Ni franceses, ni vascos, ni catalanes.
Ca Sento, Casa Pepa y El Poblet.
This is the creative stage we encountered at Ca' Sento and Casa Pepa, run by gifted chefs with their toes still planted in the terroir they inhabit. Not that either Adrià disciple Raúl Aleixandre or Pepa Romans and her daughters are earthbound cooks. You know that something special awaits you after a cab led by GPS arrives at Mr. Aleixandre's surreal white building way out of Valencia's historic center or when you finally pull up in the middle of a hidden-away orange grove at Casa Pepa.
Mr. Aleixandre shows his Young Turk side with a highly strained purée of foie gras with applesauce and whole pieces of skin-on mackerel sashimi with soy and ginger. But he flies the local colors with an emphasis on seafood and rice, albeit highly evolved renditions -- cuttlefish-ink noodles with a highly reduced ink sauce, crayfish baked in black salt, and lots more seafood.
At Casa Pepa, with less fanfare, a tasting menu provided even more daring departures from inherited cuisine. The almond cream with tuna tartar garnish advanced way beyond the ubiquitous garlic-almond soup called ajo blanco, in concept and refinement of flavor. The octopus here is almost microscopic but macroscopically tender and juicy. From this kitchen, crunchy mackerel emerges with a green cloak of pistachio cream and capers. From the shrubs at the edge of the terrace, the kitchen makes lemony verbena sorbet to go with baked figs.
Although any of these dishes would galvanize the most sophisticated diner, we didn't enter the stratosphere of contemporary inventive dining until we got to El Poblet, where Quique Dacosta takes food to a new level of pictorial theatricality. I am not speaking metaphorically. Although his menu incorporates Valencian rice cookery at its best, his most ambitious dishes take food into the realm of painting and the stage. They have visually evocative titles like The Haze and Iceberg, and each of these dishes is a little universe that takes ingredients that even advanced chefs still treat as ingredients and transforms them into tableaux.