I knew it would be fascinating to visit bodegas and taste the different wine styles in the Sherry Triangle. But I had no idea I would be eating the best seafood of my life in this part of Andalusia.
I pounced on huge clams eaten raw with a squeeze of lemon, and I still dream about the sweet, meaty langoustines I ate on the Bajo de Guía in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Andalusians are master fryers, and I went a little crazy for fried anchovies and sea anemones — and especially Casa Balbino's intricate lacework of tiny shrimp and shrimp butter fried in olive oil and washed down with chilled manzanilla.
Andalusians drink sherry all through the meal, starting with a lighter fino or manzanilla with tapas, then moving on to the deeper-toned, more complex amontillado or palo cortado with tuna and even pork.
Sommeliers at the two-star Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa María and at El Campero in Barbate tutored me in pairing sherry with seafood to brilliant effect. I'd go back to any of these restaurants in a heartbeat.
Restaurante Alhucemas: Half an hour outside Seville and an hour from Jerez, this family-run restaurant is worth a big detour for exquisitely fried seafood. Go for lunch and order what everybody else is having: salmorejo (a chilled tomato and bread soup), tiny coquinas (small saltwater clams), tender baby cuttlefish in its ink with a swirl of olive oil, fried sea anemones, fantastic fried fresh anchovies — and for dessert, a local pudding called poleá dusted with cinnamon. 4 Avenida del Polideportivo, Sanlúcar la Mayor; 011-34-955-70-09-29, www.restaurantealhucemas.es. Meal for two, about $90.
Jerez de la Frontera
Albalá: Eduardo Ojeda, director of production at La Guita, suggested this restaurant with a menu that features both traditional and inventive tapas. The sherries are served in white wine glasses rather than the traditional cramped copitas, the better to appreciate the wines' aromas. Beautiful tuna, jamón and more. Not just a counter but tables too. 6 Avenida Duque de Abrantes; 011-34-956-34-64-88, www.restaurantealbala.com. Meal for two, about $35.
El Bichero: A great spot for lunch in the courtyard under the shade of umbrellas. The owner has a fish market on the same street, so everything is very fresh. Get the raw clams, Russian salad, langoustine or shrimp a la plancha, grilled corvina or whatever fish they have that day. To drink: a bottle of chilled fino. 4 Calle de Pescadería; 011-34-956-342-986, www.restauranteelbichero.com. Meal for two about $55.
Bar Juanito: A popular spot for its extensive tapas, artichokes, beans with langoustines and kidneys in sherry. 8 Calle de Pescadería Vieja, Jerez de la Frontera; 011-34-956-34-12-18, www.bar-juanito.com. Meal for two about $55.
La Carboná: Highly recommended by people in the wine trade for its grilled meats and seafood. Come here when you need a big steak or chop. 2 Calle San Francisco de Paula, Jerez de la Frontera, 011-34-956-34-74-75, www.lacarbona.com. Meal for two about $75.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Casa Balbino: Step into this lively tapas place on Sanlúcar's main square for lunch or a snack. Order a bottle of manzanilla and then the incredibly crisp tortillitas de camarones, lacy fritters of tiny transparent shrimp and shrimp butter, fried to a deep gold, and about as big as a cafeteria tray. You might want to order fried sea anemone too and some fried eggplant. And then another bottle of very cold manzanilla. 14 Plaza del Cabildo; 011-34-956-36-05-13, www.casabalbino.com. Meal for two about $35.
Casa Bigote: The best place to eat in Sanlúcar, especially for plump, sweet langoustines. Locals prefer the taberna in front, where they slurp clams at tables made from wine barrels. It's festive and fun, but you can also dine inside at the more formal restaurant with a view of the water and Doñana National Park. Definitely get the clams marinated and flamed in manzanilla, the raw langoustine carpaccio and langoustines a la plancha. Excellent sherry list. 10 Calle Pórtico Bajo de Guía; 011-34-956-36-26-96, www.restaurantecasabigote.com. Meal for two about $120.
Palacio de Medina Sidonia: I wouldn't have known you could have breakfast in the beautiful shady garden of this 16th century palacio unless Javier Hidalgo, of Bodegas Hidalgo, had thought to mention it. We spent a couple of hours over good coffee and toast with either jam or a slurry of tomato and a scribble of olive oil. Cafetería at the Palacio de Medina Sidonia, Plaza Conde de Niebla; 011-34-956- 360-161, www.lat.ms/1JhCZjZ. Breakfast for two $20.
El Puerto de Santa María
Aponiente: The toughest reservation in the region is Ángel Léon's tiny two-star restaurant. The format is tasting menu only, and you will eat some astonishing dishes, all based on ingredients from the sea. (He loves plankton.) Léon is extremely innovative, and some of his "bites" are so intricate, it's hard sometimes to know exactly what you are eating — and it could involve using the back of your hand as a plate. If you like, the sommelier will pair dishes with sherries, some of them old and rare. In the fall, Aponiente is moving to an old mill on the water in El Puerto, which should give Léon a bigger stage for his cooking. 6 Calle Puerto Escondido; 011-34-956-85-18-70, www.aponiente.com. Two tasting menus at about $165 and $200 per person.
On the Costa de la Luz
La Castillería: This is an anomaly, a meat restaurant in a place where seafood is the dominant cuisine. It's all open air, under a thatched roof. The meat is displayed in a butcher case — you choose the breed and age. To watch chef Juan Valdés at the grill is to watch a master, and the beef is some of the best in Spain, especially the local breed Retinto. If there's a wait for your table, go down the lane to the little bar Venta el Toro for a plate of French fries with an egg and jamón on top — just to whet the appetite. Pago de Santa Lucía, Vejer de la Frontera; 011-34-956-45-14-97, www.restaurantecastilleria.com/en. Meal for two about $80.
El Campero: Feel like a drive? Of course you do if you're coming here for lunch in the fishing town of Barbate. Fishermen have been catching tuna here right off the Atlantic coast since Phoenician times. At this elegant, contemporary restaurant, tuna, in season, is served myriad ways, as crudo, tartare or grilled. You will never eat tuna of this quality elsewhere, even in Japan. The waiter gives you a diagram so you can choose which part of the fish you'd like to eat. I'd recommend the incredibly flavorful morilla from the top of the head or the barbecued pluma with cauliflower couscous. Whole besugo (sea bream) or salmonetes (red mullet) a la plancha is terrific too. If you don't have a reservation, try the bar for tapas or the terrace in front with its own menu. Avenida Constitución, Local 5 C, Barbate; 011-34-956-43-23-00, www.restauranteelcampero.es. Meal for two about $125.
Annie B's Spanish Kitchen: Sign up for a reasonably priced cooking class or tapas tour with Annie Manson, an expatriate Londoner who lives in Vejer de la Frontera. She's also a qualified sherry educator. She does culinary tours of the Sherry Triangle and sherry tasting classes. Check her blog at www.anniebspain.com/blog/ for good tips on restaurants, beaches and other things to do in the area. 11 Calle Viñas, Vejer de la Frontera, 011-34-620-56-06-49, www.anniebspain.com. Info@anniebspain.