STANDING at the pass with half a dozen chefs on one side and a dozen waiters on the other, it is somewhat amazing that Jose Melero looks so relaxed. Directing his team with Zen-like calm, it is perhaps not surprising that this seasoned chef turned down a career in the air force to run his famous fish restaurant El Campero (www.restauranteelcampero. es) in Barbate.
And military precision is what he needs with his team serving up to 400 people in a busy summer sitting… and over the three months of summer up to 20,000 meals. Without a doubt this is THE place to eat tuna, in about 30 different guises, even including tuna lasagna and various types of tuna salad, and you will be hard pressed to find a better fish restaurant in Spain.
Saying that, just up the road, in Zahara de los Atunes, you will find Antonio (www.restauranteantoniozahara.com), a restaurant certainly as good and in an even more enviable position, on one of the most amazing beaches in Spain. Having just undertaken a remarkable transformation, it is the very epitome of style, while also maximising on the incredible light and views.
Antonio also has a fabulous self-contained tuna menu, which is a stunning trawl of the very best of this wonderful local fish. And there are some good value tapas dishes, such as the amazing tuna tartare on toast at just five euros, or the ‘mollete’ bun of squid with mayonnaise.
Tarifa is the town with the fastest growing number of decent places to eat and the quality of cooking gets better by the year. Slowly catching up on Vejer, you have half a dozen excellent places to eat. One of the most exciting spots is the recently opened Mic Moc (www.facebook.com/micmoctarifa), where friendly Herman and his Belgian wife have created a wonderful space, with an exciting and creative menu. All cooked from fresh they pride themselves on their homemade sauces, many of them spicy, and the sheer mix of ingredients in most dishes.
I tried it when it first opened a year ago and it is still going strong, no surprises with dishes like its samosas served with amazing mango chutney and its Russian salad, that came with crab, wakame, broccoli, prawns and sesame oil, with cumin and cloves. I dipped into the ‘Qi of the wok’ section for a main and had a pad Thai, which was so full of goodness, I felt enlivened for the rest of the day, while the ‘matcha’ Japanese cheesecake was one of the most beautiful creations imaginable, with well over a dozen ingredients, even including popcorn.
Another splendid place food wise is Silos 19 (www. silos19.com) in the heart of the old town, in what must be one of the most beautiful buildings on the Costa de la Luz. This 18th century space has been stylishly convert- ed, in a huge open-plan space with historic vaulted ceilings and an original clock that seeing is believing.
Owners Valentina and Chilean chef Pablo Martínez Piumarta have conjured up a stunning spot to hide-out from the wind. They have a varied international menu with such stunning dishes as the marinated tuna ‘cervichado’, with ginger, red onion, cilantro, quinoa and even caviar and turnips. I also loved the scallops with ‘trompos de la muerte’ mushrooms and strips of pancetta, while the Thai beef cheeks with coconut foam were excellent and the duck in ginger, succulent and spicy.
Another excellent place to eat is Petit Bistro (www.petitbistrotarifa. com), an idyllic shady spot, which has just been through a big renovation. Run by Benoit and Veronica, who have lived in the town for nearly 20 years, you get a fantastically creative menu by night and a good value, but tasty, set menu at lunch. I particularly like Benoit’s foie gras with quince chutney, as well as his excellent tuna salad with mango and beetroot.
Next door, look out for Trattoria (www.latrattoriatarifa.com), run by ambitious Italian magnate Luciano Fabricio, 45, from Naples. With a fondness for his country’s top ingredients – not to mention the excellent Slow Food Movement – his restaurant just gets better and better. After undertaking a course with Spanish masterchef Joan Roca, he has just introduced a ‘bano thermostat’ oven at his main restaurant Trattoria, where he is able to slow cook a leg of lamb or duck breast for up to 24 hours at a low temperature.
He has another excellent, simpler spot Pizzeria con Cucina, nearby, while the fabulous fish restaurant of former architect and taste meister extraordinaire Victor at La Pescaderia is also well worth checking out if you are looking for fish. Also nearby are Lola Mora and la Ternera Mimosa, run by father and son team of Xavier and Daniel Lasagabaster.
Another recently opened spot is Oficina del Sabor in a side street, opposite Tarifa’s castle. Set up by Maria Jose and Paolo, who used to work at Trattoria, it is a wonderfully nice spot to chill out and relax. If it is a good beach spot near to the town, take a wonder to Papagaya, where you can eat some amazing fresh food on a hot stone as well as great cocktails. Heading along the coast towards Bolonia, you will find one of the region’s most alluring restaurants.
Overlooking rows of vines and a sea of undulating umbrella pines, Tesoro – or Treasure – is one pot of gold that really is worth seeking out. Aside from the fabulous food – including fresh langoustines and a classic ‘retinto’ steak typical of the region – the views over the Gibraltar straits to Africa are impossible to improve. Nearby on an incredible peak of the road to Bolonia look out for El Tropezon, which is run by a friendly Italian and counts on a nice garden and a typically authentic feel.
Also along this stretch of coast look out for the famous Hurricane Hotel and its superb lunch buffet, as well as the recently opened El Jardin restaurant at the Punta Sur hotel, which is an amazing place to chill out and eat incredibly well.
