How not to reserve a table at El Capricho, Spain
Author: Fatima Bhutto
I am in León, the heart of Castilian Spain, for one night only. I have braved Spanish highways (and a manual car, which I am only basically qualified to drive) to come to this Gothic city that was once the heart of the Spanish Reconquista. But I'm not here to catch up with 13th-century cathedrals or revisit my Umayyad roots. I'm here for dinner. And I am late - very late.
Just when I imagine I must have scuppered my chance to eat at El Capricho, said to be the best asador in Spain, if not the world, the phone rings. It's El Capricho.
"Where are you?" the man on the phone asks. Did I lose my table? "Oh, no. We just wondered where you were," he replies. "Are you close?"
When you are 45 minutes late to a world-renowned restaurant and they call to check up on you, this is a bad sign.
El Capricho, surrounded by an oak forest and housed in a semi-converted wine cellar, is a regular on those best-restaurant lists that seem to abound. Time, The Telegraph, and even Vogue swoon over the farm-to-table asador. Franck Ribière's documentar Steak (R)evolution includes our humble Spanish restaurant in an epiphanic moment: the steak, you are assured, is of a quality that exceeds wagyu.
I Google the restaurant, find a phone number, and reserve. There are two numbers. One doesn't answer and the other does. Of course, they have space tonight, the gentleman on the phone says, with some effervescence. In two hours, on a Thursday night? Yes, absolutely.
El Capricho sits just outside León in Jiménez Jamuz, a town populated by a thousand people. José Gordón, the head chef and owner, was trained in agriculture and has 20 years of devoted expertise. He travels across Spain searching for the best oxen (superior to beef as their muscles don't hold as much water), raises them himself, even ministering to the animals before their death - "I talk to them before the slaughter" - before quartering and cooking their meat. I read countless articles extolling this communion with nature and beast as being part of the restaurant's charm.
Gordón is famous for serving his diners at El Capricho himself, advising what cut to choose, cooking it personally and then returning to recommend exactly which morsel of meat to take as first bite. It is only natural, I assume, that he also telephones customers when they are late to dinner.
Another phone call. Are you near?
I'm on my way. When I reach a small cobbled street rather than an oak forest, it begins to dawn on me.
An elderly gentleman, wearing a bow tie and a tidy apron around his waist, lifts his arms and waves at me from across the street. "Hello!" he shouts. He is standing under the dark-green awning of a restaurant also called El Capricho. He is not the swarthy José Gordón. This is not an oak forest. And this, I realise too late, is not El Capricho.
The cheek of riding on the coat-tails of an internationally acclaimed restaurant has not, sadly, done El Capricho numero dos any favours. The owner solemnly leads me to my table and presents a menu bound in a spiral notebook. The walls are lime green and, except for a teenage girl sitting at the bar watching a football game, there is no one else here.
Of all León's tourists, only I have fallen for this most basic of ploys tonight. The gentleman's wife is roused from slumber and as the kitchen door swings open I see her watching me expectantly. Everyone, except the teenage girl, who makes sure to raise the volume of the television and periodically surf through all the sports channels, seems so happy to have the company I don't dare leave.
There are no oxen here, no milk-fed lamb cutlets, no red peppers stuffed with tuna belly, no beef-fat cookies crumbled over biscuity ice-cream swaddled with coffee jelly and white chocolate foam.
"How did you hear about us?" The owner claps his hands delightedly, his eyebrows arched, excited for the night ahead. "From the internet," I sulk.