A sun-blasted industrial estate in Andalucia is not the kind of place you’d go looking for a two Michelin-starred restaurant. But that’s exactly what makes Aponiente, Angel León’s seafood restaurant in El Puerto de Santa María, so exciting. Hidden behind a pair of fortress-like metal gates by the side of the road, this extraordinary restaurant feels like one big hallucination. From the moment I’m ushered up the path to a huge glass antechamber for canapés and fino, I’ve lost my bearings completely.
Everything on the menu is based on things from the sea. Developed with a team of marine biologists, and served deep inside a renovated sandstone mill on the waterfront, each dish pushes maritime flavours to an extreme: grassy plankton, metallic oyster shell, sweet shrimps, inky squid.
The obvious partner for such umami-ish food is, of course, sherry. And Aponiente boasts one of the longest sherry lists in the world, with 200 entries ranging from the salty finos of Colosia to the venerable El Maestro Sierra PX Viejisimo, a fruity PX with an average age of 50 years.
The house sherry is Fino en Rama Yodo, a rarity produced exclusively for the restaurant by Bodegas Lustau. Bottled, very fashionably, en rama – or unfiltered, straight from the barrel – this flavoursome aperitif was chosen specifically for its fresh, coastal character. We savoured it in little copitas with a beautiful lattice of fried baby shrimp, served on a bed of purple flowers.
Another curiosity from the drinks list is the dry white wine from Ximénez-Spínola, a family-owned bodega that has been making sherry since 1729. This is the only dry white in Spain made from the Pedro Ximénez grape (a varietal that’s usually used to make unctuously sweet PX sherry). Soft and bright, with notes of honeyed polenta cake and apple, it was a dulcet partner for a dish of iodine-y plankton soup and tiny, sweet clams.
Aponiente’s cocktails have a maritime flavour too. Their spirit of choice is Gin Mare, a Spanish gin flavoured with a Mediterranean mix of herbs, citrus and olives. We drank this in a fabulous Dry Martini garnished with oyster-water “pearls”.
The theatre reached a peak with the Light of the Sea cocktail, a great goblet of Gin Mare, apple and mint, garnished with an invisible scattering of bioluminescent bacteria. Served in the restaurant’s laboratory in the pitch dark, it fluoresced like a star shower, leaving me and my companions hopping up and down like overexcited children.
Back at our table, we continued our 18-course lunch in a daze. Gazing through the restaurant’s portholes onto the glittering water and salt flats full of wild flowers outside, I found myself thinking that even the industrial units in the distance looked rather beautiful.