21st Century Spain can often seem like a nation of city-states, with the various regions proudly exerting their cultural and political autonomy. Catalonia and the Basque Country even have strong separatist movements.
Whether or not this has complicated the perception of Spanish cuisine in the US is difficult to say; but it has never caught on to the degree of its Mediterranean counterparts Greek and Italian. Despite Ferran Adrià being perhaps the most influential chef of his generation, most Americans still think “tapas” when they think of Spanish food—while higher end Spanish restaurants come and go in a flash.
Chelsea’s Salinas, however, has been a sensation since it opened in 2011. Chef Luis Bollo, who is from San Sebastian in the Basque region, had done time in Michelin-starred kitchens around Europe before opening the late lamented Meigas in Soho in 1999. Several kitchens later, he and his partners decided on the cuisine of the Balearic Islands as Salinas’ starting point, evolving the menu since to include influences from other regions of Spain.
Despite many and sundry culinary accolades (including two stars from the NY Times), Salinas’ success is also very much due to its exceeding attention to detail, from the transporting interiors to the authentic music to the roses imported weekly from Ecuador. As partner Mary Catherine Mikula proudly conveys, “everything in your sightline is beautiful.”
The cognoscenti certainly agree: Salinas has hosted the likes of Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz, Scarlett Johansson and Ethan Hawke, and is a particular fave of DJ superstars like Victor Calderone, Roger Sanchez and Danny Tenaglia.
We caught up with Chef Bollo recently to attempt to unlock the many complexities and enigmas of Spanish cuisine.
As much as El Bulli was at the epicenter of the molecular gastronomy movement, Spanish cuisine has never caught on in the States, specifically New York, to the degree of other European cuisines. Why do you think that is?
This is a complex question. To begin with, a restaurant centered on the notion of molecular gastronomy here is an extremely risky business model. And if a Spanish chef designs a menu challenging the culinary conventions of traditional Spanish dishes, regular American diners will not be able to draw the connection between the traditional and deconstructed versions unless they are well-known tapas, like patatas bravas or gambas al ajillo.
Culturally, the reason why Spanish cuisine has not caught on in the States is because there was no clear connection between Spanish food and haute cuisine; the general perception of Spanish food for many decades has been casual, tapas and paellas. So it has been difficult to imagine a serious restaurant with Spanish food, like those in Spain. As you may remember, all the attempts to create a high-end Spanish restaurant [in New York] have failed, El Dorado Petit, Meigas, Romera, Manzanilla, etc.
Spain is almost a country of smaller countries, with each region loudly proclaiming its independence. Does this make it difficult for there to be a true Spanish food identity?
Despite the marked cultural differences and culinary traditions in certain regions, for open-minded Spaniards like myself, Spanish identity is one that embraces diversities…rather than the one homogeneous image that was propagated during Franco’s dictatorship. There is a wide acceptance for Basque, Catalan or Galician cuisines in any part of Spain. While nationalisms separate, food unites people.
What is unique about Balearic cuisine?
Balearic cuisine had been a starting point for us, because my partners and I have spent part of our lives there. However, I would not define Salinas as a Balearic restaurant, as we have evolved since 2011 and embraced a variety of culinary traditions, including those of Catalonia, Murcia, Valencia and Andalusia. Our menu reflects my personal reinterpretation of many of the rustic dishes from the Spanish Mediterranean—in particular, many of the new rice and Spanish pasta dishes that are not well-known in the US. Drawing on influences of prominent chefs like Ferran Adria, Quique Dacosta and Jordi Roca, I attempt to translate the vision of those traditional flavors for New York diners, but without too many technical complications.
What are some of the key ingredients?
Common ingredients for Spanish Mediterranean cuisine are olive oil, grains, pasta, blue fish like anchovies, mackerel and sardines, and many herbs like fennel, rosemary, thyme, oregano and anise. To contrast, in Basque cooking, the use of grains and pasta is rare. Basque also prefer using white fish like cod and whiting.
Are tapas a part of the Balearic tradition, or is it just necessary to have a tapas menu for American tastes and expectations?
There are tapas bars with Balearic foods on Balearic Islands, yes. “Tapas” as a culinary term in Spain appeared only after the Spanish Civil War in Andalusia, as a way to attract diners to consume more wine and beer. In the Basque Country, we have pintxos, which are tapas on top of a piece of bread. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Spanish chefs began considering tapas as a gateway to introduce creative flavors in miniature.
Which dishes at Salinas draw the most on Balearic traditions? What are your own innovations?
The fideos Puigpunyent is made of toasted fideos, sous-vide cooked rabbit, sobrassada sausage and Menorcan cheese. It is a dish created in memory of the days I spent in Puigpunyent, a small mountainous village near Palma de Mallorca. Drawing on the ingredients from the island, I highlighted textures by toasting fideos and cooking the meat slowly with sous-vide.
On the other hand, my arroz brut a la plancha is a dish inspired by the eponymous traditional dish common in the Mallorcan inland. Traditionally, it is rice made with a variety of meats and poultry in their broth. Although I am attracted to the flavors, rice in broth does not fit into the notion of Spanish tapas—so I decided to remove soup from the dish and turn that into a rice cake a la plancha.
Since my research trip to Valencia last year, I have been focusing on rice and fideo [pasta] in order to introduce lesser-known dishes—as well as to showcase ways in which I can modernize rustic offerings from the region.