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March 27, 2012

The New Normal

I've been back in LA for about 10 days now, and I'm catching up on the last few days of my trip. I'll put them in chronological order on the date they occurred, rather than the date I'm writing them, so do check back and read everything. I'm also planning on inserting some short videos here and there once they are squashed down to a reasonable size, as well as some epilogue-type entries to collect my thoughts on a great trip.

Thanks again to everyone who made it possible.


March 17, 2012

It's a Hell of a Town

Striking view of Columbus Circle, the city, and Central Park in the background, from inside the Time/Warner Center.


Today we took a quick walk through the Time/Warner Center to see the restaurant area. I didn't realize they have a Bouchon Bakery there, and I cannot resist. We got the macaron assortment, nutter butter, chocolate bouchons (like brownies) and I think one other thing. I can't seem to find the photo of it.

Colleen always hosted a great Oscars party each year, and we would see lots of movies throughout the year, then try to see as many of the nominees as we could in the weeks leading up the Oscars. So it felt like old times when we went to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I think we both really enjoyed it.

For lunch, we reheated the duck ssam from Momofuku. It's just as delicious the second day. One of those meals where leftovers are welcome.

New York City is an absolutely unique place.


More pictures after the jump...>>>

The main event tonight is Restaurant Daniel, by chef Daniel Boulud. Colleen is a person that just gets things done - for herself, for her family, for her job, and luckily for me, for her friends. She chose and secured a reservation for us at Daniel for my last night in NY. We ate in the bar area, which is a bit less formal, but the service was still impeccable.

The amuses bouches were themed around celery. Incredible amount of detail in the presentation. Gorgeous. However, for me, celery is not an ingredient that gets a guest excited to eat. I know, Ferran says that all ingredients are equal. But no one, and I mean, no one, would ever say that celery is their favorite food. Sure, it can be crunchy and refreshing and tasty in it's own way, but no one loves celery. For instance, if they revealed celery on Iron Chef as the secret ingredient, both chefs would say, "Awww, crap." It might be an interesting intellectual exercise, and definitely a challenge to create dishes featuring celery. But ultimately, while everything was prepared well, in my humble opinion, I don't think it performed the usual role of the amuse, which is to set the tone of the meal, excite the appetite, etc.


They have a three course price fixe that seemed easy and appropriate. The photos aren't great because of the candlelight and lack of flash, but here is my sturgeon appetizer.


Colleen wisely chose seared foie gras, with caramelized pineapple.


For my entree, I got the tasting of rabbit dish which was a tiny rack of rabbit with hedgehog mushrooms, stuffed saddle of with asparagus, and braised shoulder torteloni with rabbit jus. Really tasty. Photo not so good.

Colleen again wisely chose seared tuna, with fennel and tomato chutney?


Tonight's dinner took on the air of a contest, with Colleen in the lead so far (Foie gras! No fair! Ha ha). She zeroed in on the mango dessert to cement her victory. I asked the captain, "Is there a dessert that is better than the one she is getting?" We all had a chuckle, and he brought me two desserts to try and close the gap. Very nice of him to do that.


The one in the foreground is a chocolate cake with a molten center, and the other is chocolate and hazelnut, but my recollection is foggy. Both delicious, but Colleen still pulls away and takes the prize for the better meal. Damn!


For brunch on the last day of my trip before heading back to LA, we met Colleen's mom at Whym, just a block away from where we were staying. There was some half marathon or something that was messing up the traffic in the area. It's a nice local restaurant. Grandma Valerie got Huevos Rancheros with Chicken Tinga. Colleen took the recommendation of breakfast strata special, and I could not resist the biscuits and gravy.


To cap off my overindulgence, Apple Pie Egg Roll for dessert. GV got the more reasonable Berries and Cream.


The Campbells have always been so gracious to me, and as further proof, Amy had already made arrangements with the restaurant to take care of the bill - but she was out of town!! Not even in attendance, and picking up the check. I'm a lucky guy.

It was great to catch up with Grandma Valerie and Colleen, They are generous hosts and great people. Thank you so much!!

Now, back to LA!

March 16, 2012

Peach, Seed, Prune

I talk to everyone about food and restaurants, I try to keep somewhat familiar with restaurants in other cities, and what comes up time and again are the Momofuku restaurants. Colleen made arrangements for us to get the whole duck ssam at the Ssam Bar. It's an order ahead meal intended for three to six people. We were trying to find a third, but it didn't work out, but we decided to go for it anyway.

Since we were getting the whole meal, it comes with two sides - for the first we chose the housemade pickle plate. Included clockwise from the right are beets, kim chee style radish, sunchokes, cucumbers, fennel, baby carrots, kim chee nappa cabbage, and shiitake mushrooms. Hidden in the back are small white radishes, fuji apples, green peppers, and cauliflower. A window makes for much easier picture taking! It was a bit overcast today, so it was diffused white light from the right making everything look pretty.

Our second side was stir fried greens in XO sauce. XO sauce usually has dried shrimp and/or dried scallops, chilli paste, soy, garlic, sesame, and shallots. Salty and delicious.


The garnishes for the duck arrived next - butter lettuce, then from the top right, crispy shallots, duck fat with ginger and scallions, sea salt, hoisin sauce, and Korean style chili paste/sauce. Also, to the left a damn good ginger beer, non-alcoholic.


