It was a hot afternoon in May and I was standing on the quayside in Estepona, waiting for the fish auction to start. I was with Rafael Carrasco, who is the chef at Kabuki Raw, the new restaurant at the Finca Cortesin hotel, a couple of miles away in the hills near the village of Casares.
“I buy about 80% of my fish from my regular fishmonger and I come here for the rest and to find new ideas, to find what’s best according to the season. I just like to get out of the kitchen and see all the fish,” he explained, as we watched the fishing boats coming into the harbour. I wondered if he was after anything in particular. “I’ll just see what looks good when the auction gets going,” he replied. “Maybe some bonito, white prawns, horse mackerel… Every day is different, so I never know what’s going to catch my eye.”
I was going to eat in the restaurant that evening, and asked him what we would be having. “The menu at Kabuki Raw changes all the time, according to the produce I have,” he said. “I know most of what we’re eating tonight, but the rest depends on what I buy now. I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with the fish either. You have to cut it open and see what the flesh is like, then decide the best way to serve it.” Carrasco said that tuna is his favourite fish to prepare, and that now is the right time too. “The season is the important thing. Fish are better at different times of the year. Now it is the tuna season, until the end of May. The best tuna in the world is here, which is why Japanese restaurants in Spain tend to be very good.” As we were talking, the fishermen were wheeling crates of the catch into the auction building. We went in as things were just getting going, with polystyrene boxes of fish trundling along a conveyor belt and prices flashing up on screens above. I was totally baffled, obviously. “The price starts high and goes down until someone presses a button on the remote control device each purchaser has,” Carrasco explained, as trays of different kinds of clams slid past us, followed by hake, ray, red mullet, John Dory and local varieties of sole, bream and bass. Carrasco pushed the button on his device and snapped up some bonito, followed by breca, which is called pandora in English apparently, and is a common fish in the Mediterranean. “The white fish here is excellent. It is very high quality, which makes it easy to cook well.”
Rafael Carrasco was born in Madrid but as a teenager went to live in the Basque Country, where he worked with Juan Mari Arzak and Martín Berasategui, two of Spain’s top chefs, and went on to do stints in other leading restaurants in Spain and beyond. In 2005, he started working with the chef Ricardo Sanz, who founded the Kabuki Group, at his restaurants in Madrid and at the Abama resort in Tenerife, all of which have a Michelin star. In Australia he worked with Tetsuya Wakuda, and in Tokyo with the legendary Seiji Yamamoto. Carrasco became head of Research & Development for the Kabuki Group, which has pioneered the combination of traditional Japanese cusine and Mediterranean influences. There is a great emphasis on local ingredients at all the group’s restaurants. At Kabuki Raw, this means using sustainable fish caught in the Straits of Gibraltar and organic vegetables grown in the hotel’s own gardens. The key factor is having absolutely top quality produce, which is served as close to its natural state as possible.
What with one thing and another, I was rather looking forward to my dinner at Kabuki Raw, as you can imagine. The restaurant occupies a large, classically designed room with an open kitchen, so you can see Carrasco and his team of four chefs preparing the food. There is a lot of deft knife-wielding action going on, which looks so simple but of course it has taken years and years of practice to acquire that level of skill.
There are around 10 tables, seating up to 40 diners, with a few more tables outside on the terrace. I was there on a Tuesday evening and it was almost full. Usually it is about a 50-50 mix of hotel guests and outside customers. You can either have a tasting menu or choose individual dishes or some sushi or whatever – which suits people who are eating there more than once during their stay, or locals who visit regularly.
The meal is served in four stages, in line with the structure of Kabuki, which I learned is an ancient form of Japanese theatre. The first part is calle Hanamichi, or presentation, with which we had rosé cava, De Nit Rosado 2009 by Raventós i Blanc, a brilliant match for seafood. You’re probably wondering by now what we actually had to eat. Bear with me, as I think I’ve got most of it, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few things out as frankly I was too absorbed in the food to bother to write it all down.
Anyway,the first thing I tried, crispy fried tiny turbot, was quite extraordinary, a little bite of the sea. We had giant cuttlefish sashimi filled with mayonnaise, and Galician oyster and callista clams with ponzu sauce, and lobster sashimi. Then fabulous wild shrimp and venus clams cooked on the table on a little grill over binchotal charcoal from Japan.
The second stage is called Jidaimono, which in Kabuki theatre means history play. This is where the fish from the auction made an appearance. We had the pandora in exquisitely thin usuzukuri slices with crunchy tempura, and the bonito with ginger, chives and a mustard sauce.
A red wine, Los Aguilares Pinot Noir 2011 from the local designation of origin, Sierras de Málaga, was served before we embarked on the next stage, Sewamono, which means contemporary or everyday play. Here it described the main section of the meal, starting with tuna sashimi, which was startllngly good with a fabulously clean taste and texture. We had three types: fatty, medium fatty and red, adorned with delicate flowers. Carrasco appeared at the table to grate fresh wasabi for us on a shark skin grater, “To have the best tuna, and not have fresh wasabi, makes no sense,” he said. Obviously. The smooth red wine was great with the tuna, and also with the oxtail with teriyaki sauce and soufflé potatoes that came next.
And then there was the sushi – the Shosagoto, the last dance of the theatrical performance: wild eel, steak tartare, fatty tuna with Dijon mustard, salmon, quail’s egg…and more. With this we had a great white wine, La Pola 2010 by Dominio Do Bibei from the Ribeira Sacra designation of origin in Galicia. While it is of course unusual to red before white, with this meal it made perfect sense.
And finally there were some exquisite chocolatey things. This was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, because of the clean flavours, the freshness, the balance, the presentation….. I’ll just trail off drooling. This was obviously a lot of food, and if I was fortunate enough to eat at Kabuki Raw again, I think I’d maybe just have some clams, turbot, tuna and some sushi. But then I’d have to go again to have a different few things. Oh dear, I can see myself becoming a regular customer, and I’m not even a local.