You must also consider dropping in to Pacha Mama (www.pachamamatarifa.com), which has recently changed hands, and is better than ever. In a wonderful sheltered garden, with plenty of shade and an excellent pool for the kids to play in, you will be spoilt for choice, with excellent wood-fired bbq treats and pizzas, not to mention the amazing homemade Italian ice creams. A recently opened place is the excellent Osteria del Sole, which has incredible fresh pasta and an amazing Italian wine list right on the beach.
But the highlight of any culinary journey to the Costa de la Luz, must be Vejer, which is a true foodie Mecca and one of the best in Andalucia. So it is no surprise to find someone of the calibre of Ellie Cormie, the former owner of five restaurants in Scotland – some with Michelin stars. At the helm of fabulous Corredera 55 (www.califavejer.com), she has brought her own unique sprinkling of magic, much of it taken in via four years in Asturias, to the bustling, competitive local restaurant scene. Alongside owner James Stuart, the fabulous, good value menu, heavy on vegetables and fish, keeps getting better and better.
The menu changes regularly and is always fresh and healthy with wonderful dishes such as the the cauliflower fritters, with turmeric and coriander, as well as an amazing mint and pea gazpacho, with wild basil. A tuna sashimi with wakame salad and prawns was superb, while for theatre go for a ‘salad jar’ shaken on the spot. The fruits of the forest summer crumble with whisky mascarpone, cream and toasted oats, says it all. Amazing.
Also consistently good – and essential to book – is El Jardin del Califa (www.califavejer.com) reached through the labyrinthine corridors of the 16th century Califa hotel. Its exquisite palm courtyard is enclosed by ancient walls and is lit with Moroccan lamps after dark.
If you aren’t hypnotised by the scent of frangipani, jasmine and incense, wait until you try the menu, a heavenly harem of authentic flavours from north Africa and the Middle East: delights such as baba ganoush, shish taouk, pastela filled with chicken, almonds and cinnamon and tempting tagines. Meanwhile, their new spot Califa Tapas, just up the road on Calle Corredera, is getting more and more popular, with its special mix of dishes and amazing views to match.
Talking of views, La Torre 2.0, also on Calle Corredera, is impossible to beat, sitting as it does overlooking one of the best views in Christendom, over- looking the beautiful Janda landscape. The recently opened sister restaurant of the La Torre, in El Palmar, is the most exciting opening in Vejer this year.
It has a great menu created by head chef Paco Rodriguez, from nearby Puerto de Santa Maria, who has worked around Spain and most recently with two Michelin starred Dani Garcia in Marbella. I particularly liked his fresh plate of thinly sliced courgette carpaccio with salted sardines and with shavings of payoya goats cheese on a bed of local sliced tomatoes and onions.
Meanwhile his cerviche of corvina with fresh avocado and creamy seafood sauce was a fresh and a delicious squid tail cooked in three cycles with mash was a surefire winner. Around the corner, with easily the best wines on offer, is Vina y Mar, run by Ramon for the last decade. It’s a great spot to hang out at and the tapas get better by the year, while there are loads of wines by the glass, including dozens of sherries.
Outside of the town you are also spoilt for choice with some genuine dining secrets, including Castilleria (www.restaurantecastilleria.com), sitting in the idyllic hamlet of Santa Lucia. A charming spot in the extreme, you sit in a leafy garden and eat the best steaks available in Spain. Broken down into the different types of meat, the steak menu is broken into 8 to 12 months, 4 to 6 years and even 9 to 11 years.
The place just gets better and better and is definitively where the wealthy and privileged go for lunch and dinner. You will need to book. It is very popular. If you cannot get a table then you may just be in luck by visiting Venta el Toro, just down the street, which has been picked by the Guardian newspaper as one of the most charming restaurants in Spain.
And if it is charm you are looking for, few places beat Restaurant Patria (www.restaurantepatria.com), in the hills near Vejer, where Danes Thomas and wife Ase consistently serve up some of the tastiest dishes on the coast. This incredibly creative couple, who have recently launched their own juice business Patria Pura, run this stunning dining secret, surrounded by vines, oleander and olive trees. The stone terrace is always beautifully candlelit at night and your hosts do not disappoint when it comes to the food, which is almost all locally sourced.
As Thomas explains: “The joy of cooking is about what’s in peak season. There is no need to import anything from far away.” He raves, quite rightfully about the quality of the local produce, and adds: “We work around what our suppliers can provide us locally be it wild asparagus, rabbit or bulls’ heart tomatoes. “It is all about being able to adjust, change and create.”
Last, but not least, in El Palmar, look out for the amazing La Torre restaurant, which is the only one that sits right on the beach, with amazing views in both directions. Set up by a local vegetable growing family, that sells its produce around Spain, it is based in the old Guardia Civil barracks. Son Rafa is in charge of the restaurant and has done a good job with the menu, making it increasingly fresh and vibrant. Try the plate of local tomatoes in salsa Mery, made from their own parsley, garlic and olive oil, or the fresh tuna tataki salad with mesclun and alfalfa.