The main event after the jump...>>>

This whole time, I'm thinking, no big deal, I can eat half a duck by myself. Well, it's actually quite a lot of food, and could easily feed five - six is a bit of a stretch, I think. It's advertised as rotisserie duck, but I doubt it's actually cooked on a rotisserie. The duck in the middle there are the breasts, which have been augmented with a pork and duck sausage underneath the skin. The legs are confit'ed separately, they're hidden behind the herbs and watercress. But what really makes me think it's not cooked on a rotisserie is that they were sellilng a single portion of slices of the duck breasts with fewer garnishes, no sides and either pancakes or a few lettuce leaves. A lot of people were ordering it, so it's more likely to me that they were ordering duck breasts separately, filling them up with the pork and duck sausage, and making a bunch more of those. Otherwise, it would mean that they're bringing in cases and cases of whole duck and only selling the breasts, ending up with a lot of duck legs for confit (possible) as well as an extraordinary amount of duck carcasses (unlikely, in my opinion).

Regardless of whether it is from whole ducks or cooked on a rotisserie, this was fun and delicious. Sort of multi-Asian crossover in the sense that they serve Mandarin pancakes with duck (Chinese), as well as lettuce and herbs (Vietnamese and Korean) for wraps, plus a more French technique of adding a sausage under the skin of the duck breast. The duck itself and the sauces are all well seasoned, featuring big flavors. My only quibbles are that the pancakes were a bit greasy, the duck skin could be a little crispier, and the rice came pre-sauced with a significant amount of the duck fat/ginger/scallions mixture, which was tasty, but just very heavy. Usually rice is lean and can moderate big flavors and fatty mains, but being so heavy, it wasn't a good foil to the other components. Just my humble opinion. We loved it, and we took every bit of it home for our lunch the next day.


Stupid I had neglected to charge up the camera battery, so I don't have photos for the afternoon. We stopped in to Milk Bar across the street, and to walk off our lunch we hoofed it over to Eataly. It's fantastic! A showcase of any and all aspects of Italian cuisine. There's a bakery. There's a fresh mozzarella bar. There's a produce stand where they will chop your vegetables up as you choose, almost like a fish counter where they clean the fish for you, or a butcher shop where they will prepare the meat as you wish. Genius!! There's a counter featuring cooked veggies, an espresso stand, a gelateria, a pizzeria, a fish monger, a place to eat cooked fish and seafood, a butcher counter, an aisle of dry pasta, an aisle of tomato and other pasta sauces, an aisle of olive oil, and it goes on and on. Salumi, cheese, pannetone, candy, beer garden, sandwich bar. So brilliant. And so purely Italian and Italian-American. Has a glammed up food court feeling, but with only Italian specialties. Wish I could have spent more time and money there.

Across the street is the second location of Doughnut Plant. Again, a place I hear a lot about and hey...I love doughnuts. From the top, carrot cake doughnut, creme brulee doughnut "seed" (a little bigger than a doughnut hole, and certainly more love put in it), peanut butter and blackberry jam seed, tres leches doughnut, and finally on the left is a cinnamon roll. Maybe I chose poorly or I was there on an off day or something, but I was left a bit wanting. Maybe it's a style thing that I wasn't expecting. I think I'm used to doughnuts having egg in them, and neither of their cake doughnut batter nor their raised doughnut dough contain eggs, meaning they're a leaner, a little firmer in texture, more bread-like rather than a soft, tender glazed doughnut. The seasonal flavors didn't seem particularly seasonal, even though there's citrus and pomegranate and some berries at the market. Of the ones we had here, the creme brulee was the clear favorite. I would definitely go back to try it again.


We took a break, went for a nice walk in Central Park, then met Rich and Amy at Prune for a somewhat later dinner. Prune has a reputation as a chef's hangout and for amazing brunch. It's a cozy, tiny spot that reminded me of a little Parisian cafe (not that I've been to Paris yet). Dark and Stormy cocktail is the way to go here.

Colleen and Rich both got the radicchio and endive salad with Valdeon blue cheese and hard cooked egg. Amy ordered some roasted cauliflower that looked good, but my photo was blurry.

One of the things Prune is known for is their marrow bones appetizer. People say it's something a chef might order because it's delicious, but it's also almost 100% fat. Some people refer to marrow as "God's Butter" because it's just beefy flavored fat, scooped out of the bone, eaten on toast with sea salt and some parsley salad with capers. Salt, fat, salt, bread, something green, and fat. I love the presentation, but this particular one would have been better with two or three minutes longer in the oven. Ideally it's well warmed through, but served before it is actually liquid and melts away.


Rich and I both got the braised short ribs on Yorkshire pudding. Excellent.


Colleen got a simple but perfect Parmesan omelet, and Amy got a grilled loup de mer (branzino) with fennel oil.


For dessert, in the foreground mascarpone ice cream with sea salt caramel croutons, and in the background, Rich's chocolate-espresso mousse with walnut cookie crumbles, I believe. I hear that brunch is hands down their best meal. Based on what we had, I don't know that I would make it a destination restaurant, but our meal and our cocktails were well made, the dishes simple and tasty, served in a setting that evokes Frawnce. I think they deliver on that quite successfully.


