d’Berto: Where Size Matters

Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, is famous for its fish and seafood from the cold waters of the Atlantic sea, its rocky coastline and the inlets and estuaries of Rías Baixas, where some of the best white wines in the country are produced. They provide the ideal conditions for the development of creatures of firm texture and full flavor. I did not taste or visit Rías Baixas, but I visited Valdeorras, Monterrei and Ribeiro. However I couldn’t resist visiting one of the most famous restaurants for fish and seafood in Spain, which is in fact in the heart of the Rías Baixas appellation, famous for the quality of its raw materials… and their size!

O Grove is both a village and a small peninsula in the province of Pontevedra near the mouth of the Ría Arousa, one of the most renowned places for seafood. Here Alberto Domingo, known as Berto, opened his restaurant d’Berto in 1998. The place was then very different from the one we find under that name today; it started as a churrasquería, a popular restaurant for grilled meat. But seven years ago he switched from meat to fish and seafood; he realized there was room (or rather there was a need!) for a top place serving only the best local sea produce for the many rich people vacationing in the area. He decided to specialize in large fish and seafood. That’s how he describes his restaurant on his visiting card. And we’re talking big-size big time here!

He sources only the very best of the very best. Whenever a local fisherman catches something special, a big fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, whatever, two kilos or just a few grams, maybe just a couple of crabs, he takes it to Berto, as they all know he pays prices without bargaining if the quality is there. In a similar fashion, his customers know that if they want to eat the both exceptional and unique pieces he has on offer, they have to pay the price. But price is seldom the issue when someone wants only the very best. Little by little, d’Berto turned into a legendary place, a restaurant where you can eat huge fish and seafood you cannot find anywhere else, Jurassic creatures, fresh, flavorful and prepared simply. His sister Marisol is the one in charge in the kitchen: baking, boiling and grilling. His customers include bankers, politicians, actors, journalists and jet-setters. In the summer months his list of bookings include, night in, night out, famous names, often fighting among themselves to be able to book his private dining room.

We booked a large table in this private dining room well in advance. He loves wine, the local winemakers (he’s in the heart of Rías Baixas, remember) also love him and are frequently seen in his restaurant. We were organizing a big dinner for wine nuts. “You can bring whatever wine you want”, he told us, “but with the only condition that I get to try them all.” Said and done, large fish and seafood, large table… we needed mostly magnums. Or at least two bottles of each wine. It was not a bad night, you shall see... World class fare deserved world class wines, so we obliged; local food with wines from all over!

Berto and his 7-kilo pet lobster

I decided to arrive early to catch up with Berto and have plenty of time to take pictures. What I saw during the couple of hours before they opened for dinner was a constant flow of fishermen coming in with a bunch of razor clams, with a couple of sea bass, with some camarones (shrimp) or whatever they had caught. The operation was simple: a car double-parks by the door, someone jumps out of the car with a Styrofoam box or a small fridge, races in and asks for Berto. He checks the merchandise, takes it—or rejects it—and off the fisherman goes again in just a matter of minutes. They don’t even stop the car engine... In between all these people coming and going we had a chat, and he showed me his 7-kilo lobster, which he now keeps as a pet in a tank, a good attraction for passers by in the restaurant window. I saw a car stopping in the middle of the road just to take a picture of this huge lobster. He also told me how the day before he had sold a 610-gram, 50-centimeter langoustine, one of the biggest he remembers ever.

His wine list consists of mostly local wines (including all the top bottling like Do Ferreiro or Leirana), which are ideal for the type of food he serves, but you can also find Spanish icons like Vega Sicilia, l’Ermita or Pingus, Champagne, some Portuguese and French bottles, and especially some German Riesling.

The business is very seasonal around the summer months, from May to September, where demand is high and you often need to book in advance as he can only sit 60 people. If your party has some unfortunate sea-hater or for those that need to always end their meals with some meat he offers sirloin steak and entrecôte, but I really didn’t see any coming out of the kitchen.

Raw razor clam, the ultimate sashimi
“Let’s have some oysters and some bubbles. It’s not the best time of year for oysters, but these are not bad,” he says.

Someone arrives with the biggest razor clams I’ve ever seen. “These are longueirons, a kind of razor clam. Let’s have one to see.” He opened one and sliced it, and we ate it out of the shell; the ultimate sashimi, sweet and salty, firm but tender. I had never thought I’d enjoy a raw razor clam… As we waited for the last guests to arrive he produced a small plate of pickled monkfish liver, foie gras from the sea. It was lukewarm, supple, creamy, with the marine flavors well balanced by a judicious use of vinegar in the pickled sauce. It was delicious.

