more novel than most pairing menus, since with sherry one is more or less down a rabbit hole of inverted rules. Even artichokes are permissable with sherry, in this case Valdespino's "Tio Diego" Single Vineyard Amontillado.

With a pronounced black licorice character and a mild nose, it wasn't my wine of the evening. But on the whole Ana Munoz deserves immense credit just for the diversity of her selections, in this region where restaurants and bars are heavily sponsored by individual bodegas.

On another occasion the Native Companion and I supplemented the tasting menu with a bottle of Equipo Navazos' unique "Florpower," a bottling of unfortified flor-aged Palomino Fino from the Sanlucar. The wine ferments in steel before aging under flor for eight months in barrel, then continues under flor for two years in steel tank. It's a pathbreaking bottle, for it constitutes an attempt to discover what Palomino Fino and flor can achieve in the region without the homogenizing effects of the solera system and of fortification.

Even the Javier Munoz's more innovative dishes tend to succed. The pasta-like component accompanying the sea bass loin consisted of succulent ribbons of squid.

Let's just say we ought to have shared it among a family of seven or eight. The first glass we had was fascinating - roast corn and peanut tones amid a glimmer of acid - but after that the wine died with alarming speed. I couldn't help wondering whether it would have benefitted from less aging under flor. There didn't seem to have been enough underlying structural acidity in the initial fruit (despite its provenance from the famed Pago Miraflores) to endure the prolonged oxygen exposure. (Think what would happen if you tried to make a Côte du Jura from, say, hot climate Ugni Blanc.)

Disappointments don't last long at La Carbona, in any case. The final savoury course of the tasting menu is an absolute showstopper, a massive slab of a steak, salted to perfection and served with a glass of Sanchez Romate's walnutty, tannic Oloroso.

I'd be remiss not to mention, at the risk of overrepresenting Sanchez Romate wines in this post, the most captivating wine I tasted on my first visit to La Carbona, the bodega's rare "Fino Perdido," a stab at En Rama production that doesn't seem to have been repeated, or not frequently enough... (It hasn't been available on any subsequent visit to La Carbona.)

The wine offered an energetic, horchata-like nose, and a palate bursting with roast sugared nuts and silvery acidity. It too had been offered as part of the tasting menu, an act of quiet generosity that typifies La Carbona as a whole. It's a magnificent place, a benchmark for the gracious service and honest pairing of the region's fascinating, inimitable wines.

La Carbona
Calle San Francisco de Paula, 2
Tel: +34 956 34 74 75

Related Links: 

N.D.P. in Andalusia: El Maestro Sierra, Jerez
N.D.P. in Andalusia: Bodegas César Florido, Chipiona
N.D.P. in Andalusia: La Taberna der Guerrita, Sanlucar

A rather strange 2011 column featuring La Carbona by Nicholas Lander at Financial Times. It starts as mostly well-written profile of the restaurant, but transforms mid-text, with very little transition, into an ambiguous account of a heavily-sponsored sherry cook-off. Lander also refers to Equipo Navazos very unclearly as "the La Bota range of wines." 

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