There's isn't much surreal about the kitchen of Miramar, a restaurant of straight angles and snowy white plates and tablecloths at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Orderly, spotless and clearly sane describe the work space of Paco Perez, a two-star Michelin chef, and his efficient crew.
Those are hardly the adjectives that would characterize a Salvador Dalí painting, and yet the Times of London has called Perez's gastronomic creations "Dalí on a plate." Sometimes mad genius is in the mind of the creator and not so much in his surroundings. What is often said about Dalí could well apply to Perez, who brings his creative concepts and inventive presentation to St. Petersburg later this month for the Masters of Spanish Cuisine Culinary Weekend at the Dalí Museum.
On closer inspection, Miramar's seemingly conservative serving plates undulate in all sorts of ways; some even mimic the form of a rainbow. Their dimples and divots allow deconstructed classics and molecular concoctions to be cradled, perched and lodged. In one example, wee edible cones are filled with a saffron-colored fish mousse and stabbed with tiny spindles of fried potatoes. Ah, Perez's vision for fish-and-chips. Now we're getting a taste of the surreal.
Miramar has windows peering out on a wide promenade and rocky beach beyond, and is a few mountainous, hairpin turns from Port Lligat where Dalí created much of his work. In the opposite direction is the town of Roses, where chef Ferran Adriá brought worldwide culinary attention to Spain with his ambitious El Bulli restaurant. El Bulli, which was often called the best restaurant in the world, closed in July and will soon become a nonprofit culinary think tank. Perez worked with Adriá there for many years, and the innovations of the master are infused into the student's food, along with a dose of French influence owing to training there.
Perez is now chef at Miramar, which has been in his wife's family since the 1930s, and he has two more restaurants in Barcelona. Another, 5 by Perez, will open soon in Berlin, the number referring to the senses he hopes his food tickles. His own reputation is building as he prepares "food for all the senses," he says through interpreter Pascual Pesudo Castillo, who has his own Dalí connection. Castillo is a trustee of the St. Petersburg museum, plus was a close friend to A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, whose vast Dalí collection is elegantly displayed in the new museum on Tampa Bay.
It's after 2 p.m. on a Saturday in mid September when I visit Miramar, and the dining room is filling up. The patrons are smartly dressed, none wearing bathing suits and cover-ups like the diners at the outdoor beach restaurants that flank Miramar. Those serve traditional Spanish tapas — patatas bravas, all manner of calamari and spicy chorizo — for the vacation crowd.
The crush of July-August tourists has subsided and it's easier for diners to get reservations for the 103-euro (about $140) prix fixe meal at Miramar. They settle in for 15-plus courses, some of which are little more than a bite or two of tomato and olive oil "caviar" and mushrooms, truffle and foie gras tartelettes. (Both will be prepared in St. Petersburg.)
It's calm in the dining room, almost sleepy. That's quite a contrast to the riot on the plates and the military precision in the kitchen. Some dishes are plated with tweezers by assistants who seem more like science lab technicians than cooks, hunched as they are over their experimental fare. They are intense in their chef whites with nary a splatter of errant sauce.
Perez takes time every few minutes to answer questions. He is a bit nervous about his trip to St. Petersburg, even though three chefs will arrive before him to scope out ingredients. Castillo and another chef will accompany him, too.
Can he get the ingredients he is used to? If not, he says through Castillo, he will work with what Florida offers. Since seafood is a hallmark of both locations, he will likely be comfortable. Grouper and shrimp are on Miramar's menu and we're famous for that seafood here. He's probably out of luck on the goose barnacles, crustaceans that live stubbornly on rocks that hug Spain's Costa Brava. Maybe he can make do with stone crabs, whose season opens Oct. 15.
The menu for the Dalí event includes Caesar salad, shrimp with mandarin, creamy gnocchi with white truffles, a mojito of sorts and what looks to be a tangle of seaweed, tuna and citrus foam. Don't expect the 16 courses to look like anything you've eaten before.
Think melting clocks as done by a European two-star Michelin chef.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.