We were finally all here, so it was time to uncork the first proper wine, a magnum of the 2002 Champagne Les Chetillons from Pierre Peters, a special bottling from a Chardonnay single-vineyard of old vines in Le Mesnil, from a superb vintage that will keep for years (if you can keep your hands off!), very leesy with clean and marked acidity, ideal with the last of the amuse-bouches we were still devouring. I think it was some cockles… the size of wristwatches!

Someone uncorked the 2012 Muscadet Clos des Briords Cuvée Vieilles Vignes from Marc Olivier of Domaine de la Pépière as the empanada of scallops was being served. I’m not sure if my notes refer to the wine, the food, or both; they read ‘marine, saline, straight, mineral.’ An empanada is a Galician specialty, a baked dish of pastry filled with meat, fish, or seafood, and vegetables (often tomato, garlic and onion), a large flat pie which is cut into pieces, eaten warm or cold, and shared by all. This kind of eating and drinking is all about sharing.

I must admit Keller has never been one of my favorite Riesling producers, but I was well impressed by the 2007 Riesling Westhofener Brunnenhauschen Abtserde, from one of the single vineyards they are bottling separately. It was fully mature, perhaps a tad warm, but it was bliss to drink with the bright red, small but fat, sweet and salty camarones that were going around the table and that I had seen being delivered by the fisherman a mere hour before. Similarly, I’ve never been a great fan of nécoras, called velvet crab or lady crab in English, but I thoroughly enjoyed mine, which is a slow operation as you have to dismantle and suck every piece of it. Everybody agreed that it was the best nécora they had eaten in their lives...The fact that it was washed down with one of the greatest wines of the night could have helped. It was a superb magnum of 2004 Pur Sang from Didier Dagueneau, a cold vintage which produced a wine that is still very pale-colored, fresh, mineral, with some gooseberry and grassy notes, very much alive and with great acidity. I often found that Pur Sang ages better than Silex...

Ultra fresh, sweet camarones

As eating one of those lady crabs can take a good 20 minutes, we were soon in need of more wine. I don’t know if the English name has some hidden meaning, but in the case of nécoras, the female crabs are tastier than the males, but you need to know how to differentiate them! We popped a 2007 Chablis 1er Cru La Forêt from Monsieur Raveneau, my favorite Chablis producer. Even though his vines in Forêt are young and this wine is ranked among his lesser 1ers, I loved it (and most people did). The wine had already developed some honeyed notes which were intermixed with the strong minerality imparted by the chalky soils; I enjoyed the acidity and freshness typical of the 2007 white Burgundies. It was a hard act to follow by a really humble wine, a true rarity, a 2011 Chasselas produced by Pierre Gonon, technically a white St. Joseph, but as the grape is not allowed in the northern Rhône appellation, it is labeled as table wine. The grapes come from the vineyard the mythical (and sadly retired) Raymond Trollat used to make his white St. Joseph. When he retired in 1994 he decided to pass his best vineyards to Gonon. The scarce St. Joseph Vieilles Vignes Rouge Gonon has is also produced from the Trollat vineyards. The Chasselas is a light, fresh wine, low in alcohol (11.5%), very drinkable, which I once described as a blend of dry German Riesling and a Puligny village. Oh well, I love Trollat and I love Gonon, what can I say...

Goose barnacles (percebes); they taste better than they look!

As we were sucking the last juices out of those umami-loaded lady crabs shell, we were told we were moving towards stronger-flavored seafood. So it was time to uncork some flor wines! The first platters full of percebes (goose barnacles) made their appearance, so we hurried to uncork the MMX La Bota #44 Florpower from Equipo Navazos. This is technically a manzanilla which has not been fortified, but has aged under flor for 3 years, but in reality a white wine from the Jerez region that has had it biological aging, first in (unfilled) barrels, and later in (unfilled) stainless steel tanks. Yes, it is a kind of experimental wine, but could it be a new way for the wines of the region? Of course the lower alcohol makes it easier to drink. And it’s as tasty, salty, briny and marine as the real Manzanilla or Fino Sherry. For sure it went well with the iodine flavors of the barnacles, strange creatures that look like dinosaur fingers but are the purest essence of the sea. They are just boiled in sea water and you eat the meaty part found under the thick skin behind the nail. Sounds more difficult that it is, but once you master the process, you can eat them as fast some people can eat sunflower seeds...

