One of Angel León's most stunning dishes looks like a disaster. It's tomaso fish coated in a dark gunk resembling something that the Gulf of Mexico coughed up in the wake of the BP oil spill. The stuff turns out to be a sauce made from phytoplankton, and the dish is more than merely delicious: it tastes as if you were eating the concentrated ecology of the sea which is exactly what León strives for.
His Michelin-starred restaurant, Aponiente, is located in his hometown, Puerto de Santa María, near Cádiz. Having grown up on Spain's Atlantic shore, León, 32, is animated by a single idea: "Tell a story about what happens in the sea." Determined to use only sustainable species, he eschews fish like cod and sea bass and focuses on horse mackerel, ling and others usually discarded as bycatch. He magically transforms horse mackerel, for instance, by dipping it in lemon-infused roe and wasabi-coated sesame seeds.
León can find a use for anything marine. Fish eyeballs become a gelatinous sauce thickener and plankton a condiment. To León, the latter has a mystical aura as the source of all marine life. "It's what what you eat eats," he says. Earlier this year, he created a "food chain" tasting menu that began with a spoonful of green phytoplankton, then moved upward through tiny shrimp, served as fritters, to local sardines and a spectacular gray mullet, which León hung for nine days, as if it were game, before serving in a yellow plankton emulsion.
The dish that ended the menu was that hunk of plankton-covered tomaso. The sauce, says León, "represents the end for the fish, when it's died and sunk to the ocean floor. Even then, it's a source of life for the plankton. The cycle begins again." He's quite the piscatorial philosopher. The ocean could use more like him.