March 15, 2012

Back to the New World

One last shot from Barcelona airport for Bethro -


Somewhere over Greenland: drift ice patterns on the ocean


Having left Barcelona early in the morning, I landed at JFK in the early afternoon, took the AirTrain to Jamaica Station, got onto the subway and had a pleasant walk to meet Colleen. This traveling stuff is a lot easier in your own language and when things have signs. And of course, Manhattan is quite conveniently laid out and numbered in a grid for the most part. Although I will say, at least in Spain, on public transportation, many things are at least announced in multiple languages, but here...only English. It must be much harder for a non-English speaking visitor in the US.

Replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Washington Square Park.

It's been far too long since I visited New York. More pictures after the jump...>>>

For dinner, Colleen scored us a table at Babbo, a Mario Batali restaurant. Lovely Miss Alex was our surprise dinner companion. How lucky am I?!? I knew her as a youngster, and now she's all grows up.


These grissini are on the bar as a snack. Generous in both cheese and paprika, they sparked our appetites, and went well with prosecco.


The table in the middle of the room which is also used as a server station.


Unfortunately, since I don't use flash, and even though I'm using Matt and Tara's camera, the candlelight wasn't quite enough for great pictures. But I'll post some of the heavily tweaked ones just to give an impression. This is a taste from the kitchen, a crostini with ceci (chickpeas) in olive oil, tomato and paprika.


After conferring a bit, the ladies were kind enough to allow me to order dinner within certain parameters. For starters, we got grilled octopus with borlotti beans and limoncello vinaigrette, testa (head cheese in the form of sausage) with pickles and mustard, and roasted beet (not beef) tartare with chianti vinaigrette, ricotta salata and garnishes.

Of the starters, I think we all thought the grilled octopus was the winner. Pleasantly chewy, tons of flavor, and well matched with the beans and brightness of the vinaigrette. The "hat" on top is shaved watermelon radish.


Roasted Beet Tartare - presented as if it might be beef tartare, with the garnishes that might be served with beef - a bit of mustard, chopped pickles, sea salt, anchovy, and capers. Ricotta salata is ricotta that is salted, pressed and aged. I't's mostly just a milk component, with salt - not funky or cheesy - a mild cotija cheese would be most similar, I think.


For the pasta course, we ordered Pumpkin Lune (round ravioli shape) with Sage and Amaretti, Gnocchi with Braised Oxtail, and Ravioli stuffed with Beef Cheeks, which they sent later with the entrees. Since we were sharing everything anyway, they proactively split the lune onto three individual plates and the gnocchi on one. Very nice service touch. In the photo, they are grating amaretti cookie onto Alex's portion of the lune. Amaretti is a cookie made from egg whites and almond flour (or occasionally flavored with apricot kernels, like amaretto liqueur), similar to a French macaron. It adds just a touch of texture and a sweet nuttiness to go with the pumpkin. Often the butter in this sauce is browned, but here it was still blond, and the sage just warmed, not crisp. Regardless, they are truly delicious.

In the foreground, the braised oxtail and gnocchi. The oxtail and ragu were spot on, I personally felt the texture of the gnocchi was not quite right. It was enjoyable and delicious, but the gnocchi just suffered by comparison to the lune.


I apologize for the picture, but this is the best of the lot - from the foreground moving back, triangular ravioli stuffed with braised beef cheeks, a side of Brussels sprouts with pancetta, Guinea Hen with pumpkin fregola & black truffle vinaigrette, and Grilled Rack of Lamb Scottadita with broccoli rabe pesto, lemon yogurt and grilled onions.

Some may know that I love lamb, and I order it often, and I'm lucky to taste it often at work. We get great lamb, and we prepare it carefully and people love it. Well, this was fantastic lamb. Memorable. A touch of something sweet in the marinade, maybe balsamic. Nice grill crust, but still rare inside. The fat was well warmed through and it was glorious. A standout dish. And a generous portion of three nice double chops, at a very reasonable menu price. I would go back and get this again and again. Capische?

As I'm writing this I just looked it up, and according to the Food Network recipe from Mario, it's just lemon zest, mint, sugar, salt, lemon balm and olive oil. Oh, yeah, the other stuff we ate was good, too.


To cap it all off, a Chocolate-Hazelnut torte with hazelnut gelato and orange sauce. Candied orange zest. I love gianduja and Nutella, so for me this was perfect.


I've seen and heard some of the naysayers out there talk smack about Babbo, like it's overrated and such, but I really don't see it. It's one of the best overall meals I've had recently. Maybe not 3 star Michelin since it feels so homey and casual, but damn good. And the service was very professional and comfortable. For what it's worth, I highly recommend it. I'd love to go back for one of the tasting menus ...and the lamb.

Adios, Espana!

Near my pension, there was a Galician restaurant that seemed to be doing good business and seemed to be reasonably priced. Galicia is the northwest corner of Spain, and is known for seafood. Since I didn't get to go to Galicia on this trip, I figured I could try a few of the specialties of that region. When I sat down, they gave me a different menu than was on the board, where all the seafood was really expensive, so I switched gears. Not sure if was after lunch or if they just pegged me as a tourist.

