Kaleja

The writer has had a few sensational lunches over the years but some are more sensationaler than others. The most sensational of them all was probably the one I had just under six weeks ago in Kaleja in Malaga.

January is a tricky old month – a combination of hangover and start all over, with added paperwork, and anything you can do to boost morale is too little. And it struck me that if you can’t see a bit of daylight between the clouds overhead then it is time to go and seek out the sun. So spotting a gap in the deadlines I availed myself of the convenient high speed train provided at vast expense to the public purse and shimmied down to Malaga. And I wasn’t just after a bit of winter sun, I was on a mission to have a look at this new venture by legends’ legend Dani Carnero and a crew featuring none other than my good mate Juanito, an absolutely top bloke and seriously talented sommelier in the making.

First impressions were bang on the money. It was January 15, bleak midwinter you might think, but not in Malaga. In Malaga the street was full of people in shorts, drinking beers on terraces and generally enjoying life in a way that is utterly inconsistent with any reasonable definition of the term “winter”. Not only that, but the stroll down from the station to the resto is a lovely one – a beautiful, underrated city this, and if you know where you are going you can pass by the traditional market, Picasso’s house and a few other assorted sights on your way. Timing is also perfect – get a train at a reasonable hour from Madrid, wander over and there is just time for a refreshing caña on the terrace before you get down to business.

But get down to business one must get and there, in the shadow of the castle in an alleyway off the famous view of the walls, is the restaurant itself. And it is the business.

I am not your man if you are after descriptions of interior decoration but this place is elegant. The staff, the uniforms, the layout, the furniture, the understated homage to the barbecue coals on display. But the best of all is the kitchen, because the kitchen has a bar – a minimalist stone surface with subtle lighting and an unbeatable view – because a few lucky diners can sit and enjoy a menu that Dani and the crew are literally making before their eyes.

I was one such lucky diner, and doubly lucky because I was allowed to sit there with all my friends (yep, it was just me). Now I have always found it very relaxing to watch others work, and this would have been a very relaxing time had they not been constantly interrupting my contemplation with new wines and dishes.

And what wines they were. You can see them above, and if you have been following this blog for any length of time you don’t need me to tell you that it was what is known as a festival. Absolute gems from start to finish and all the way through: so much so that the Barajuela Fino almost merged with the crowd. Really a consistently high standard and some excellent, innovative choices, but never straying far from the traditional wines of Andalucia, surely the best wines for this cooking 8 times of every 10. I am not saying this was a standard pairing menu – I gave Juanito instructions not to spare the ponies – but even then the pain at the end was more than reasonable – and in fact the list was very faily priced. In short, even a far better blog than this one will find it easy to enjoy the liquid assortment. For me it was just incredible.

And what dishes they were too. Dani Carnero is known as a man for the stews – pride of place in the kitchen is a traditional Andalucian cooking fire surrounded by bubbling pots – but the word “stew” just does not do justice to a recital like this one. I took the standard menu of fourteen dishes with just a couple of extras that Dani talked me into and looking back it is really hard to argue with any of them. If I had to pick any out as especially good they would be the berza, the magic beans in magically cheesy sauce, the ajoblanco, the rice, the roasted peppers, the hare, the callos de bacalao, the mackerel, the squid, the lentils  … (let’s face it, I couldn’t really pick any out). The bread was crunchy and fleshy, the butter was flavourful. See if you can find fault with it because I could not.

In summary: three hours of absolute treat after absolute treat, in the best possible surroundings.

Because the space you are in is congenial – beautifully decorated in the quietest possible street in central Malaga, but the best of all is that you are surrounded by the absolute salt of the earth. Juanito is a friend and a known great bloke, and I had also had good reports of Dani Carnero, but nothing could have prepared me for the welcome I received down there. It was like dropping into your mate’s house, inviting yourself into the kitchen and having him or her whip you up a world class menu and soak you in world class wines while you chew the cud and generally set the world to rights. (He knows his onions too, your man there.)

A truly memorable experience in a world class restaurant that surely must now go on to conquer the world. I have never been one for real estate investments but if you could buy the land under the seats at that bar in the kitchen I reckon you would be golden.

Many thanks to Juanito, Dani and the whole team and my sincere congratulations. I cannot wait to get back to that stool at the bar for another go but will always remember my first visit.

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