LAS CHIMENEAS, Restaurant review
How far, indeed, would you go for a good feed? Mairena might seem a long way… but there’s ways and ways, and the narrow road that curls through the beautiful eastern Alpujarra, into and out of rocky barrancos, through groves of poplars and chestnuts, and villages with the smell of woodsmoke and roast pig… well the road itself puts you in the mood for good gastronomy. Figs you pass and pomegranates and pigs, walnuts and vines, almonds and olives and oranges and persimmons, and the sweet red pero or high mountain apple. Flocks of sweet scented goats, and sheep that smell of warm wool and rosemary, consider you as you go. Rabbits scuttle into the scrub and partridge clatter away down the hill. In the huertos of the villages, potatoes, onions and beans, with a supporting cast of peppers, tomatoes and aubergines, all eager for the pot, wonder at your passing.
By the time you get to Mairena you can think of nothing but what you’re going to eat… and all this multiplied by a factor of a hundred if you’re on foot. In the southwest corner of the square is RESTAURANTE LAS CHIMENEAS…. This is what you’ve come for. Step across the threshold and into a room washed with air and light (if it happens to be lunchtime), for the drop from the balcony, with its view across the hills of the eastern Alpujarra to the sea, gives a magical impression of openness and altitude. In the evening you have the sunset to the west, and later, from outside on the terrace, the typical, unforgettable stars of the Alpujarra.
My friend and confederate in these expeditions said she liked the look of the place, which boded well. I agreed with her: the atmosphere was right; there was nothing stuffy about it; you didn’t feel you had to keep your voice down or your tie on, and yet there were glimmering glasses on the table, nice napery, fresh flowers, and all the other unaccountably essential concomitants of a memorable meal.
And then came the food… and I got to taste pretty much everything, as, by the time we sat down, we were on dining terms with everybody in the place. Las Chimeneas is like that, and it’s a nice quality in a place: you can be intimate in a corner if you’ve a mind, or get it on with all the other diners. We were eight in the end, including a man who, well gone with the wine, regaled us with some fine trumpet playing… not the most obvious accompaniment to a meal, but he was damn good. Amongst other things he played ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’… which reminds me: the food…
My notes say – ‘spinach pancake with stuff’. That is what I had; it doesn’t sound much, does it? Sometimes, unaccountably, you order a thing and you don’t know why you did. But anyway, there it was; some deep down puritanical part of me decided, against my better judgement, that spinach pancake with stuff was what it would be. (I think I might have made some sort of a mistake here, the consequence of being unable to read my own writing, as it seems unlikely that the dish would have been described thus on the menu). But blow me down if it wasn’t divine… the pancake was light and airy, but not without some bite; the spinach was creamy and full of the flavour of autumn countryside. As for the stuff, well it was terrific… some sort of cheese, unless I’m much mistaken, but just right to give you the authentic pleasure of cheese without swamping the flavour and texture of the spinach.
It didn’t take me long to get through this dish. By this time, though, relations around the table were so good that nobody seemed averse to giving me a bite of their own first course. This, in part, was due to the effects of the copious libations of extremely good wine – from Ugijar, oddly enough – about which more later).
The trumpeter’s willowy wife offered me a spoon of her ajo blanco. This miraculous combination of garlic, almonds, olive oil, and the water of a clear mountain spring, was as good as it gets. It’s easy to louse this simple dish up – too thin or too thick; too garlicky or too oily… but Sole, who runs the show here from the kitchen, has the trick of getting it just right.
The trumpeter himself, busy emptying saliva from the valve of his instrument, was happy to hand over most of his tomato and roast pepper soup: a deep rich red flavour of late summer enhanced by some pounded sofrito, and the stock of a proper chicken, or more likely a cock, and glorified, as it ought to be, by a handful of basil… nor too greasy nor too thin.
My confederate and companion went – unwisely as I thought – for the goat’s cheese salad. She always orders this… but I was wrong: the cheese was local and full of character, the leaves crisp, fresh and flavourful. She shovelled the whole lot away and left not a leaf for me.
Next, as Nigel launched into ‘My Blue Heaven’, I addressed myself to the goat stew. Now again, you’d think this sounded pretty unappetising, and once again I even doubted myself a little. You get some pretty ordinary goat here in the Alpujarra, and some pretty ordinary ways of messing it up, too. To me the only real way to serve up a choto is roast, and then… although I hesitate to say it, it can be better than lamb. But this stew was classy: the chunks of goat – for it was chunks, rather than artlessly axed bones, which I thought was a nice, if untraditional, touch – were moist and tender and tasted of goat, in the nicest possible way. And the flavour of goat was complemented with rosemary (the first time I have encountered the blessed rosemary in a dish in the Alpujarra) and a richly flavoured tomato sauce thickened with ground almonds. To accompany the goat was a little dish of pisto and papas a lo pobre, beautifully done.
The enchanting wife of the trumpeter went for the rabbit stew, and allowed me to plunge my spoon in for a taste. The sauce, again thickened with almonds as it should be, was an exquisitely subtle concoction of carrots and setas. Rabbit can be dry, but Sole had employed all her arts to ensure that it wasn’t.
My companion had the fish dish… I have always tended to steer clear of fish in the mountains; it doesn’t somehow seem appropriate, and Mairena lies a thousand metres above the level of the sea. However, insofar as I could gather from her mumbled replies to my questioning, the cazón with a coriander sauce lacked nothing.
Having dealt with the spinach and the goat, it had to be the chocolate mousse. I am a sucker for chocolate mousse, and I was not disappointed: the flavour was deep and dark and chocolaty, and the thing didn’t sit on the bottom of your stomach like a stone.
Others went for the baked fruit salad, which I deemed inadvisable, but by all accounts it was much better than it sounded. Nigel had by this time done with the trumpet, and addressed himself to the Tarta Calatrava. this, I think, is an invention of Sole’s… but I feel unable to pronounce upon it, as it has a flan-like consistency, and I am a person who can hardly bear to be in the same room as a flan.
All in all it was a more than memorable meal. People particularly like to read restaurant reviews where the reviewer slags off the restaurant in a humorous way. It’s true of course that a bit of bile makes for good reading… but unfortunately I cannot summon up the merest drop of bile to describe Las Chimeneas.
The service was slick, friendly and just the right touch of sexy and fun. The wines, white and red, came from vineyards visible from Mairena… and they were outstanding. I didn’t know the Alpujarra produced wines like these. And Soledad, in the kitchen, is a phenomenon… a real dyed in the wool alpujarreña, artful and skilled with the traditional ways, but not above being a little influenced by fancy foreign ideas from outside the Alpujarra. She experiments constantly, and the menu changes daily.
And here’s the real beauty of Las Chimeneas: if, as I did, you come out of there and find that your companion/driver has contrived to become completely legless, you can always stay the night. The rooms are beautiful, with candles, wood stoves and sumptuous linen.
Now you’d think that dining in a place like this would set you back at least an arm and a leg… but no: it’s reasonably priced, too.