A Spanish Restaurant to Rival El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Since the turn of the millennium, foodies searching for cutting-edge gastronomy have flocked to Spain.

First, they came to El Bulli near the town of Roses, close to the French border in Catalonia, where Ferran Adrià popularized the concept of molecular gastronomy.

When he closed El Bulli in 2011 to focus on other projects, the mantle passed to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, midway between Roses and Barcelona.

Joan Roca i Fontané does the cooking, his brother Josep handles the wines, and little brother Jordi makes the desserts at Can Roca, which was voted the world's best restaurant earlier this month.

The next restaurant in that lineage may be Aponiente, which is in El Puerto de Santa Maria, a small city on the Atlantic Ocean in southern Spain. Chef Ángel León (shown in the photo below) offers creative seafood preparations, and sommelier Juan Ruiz-Henestrosa focuses on the sherries that are produced in El Puerto and nearby towns Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

León opened Aponiente in 2007 in a small space on an unassuming side street near many of El Puerto's tapas joints. He won his first Michelin star in 2010 and his second last year. Later in 2015, he will move to a restored 19th century sea mill.

Aponiente offers two tasting menus. The longer one costs 166 euros and lasts more than three hours but is leavened by a number of playful dishes and a relaxed atmosphere. The food is intricate and requires a staff of 25 to prepare and serve. León himself walks back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room and occasionally presents a finished dish to a guest.

Juan Ruiz-Henestrosa, the sommelier, visits many of the local sherry bodegas to select the barrels or botas he especially likes. The producers then bottle the sherry for him. This is a Fino from Bodegas Tradicion in Jerez. He also offers a terrific wine list with smart selections from around Europe.

León spent time working in hotel restaurants in Buenos Aires and Miami, and he incorporates preparations from Latin America into his cuisine. This dish, which comes early in the meal, is a cold corn soup served with a cured red mullet prepared ceviche-style in leche de tigre, the Peruvian term for a citrus-based marinade. He finishes the dish with dried corn to provide some crunch.

Before opening Aponiente, León also cooked at Taberna del Alabardero in Seville as well as El Faro in El Puerto, where he was exposed to many of the region's classic dishes. Here, he poaches lobster in Palo Cortado, an aged, aromatic sherry, then presents it with black bread croutons and "caldillo de perro," literally "dog soup," which is a specialty of Andalusia that incorporates hake, garlic, olive oil, lemons and Seville oranges. Ruiz-Henestrosa pairs the dish with a Palo Cortado that echoes those flavors.

This dish is an homage to chicharos con almejas, peas with clams. León combines those two ingredients with gnocchi made of payoyo, a cheese of sheep and goat's milk that a specialty of Andalucia. He finishes the plate with a velouté of peas and a clam broth.

This critter staring up at the diner is a baby squid covered in a squid ink sauce. Diners searching for a more down-home presentation can work their way through a plate of fried baby squid at La Esquinita, a seafood place just a few blocks from Aponiente. La Esquinita can also be just one stop on a delicious tapas crawl through El Puerto de Santa Maria.

By now, the kitchen is coming to the end of the lunch service and is assembling the first dessert, a lemon ice cream with candied ginger in a cold soup of galangal, a Indonesian plant that's a member of the ginger family. Ruiz-Henestrosa pairs the plate with a Moscatel from Cesar Florido, a producer in Chipiona, a small town near El Puerto.

You finish the last of the Moscatel with a coffee accompanied by two mignardises. One is a cannelloni that employs pineapple as a shell and a wasabi sour cream sorbet as the filling, the other a chocolate biscuit. As you leave the restaurant, one of the waiters gives you a canvas bag with some cured sausage made of tuna -- the perfect snack when you're ready to eat again in several hours.

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