El Capricho. I think they had salad as well. But I really don’t recall any of that…
Upon arrival everything seems discrete and quite modest. Along the last few kilometers to Jiménez de Jamuz, León, just over a three-hour drive from Oporto, the small underground cellars in the landscape claim our attention, its chimneys popping up like mushrooms in the landscape. This is a land of wine, craftsmanship and meat. And this is also where El Capricho, supposedly one of the best meat restaurants in the world, is to be found. Why here?
Like I was saying, it’s all fairly discrete and simple. We arrived and the first thing we see is a terrace leading up to a bar. Pretty rustic in every way. We were surprised for the first time once inside the restaurant. We walked down some sort of kitchen where we were struck by the string of immense meat cuts on display, none of which would ever fit in a conventional oven. This is what we’re here for. After that we are taken to our table — we booked a table of course, sometimes you have to do it months in advance — and we finally come to understand that the El Capricho is an old cellar. A continuum of rooms dug into the rock itself. Moist, dark, fresh and not lacking in mystique or personality.
As you would expect, nobody comes here to eat — not even dares to order — anything but meat. This is a unique opportunity and we are aiming for the very best! A cecina, to start things off. This is a salty and matured meat, cut in slices as thin as you would want with smoked ham. This cecina is an El Capricho exclusive of traditional production. We arrive at the restaurant after a few days of travelling around Spain and with a lot of good jamon in our stomachs, but this is a different league. Texture, fat, salt and taste: everything is on point! This is followed by a steak tartare that should not be underestimated with its perfectly balanced pepper mix — some of us even consider sticking to the tartare for the rest of the meal.
But gentlemen: please save room for what’s coming! The best is about to arrive, the Chuleta de Buey signature dish that is brought to our table by the owner and maestro asador (pitmaster) himself: José Gordon. He is the one cutting the meat. He sorts each different cut in its plate and explains the textures and tastes we will find in each of the cuts. It’s about this time we fully grasp the solemnity of this moment. Animals are butchered at an optimal stage, well into their adulthood. Its very existence is fully respected, each animal living in an open range environment and fed with a nutritious diet. More than the breed of each animal, it is the combination of these factors that assure the quality of the meat. The final secret is a long maturation process, which is never shorter than 120 days of maturation in a controlled temperature environment.
While we sit quietly listening to José, we realize this meal is a gesture of gratitude, both to the master and the animal. If you really have to be carnivorous, you might as well do it with this degree of honor and respect. Words fail us when we start to eat but each of us eventually tries to come up with some sort of praise. And soon enough everyone is trying to outdo the previous comment, but we quickly run out of adjectives. My taste buds tell me that I’m chewing the best meat in the world. Perhaps I already had this preconceived idea in my mind, but the truth is that I had never eaten something quite like this. It’s heretic to even try to argue that one can enjoy fine meat in Portugal (though we really can’t complain: we do have the best fish in the world). It’s pointless to even try and make any comparisons.
At El Capricho everything seems discrete and modest at first. It’s all about simplicity and purity. And that is why this is one of the best meat experiences in the world. Should I just say… unforgettable?
PS: I won’t end this post without mentioning the wine. At El Capricho we had a 2012 Telmo Rodriguez Mencía from Valdeorras that was just as unforgettable. Oh, and I believe there was salad on the table as well. But I really don’t recall any of that. The price is taller than the ox itself and it is a bit of a stretch to get there, but the experience is worth every cent and kilometer.