I’ll confess to not having done much research about food in Andorra before we were due to visit. It’s somewhere Mr M wanted to include on our roadtrip but I was far more interested in France and Spain. Until, that is, my pal sent me a video of a rather impressive dessert her friend had had in a restaurant in the principality’s capital, Andorra La Vella. It was a theatrical creation using dry ice, fruit, cream, coulis, mint and a special table protector that doubled as a serving platter that was enough to tempt this little kid to check out Kokosnot and see what it was all about.
The dramatic dessert may have been the bait, but it was the response to my query that reeled me in. An almost instantaneous reply that was accommodating, welcoming, and gives you that kind of feeling that you want as a diner – that you actually matter. And made even more wonderful by the fact that yes, they accept dogs. A bit more chit chat and I find out that the showstopping ‘Nitrogen dessert’ is their signature dessert and can be tailored to each customers. I’m sold.
The warmth of the welcome left me slightly unprepared for the chic appearance of Kokosnot. I knew it was fairly high-end, but the fact you can chat with the owner via Instagram and drag your pooch along with you seems slightly at odds with a restaurant that can compete looks-wise with any Michelin-starred establishment I’ve visited.
Crisp linen tablecloths and chandeliers are the order of the day, alongside a funky neon sign sporting the name Kokosnot and a glass-doored wine cellar nicknamed ‘The Twilight Zone’ that you can go and have a mooch around if you really want to.
This juxtaposition of formal and friendly, elegant yet relaxed, continued throughout the night. As we sipped on glasses of cava recommended by owner Victoria, Brandy was treated to water and not one, but two, bowls of 72-hour slow-cooked pork cheek – actually served on the menu – which I’m sure made her the happiest dog in Andorra, if not the whole of Europe, that evening.
We started with an amuse bouche of what looked like frothy milk. I was sceptical when Victoria told us it was, in fact, fig, then pleasantly surprised to find it really did taste of ripe, juicy figs despite its appearance. If an amuse bouche is supposed to whet both your appetite and curiosity, then this did just the job.
In Andorra they speak Catalan, with other popular languages including Spanish and Portuguese, none of which I can speak, so the menu proved a bit of a challenge. Lucky for us, not only was Victoria capable of explaining every single dish in English to us, but seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. It also gave her the opportunity to talk about the restaurant and the people behind it, drawing together influences ranging from traditional local dishes to South American flavours.
The only problem with having such a vivid picture of each and every menu item painted for you is that it makes it even harder to pick just one each. So we didn’t. Unable to decide, we opted for three starters in a bid to try as many of the flavours on offer as possible.
The first was Sopaipilla – a salute to the South American influences brought in to the kitchen by one of the chefs. Described to us as fried pumpkin cookies, these light pastry discs were the vehicle for Pebre – a spicy, smoky more complex relative of your bogstandard salsa, made from coriander, onions, tomato, lemon juice and ‘Merken’ – a special ingredient brought all the way from a tribe of Indians in Chile. No cutting corners here. The result was a series of tiny tastes that certainly packed a punch, with a sexy smokiness and lingering length of spice. A sure-fire way to get the tastebuds going.
Our first sight of croquetas on a menu and we couldn’t resist – especially as these were never going to be your average version. The first, a rich, creamy, sweet leek and truffle version. And the second, a substantial, meaty counterpart made with ‘Vaca Bruna’ – a specific breed of cattle from the south Pyrenees. The latter was by far my favourite, rich and powerful in flavour, yet tender and yielding in texture, though both were world’s apart from any croquetas I’ve had in the past.
Our third choice wasn’t really a choice at all. It had to be done. Marrow bone, served with two difference sauces – chimichurri and salsa verde, with brown bread that had been crisped up on the grill and smeared with marrow bone butter. You don’t see this kind of thing often in the UK and I think the last time we had anything similar was in Chamonix on last year’s road trip. That was more rustic, while this – though still resembling something pretty base and simple – was the more refined version.
The salsa verde and chimichurri added tang, heat, and a sourness that is absolutely vital in a dish like this to cut through such impossible richness. And despite their help, it was still a challenge, especially with an accompaniment that, too, oozed more of that naughty marrow. Like sex addicts to a porn shop, we couldn’t stop ourselves, going back for more and more until we genuinely feared we’d gone too far and ruined the rest of the meal.
You see, ruining the rest of the meal would have been sacrilege. Because we’d ordered the big’un. The dish that you um and ah over for ages, weighing up the price with how much you think you really will enjoy it. Not to mention the fact it was a sharing plate, so seriously limited our exploration of the rest of the menu.
After much speculation, the ‘f*** it’ moment came and we went for the Chuleton. I’d read about this older Galician cow before our trip, and had no idea we’d be able to try it here, but Kokosnot have picked something they know will be popular to many of the people who visit them in Andorra. It’s good quality and appreciated by people who know their shit, yet it’s simple and appealing to us heathens who don’t have a degree in food appreciation.
I’ve mentioned Chuleton as one of the food highlights of our trip so I won’t go on. In essence, these huge beasts of steaks are from much older dairy cattle who are reared in pastures around the Portuguese and Galician borders. They’re full of fat marbling that sends some people running for the hills but leaves me and Mr M drooling like men in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, plus a load of yellow fat on the outside. And if all of this wasn’t enough, Kokosnot’s bad boys have been aged for 80 days. Serious steak then.