Razor clams, now cooked

More flor arrived, but this time from Jura, in the form of the 2009 Côtes du Jura Savagnin Cuvée Prestige from Ganevat, a textbook Savagnin aged for 4 years under a veil of yeast, which gives it the typical tang of the ‘Yellow Wines’, with those notes of curry, chamomile, morel mushrooms and walnuts. I didn’t feel the 2009 heat in the wine, which didn’t surprise me. I think the flor somehow makes the wines feel fresher, as the freshest French wines I’ve experienced from the torrid 2003 vintage are the Vins Jaunes from Jura. Those huge razor clams that arrived while we were waiting come out of the kitchen now lightly grilled, warm, but keeping the texture and all the freshness and flavor. One thing that defines great razor clams is how clean they are and the absence of sand, which is a sign of how carefully they have been hand-harvested: these were immaculate.

A special bottle

It was time to open a special bottle, as wines like the 1973 Château Chalon from Jean Macle are not easy to come by. Macle, one of the leading producers from Jura, has it printed in big letters on his labels: Vin de Garde. Yes, his wines, the yellow wines from Jura, are for keeping, they age slowly in bottle and gain great complexity. This 1973 on top of all those curry and meat broth aromas, showed a little volatile, with plenty of notes of roasted meat, old furniture, like the slightly dusty smell when you enter an antique shop. It was very much alive and kicking. This wine is a rarity, an unusual wine with a strong personality, for sure not for everyone. After the razor clams we had regular clams, well, not really regular, I should have said huge, of course. But you know what I mean. Big, juicy and tender, very fresh and very lightly cooked.

The best (and biggest) cigala I’ve ever eaten

The cigala (langoustine or scampi, Nephrops norvegicus) is definitely one of the stars of the house, and it was scheduled next. We opened a 2003 Riesling Spätlese Niederhauser Hermannshohle from Weingut Dönnhoff to check how sweet it was, as sometimes old Riesling integrate the residual sugar and can feel almost dry (an effect of the compensating acidity too, I’m sure), but it was still quite sweet. Don't get me wrong, it was superb, but a little too sweet for the langoustine, so we had a sip (or two) and left it for a little later. Two other bottles were uncorked more or less at the same time, the 2011 Patrimonio Blanc Cuvée Lisandra from Antoine Arena and a 2008 Cédric Bouchard Champagne Roses de Jeanne Blanc de Blancs Brut. They cooked the langoustines over a wood fire, so on top of the sweet meat they also had a very subtle smoky touch. They were big, close to half a kilo each, not what you get when you order scampi or when you have them in a salad. To me they are one of the most elegant and delicate seafood in the world. These large ones live in deep waters, they are more difficult to catch, they are older, and they have more flavor. Bigger doesn’t always mean better or more flavor. In fact, in many foods big specimens tend to have less flavor. Not in the case of these cold water, wild, large fish and shellfish. The Champagne from Bouchard, clean, mineral and delineated, was unfair competition for the Corsican, and was a better companion for the langoustine as it was also better with the main course. Main course? Yes, we were all completely full, but they had grilled a 4-kilo grouper for us! The white meat of the grouper was tender but firm, grilled to perfection, with the same subtle smoky touch of the wood fire (they use encina, Holm oak wood) that I had found in the langoustine. It was delicious, but shamefully, we were not able to finish it.

The grouper was grilled over wood fire

Yes, yes, of course we had some dessert, a cheese mousse with some apple compote and some other cakes; they were nice, but we could hardly eat anything else, and on top of all that we had all our attention on the liquid dessert, which was a magnum of 1988 Porto Colheita from Niepoort. Colheita is probably my favorite style of Port, aged for a long time in barrel, a single vintage tawny wine, sold when it’s ready to drink, so it saves you the 20 years you have to wait for Vintage Port. This 1988 was ready, but it could age in bottle, that’s for sure, and even more so in an unusual magnum. It had the telltale aromas and flavors of blond tobacco and Maraschino cherries, intensely flavored, balanced and long… but the bottle seemed too small!

Alberto Domingo, Berto, is the name behind this seafood paradise He can talk to the local fishermen who bring their catch of the day, or to a prime minister, a businessman, a rock star or a young couple that are food and wine enthusiasts. He has that rare ability to adapt to different levels. Those are the truly valuable public relations guys, whose restaurants have a big imprint from their owners and are very successful; Berto is one of them. Well, that and the quality of what is served in them, of course… He is the marine equivalent of red meat-guru José Gordón of El Capricho fame; they are both passionate about sourcing only the very best for their customers, and have many things in common. Furthermore, they are personal friends, and word is that they even go on holiday together to enjoy exotic places. But that, as Kipling would say, that’s another story...

Produce, produce and produce!

Produce, produce and produce. If you have the produce, the location is not that important: people will go wherever you are! Berto has the produce and people do find their way to his restaurant. It’s well worth it!

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