At 8.00am as I walked towards the central market in Marbella,
southern Spain, the first of the numerous fish wholesalers’ vans, which
would later in the day be delivering to the town’s many hotels and
restaurants, were just beginning to arrive with their catches.
The next hour, before the retailers’ shutters were rolled up, proved
a wonderful time to explore the old part of Marbella right next to the
market. In contrast to the rest of this rapidly expanding town of
determinedly modern shopping centres and apartment complexes its narrow
streets are lined with houses dating back to the late 18th century all
sprouting geraniums and bougainvillea. In the early morning it was home
only to subdued schoolchildren and office workers, stray cats and
By 9am the market was displaying many of the ingredients that are so
exciting to eat along this coast. At least half a dozen different kinds
of round clams; razor clams; langoustines, lobsters and crayfish;
salmonetas or small red mullet which are quickly fried and served with
lemon or grilled with olive oil; sardines; sole; bream; hake, monkfish
and tuna. On the fruit stalls were the first cherries of the season as
well as harissa and schwarma seeds, an indication of the culinary
influence of North Africa just half an hour away by sea. But at this
time of the morning the busiest stall was the café where the barman
switched between making coffee and slicing two Serrano hams on to
plates as breakfast for the hungry van drivers.
Although the day had started so well, disappointment was to follow.
Our most highly anticipated excursion was to Ronda, a fifty kilometre
drive from the coast up particularly winding roads with spectacular
views once past the growing number of hillside developments. The
hilltop town itself is absolutely stunning with its natural charms,
particularly its gorge, ably assisted by the man-made contributions in
the shape of some extremely handsome architecture and a venerable,
lovingly maintained bull ring for the ‘sport’ which originated in this
But our primary reason for visiting Ronda was to eat at Tragabuches,
a restaurant situated in a narrow street that runs between the bull
ring and the gorge, as I had heard and read so many good things about
its chef Sergei Lopez.
Although a great deal of thought and money has gone into creating a
soothing modern dining room with views - and providing such niceties as
toothbrushes in the lavatories and baskets for your bags so that they
do not lie on the floor - the kitchen, alas, just did not convince.
Initially we were induced into the tasting menu which consists of 14
small dishes but a dish of garlic, breadcrumbs and liquid nitrogen
followed by a sardine puree and then a cherry gazpacho only revealed
just how awry the modern scientific approach to Spanish food pioneered
by Ferran Adria can go in less talented hands.
We then switched to the a la carte menu as I was intrigued by a dish
of goat marinated in North African mint tea but this and the other
three dishes we tried failed to either excite our taste buds or satisfy
our appetite. The most interesting experience was drinking and enjoying
the Pasoslargos red from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and cabernet
franc vines planted around Ronda which will be commercially available
later this year.
But if I was disappointed by my fellow restaurant critics, and here
I can only apologise to any readers who may have been disappointed by
my own recommendations but may at least now have the satisfaction of
knowing that I too have been let down and not just on this occasion,
assistance was to come from two very different but easily recognisable
occupants of this part of the world - an itinerant businessman and a
knowledgeable hotel concierge.
Pancho, the former, even kindly made the booking for us at El Lago
which was probably just as well as if he had told me that the
restaurant overlooks the first and second holes of a golf course just
east of Marbella I would probably have not taken his advice. Golf and
exciting food I have never thought of as bedfellows.
But while the Greenlife Golf Club and apartments have the manicured
look of southern California and the restaurant itself something of the
blandness of an airline executive lounge, the menu and wine list are
intelligently collated and the young service team led by Paco Garcia, a
graduate of the obviously successful local restaurant school, was
thoroughly competent and admirably enthusiastic.
The approach and crockery are modern - a light onion soup for
example is poured by the waiter on to a bowl containing Parmesan and
quails’ eggs - and throughout there is an intelligent juxtaposition of
both protein and vegetables, of textures and flavours. From an
unusually exciting wine list (which even included a Riesling from
Malaga) we drank a white from an experimental vineyard in Rioja and a
red from fashionable Bierzo in north west Spain. By the time the sun
had been replaced by a full moon we had convinced ourselves we were
definitely not on a golf course.
Antonio, the receptionist at the Hotel Puente Romano, had noticed my
enthusiasm for fresh fish when I had left the hotel so early for the
market, and when pressed for his favourite fish restaurant suggested
Del Pescador down by the fishing port might fit the bill provided we
were not looking for the frills that are almost de rigueur on the Costa
del Sol. He marked its location on a map adding that a phone number was
unnecessary as they don’t take reservations.
The restaurant is on Calle Guadalete between a modern furniture
store Bambu on the main road and a row of tiny but immaculately kept
fishermen’s cottages that would have looked directly on to the sea
before the construction of a modern marina. Hogar del Pescador’s only
modern accoutrements seem to be plastic tables and umbrellas kindly
supplied by Pepsi. The rest is simple in the extreme but the fish could
not be fresher. Our waiter began by warning us ‘We only serve fish’
before leading us inside to a large, open, refrigerated counter which
contained as many different fish and shellfish as there had been in the
market. Our meal - grilled crayfish, fried squid and salmonetas, a
charred red pepper salad, a Dover sole and a bottle of Torres Vina Sol,
came to 90 euros for three. Take cash and note that the lunchtime rush
(all locals) seems to start around 15.00.
While Hogar del Pescador may appeal primarily to fish lovers, no-one
will be disappointed by Ruperto de Nola which opened three months ago
and is the second restaurant of Santiago Dominguez who opened the long
running Santiago restaurant nearby in 1957 when he was 17 and
Marbella’s population was a mere 12,000. It is 300,000 today.
Ruperto de Nola, named after a 16th century writer of Spanish cook
books, is as impressively smart as much of the downtown area but its
greatest asset is its chef Jacobo Vazquez who produces a range of
dishes that pack flavour and show true creativity rather than sheer
artifice. Best of all were a modern reworking of the traditional
gazpacho, chilled tomato and red pepper soup, thickened with bread but
here highlighted by a sweet tomato granita, and two fillets of the
freshest turbot with confited cherry tomatoes and fennel.
Not perhaps the dishes de Nola would have created for the kings of Naples five hundred years ago but very, very good indeed.
Hogar del Pescador, Calle Guadalete, Marbella (no tel no necessary)
El Lago restaurant, Greenlife Golf Club, Elviria Hills, 29600 Marbella, tel 9188.8.131.52 www.restauranteellago.com. (Dinner for 4 including wine and service 240 euros).
Ruperto de Nola, Antonio Belon 3, tel: 952.76. 55.50 approx 60 euros per person without wine and service.