The stretch of highway between Malaga and Marbella winds along mountainous Costa del Sol, and Cris, our host for the weekend and a Malaga native, nonchalantly drives his adorable red Audi like a race car, hurtling along at breakneck speed while pointing out landmarks that disappear in a blink. Having just landed from a long journey, I silently command my jet-lagged and suddenly nauseous body to be good, for there is reward at the end of this road. Cris is friends with Michelin-starred chef Dani Garcia, and we are going to have lunch at La Moraga, Garcia’s tapas joint in Marbella.
Marbella, a funky little town filled with vacationing Brits and Russians, is almost laughably ugly. Most of its development ocurred post-Franco, which means after 1975, and you can imagine what that means. So it comes as a brilliant surprise to come upon La Moraga, a fun, modern spot that takes classic Spanish tapas and gives it a clever, completely delicious update.
Croquetas, those fried little nuggets usually made with jamon, are made with chunks of squid and squid ink, a rich, salty, oozy treat. Gazpacho is made with cherries, and served with a crumbled frozen goat cheese. An ajoblanco, a traditional Spanish cold soup made of almonds, gets a bright punch from frozen mango.
The tortilla espanola completely changed my notion of tortillas. You mean a good tortilla espanola is supposed to be so soft and gooey that the potatoes melt in your mouth? Oh, okay. Now I’m completely ruined for all future encounters with tortillas, unless it’s that Garcia’s.
Then there was foie gras, layered with paper-thin slices of apple, a layer of goat cheese and atop, a layer of caramelized apples. It’s one of those dishes you play around with in your mouth, savoring flavors that alternated between sweet, salt, rich, nutty, musky.
The bull burger, however, had to be one of the great awe-inspiring surprises. I mean, really, what Spaniard is going to mess with a good ol’American burger? Garcia takes braised oxtail and makes a patty that has a consistency similar to a really good crabcake. Then he smothers it in havarti cheese and a salty sweet special sauce so addicting (what is it? miso? soy?) I fought the urge to ask for some to take home.
We finished simply, with a trio of custards served in little jars, which seemed like a homey throwback considering the modern space and attitude towards the traditional. My favorite was Bailey’s with bananas, but there was also a chocolate custard with pistachios and a tiramisu.
La Moraga, Complejo Marina Banus (Puerto Banus), Marbella +34 952 815 652