One popular item in Spain is ensaladilla rusa, or Russian potato salad. Normally, it would contain potato, mayonnaise, English peas, tuna or anchovy, and hard cooked eggs. I didn't get any tuna out of this version, but it was pretty good. They brought it as an appetizer, a hefty scoop, almost a pint, but they were waiting for me to finish the entire thing before bringing the steak. No, I'm ready, bring on the steak!!


The matchsticks and fried artichokes were a nice surprise. Scallopini type cut of veal, medium.


I did some final souvenir shopping at El Corte Ingles, which is the largest department store chain in Europe. It's named for it's origin as a tailor shop, referring to an English Cut suit. But it now it's everywhere in Spain, they carry everything including groceries, housewares, dry goods, clothing - I guess like Harrod's, but many locations. I stopped for a gelato - mandarin orange and dulce de leche. Deeelicious! Clean, specific mandarin flavor.


More pictures after the jump...>>>

The keys sometimes look like the ones from an old movie or classic cartoon about jails and vilains and whatnot.


I walked by a bar on a side street that seemed promising, so I went back for my last meal in Spain. Pulpo a la Gallega, or Octopus Galician-style. This is available everywhere, it's transcended it's regionality. Under the octopus is sliced potato, cooked in the same water as the octopus.


Pan con tomate on crunchy flutes, and morcilla de Burgos - blood sausage with rice, in the style of Burgos, with piquillo pepper. I love crunchy things, so the flutes are my second favorite to coca for pan con tomate. This particular sausage was a bit too ricey for my taste, but I love morcilla anyway, and seemed a fitting finale to an amazing trip.


Travelers pay a fee each time money is changed from one currency to another, so it's best not to change too much money so as not to end up with a lot extra at the end. And if I have just a few bills when leaving a country, I just spend it, because paying to change it back once again is just a loss. So here are some snacks I got at the airport. One last ensaimada and some sweet snacks, some salty. My airline doesn't accept cash during the flight anymore, so anything I would have purchased on the plane would have been paid by credit card anyway.


I really didn't see enough of Spain, and even the places where I spent a few days, I only got a taste. I hope to go back to see other parts of Spain and get deeper into Catalunya and Pais Vasco on my return. It's a profoundly fascinating place, for all reasons - people, history, culture, art, scenic beauty, and of course, food. Until I return...Adios!!

Thanks for reading!

Next, New York City!!

March 13, 2012

Mi Error, y Mi Bien Suerte

Got up early to head to la Boqueria. El Quim is one of the famous stalls in the market, and has been around since the market was just a collection of carts in a field. Or so they say. Bread and a cana of beer to start the day.


They were still getting ready for the day, so I was the first customer to sit down. Some things were still being prepared, so I asked for callos. It's stewed tripe, very simple, just a bit of tomato and pimenton. I could easily have sampled more things, but I wanted to save my appetite for lunch.


My new room is the tiniest, interior room in a large, luxurious flat. It's been remodelled fairly recently, so the bathrooms and other large rooms are quite stylish. My room is cheap, and bare bones. But I have access to the whole flat, including a large patio facing the interior courtyard of this city block.


One of Anna's recommendations is Forn Mistral, specializing in breads and pastries from Mallorca, including my new obsession, the ensaimada. They also make a savory ensaimada with sobrasada inside, but they only make it on request, with one day's notice. So I got a croissant with sobrasada inside. They also have an ensaimada with pastry cream. These were all fantastic. Delicate and the sweet ones were not too sweet.


A good story, a lot of pictures and great meal after the jump...>>>

For lunch, I am traveling to Girona, about 1 hour and 20 minutes by train from Barcelona. It seems that these are farmed trees, but for what I'm not sure...paper?


From the train station, I took a cab to the restaurant, and ended up being there a bit early, so I took a break in a local park next to the restaurant.


The entryway and facade of the restaurant.

I had made reservations before I arrived in Spain, but I had requested dinner on the 14th after I arrived. When they emailed to confirm a few days before, I decided it would not be enough time to dine there on the 14th for dinner, as my flight was the very next morning at 8am. Would it be possible to change it to lunch on the 14th, or even the 13th? The 13th was completely full, but they agreed to lunch on the 14th.

I walk in and give my name, and they ask me to take a seat in the salon area. Then they come back and ask for the spelling of my name. I'm a bit concerned at this, since it's as if they are not expecting me. Did my reservation get lost somewhere? Then I check my phone, and to my horror, I am here on the wrong day, the 13th, not the 14th! What a dumbass! I immediately walk up to the host and apologize, I'm here on the wrong day, I'm so sorry, etc. They are so gracious, they say, Don't worry, we are trying to make an accomodation, please wait a moment.

I'm thoroughly embarrassed, especially after the mistake of the time of my flight on the first day. I sit outside on a couch in the courtyard area, just shaking my head. Okay, whatever, I made an ass of myself, I'll just go back to Barcelona and return tomorrow. No big deal.

The maitre 'd comes up with a big smile on his face and says, "We are calling to check with the chef, but I think we will have a table for you. Please hold on just another minute." Meanwhile, I just want to crawl under the couch.

He comes to collect me and says, "We have a table ready for you, please come with me."

