You've never had fish like this | Chef Ángel León and Restaurant Aponiente Cádiz, Spain

September can be a welcome respite from the vacations of August. Spanish cities come alive again, and after having seen the doors of so many of our favorite markets, vendors and restaurants shut for nearly a month, we invite the cooler breeze, the back-to-school excitement and the opportunity to start anew. I think contrary to popular belief that January is the time for resolutions, September provides us a chance to reevaluate what we want to change about our lifestyle and food choices. To some extent (depending on the market), we notice when spring has sprung because we begin to see strawberries, or know that fall has arrived if the figs have ended and apples are now abundant. Ironically, the seafood stalls available to the public never seem to show a change in season, even if the old wives' tales tell us that some times of the year are better for shellfish, or sardines in Malaga known as espetos have more fat in the summer months; but regardless of these warnings we have at our disposal mussels, salmon, tuna, clams, cod and shrimp all year long, whether these are farmed or wild caught.  Something's fishy, no?

For me, a visit to Aponiente this past June, a one Michelin star restaurant in Cádiz, Spain revolutionized the way I thought and will think about fish consumption and has helped me to make changes this fall when it comes to shopping and ordering seafood and shellfish. It was a confirmation of chefs capable of making an impact on their public much greater than simply a fine dining experience. If you are so lucky to take in the beaches of Cadiz, or the overall ambiance of this seaside town, I suggest you empty your pockets a bit at Chef Ángel León's Aponiete restaurant, and allow yourself to be taken away with the tide of change.

Dining room of Aponiente in Cadiz, Spain. 
He's made quite the headway as of late; with appearances at Madrid Fusion, Spain's Fish Fight, and articles by national journalists who peg his kitchen as trip-worthy. They call him Chef del mar, the chef of the sea, because he respects, nurtures and gives back to the sea. Born in Sevilla in 1977, but self proclaimed "son of the bay of Cádiz," he is now installed with his restaurant Aponiente in Puerto de Santa María in Cádiz, Spain.

Even the restaurant's name gives regards to the sea, el poniente, a westerly blowing wind that frequents the Iberian coast in summer months. Since its opening in 2007, the first Michelin star was awarded just three years later in 2010. Like most chefs he's a perfectionist, but through his light aquamarine and yellow eyes the sea can be seen, the true passion behind his craft. Little by little he is helping to change diners and other chefs and foodies opinions of seafood; known primarily for using "second class fish", scraps, or less common varieties such as herring, ling, horse mackerel, frigate tuna, or even those species which would normally be known as bait; the majority sourced from his half-Atlantic, half-Mediterranean backyard.

Although he received training in France, Ángel León isn't what you would classify as "classically trained," in fact it's part of his distinctive and intrinsic character, the one that challenges his guests to get used to the idea of plankton and algae or sauces emulsified with fish eyes on their plates. 

"We want to celebrate the lesser known fish, as we as humans are determined to believe that the sea is selective in its offerings." His philosophy says, "the best way to speak of the sea, is to be totally in love with it, live for it, from our stance in the Earth"

Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, one of New York state's most agriculturally advanced and locally based menus, named him the "Chef of the future" for his innovation, the marriage of his knowledge of the sea and the problems facing sustainability of our oceans.

I've spoken before about food responsibility, and Dan Barber confirmed that an important element of the status of the food chain is in the hands of the consumers and chefs. If we encounter a menu loaded with unsustainable products, of mono-agriculture, we only implore the industry by ordering from that menu. Same with chefs, they have the ability to change consumers' options, by creating new menus or sourcing from direct relationships with farmers, fishermen and asking the question or raising the concern where does our food come from and how was it sourced, cultivated or alimented? Ángel León goes a step further. 

"Embutidos of butifarra, lomo, fuet, chorizo" or imitation Spanish cured meats made from fish. Ángel asked himself why there wasn't this variety on the market, and decided to produce it himself. 

Jamón marinero. Sea ham. A fresh sushi tuna slice flavored with the essential oils and fats of Spanish ibérico ham. While this zone, particular Barbate, Spain is known for its tuna, this tiny morsel was the only offering on the menu, a nod to the sustainable choices made at Aponiente. 

Garbonzo bread with camarones (small dried shrimps). I loved this addition to the meal, an homage of sorts to the popular Andalusian tapa tortitas de camarones

Fresh mackerel served with a sprig of green onion on a pillow of steamed bread. 

While for me the taste wasn't outstanding, it did make me stop and think and it surely was the first "cheese" I've eaten made from elements of the ocean. It's created with the fats of churned fish and plankton. 

Another Aponiente development! They've mastered a technique of grilling by using olive pits instead of the cancerous laden charcoals. In the photos smoked sardines with roasted eggplants and a tribute to Morrocan cooking with a "pastela" of mackerel belly. 

"The origin of life, plankton - in a can" is what this dish is referred to, combining a jelly-like sauce of phytoplankton. Easily the most unusual and unorthodox plate of the meal - my sensory parts fired likeness of being at the beach, putting a shell to my ear, swimming in the ocean or even the extreme aggressiveness and boldness shown to us from the Earth's oceans if they get the best of us and we are tossed and turned underwater - an intense mouthful. 

Creamy rice with macro and micro seaweed. 

A digestive wasabi, apple, fennel and plankton flavored ice cream

Aponiete's version of Alfajor de Medina Sidonia, a pastry dating back to ancient times made of almonds, hazelnuts, honey, sugar, flour and spices from a region of Cádiz. 

To finish off our sea themed meal, petits fours of chocolates and starfish biscuits. 

Ángel speaking with Juanlu Fernández his sous chef and kitchen staff. 

Not to be over looked was the amazing work of Aponiente somellier, Juan Ruíz Henestroso, who aside from this lovely Rioja, has 101 champagnes on the menu. 

We got a better look at the wine cellar on the way out of Aponiente. 

I'm not the only one singing praise of this restaurant and team of creatives, in January 2011 the New York Times listed Aponiente and Tickets as the two Spanish restaurants worth getting on a plane for. Later that year the Wall Street Journal marked Aponiente as one of the ten best restaurants to eat seafood in Europe. 

See for yourself. 

+34 956 851 870
Closed Sundays and Mondays
All other days:  13:30-16:00 and 21:00 -midnight

Puerto Escondido 6
Ribera del Marisco. El Puerto de Santa María 
Cádiz, Andalusia, Spain 

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