While researching dining options for our trip to Spain, I came across the restaurant Bal D’Onsera, in Zaragoza, which the Michelin Guide gives one star. I wasn’t able to find a lot of information on the restaurant other than its gorgeous (Flash-based and Spanish-only) website, but did find this information on the Foods from Spain website:
“Josechu Corella and his wife, Carmen Arregui, have run the Bal d´Onsera since 2004. The restaurant is located in the popular area of El Tubo, in the city of Zaragoza. Josechu offers very contemporary cuisine strongly influenced by the traditional food produce of Aragón, like ternasco lamb and vegetables. Josechu found his vocation to be a chef late in life, when he was 30, but decided not to lose any more time: he worked with greats like Arbelaitz, Arzak, Adrià, Subijana, Arola and Berasategui, before opening his own business in Zaragoza.”
Sold. Reservations booked for lunch, at the typically Spanish later hour of 14:00.
When we gave the taxi driver the address yesterday, he started shaking his head and muttering “many people, many people.” As it turns out the restaurant is located directly in the heart of the district that was swarming with locals dressed in traditional Aragonese costumes participating in the Offering of the Flowers for the Fiestas del Pilar. He was reluctant to even try, but gamely pulled out his map book and studied it for a minute or two, took a deep breath, and dived in, telling us he would only be able to get us close by, not all the way to the restaurant. We said that was fine.
As it turns out, he got us to within a block or so, negotiating with police officers directing traffic in a couple of roundabouts and getting clearance to go against traffic blockades. We tipped him handsomely for his efforts, in a culture where tips aren’t routinely employed. He earned it.
Anyway, after finding the restaurant, which is discreetly tucked into a tiny alley-like street off another small street off the main drag, marked by a simple sign over a nondescript, windowless door, we found the door to be locked, so we rang the buzzer. The door was answered by the woman who would be our server; she led us into an empty dining room for our 2:00 reservation. The small room housed five tables, two set for two, one set for three, one set for six and one set for nine. We were the first to arrive, but eventually all five tables would be filled, each set of guests also ringing the buzzer for entry.
We were given a menu translated to English, offering three different tasting menus. After selecting the seven-course option, we asked for a recommendation on wine. To our surprise, the server recommended a Cava or a Champagne. We are not huge fans of bubbly, generally only partaking as a precursor to a meal or wine tasting, for toasts, or the occasional mimosa. We would never have thought to select a bubbly to accompany an entire meal, but we are always open to having our boundaries challenged, especially on expert recommendation, so we agreed and selected the Cava. (No offense to the Champagne, but c’mon, gotta stay local!) Turned out to be an excellent pairing to each of the courses.
The servers did not speak much English and my Spanish, though better than I expected it to be, is also not strong, particularly when receiving rapidly-spoken Spanish. But with a bit of patience and persistence on both sides, we managed to communicate pretty well.
We started off with an amuse bouche of tuna ceviche with the local staple borage, and quinoa. The borage tastes a little like cucumber, and had the al dente consistency of a cooked bell pepper. This was accompanied by a shot of tomato water, which was absolutely divine — looked like water with a slight green tint, flooded the taste buds with the flavor of fresh tomato, at once light and robust. An excellent start to the meal.
The first course was a salad of borage, artichoke guacamole, langoustine tartare, and a tomato gelee. I’m not normally a fan of raw shrimp, but this was so fresh that it barely tasted of fish and more of the ocean, tender and silky. It was balanced nicely with the al dente texture of the borage.
The second course was a poached egg served over lobster, with broccoli couscous, puffed quinoa, potato “chips,” asparagus, black trumpet mushrooms, and a white truffle perfume. Every element was showcased perfectly, and the result was a lovely symphony for the senses. The lobster was barely cooked, tender and flavorful. The broccoli couscous (see picture below) was actually just the tiny leaves from the tops of the florets. I’ve never seen broccoli served that way, but it was delicious. The puffed quinoa was crunchy, as were the potato “chips.” (In the photo, the white slivers that look like shaved parmesan cheese were actually delicate but crunchy slivers of potato.) I’m not a fan of eggs, so I pushed mine to the side, but Brian cut his up and mixed it in with the other ingredients for a heavenly experience. If he could pick one meal to have for breakfast every day, this would be it.
The next course was a hake filet with grilled vegetables, tomato and beet touches. The fish is a soft, mild white fish popular in Spain, and it was cooked to perfection. Very moist, it flaked apart at the merest touch of the fork. The beet touches included two large-ish flakes of beets that looked and felt like scraps of paper, and two different pureed preparations of beet, one red and one almost black in color. For me, though, the real star of this course was the locally grown tomato. I was spoiled growing up with Connecticut-grown tomatoes that I’ve longed for every summer since I left home. Like any other crop, they have good years, bad years, and stellar years (like the summer of 2012). These Aragonese tomatoes were like none I’ve had anywhere else, very much like those from a stellar season back home. Absolutely sublime.
The fourth course was an incredible surprise, especially for me. Listed simply on the menu as Risotto Bal D’Onsera with fungi and foie, I was a little nervous, since foie is not in my comfort zone. What arrived at the table was lovely to look at and turned out to be my absolute favorite plate of food thus far in Spain. Creamy, al dente rice with tender mushrooms and a foie custard that was silky smooth and incredibly flavorful — and not at all gamey. I made myself put down the spoon after each bite to savor every mouthful and make the course last longer. Just thinking about the dish as I describe it here is making me yearn for another bowl.
The fifth and final savory course was rack of lamb from Sierra de Guara, a province of Aragon, with a creamy streak of potato, saffron, crispy onion and a grain I couldn’t quite identify. The lamb was cooked rare and was delicious. Brian was trying to figure out just how they got the potatoes so creamy — they were of a consistency similar to warm brie cheese and complemented the lamb nicely. No mint jelly required!
The first of the two yummy dessert courses featured apricot ice cream, dulce de leche, yogurt, crumble, and Elderberry flower air.
The second dessert course (and seventh overall course) was Aragonese peach sorbet, milk chocolate mousse, Grenache reduction, and crispy dehydrated strawberries on top.
The chef came out to greet us. He spoke English well and we were able to chat with him for a few minutes about his food and our trip. He has worked in the kitchens of several of the restaurants we are yet to visit in the Basque Country, and we chatted about that. As we wandered out of the restaurant we noticed that the entry is lined with menus autographed by some the chefs he has worked with, including Ferran Adrià, Martín Berasategui, and Juan Mari Arzak, among others.
All in all a delightful two hours I’d happily repeat, over and over.