So he takes my jacket and we walk directly into the kitchen, through the Star Trek door. They have cleared a space on the chef's actual desk, and have set out a place setting! This is not the "chef's table" - it is his actual desk, with his effin' computer and his notebooks and cookbook library and everything. I am in total shock. The whole kitchen looks up to see who the hell is sitting at chef's desk. Then they just go back to work. I find out later that when they have journalists or visiting chefs and so on, this is where they are served. But it is a rarity.

I can see about 15 cooks and chefs from where I am sitting but altogether there are 27. It's one of the calmest, most quiet kitchens I've ever seen. When he fires an order he says in Catalan, "Fire 2 Classic tasting menus.", about 5 people call back in a normal speaking voices. And that's it. Chef Joan prefers it this way. Even when one guy got busted for overcooking the lamb, it was just, "Hey." and a gesture to listen for the sizzling noise. That's it.

I ask for a glass of cava, and I'm just laughing at myself, and their generosity, and my good luck. The title of this entry means, "My mistake, and my good luck." They have two tasting menus at lunch, one that is updated Catalan classics, and the other is the full tasting menu, which is the obvious choice in this situation. I mean, they're being so generous, it would be a bit of an insult to go with the more conservative menu, no?

Just to set the context, El Celler de Can Roca currently holds 3 Michelin stars, and is often in the top 10 or sometimes top 5 restaurants in the world on many lists. Not that ratings and lists are the most important, but to be consistently highly regarded does mean something. Also, it's worth noting that for several years, their cookbook Sous Vide (or Vacio in Spanish) was the only book available on the subject of using that technique in a fine dining restaurant. They literally wrote the textbook.

Incredible bread - red wine and Kalamata olive bread, and olive oil bread. Actual flavor of red wine. Actual flavor of olive oil.


This is the first amuse that they call The World. It comes to the table with a paper lantern globe enclosing the food items, then it is opened to reveal these five bites, representing flavors of Korea, Peru, Lebanon, Mexico and Morocco.


Next is a caramelized olive, presented on an olive bonsai tree. I unhooked these, but on reflection, I think I was supposed to "pick" the olive from the tree. It has anchovy and a little isomalt candy coating. It's a callback to that classic olive, anchovy, green chile pintxo like the other day. They have several trees, and they hang an appropriate number of olives for each table. The hooks themselves are custom made for the restaurant, complete with their logo stamped on each hook.


Of course, I have photos of every item, but I'll be a bit selective here to show the exceptional courses. Of which there are still many. Other amuse were "Ring Calamari Adapted" and Zucchini Omelet. This one is a bonbon with Campari cocktail inside.


This is listed as Truffled Brioche - it appears to be a custom made service piece with a bowl for soup, a bite-sized brioche roll, and nice slice of truffle. The brioche and truffle are covered by a lid and the whole thing is placed on the bowl of hot broth so that it is warmed by the steam of the soup as it is walked to the table, and the brioche becomes warm and extra tender, and the perfum of the truffle is released. Genius!


Green salad - Avocado, lime, melon, cucumber, Chartreuse, sorrel, greeen shiso, tarragon, rocket, oxalis. There is some salad burnet in this, too. Salad burnet tastes remarkably like cucumber.


Autumn-Winter Salad - Sea urchin, pumpkin, sweet potato, quince, persimmon, tangerine, porcini, pumpkin seeds, walnuts. Right in the middle is crispy Jerusalem artichoke. It was amazing to watch the plating, since they know exactly how many covers they're doing (plus one, ha ha), the majority of this dish is pre-plated and it just gets final touches and is sent when the table is ready for this course.


There was an oyster dish here with black garlic sauce and white garlic sauce in a yin yang pattern, then a gamba roja dish which had been just warmed on the grill. Really delicious. Like raw ama ebi at a sushi bar, but fresher.

This dish really impressed me - it's their homage to Sole Meuniere, a classic French dish. But here they've just rearranged it and cooked it perfectly in a wood fired oven. The piece of sole is blanketed in a semi-translucent milk skin, then it's sauced with a modern style of lemon, caper and brown butter sauce. Crispy sole skin chip. Amazing! The chef de cuisine presented some of the dishes to me, and he and I struck up a bit of a rapport, especially after this dish. I asked a few technical questions and although my Spanish is far from fluent, I was able to convey my admiration for their cuisine.


There was a salt -cod dish in this spot that was really well made. This was perhaps the third time that I've been served cod tripe - it must be a mini fad item.

Iberian suckling pig blanquette with Riesling
The Can Roca version of cochinillo has been cooked sous vide (of course) for 30 hours, then the skin is crisped directly on the plancha. Then warmed under the salamander for pickup. The sauce is poured carefully at the table so that the skin does not get soggy. The other components here are gels and flowers representing the flavor notes of a Riesling, and chef had the staff pour me a tiny glass of Riesling to experience the pairing. Superb.


This one is a rouget, or red mullet, cooked at very low temperature, to retain an almost raw look to the flesh, with individual gnocchi of anise & chervil, orange, and saffron, and a broth. I think this is meant to be reminiscent of bouillabaise. Very nice.


Around this point, I got a glass of Terra Remota Camino Emporda 2009. Awesome.