Everything I’d read about Chuleton spoke of its deep, intense, ‘beefy’ flavour, its trademark texture and a character that takes it far beyond your average steak from the butcher, let alone a supermarket version. I wasn’t disappointed.
Slice after slice of deep red meat, lined on one edge by a thick layer of melt-in-the-mouth fat (we’ve talked about my love of fat on the blog before, I won’t go there again, don’t worry), expertly seasoned with a shedload of seasalt to make for an even more intense flavour.
The platter was a daunting prospect and I’m ashamed to say we didn’t get anywhere near finishing it. Don’t worry though, we weren’t willing to let a single piece escape from us so walked out with the remainder of our dinner in a doggy bag and ate it the next day after chucking it on a hot barbecue for a few seconds, and I’m happy to say the taste was just as intense.
Another by-product of such an impressive plate is the domino effect. I was almost embarrassed when it first arrived as the whole restaurant ground to a halt, forks on their way to people’s faces and words halfway out of their mouths. And then swiftly it seemed everyone around us had followed suit. Very soon, most tables were munching through a chuleton of their own.
The Chuleton came with a few potatoes on the side, but we decided to order an additional dandelion salad – an unexpected hero of the meal. Dandelions and cherry tomatoes piled high with nuts, ‘cansalada’ (basically top quality smoked bacon), soy sauce and a lemon vinaigrette. The refreshing plate of green with its piquant dressing was exactly what was needed to offer a reprieve from richness of the beef and we munched through until the plate was clean.
After our cava, we’d washed the whole meal down with a bottle of Octonia Spanish red that sommelier Pablo Perez helped us pick out. For a non-wine buff it can be pretty daunting when any sommelier asks what you’d like – made ten times worse when you know they’ve represented their country in their art.
But what I’ve learned is that that’s the whole purpose of sommeliers in the first place. You aren’t expected to know what to choose, that’s what they’re for. So use their knowledge. It helped that Pablo made it relaxing and fun, taking us into the ‘Twilight Zone’ to talk us through what would work with our menu choices and offering us an easy choice of three.
As we battled our rapidly approaching beef coma, we were given a test tube of sweet apple juice as a palate cleanser, before the big moment we’d both been waiting for – the famous nitrogen dessert.
For something as theatrical as this, pictures don’t quite do it justice so I’ve added a little video to try to show you the magic. The ingredients themselves are crazy simple – coconut cream, fruit, citrus zest, coulis, dried mint leaves and ice cream or sorbet. For us, chocolate – tailored to Mr M’s favourite sweet treat. They’re all piled up on a mat in the centre of the table, layered one on top of the other like a marriage between a Harry Potter scene and a piece of modern art akin to something Michael O’Hare might produce. Yes, it’s a bit of a gimmick. But I don’t have a problem with that, as long as it doesn’t detract from the actual taste of the dish. Which it didn’t.
Yes, the taste is pretty simple. It’s a refreshing, palate cleansing mix of sweet, slightly tart, and fresh flavours. It’s perfect after a whole meal of rich, complex food. And it’s fun. There’s a reason why things like Crepes Suzette, flambeed at your table, are always a winner, and that’s because people like a bit of showmanship. We like the drama that comes with seeing smoke billow from the table like some kind of Harry Potter spell. It awakens our imagination and takes us back to younger years when we weren’t so worried about whether we’d picked the right wine or ordered the right dish. And that’s exactly what this did.
Like the Chuleton, ours was by no means the only Nitrogen dessert that night. We watched one young girl, open-mouthed, declare it was “like magic” as the same spellbinding performance was put on at her table, and I think secretly all of us had the same glee. We’ve just learned to conceal it a bit more for fear of looking far too enthusiastic.
Despite our inability to finish our beef, the light dessert went down a lot easier, leaving us with just a final hurdle – the petit fours-laden tree that appeared on the table as a final dramatic flourish to make sure Kokosnot stays well up there in our memories when it comes to places that like to do something a bit different.
As we reached the end of the meal, we found ourselves as comfortable in this swanky restaurant as we had been in some of the simplest of brasseries. As did the dog, who could be found contentedly snoring under the table, much to our fellow diners’ amusement.
I’ve banged on about it time and time again, but having a good time really is at the heart of a restaurant experience for me. You can have all the experimental cooking in the world, the finest wines, the most accomplished of chefs and the most complex of dishes. But if you feel uncomfortable, that all falls by the wayside.
There’s no doubt, the food that Kokosnot is turning out is great. Some of it’s simple and relies on top quality ingredients allowed to sing for themselves. Some is aimed at challenging your tastebuds, your expectations and your preconceptions in the way all the best restaurants do. But it’s all the other stuff that makes it a special place. From the welcome as you walk through the door to the passion that’s clear to see from everyone involved, whether it’s Pablo’s love of wine to the chefs bringing their experience from around the world to the heart of Andorra or Victoria herself, for whom this is clearly a labour of love (the name itself is a tribute to her grandfather so it doesn’t get much more from the heart than that).
It’s been open just six months, and on the night we visited the restaurant was at least three quarters full, with everyone from couples to birthday celebrations to families with young children. I have no doubt that at some point Kokosnot is going to pick up some awards, maybe even a Michelin star. I just hope none of that fame and fortune comes at the expense of what is its most alluring quality – its heart.
We paid in full for our meal at Kokosnot – apart from for Brandy’s TWO bowls of slow-cooked pork, which were on the house because Victoria loves dogs!