These days, the easiest way to get to Asturias from León is to take the brand new motorway (A-66) and swallow the 11 Euro toll. As far as motorways go, it’s not exactly dull either. Before leaving León province, you’re treated to fantastic views of the beautiful ‘Barrios de Luna’ reservoir as your pass over its futuristic looking suspension bridge, and not long after that the road starts to wind its way through the mountain pass via El Negrillon (the tunnel linking León and Asturias) and down towards Oviedo. Bearing mind the brisk motorway pace, the frequent thick, low fogs, and the madcap driving of the locals, it’s an entertaining route.
But choose to take the old ‘Nacional’ road (N-630) which twists and turns up and over the ‘real’ mountain pass of Pajares and not only will you be treated to an even more white-knuckle ride, but you’ll also get the chance to stop off at the unassuming looking ‘Meson Ezequiel II’ in Villamanin for a culinary experience that definitely won’t leave you wanting more. Not only is Meson Ezequiel one of the best places to eat in León, it’s one of the most remarkable restaurants I’ve ever been to.
It’s called ‘Meson Ezequiel II’ because it’s the second incarnation of a restaurant which has been in Villamanin, if you believe the locals, since time began. The original restaurant, now closed and run down, is just across the road. They obviously outgrew it.
Approaching Villamanin from León, you’d be unlikely to even notice the restaurant if you didn’t know it was there. Even when you know to look out for it, it hardly paints a pretty picture – an ugly, industrial, brick warehouse with a ‘sponsored by Coca Cola’ sign. The only signs that something interesting might be happening here are the 300 cars parked under the cover of closed down petrol stations on either side of the road. At first sight, you think they are used car lots. This is the car park.
Open the door and you’re greeted by chaos in its purest form, as what appears to be the entire population of León province fights with the entire population of Asturias for a table. If it’s lunchtime on a Saturday or Sunday, arrive before 2pm or after 5pm or you can pretty much forget it. You can try to reserve a table, but it’s fairly hit and miss as to whether they will allow you to or not.
As you’re led to your table by surely the most disagreeable waiter in the world, you take a look around and realise that this isn’t a restaurant by any normal definition – it’s a food serving factory. And in some ways, that’s literally what it is (the original Ezequiel business was, and still is, a cured meats factory, which is just underneath the restaurant. You can buy products from the factory from the display by the entrance to the restaurant). Halls lead to dining rooms which lead to more halls, more dining rooms and more halls. This place must seat 1000 people. Judging by the noise level, perhaps 2000. Say whatever you have to say to your partner or family in the car, because once inside, conversation requires a megaphone. This is the biggest restaurant I’ve ever seen and I don’t think I’ve seen half the rooms. It feels like there are more people here at lunchtime on a Sunday than at the Bernabeu for a Real match.
Down to the food. Simple. There are starters and there’s meat. There may be fish too, but you don’t come here for fish.
You’ll be ‘greeted’ with a courtesy plate of the house speciality: cecina – the cured, smoked beef that Leon is famous for. The cecina here (obviously coming from their own factory) is probably the best I’ve ever tasted and they serve it in exactly the right way – at room temperature and with a touch of the most delicious, syrupy olive oil.
In fact, the stunningly good olive oil gives the superb flavour to most of the starters, including a delectable Revuelto de Ajetes (Scrambled eggs with young garlic shoots), Setas con Jamon (Wild Mushrooms with Ham) and a simple but delicious Ensalada de Ventresca (a mixed salad starring the very best tuna belly cut). You also get the typical selection of local, traditional starters that you see everywhere in Spain, like Croquetas de Jamon (Potato croquettes with ham) but all are tasty and served in generous portions.
You’ll have a tough job not overdoing the starters, but generally the waiters are on the ball and won’t let you over order – and with good reason. In Ezequiel there are no prices on the menu so you’ll always end up paying about the same, whatever you eat (20-35 Euro per head depending mainly on drinks and whether you have desserts and coffee; the waiters pretty much just make up the bill at the end).
The same applies to the meats, the crowning glory of the restaurant. Whether you choose steak, beef, lamb, baby suckling pig, goat or even chicken, it comes out beautifully roasted, swimming in a garlicky mess of juices and served with a pile of homemade chips and the odd roasted red pepper. The quality and flavour is second to none. Even if the waiter will let you, don’t make the mistake of ordering one dish per head – you’ll only need one serving for every two or three people and there will still probably be some left over.
Desserts are the standard fayre around these parts. The waiter will reel off a list including natillas, flan, mouse de chocolate, crema catalana, arroz con leche etc. Don’t expect anything innovative, but do expect a satisfyingly sweet end to your meal, served in seconds from what one can only presume is an industrial-scale production line in the basement. It’s a happy finale. If you’ve fallen into favour with your waiter he might offer you a complementary chupito de orujo (a shot of the local liqueur) or even the whole bottle. But then again, he might not; that’s half the beauty of the place. The service here comes with no bells and whistles - it’s fast, efficient, grumpy and likeable in a funny sort of way – as long as you get on the same wavelength as your server.
When you’re done, smile as the waiter pretends to do some rudimentary maths before writing 80 Euro on a napkin. That’s your bill. Best not argue.
Meson Ezequiel II
Ctra. Nac. 630 Km 99,500
+34 987 59 84 97