There was a tasty beef tartare dish here with mustard ice cream and all sorts of garnish to be eaten in stages. Then some beautifully cooked lamb with spheres of tomato, red bell pepper and lamb jus. Then the final savory course - Wood pigeon tenderloin with onion, carmelized hazelnuts with curry, juniper berries, orange zest and herbs. A marvel. So many layers.


The pre-dessert is called Orange Colorology (shades of orange?) - gels of orange, tangerine, egg yolk (custard), passion fruit and carrot.


During the whole meal, they kept trading off who presented the food to me - all the runners, the maitre 'd, the chef de cuisine, chef Joan himself. Team service to the nth degree. For this course, it was one of the youngest runners, and he was so excited to explain it, in English. "Cuajada, the curd from milk of sheep, pastel de guyaba (like a membrillo or jam of guava), dulce de leche, and candy floss. Best of the house!!" If anyone has had the Cuban pastry from Porto's with cheese and guava, it's inspired by those same combinations. Deeeeelicious!


They also gave me an extra dessert of various kinds of milk products - dulce de leche, sheep's milk ice cream, cuajada foam, and milk meringue. There was also a chocolate dessert called the Forest, with a variety of chocolate items in a chocolate landscape sort of thing, with a splash of Taylor's 20 Year Tawny Port on the side. Then migardise.

Truly, I cannot convey how thoroughly enjoyable this meal was. Not only was I observing the kitchen, but they were so gracious and hospitable. As chef Joan said at one point - "Estupendo!!"

March 12, 2012

Hat trick!

Today, I completed my planes, trains, and automobiles hat trick by taking the train from Donostia back to Barcelona. I'm again a little out of practice with travel skills - I got aboard the wrong train. A gentleman was kind enough to ask if I was going to Barcelona, and pointed out that the Barcelona train was the following one. I just barely got off in time. That would have set me back a little if I ended up in the wrong city! My thanks go out to that guy and all the helpful locals who got me to my final destinations, sometimes in spite of myself.

After checking in at the new pension in the Eixample neighborhood of town, I got a little snack - a pressed sandwich with sobrasada and manchego, with a blueberry muffin. It's a polished looking operation called Forn Pacific, which is funny to me because they're doing straight up European style sandwiches, coffee, everything.


My goal for the rest of the afternoon was to spend a little time at Parc Guell, which was originally intended to be a housing development designed by Gaudi, but eventually was turned into a city park. I took the subway to the station closest to the park which turns out is still quite a ways from the park. Additionally, the park is in a hilly area, and I guess the tour buses and the metro bus line sort of circle the whole park before letting people off at the entrance. So I followed the signs, but I ended up walking almost the entire perimeter of the park before cutting through a jogging path to get to the more developed area of the park. I certainly need the exercise.

From the upper area of Parc Guell, there are incredible views of the city and Mediterranean. This is as close as I got to the Sagrada Familia church, also designed by Gaudi.


Because I entered from the east, I saw things in reverse order than most visitors. This is the plaza area of the park - the outside ring of it is all mosaic tile bench, in undulating curved shapes, and a gravel/dirt area in the middle. By the way, the benches themselves are not very comfortable. Fascinating, though.


More Parc Guell and Barcelona after the jump... >>>

The park is extraordinary, and yet has a rough hewn, unfinished quality to it in many areas. This is a tree that they seem to have left in place and built the columns around it.


Near the main entrance, there are two guard shacks, this one also serves as the gift shop for the park. It's stunning in person - has almost a fantastical, Dr Seuss kind of vibe to it.


I'm not sure if I'm correct in calling this a parapet, but it's like a outdoor corridor with stone columns on the left side, some of which have decorative statues and the inside is this wavy form instead of a standard arch and wall.


These are the substantial columns supporting the plaza area above. Although it seems very regular here, just off to the right out of frame is an area where a few columns are "missing". Also, the ceiling is domed and inlaid with mosaic tiles, as well as the occasional sculptural piece.


The famous salamander near the entrance stairs.


I was in the area, so I stopped in to visit Anna and Mariana at Les Tres a la Cuina. Anna had given me some great tips for Barcelona, and we hadn't yet met in person. They have a charming little gourmet store in the Gracia neighborhood, a hip and artsy area that reminds me of San Francisco. They have carefully chosen food products and wines from Spain and elsewhere. They also serve their own hand crafted food for eating on the spot, or to take away, and they also cater parties. We had a great conversation and share many of the same opinions about food. If anyone is ever nearby, I recommend a stop to say hello to these talented ladies.


I ended up having just a small steak for dinner from a cafe near the pension. Nothing special.

Tomorrow, my last big name restaurant reservation... Can Roca.

March 11, 2012

Daytrip: Hondarribia & A Fuego Negro

A little morning sustenance - mini-chorizo sandwich, tortilla Espanola, and a tiny plum cake/muffin.


Noel and Charlie got us into a Spanish professional league basketball game. The Donostia/San Sebastian Frogs are doing very well this year, and they won handily against their Basque rivals from Vitoria. Two players are from the US, but even many of the others are very good. A few look like they'd be more comfortable kicking it like a futbol, but it's a really fun environment, the fans are really involved, and the facility is amazing. It was originally built as a plaza de toros - a bullfighting ring. Here's an indoor blimp they have at the game, controlled via remote. The company provides insurance, I think.


