We were first introduced to the talented Echapresto Brothers on a trip to Northern Spain a few years ago with Iberian Wine Tours. Our farewell dinner on that tour was at the stunning Valpiedra Winery in Rioja, and the two brothers closed down their Michelin-rated restaurant, Venta Moncalvillo, in order to personally look after our group. Carlos is the Sommelir, Ignacio is the Chef, and their partnership is nothing short of gastronomic bliss.
We returned to Spain last year and this time made it a point to dine at their actual restaurant, the critically acclaimed Venta Moncalvillo. Despite our very high expectations based on our earlier experience, they easily reinforced the merit of being awarded a Michelin star.
Venta Moncalvillo is located in Daroca, a tiny village in the La Rioja Alavesa region boasting just 46 inhabitants. Thanks to Ignacio and Carlos, it can now claim to be the smallest village in the world to offer Michelin star dining. Achieving a Michelin star is no small feat and only a very small percentage of the world’s restaurants have managed to attain this status. It is the quintessential rating system that is recognized and revered worldwide as the go-to guide for choosing the best of the best in the world of fine dining. The commitment, focus and talent required to achieve a Michelin star has been written about in books and portrayed in movies. It can literally make a restaurant a fortune overnight if awarded a Star, or can just as quickly send one into bankruptcy should it lose its star rating.
At a Michelin trade seminar last year, a panel of judges discussed what it takes to earn one, two or three of their stars. The discussion cited 5 main criteria: top quality ingredients, mastering flavor and cooking techniques, the expression of the chef’s personality in the cuisine, value for money, and consistency of food. And while these criteria might seem standard for any top restaurant, managing to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of restaurants worldwide is a challenge in itself. Particularly when you come from a village of less than 50 people…and you’re a self-taught chef.
Chef Ignacio learned how to cook from his mother and through her influence brings classic flavours and ingredients to his cuisine. He is very much about making sure those ingredients are local and in season, taking great pride in the bounty nature affords him in Rioja. But he also brings an innovative touch and a modern playfulness to everything he makes. His approach represents a beautiful balance of traditional dishes with enough innovation to surprise and delight the palate. He doesn’t distract through his approach, instead keeping it relatively simple so that the ingredients are always the focus. In 2006 he was named Best Chef in Rioja, and in 2010 earned a Michelin Star.
Carlos is Venta Moncalvillo’s sommelier and is as equally talented with the wine as Ignacio is with the food. As we’ve learned over the years delving into the world of wine, great food tastes even better when paired with great wine, and great wine shines when paired with excellent food. The cellar at the restaurant is very well represented with Spain and other old world wines as one would expect. But Carlos has also selected wines from all over the world providing for an eclectic mix to match even the most discerning palate. His knowledge of wine was clearly demonstrated with the terrific choices he made to pair with Ignacio’s dishes. Like his brother, Carlos has been recognized for his innate talent, being named Best Sommelier in Rioja in 2008, and was a finalist as Best Sommelier in all of Spain in 2013.
With its world-class rating, the restaurant itself is anything but pretentious. Inside, the look is elegant with clean lines and earth tones. They have 4 different rooms to dine in which range from a larger dining room through to a private room with one long table. All of the rooms feature large windows that provide beautiful natural light as well as a view of their surrounding property. Our group of ten was in the private room and our view happened to be of the restaurant’s garden where leading right up to our meal, we could see kitchen staff walking out to harvest herbs.
The pride the Echapresto brothers have in their hometown and their region was about to be put on full display as the meal they had planned was truly local. All of the ingredients for the meal and all of the wines were sourced from the La Rioja Alavesa region, including all the herbs and vegetables from their garden that was literally just steps away from our table.
Before we were seated we were taken to the wine cellar to start with a glass of wine and some appetizers. Carlos selected a white wine from Bodegas Monopole made up of Viura, a white varietal we’ve come to love from travelling in Spain. It was the perfect accompaniment to a variety of bite-sized starters that were served that included cauliflower crispy wontons, beets and cheese in a puff pastry, onion cream crackers (think ice cream sandwich only savoury), cherry tomato with an onion coulis, and pea shoot caviar. Each of the appetizers were beautifully presented and each delighted the palate with a delicious combination of flavours that were often surprising combinations. The freshness of the ingredients made for an intensity of flavour that was simply out of this world.
As we moved through the spectacular meal that Ignacio had so thoughtfully prepared, we enjoyed the full range of courses that highlighted the very best of the region: squid, trout, ‘popcorn’ risotto, pork, two sensational desserts and a final course of house-made chocolates. Carlos’ wine selections were absolutely on point. We moved from Graciano to Tempranillo, culminating with the 2005 Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia, and finished off with the traditional sweet red wine Ojuel Supurao.
Each course outdid the last when we swore that couldn’t be possible, and each wine was a superb choice. The Echapresto brothers have made a name for themselves individually in their own right, but bringing their talents together at Venta Moncalvillo is quite simply the perfect pairing.
Ctra. de Medrano, 6
Daroca de Rioja