For this post, my last on the Ribera del Duero wine region, I wanted to talk about restaurants. There are lots of places in the region that serve traditional food (i.e., roast suckling pig and roast suckling lamb), but in hopes of something more updated, we tried two more upscale places I’d read about: the restaurant at Posada Fuenta de la Acena, and El Molino de Palacios.
Oddly, both are housed in former water mills, but the former served modernized traditional dishes, and the latter (disappointingly) turned out traditional dishes at higher prices than you’d find at the rustic local joints serving the same dishes.
On the day we visited Vina Mayor and Arzuaga Navarro (i.e., the western end of the Ribera region where you’ll find the famed Vega Sicilia winery), we drove over to Quintanilla de Onesimo for a 2 pm lunch reservation at Fuente de la Acena.
It was a good thing we’d made a lunch reservation, or else the kitchen probably wouldn’t have opened that day: this pretty-but-sleek restaurant was completely empty. The dining room is spread over two floors and the sunny top floor overlooks the Duero river, meaning the place is big and it felt *really* empty. Luckily, our party of four was all the party we needed.
Although Fuente de la Acena offered a 34 euro prix fixe menu, the prix fixe choices sounded uninteresting, so we stuck with a la carte options.
Overall, starters were much stronger than mains (more creative and delicious), and the richness and large portions meant that at 8-10 euros a starter, you could have a fine, economic lunch comprised entirely of starters.
Standout starters included Jon’s lasagna of morcillo, the region’s traditional blood sausage. I have to confess that as much as I love a bloody steak, I have issues eating congealed blood stuffed into a sausage casing. But I suppose if you sneak *anything* into familiar and appealing lasagne sheets, I’m all over it (see photo at the top of this post). This rendition of blood sausage was sweet and creamy – no steely blood tang, as I feared. While I’m unlikely to start craving morcillo anytime soon, I’d eat it again.
Pickled foie gras didn’t sound attractive (because unless it’s accompanying Vietnamese food, pickled veg ranks very low on my list of favorite foods – probably down where blood sausage normally dwells), but at my friend Colleen’s encouragement, I gave it a try. And hey – it was excellent. In fact, it hardly tasted pickled. No pucker-your-lips vinegar sourness at all. The foie was characteristically rich and meaty with a hint of sweet pepper flavor. Served cold and spread on toast, the pickled foie gras was basically the best pate of your life.
And what’s a trip to Spain without pulpo (octopus)? Gnocchi with pulpo, which really tasted like bacon somehow, was served with a rich, tangy, creamy cheese. Meat, carb and dairy in one – easily a delicious, filling meal on its own.
But why would we stop after just four starters? We continued on to four main courses (most at 20 euros), two desserts and several bottles of wine. The resto serves an up-to-date-styled version of cochinillo, which was good but no better than in the traditional, inexpensive places we ate. And the fancier cuts of meat (such as roast Iberico pork tenderloin) were disappointingly bland – nothing at all like the almost honeyed-sweet-nuttiness of the version I still remember having at Mugaritz. Mugaritz’s version remains the pinnacle of my pork loin experience. (I know – how insane was that last sentence?)
Fuente de la Acena’s wine list covers all the region’s wonderful reds with surprisingly little markup. Because we were able to try a variety of wines at lunch, we tried (and fell in love with) the 2001 Vina Mayor “el Secreto,” which vineyard was luckily just a 2-minute drive away.
I wouldn’t call Fuente de la Acena a destination restaurant, but if you’re already in the Ribera and want a little more creativity and modernity, Fuente’s worth a visit. At 65 euros per person for a ton of food and good wines, I thought our lunch was good value, and in warmer weather, sitting outside by the river would be unbeatable.
Now, as for the “other” converted mill restaurant . . . we’d read about El Molino de Palacios (in Penafiel, Spain) in this April 2006 Travel + Leisure article and this Gerry Dawes blog post also mentioned it as a place worth visiting. The restaurant is, of course, very pretty on the outside – all quaint stone walls and prime waterside location. But once inside, like several other restaurants in the region, El Molino de Palacios looked like its last facelift was in the late 60s, which isn’t exactly the decade you want to freeze in time.
In the end, I should have noticed that this more-recent-than-2006 (August 2007) L.A. Times article was unimpressed with the food at El Molino de Palacios, but hey, live and learn.
On the plus side, the chef herself took our lunch order. We were going to go with more roast baby lamb, but we were told that if we’d wanted lechazo, we had to book it at the time we made our reservation. So we made do with some so-so choices – hare stew that would’ve been great if not for the stringiness of the meat. Lamb chops were small but tasty enough that I wondered what the roast suckling lamb would’ve tasted like. And the hake grilled a la plancha was juicy and moist and really the sleeper hit of or lunch.
Our tab came to 45 euros per person, including a bottle of tasty Hacienda Monasterios crianza. Lunch was good, not great, but the true beauties of Penafiel were still to come:
For 6 euros, you have the privilege of going on a Spanish-language tour of the Castle (mandatory if you want to see it), and admission to the region’s wine museum. The castle, though, is so dramatic that I didn’t mind not following anything the guide was saying. Penafiel Castle felt very lonely and windy, and so it was surely a warrior’s fortress, rather than an entertainment/living center.
The other treat in Penafiel was an antiques shop, Rastrillo, that, surprisingly, also had a charming and well-edited wine shop in the basement.
Rastrillo’s owner insisted we try glasses of Bodegas Mauro wine, as well as sample his local pecorino-style cheese and gorgeous, sweet, crunchy marcona almonds. The Mauro was so good that we bought a bottle despite already having exceeded our luggage allowance for the return trip to London.
Rastrillo sold everything from the Vega Sicilia Unico to less-expensive (but quality) wines like those by Pingus, Emilio Moro and other winemakers in the area. Looking back, we really should have started our explorations of the Ribera del Duero at a shop like Rastrillo. It would have given us a clearer idea of which vineyards were worth visiting. But I’m glad we found the place.