More food pix after the jump....>>>

Ainhoa had graciously volunteered last night to take Noel, Iker, and myself on a short road trip up to Hondarribia, which is northeast of Donostia/San Sebastian, just at the border of France. On the way out of Donostia, it quickly goes back to green hillsides, rich farmland, picturesque little stone farmhouses with puffs of smoke leaving the chimneys, sheep in the pastures... like pages in a storybook. Seriously.

Hondarribia is a quaint and gorgeous seaside town, and is also known as a place for great seafood. We strolled along the main paseo until we found a cafe that looked good. Sitting outside, we got a bottle of sidra, the local hard apple cider, an order of fried sardines with garlic and peppers, txipirones en su tinta (small squid braised in their ink), and gambas rojas a la plancha (red prawns on the griddle). This is the good life!!


Can't forget the jamon Iberico:


In recent years, throughout Spain, a select number of old structures (like forts and castles and such) have been repurposed and renovated for use as luxury hotels, while retaining much of their appearance as historic buildings. They are refered to as paradors. This is the entry to the Parador de Hondarribia.


Looking across the river to France. This area of France is historically Basque, and some would claim that it should be part of Euskal Herria (the inclusive idea of Basque Country, transcending current geopolitical borders). In bars for locals, we saw quite a few posters of political prisoners still in captivity, and other posters for the Basque nationalism movement that show a map that includes current Basque territory, as well as Navarre and parts of SW France.


Back in Donostia, I decided to stay one extra night, so we went out in search of more pintxos. Since it was Sunday, it was less crowded, but also a few places were closed. However, A Fuego Negro was open, and with a lot more room to relax than normal. It's helmed by a younger chef, and while they have some classic things, they're also trying to extend and advance the concept of pintxos, both in terms of technique and global influences. This is a ceviche with fish (snapper maybe?), avocado, pomegranate arils and citrus espuma. Not as good as the one Migz makes, but bright and tasty.


Salad of black and white quinoa, mixed lettuces, cucumber and apple. Nice to have something fresh and crunchy. There usually aren't many vegetables offered at most tapas/pintxo bars.


These are interesting - rabas - they make sort of a custard flavored with squid ink, firm enough to hold together, then it's battered and quickly fried. Almost like the dessert leche frita, but savory. In the process, the custard gets warm and melty. Striking black color inside, and the characteristic inky-oceany flavor.


This is a nice chunk of tempura style hake - merluza - the same fish as most of the kokotxas, but featuring the flesh. With parsley sauce. Very nice. Off to the left is Brussels sprouts, chicken hearts, and fingerling potatoes. Tasty!


A classic pintxo - guindilla are the small pickled green chilies, not so hot, with olives and anchovy. Salt on salt on briny, in a good way.

This is how they present their jamon plate, but it isn't the usual jamon Iberico, it's a ham made in the Basque country. The ham is underneath the box in the paper liner. I believe it's called txoritxero for the chili pepper that it's seasoned with. Really excellent. A little more moisture to it than most Iberico, it is silky and melts when eaten. Faint background of spice. Highly recommended!

We also got a similar platter of free range chicken that is made into a sort of terrine. Not as successful, although pork wins over chicken pretty much by default.


Jamon txoritxero on toast with salmorejo sauce - somewhat like rouille, usually XVOO, garlic, bread, tomato, vinegar, emusified.


Frozen aerated cheese, sardine powder, herb powder. This has a refreshing quality to it since it is frozen, but has some deeper layers from the cheese and sardine. Much more complex than it appears. A little awkward to eat, though. The wooden serving piece has a pin sticking out on top, they pierce the napkin, then the cheese is spiked on the pin to secure it.


Arroz cremoso, tomato paper ring, egg white and "yolk" of pumpkin soup. The base is a creamy rice, well flavored like a risotto, contained by a band of edible tomato paper/leather, with what appears to be a poached egg on top. But it's actually just egg white encasing a liquid center of pumpkin soup, which replaces the egg yolk. The soup becomes a sauce for the risotto. Clever and delicious.


The name of this dessert is Regalize It: Chocolate/licorice sorbet, Chocolate dirt, pot leaf shaped cookie (no pot). Generally, I'm not a fan of "dirt" in desserts, to me it's just not appealing, usually they don't taste good, and sometimes the texture is either too sandy or gritty. This was pretty good. I'm not sure of the pot connection, except that Legalize It is a slogan for marijuana. Overall, I like A Fuego Negro a lot - great interior design, cool aesthetic, comfortable, and tasty food.

Donostia is an extraordinarily beautiful place, with incredible culture and superb cuisine. I look forward to returning in the not too distant future. Thanks again to Noel, Ainhoa, and Iker for being the tour guides today!

March 10, 2012

Ready, Set, Pintxo!

These are besugo at the Bretxa market, the sea bream we had in Getaria the other day. If I'm not misaken, 33 euro per kg converts to about US$20 per pound. A pretty penny.


