It took four bottles of Riscal’s release from birth year 1929 to persuade Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry, best known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to agree to commit to their wine hotel. Via his vision, what Riscal have re-branded a ‘wine city’ has become as much tourist attraction as fluid factory of 10m bottles of Rioja per year. Navigating pinball-like between a lemon-coloured dot-to-dot of way-markers stuck to the floor, our press pack evaded swerving forklifts, inhaled vanilla scents of oak barrels carved for King Don Juan Carlos among mould and cobwebs, then basked in rays reflected from the hotel’s sparkling panes.
Simultaneously sharply edged and curvy, the chȃteau looks like a sort of space spider compared to the 1858 bodega, with the medieval town of Elciego and Dover-white mountains in the distance. Tracing the outline of titanium ribbons with a lissom finger, our alabaster skinned guide fancifully and fanatically explained how contours echo vine leaves while tones of silver, gold and purple capture a bottle’s capsule, wire cage and wine within. Therefore, supporting pillars, plunging deep unseen to cellars, symbolise roots.
Run by heavyweight hotelier, Starwood, this boutique building divides 43 bedrooms and suites between two wings coupled by a clear walkway. Offering such temptations as ‘Crushed Cabernet Scrub’, the ‘vinotheraphy’ spa is controlled by Caudalie. Although there was nil time nor offer of a ‘man-icure’, I still found it odd, even denigrating, to learn of their preference for Bordeaux over Rioja as base for treatments.
Public areas including the lofty, near bookless ‘library’, feature catalogues describing, auction-like, bespoke furniture and fittings. Entering the alas heroically soulless lobby, we bypassed the pious ‘preferred guest’ check-in, shooting up in a liminal lift case to lunch. Framed by wood latticework evocative of the Scottish parliament, with wiry rears to metal eddies, the effect of the vista’s packaging leant the impression of dining in an upmarket nest. Could the fare be as exciting as Gehry’s exuberant design?
Following the philosophy of Rioja’s first Michelin starred chef, Francis Paniego of restaurant ‘Echaurren’, head chef Jose Ramón Piñeiro showed some realisation of our mighty mealtime anticipations. Via his authored ‘Memory Menu’, defined differently depending on which waiter one asked, we would explore a fresh reading of established ingredients and possibly dishes, although defining the originals was deeply difficult.
Our server’s costume became an instant fascination. Although other staff abandoned it at least a season ago, the head waiter insisted on pulling rank, willingly wearing an embroidered, tight fitting, blazing red matador’s coat. Contrastingly sombre, he brought us an unamusing diet amuse of gentrified Ryvita – ‘seed tile’ – and black olive grissini. Despite delivering a satisfying crunch the ‘snack’ was usurped by a bread roll dipped squarely in perky olive oil. So good was it that we twice ordered more.
Liberated from the silt of the Ebro, Spain’s most meaningful waterway, a smooth quoit like stone was canvas for more crackers, this time erect. Looking like a miniature A-board or an airy tepee, these clasped tangibly fresh goat’s cheese squirted with swirls of truffled honey.
Like a blushing bather occupying the hotel in warmer months, a tenderly treated king prawn tail lounged. Bringing acidity, herb spiked tomato flesh was pounded by unseen hands into tartare. Poured with as much dignity as viable at table, a sluggish, pearly reservoir of white garlic sauce from the acting matador added flavour. Alas, this being decanted into a hospital-esque pannier, presumably to echo Gehry’s titanium curvature, the overall effect was a dash ‘GUM’.
Onto more substantial dishes, steaming under bumpy truffle gel cap, creamed, smoked paprika stained snappy rice called ‘turtledove’ apparently tied micro diced absentee courgettes and funghi. With unconventional, but unlovable looks and a striking confluence of textures, ranging from baby food to plasticine, this caricature of a muddy moon seemed to have about as much vivacity.
Next, slow-cooked hake shed its film of light batter as easily as other staff had abandoned their uniforms. It slipped into slime when I tried keenly to fork it. However, also slow-cooked (the culinary equivalent of the mañana mentality) ribs of lamb were as succulent as one could dream of and frankly tastier then the words I’m trying to feed you with.
Finally, sweet toast with apple discs and honey ice cream bevelled the meal. A bready pivot anchoring a level see-saw of cushy sweetness and refreshing acidity.
Design of sorts continued with wine. From Marques de Riscal’s recently acquired Finca Torrea, the Tempranillo/Graciano wore a more striking label than their core offering, which dully sports a certificate from over a century ago. Against a bright orange background was a contoured aerial view of the estate’s plots. Served pleasantly cool, it was crisp, with bright violets on the nose and green herbs and dark cherries on the palate, which was short lived enough to encourage, as a fix, multiple sips.
Excepting the waiter’s garb, by design, this had been a thoughtful feed. Although the bench I sat on was hard and the slightly dark room in parts as tight as me following ingestion of the Finca (Fincagestion?), the overall experience of dining in, while drinking freely of, a kind of vine had been arresting. However, if only Gehry did gastronomy, it would surely have seemed a more stirring and sapid ride…
Marqués de Riscal Restaurant – Calle Torrea, Elciego, Spain. Closed January and Sundays. Visit the website for more information.