IT’S a small area of around six or seven streets – or approximately a kilometre squared – but it encompasses over half of Marbella’s best places to eat.
Let’s call it SORI (South of Ricardo Soriano), this is a nucleus of a dozen or so excellent places for a tapa – or a full gourmand blow out!
Everything from a park pop-up serving an award-winning sarnie to the best Japanese on the coast, this is the area for serious foodies.
Broadly south of busy, Avenida Ricardo Soriano, down to parallel Antonio Belón and bounded from the east by the Alameda and west to, approximately, Calle Gregorio Maranon, the SORI area has formed as restaurateurs increasingly swerved the old town – or relocated – to be taken more seriously and to capitalise on the more reliable, all-year round local trade.
“The area seems to be growing really fast and is definitely up and coming,” explains Emma Tremlett, who recently opened a shop, Alma Essentials, there.
“It’s gaining a personality, which is excellent and we sometimes hear it called ‘Downtown’ or ‘Little Soho’,” she adds.
Aided by the continual growth of full-time residents (now officially 150,000 people, but in reality much higher), new restaurants and shops are opening almost every month, while three of them, Ta-kumi, Kava and Backi are now Michelin-recommended.
“There is so much passing trade from business people, lawyers and politicians through the winter months it made a lot of sense to relocate,” explained Luis at El Albero, who recently made the leap from the casco histórico across main radial avenue.
Around the corner, Catherine Visentin of excellent Italian Casa Tua, which has also relocated, added: “We miss the charm of the old town but we have a lot more room and a nicer space to work with here.”
She and her husband, chef Adriano, from Milan, first opened their stylish joint a decade ago and they have built up a loyal local trade. With two kids born and bred in Marbella they are now fully established expatriates, enjoying life in the resort with no plans to leave.
Another place, even better established, is the true dining secret of Gaspar, which has now been open for 25 years.
The sort of place the locals only whisper about, the family-fun Spanish joint is the true godmother of the SORI area and you’ll definitely need to book for their extremely popular style of soul-cooking.
A charming wood-beam eaterie with a cornucopia of collectables from bullfighters capes to typewriters and murano bottles to sewing machines, it is now run by Carlota, a lawyer by trade, who can normally be found at the back surrounded by books and notepads.
It is anything from what you would expect from a Marbella restaurant, with the menus scribbled out in the morning by hand (in Spanish), once the team has decided what to cook.
This is entirely seasonal and depends on what they feel like rustling up daily, but many of their recipes have been tried and tested for decades.
There are loads of stews and potajes and most can come as a half portion (media ration) if you want to try a few things or are eating alone.
Most of them come in a big pot, with the potaje of chickpeas with chard being a classic Spring dish and good for Lent.
My pastel de berenjena, a sort of aubergine moussaka with bechamel and toasted cheese on a bed of lettuce and diced pork, was a sure fire winner, really delicious.
The generous grilled sea bass came with a salsa verde green sauce and was beautifully cooked and tender, while the apple tart with no pie crust was a gluten-free joy.
Just around the corner, you better try out the brand new hotspot, Sauvage, which has only been open for nine months, before it gets too packed.
Stylish and attractive, it has an unusual exotic style, without being fussy, while its menu is simple, without being too sparse.
A very international mix, its fusion of dishes with an asiatic flavour are created by the duo of young, yet well-travelled chefs, Daniel Ortega, 31, and Nacho Espana, 28, who both grew up locally.
Award-winning Ortega did his time at three Michelin-starred Celler de Can Roca, while Nacho did the Melia hotel circuit before ending up at the Marbella Club hotel, where they both met.
Head waiter Paco, who has worked for 20 years in Marbella, is meanwhile brilliant at explaining everything, such as the Osaka pork ribs cooked at very low temperature, or the lamb shoulder accompanied by ‘petit plom’ in its juice – a type of couscous from Morocco !
I really liked the Buñuelo of squid starter with eel sauce, which were off-sweet with dry tuna flakes, as well as the delicious red prawn ‘pilpil’ croquettes with langoustines and bluefin tuna from Cadiz. There was a definite explosion in the mouth.
His Yakiniku baos with slow cooked Iberican pork had a Lebanese sauce, while the Peking dumplings were made of duck with hoisin toffee and cucumber sunomono.
A Peruvian cerviche was one of the best I have had on the coast.
If you are after more traditional Spanish fare, then head to El Albero, where Luis, from the fast-improving wine region of Valdepenas and his wife Marta, from Salamanca, have set up a real quality joint.
Think fabada Asturias, or cocido Madrileño, this is a place for top quality traditional Spanish classics.
The menu is simple but good value with lots of tostas and traditional dishes like salmorejo and gazpacho soup, perfect for hot days, while the oxtail (rabo de toro) was surprisingly good.
The wine-list is particularly worthy of note, coming from all around the country.
Near-neighbour, Timonel, has only just opened, but is likely to also do very well.
An attractive place open all day from 1pm to 10pm, it has elegant decor, maximising on the light.
There is an interesting, minimal menu, ranging from Focaccia with sardines to a delicious pisto of cod in a classic tomato sauce. I also liked the tosta of Iberian pork and ham, with nuts, rocket and a ‘joppie’ sauce, while the duck magret was well presented with a quail egg on a courgette tower.
Around the corner the Gourmet Burger Room, does exactly what it says on the tin… and it has been doing it for seven years.
Run by a Frenchman Franck, he clearly knows his onions but isn’t scared to graft having done his time in hotels and restaurants in France and also a decade in Marbella.
You choose your type of burger (there are dozens, including vegetarian and even vegan ones) and then one of three buns… In particular I recommend the ‘Milano’ which comes with Gorgonzola, bacon and mushroom.
Heading a bit further west, definitely look out for Takumi, which is the absolute best traditional Japanese food I have eaten in Spain.
The place that footballer Ronaldo swears by when he is in town, Alvaro Arbeloa and Toshio Tsutsui are total style freaks and attention to detail is spectacular.
The place is minimalist and easy to miss, with a very Asiatic feel, but once inside you will quickly relax and enjoy the tour of Japan’s best dishes, from a simple, good value Miso soup to a soft shell crab Tamaki, which I could eat every day.
Other places well worth looking out for are Kava, where Fernando Alcala is doing remarkable things.
This local Marbella man shelved a high flying job as a lawyer in Switzerland to return to teach himself cooking and then open his incredibly stylish joint.
His attention to detail is big in both decor and layout and it’s great to watch all the chefs working away in the kitchen. Produce-wise, I found it one of the best I have tried in Andalucia.
Also highly-rated, but not yet tried, are the Parque de la Milla pop up in Parque de la Constitucion, which seems to change its opening times by the week.
Connected to the La Milla chiringuito up on the Golden Mile, it won the X Snack competition at Madrid Fusion this year with its pickled partridge sandwich, winning chef, Javier Ruiz, 1,500 euros. Go on, try it before me!
Meanwhile, brand new, De Juan, is a stylish place just opened on Calle Antonio Belon, while lots of locals are raving about the Argentinian bakery Maleva, which definitely has style.