Three fabulous restaurants for your journey through Spain's Toro, Ribera del Duero, and Rioja

The chef sat at our table and asked us if we had brought the wine. We had just walked through the door into what appeared to be a small local place fronting a charming yet luxurious dining room in the back. Yes, we had the wine; a blessing, for the meal that was to come had been paired specially not just for any bottle, but for this bottle. Our host grinned. So at El Chivo, in the tiny Spanish village of Morales de Toro, began the one of the most spectacular three days' of lunches that Meghan or I have ever experienced.

I share this with you for two reasons. First is the life lesson that so much of what makes the world beautiful, intriguing, and (in this case) delicious is found off the beaten path. I would have not in a million years imagined finding such a gem of a restaurant in so small a countryside town. The experience harkens back to Lot 12, an exquisite restaurant between the mountains in West Virginia, where I grew up.

Further reading: Lot 12 Public House restaurant: Big city quality and small town Berkeley Springs, West Virginia charm

Second, and more tactically, I hope you will stop at one or more of these places as you wind your way through the Toro, Ribera del Duero, and Rioja wine regions in the hart of north central Spain. They, like the bottles from the regions they call home, should be on the bucket list of every wine lover. You'll quickly learn -- if you're not already aware -- that lunch in Spain is a mid-afternoon event. I expect you will be unsuccessful visiting these places at noon.

El Chivo in Morales de Toro, Province of Zamora, Castile and León (Toro DO)

Our dining journey began with with our bottle of the stunning San Román wine in hand at El Chivo, where we were greeted on entry and led to the aforementioned lovely dining room in the back. We began with root vegetables and jamón, followed by a phenomenal dish of chickpeas and squid, and -- at last -- the most incredibly delicious lamb we've ever had.

An aside is necessary here, in that it is possible we were served goat (not lamb). Chivo actually means "goat", and I will freely admit to being slightly unclear on this fact given the sensory overload and the rather extensive amount of wine sampled by that point in the day. I had actually not planned to drink wine at lunch this day, but was (happily) talked into it by the chef and his delightful pairings. Further research on El Chivo has proven remarkably elusive online, as it appears possible that at some point in the past its Facebook page was combined with that of a similarly named restaurant elsewhere in the world.

‘Phenomenal and amazing’ were all we could choke out at first. There’s raspberry in front, followed by black currant. Truly exquisite, and a great paire with root vegetables. We drank this wine with one of the most incredible lunches we’ve ever had at a restaurant called El Chivo, just down the street from the winery in Morales de Toro. It was brilliant with the chickpeas and calamari of the first course, and particularly with the traditionally prepared lamb in the main course.
— Our tasting note on the 2013 San Román wine

Further reading: Meet the stunning San Román wines of Toro, Spain

Asados Nazareno in Roa, Province of Burgos, Castile and León (Ribera del Duero DO)

Onward to Roa, in the heart of the Ribera del Duero wine region, a town built atop a hill whose plaza on which the restaurant sits boasts sweeping views of the countryside beyond. The view outdoors matches the great natural light inside, a nice contrast in feel from the cozy yet darker spaces the day before at El Chivo. The specialty here is -- unsurprisingly -- lamb traditionally prepared with flames. We paired it with a bottle of 2013 Viña Sastre as recommended by our hosts.

Rather characteristic for a Ribera del Duero (Tempranillo, of course), we loved the notes of cedar, hickory, and blackberry in the nose. The blueberry notes so common in wine from this region followed on the palate, fruit forward, where a quite smooth mouthfeel made this the perfect midday bottle.
— Notes we jotted while drinking the Viña Sastre over lunch

Restaurante Alameda in Fuenmayor, La Rioja (Rioja DO)

We'd have difficulty overstating just how much we enjoyed the creative yet measured style in the meal served as Restaurante Alameda. Home to one of the best salads we've eaten in Spain, even that was upstaged by the chickpeas and lobster that we'd have surely ordered more of if it where not for the three desserts we tried instead (we're not dessert people, so this says a lot). We were, at every turn, struck by the seamless knitting together of classic and contemporary here. An alibi on our wine tasting note below: the bottle was unlabeled, delivered direct from the winery just minutes away, so I cannot say with certainty from which vintage year it hailed. Doesn't matter. It was great.

Served alongside a phenomenal lunch at Restaurante Alameda in Fuenmayor, the signature Reserva seemed more tannic in the nose than it proved to be, with elements that could lead one to mistake it for a highly robust Pinot Noir from Oregon alongside the hint of delightful blueberry that is telltale Ribera del Duero, not necessarily the Rioja that we had in our hands. The palate gives way to a sweeter black cherry joice with a hint of iron, and continues to grow and mature very well with every moment the bottle is open. Deep garnet color in the glass makes this an absolutely strikingly beautiful wine.
— Our tasting note on the Marqués de Tomares Reserva