A calm white minimalist oasis greets diners at Mantúa in Jerez de la Fronter, a fine wine and dining concept conceived by Chef Israel Ramos, launched in 2017. By 2019, Ramos had his first Michelin star. Jerez, long awash in sherry and traditional tabancos (a rustic tavern in Jerez), had been known as a culinary destination for a traditional Andalusian experience. However, the dining landscape has slowly but confidently blossomed since Aponiente’s groundbreaking third Michelin star in 2007. Aponiente was the only regional restaurant close to Jerez with a star for a decade. Now, Jerez de La Frontera boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants led by Mantúa.
Why did Ramos, a native son, return to the place of his upbringing to open a white tablecloth restaurant, especially in a region with high unemployment and economic distress? The answers lie in his desire to showcase traditional recipes and foods in a new, creative light while highlighting the incredible diversity of sherry as a multi-course dinner pairing. In other words, it was time for new perspectives.
Ramos said he was inspired to start cooking at a young age. “My father was a waiter, so I was always surrounded by this profession. From a very young age, I fell in love with cooking, a profession that you must love if you want to grow as a professional, he says.
After Ramos finished school at age 14, he planned to study at San Roque hospitality school, but his parents wouldn’t let him because they knew what challenges lay ahead in the restaurant industry.
“They didn’t want me to sacrifice my life,” said Ramos. Ramos spent a few years more years unenthusiastically in school until his parents gave in, granting permission to join the hospitality school in Cádiz. Ramos graduated, earning a scholarship to France. He worked in several Michelin-star restaurants in Spain before returning to his homeland in Jerez.
Ramos would bring the lessons of his experience to his kitchen in Mantúa. “Zortziko in Bilbao was my first contact with Michelin star cuisine. During the year I worked there, I learned to love this style of cooking, the rules of classic cuisine, and how to treat ingredients with respect,” he says.
Ramos continued his education in the mountains of Madrid at the one-star Michelin restaurant El Cenador de Salvador Gallego in Moralzarzal. “There I was immersed in Salvador’s cuisine and his love for game dishes,” says Ramos. He eventually hopped to La Arquería, a 2-star Michelin restaurant at the Hacienda Benazuza hotel, helmed by Ferran Adría. “For three years, working with the philosophy and cuisine of Bulli made me grow as a chef,” says Ramos.
Eventually, Ramos returned to Jerez to open his first restaurant, which would prove groundbreaking for the city and region. Mantúa, named for a grape variety once prolific around Jerez, hints at the importance of heritage and wine to his restaurant concept. Asked why he came back to Jerez, Ramos responded with a smile and joy in his eyes.
“I am in love with my land. I always knew that one day, I would return. I think that Jerez is a unique city because of its history, culture, wines, flamenco, and gastronomy, making it a rich city. However, we Jerezanos lack the determination to believe it,” he says, adding, “That’s why I always had a dream of opening a gastronomic restaurant in this city. A restaurant where we can combine two of the great treasures of our land, wines and food,” he beams.
Ramos launched the concept in 2015 and quickly earned his first star in 2017, a first for the city of Jerez and an accolade that would help transform the historical town’s modern fine dining scene as others followed Mantúa’s lead.
Ramos recalls the day he earned the Michelin nod. “It was a magical day; it took many years to achieve its fruit. I was very happy for the Mantúa team who made it possible,” says Ramos.
Ramos also felt vindicated about his chosen profession. “Whenever the restaurant is awarded a distinction, it confirms that we are on the right path. That the hard work you do with your team is worth it. Although I always say that the best distinction is that our client leaves through the door of Mantúa with the feeling of having lived a magical moment,” he says.
Indeed, guests who spend an evening with Ramos depart with a fresh perspective on Andalucian flavors and how they work with wine, especially the rare and beautiful sherries the Mantúa team has amassed for pairings.
“Sherry wines have infinite importance in our restaurant, so much so that its name is a grape variety. After the phylloxera plague, growers stopped cultivating Palomino, the grape variety with which sherry wines are mostly made today. Before opening the restaurant, I read that winegrowers were trying to resurrect Mantúa to make modern-day wine with ancient grapes. Since that’s the philosophy we want to transmit with the cuisine of our restaurant— taking old recipes to make modern-day cuisine—I kept the name Mantúa,” says Ramos.
To that point, Ramos spent months carefully considering how to showcase regional flavors with contemporary techniques and presentation. “Andalusians shouldn’t envy other cuisines of Spain. I think we have a wealth of regionality that is difficult to match. For example, cooking is not the same in Cádiz as in Jaén, or Almería or in Málaga. We have so much gastronomic wealth and products that I think we are privileged,” says Ramos.
To that end, Mantúa’s tasting menu shepherds guests through the hyper-local culinary story of Andalusia. “I always say that in Mantúa, we cook from Andalusia, Cádiz and Jerez, and above all, we want our clients to see our roots reflected when they sit at our table,” he says. Dishes that express Ramos’s concept appear from the first through the final act of Mantúa’s precise, theatrical performance.
During a recent visit, Ramos opened the evening with an exquisite fish soup, briny and evocative of the sea, followed by a “dressed carrot,” a spherical bite infused with cumin, served on a slender spoon. With the hue and shape of a free-range chicken egg yolk, the carrot orb exploded in the mouth, pairing beautifully with an extra brut reserve Champagne from Jacques Lassaigne. While the wine selections demonstrate a deep love and respect for sherry, Champagne would appear several times during the night when appropriate.
As the menu progressed, dishes challenged me to think about flavors and textures in new ways. The oddly titled “clams and salad juice” provided a complex but satisfying sensory experience of bitterness, acidic bite, and savory notes that delivered on the promise of liquid lettuce. Ajoblanco, a traditional white gazpacho of almonds and bread, came infused with fennel and topped with a tender sweet shrimp called quisquilla. A bright and saline manzanilla pasada en rama from Bodegas Juan Piñero accentuated the soup’s delicacy. Other wines shown during the meal included Bodegas Cota 45 UBE de Uberrima Las Vegas Carrascal 2017, a dry white field blend of Palomino that testified to the region’s evolving wine styles, clearly parallel to Ramo’s culinary perspective.
For all his experimentation, Chef Ramos believes the secret to a great dining experience lies in ensuring that customers enjoy themselves. “There is nothing more important, and to ensure we’ve done our job, the entire team must give 100×100,” says Ramos. The synthesis of the kitchen and the dining room is pivotal to providing unforgettable experiences.
Mantúa welcomes a broad demographic, though the clientele is mainly a blend of native Jerezanos and curious tourists drawn by the restaurant’s recognition in various gastronomic guides. Chef Ramos takes pride in Mantúa serving as a gastronomic destination, especially in a town with a rich culinary legacy that only recently has been presented through the lens of Michelin-star aspirations. As Jerez continues evolving into a foodie magnet, Mantúa will continue at its forefront, pushing boundaries and serving as a beacon of innovation.
Mantúa, Pl. Aladro, 7, 11402 Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain