LÚ Cocina y Alma, Jerez, Spain

LÚ Cocina y Alma is one of the best fine dining experiences in Andalusia. Chef Juanlu Fernández utilises training and techniques honed in Paris and applies them to the region’s eclectic recipe book. The result is a tasting menu that captures the sun soaked culinary heritage of the fields, the gastronomic traditions of the coast, and the energy of local tabancos. Paul Caputo discovers a masterclass in presentation and storytelling.

LÚ Cocina y Alma, Jerez, Spain

Juanlu Fernández, or Lu for short, frequently describes his approach to cooking as ‘rearguard vanguard’, a playful dichotomy that captures the essence of his first business venture, LÚ Cocina y Alma, an intimate restaurant space in the historical centre of Jerez de la Frontera.

Off the back of a 10 year stint alongside Ángel León at Aponiente, a 3-Michelin-star triumph in nearby El Puerto de Santa Maria, Lu opened in December 2017 to strong reviews, with particular acclaim given to the menu’s inherent creativity and his elevation of simple but traditional Andalusian cuisine.

A self proclaimed Francophile, but born in Jerez, he mastered the foundational techniques of the classic French repertoire before unleashing them on the local ingredients of his homeland. The determination to craft lighter, more elegant dishes, while allowing formal training to underpin the pursuit of stylistic innovations (such as switching butter with pork fat, or using oyster proteins for emulsifying rather than egg) now epitomises his reputation for the avant-garde.

Just under a year later a Michelin star arrived and today LÚ Cocina y Alma continues to enrich a contemporary Franco-Andalusian style, infusing sophistication and rusticity, complexity and simplicity. A perfectly orchestrated menu served in a range of thoughtful props and accessories brings these latent tensions to the fore as the team guide us through a relaxed but informative cultural journey.

In many ways, Jerez is the perfect location to express such contradictions. Despite its confident mercantile past, it is currently one of the poorest places in Spain. Youth unemployment is high and a general economic malaise lingers over the town. Amidst the fading grandeur of a wealthy, entrepreneurial past are signs of decline and struggle, a loose reminder of the region’s agricultural legacy.

Quietly tucked on Calle de Zaragoza, the humble entrance promises little. Inside though, a refined vibrance oozes stylish personality. The latest interiors were imagined by Mexican architect and designer Jean Porsche, who brings a carefree 1960s swagger to an ellipse shaped dinging room. A wallpaper of geometric shapes in pastel pink and sky blue tones gives a subtle nod to neoplasticism, while the main focus is the central kitchen and preparation station.

Large, spacious tables provide a platform for the story to gather pace. Mirroring Lu’s career, the menu opens with reference to his French instruction and puts guests at ease with an opening volley of shellfish and Champagne entitled ‘Elegance - Coquillance - Paris’. Local flavour dominates however, with an emulsion of Conil oyster, razor clams (from near Cadiz), blue crab with caviar, and clams in escabeche.

We then depart Paris and immerse ourselves in the region’s agrarian past. A series of small bites, evocative of the peasant’s lunch is labelled ‘Humbleness - Labourers - Field’. Decorative tins holding an Almadrada tuna belly sandwich, bonito and roasted peppers sandwich, and Spanish tortillas with onion ash join a thermos of Andalusian stew. Simplicity at its finest.

With a day’s work behind us, sundown is for entertainment. We are taken to the Tabancos, to the beat of Andalusia’s traditional tapas bars, where we feast on cured pork belly in a citric emulsion and bread crisp, cured tuna and dry aged cheese, cumin marinated carrot and the house pate. We’re reminded of energetic flamenco, symbol of rebellion and protest. Presumably that’s the point.

There is of course a secret weapon. The Andalusian cook book boasts the partnership of one of the world’s most misunderstood wines - fortified Sherry. Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Olorosso styles accompany us on our journey and no opportunity is missed to reinforce their territorial trappings. ‘Mosto’ is poured from a ceramic flask, while Amontillado is drained from cask and beautifully presented in antique silverware. We continue to reflect on and celebrate the region’s history with a poetic pouring of a 125 year old Amontillado.

Gastronomically these wines work well, offering myriad components with which to enhance the food pairings. Given their strength though, a few carbohydrates are a welcome support. Ritual like theatre accompanies the arrival of sourdough bread and Normandy butter. Beaten and worked until soft, it is well worth the lengthy buildup.

The appetisers are imaginative and technically impressive, but with the night still young the menu steps up a gear and builds in ambition. Cold smoked red porgy, fermented Andalusian salad, and sun dried tomatoes give way to bay haddock in saffron fisherman stew. Visually stunning, the picadillo soup features 90 day cured egg yolk, Montesanto Iberian ham and 80 year old ‘forgotten’ Oloroso.

Two last barrages of local identity help us reach the climax of this culinary tale. Aquanaria Atlantic seabass ‘bienmesabe’ is followed by Cadiz mountain lamb. Both were truly outstanding and aesthetically on brand. A seamless transition into desert is never easy, particularly after dense, concentrated meat flavours; but we’re in good hands. Vibrant citrus and vodka notes cleanse the palate.

In the home of easygoing tapas, LÚ Cocina y Alma is a brave concept. Nevertheless the balance between entertainment and fine dining is expertly struck. Never quite gimmicky, the visually compelling narrative leaves us with a deeper connection to Jerez and its food. Before departing I’m reminded of the priming words greeting us at the table. “Thank you for trusting us and enjoy our sane madness”. French techniques at the rearguard, local heritage on the vanguard.

Written by Paul Caputo

Paul Caputo is a UK based wine writer, judge and critic. He is a VinItaly International Academy Ambassador and writes regularly for various publications. He previously ran an online wine merchant and successful pop up wine bar.

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