This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Andorra is not a tax haven, oh no. It ceased to be a non-cooperative tax jurisdiction in 2014 and now bills itself as “A Compliant Low Tax Country to Live and Do Business In”.
Actually, Andorra looks less like a country than an immense service station with mountains, but whilst it may no longer be such a draw for fiscal freedom fighters it has retained its status as Europe’s number one hair-transplant hotspot.
Clearly there’s a connection between male-pattern baldness, stupid cars and dodgy accounting, but unless you’re the sort of person who enjoys driving a red Ferrari convertible with the top down at 40mph on congested Pyrenean passes, it doesn’t have much to give in the way of leisure activities. True, there’s an electricity museum which might offer inspo to the odd passing dictator, but otherwise the only thing to do is ski.
We weren’t planning to stay for more than a glass of wine and a bit of light perving
Above the treeline and the forecourts, the pistes are glorious, but Andorra is not St Moritz or Courchevel. There are no charmingly rustic refuges offering 100-Euro-a-head fondue to women in Moncler jackets who couldn’t tell a ski pole from a Fendi baguette, and the apres-scene in the valleys consists of a Tex-Mex bar by the duty-free supermarket which sometimes has a bonfire. You ski, you sleep, you ski. Heaven, except that aside from the grisly mass buffets at the all-inclusive hotels, there’s nowhere to have dinner.
NøR is a short trudge along the bypass between Soldeu and El Tarter. It looked ok. The ground floor of a nondescript modern building, pale wood floors, sheepskin-draped leather chairs, twinkly golden lighting, spooky wooden mountain pitchforks stuck on the walls. Also, it was full of hot snowboard instructors, so Deirdre and I got right in there.
We weren’t planning to stay for more than a glass of wine and a bit of light perving, but NøR smelled of woodsmoke and cinnamon, the short menu looked more interesting than anything we could look forward to with our rented raclette set, and the chefs in the inevitable open plan kitchen were doing clever things with blow torches and heat lamps, so we ordered a hot venison pate from the “da Picar” (no tapas, they speak Catalan here) section, which came with unidentifiable ligneous pickles and thickly sliced toast rubbed with tomato and garlic, bosky and rich, the vernal sweetness of the tomato highlighting the pungent acid crunch of the preserves. No question that we were staying for dinner after such a beautifully balanced and thoughtful dish.
The veal calf had definitely not been some poor timorous milk-fed invalid
NøR’s kitchen cooks only with smoke and fire, but resists being too meat-heavy and testosteroney. A hot salad starter of smoked hispi cabbage with beer-batter marshmallow and preserved smoked aubergine was a brilliantly vivid combination of fresh leafage and chewy depth, while smoked mountain cheese came as a fat and blissfully bubbling dome in a darling little copper pot, although I don’t know what it tasted like because Deirdre finished the whole thing in less time than you could say “safety deposit box”.
We went carnivorous on the main, tempted by a sheer cliff or burger or the slab of aged Andorra beef, but on our lovely waitress’s advice we shared the “veal rib cooked for a million years” with sides of smoked fennel and sweet potato gratin.
The veal calf had definitely not been some poor timorous milk-fed invalid; the meat was robust and grassy, the slow cooking intensifying its delicacy rather than reducing it to a carbonized lump, with enough blood-feel in the mouth to render sauce redundant.
A brazenly fruity Rioja from the list of big, bouncy “Black Wines” was really enhanced by all the smoke, which didn’t let up on the puddings: caramelized smoked dried fruits, salt-smoked chocolate cake and the cinnamon gelato we had scented from the bar. Smoked ice cream could be taking a potentially horrible gimmick too far, but its binding of spice with soft vanilla undertones was revelatory.
Perhaps NøR stood out so notably because apart from the surprisingly comprehensive selection of comestibles available in the region’s many petrol stations it doesn’t have much competition. But, aside from the skill and commitment of the cooking, it felt like they really cared.
Wanting your customers to have a good time sounds like an obvious qualification for a restaurant, but without coming over as mushy as a beer marshmallow, joy can be a difficult ingredient to share. NøR is not wildly expensive, the staff were smiley, enthusiastic and seemed really proud of what they were offering, which would make it a great place even if those smokey flavours came out of a bottle.
We went back the next night for the smoked wild boar stew with cloves and mountain honey and got mildly smashed on dubious Catalan slivovitz with the snowboard instructors.
At one point Deirdre and the waitress could be seen doing a bump-and-grind round the coat rack to “Chelsea Dagger”. NøR may not be as self-consciously gourmet as the joints in Megève and it’s hardly riotous compared with the fleshpots of St Anton, but it’s definitely the most fun you can have in Andorra.
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