These are some breads I picked up from a more Basque oriented bakery across the street from my pension. The baguette is called txapa (chapa), but it's essentially baguette without the pointy ends. The brown ring I need some help identifying. It's been baked a long time, it's very fragile and light in weight. Honestly, to me it tastes a bit scorched, but I've seen it like this at other bakeries, so I don't think it's a fluke of being overbaked. If you know the name of this bread, please let me know and I'll insert it here. The others are just pastries, the yellowish one has egg in it, very rich, and the other is simpler, just a sweet bread.


These are from a different day, but I'll drop them in here - on the left is a small nut torte with almond meal, a light syrup and some icing. Very tasty. The other is similar, but more like a muffin, with that almond crust on top. Also very good. The quality of baked goods has been really high throughout my trip, and these were no exception.


More pictures after the clicktures >>>

It's happened to me before - one of the days I'm most looking forward to, when I expect to eat something outstanding, is the day I'm not feeling 100% in the stomach. And so it is today for our pintxo crawl ... but I'm gonna rally later. Pintxos are the Basque term for tapas in general, but I believe also for a subtype of tapa on a skewer or toothpick (pierced). For instance, an olive, a small green pepper, and an anchovy filet. The other main subtypes are montaditos (a slice of bread with toppings such as artificial krab salad (txaka), codfish salad or jamon Iberico and goat cheese), or bocatas (little sandwiches of jamon Iberico and cheese, or chorizo), or the little plates or cazuelas (the earthenware casseroles) of sauteed mushrooms or what have you.

Our first stop of the night is called Astelehena, just on the outer edge of the plaza in the Parte Vieja. As with most pintxo bars, they display most of their offerings across the bar. The ones in the foreground are to pick up and eat, on the honor system. The ones further away there are little croquettes or fritters or skewers that you choose, but then are taken to the kitchen to be cooked.Then they also have hot tapas that come out from the kitchen. Most places have the majority of the same items, which are the local favorites, and a few house specialties.

My local colleague says that technically, having all this food out, especially the raw seafood, is prohibited, much like it is in Los Angeles. But for tradition and ease of service, they bend the rules as far as possible. It's so prevalent, it seems like they just don't enforce it.


This one is a simple fritter of meat filling, battered and fried. Sorta like a samosa.


Quail legs, potato puree, veggies, balsamic redux. Pretty tight plating, huh? The slates are so cool, I think. I really enjoyed these, but they would probably be too chewy for some people.


Next at a bar called Gandarias, Noel has his order of braised beef cheeks, and in the background, a few of their other offerings. The cheeks were cooked so that the meat was tender and flavorful, and the sauce seemed like they took all the mirepoix and pureed it, so the sauce had a bit of substance to it, as well as really good flavor. It's hard to make out, but in the middle are montaditos with artificial angulas- similar to the artificial krab, but in the shape of the difficult to obtain and very expensive baby eels.


Noel and I got started a bit early, then as his friends got off work and so on, they caught up with us. At one point, we went to a locals only place for them to get some hefty bocados (sandwiches) of tortilla Espanola, just to have something in their bellies. If's a good foundation for a night of drinking, especially with the double starch (tortilla Espanola has potato in it, being inside a sandwich qualifies as double starch). Nothing fancy, but the bocados looked super fresh and satisfying. The place was jammed with people of all ages, some whole families.

For something completely different, we went to the new Bar at the Museo San Telmo right near the Parte Vieja. It's run by a very high end catering company that is the preferred caterer at some of the most beautiful and prestigious sites in the region, and they also act as a concession at some premier spots in town (like this one) and they also have a kitchen and cafe in Madrid. They are also associated with restaurante Arzak. Here is their take on the classic patatas bravas - peewee potatoes, crisped, then the white sauce is allioli (aioli), the reddish sauce is the bravas sauce (usually mayo, tomato, and paprika - similar to rouille) and a wasabi pea on top. Simple and delicious. Up top is a lovely mackerel salad, with fresh corn (unusual to see around here), and some curly endive.


I'm not sure of the proper name for this dish, but it's a very concentrated shrimp stock flavoring and enriching the rice. It's a special shrimp, not a gamba roja, not a cigala. Really tasty. Feeling much stronger now. Bring on more food!


Their refined version of tortilla Espanola. Traditionally, it's a fritatta made in a saute pan, with onions and potatoes (or other fillings like spinach), it hangs out at room temperature, and they serve a wedge at a time. Here it's made to order, more like a French omelet, soft creamy center, small dice of potatoes and onions, with jamon Iberico added. Excellent.


Similar to pan con xocolate, this is a small toast square, chocolate ganache, and a mild cheese crumbled on top, fleur de sel. Excellent.


Drawing on Italian influence, strawberries, Balsamico, and ice cream. Fantastic!


I wish I could have powered thru more pintxos tonight, but there's more to come tomorrow. Special thanks to Noel and his crew - Natale, Ander F., Ainhoa, Charlie (Carlos), and Ander D.C. (mi hermano de una otra madre, Chino!) who showed me the ropes on this pintxo crawl. They're a great bunch of peeps!

Akelare - File Under: Cute

Sidebar: taking a cab up to the restaurant, I asked the cab driver (a gentleman in his 60's or so) if he was from the area. He said, "Yes." I asked him Basque or Spanish? He said, "Both, I am Basque and we are in Spain. It's like flowers, they may look a little different and smell a little different, but they're all flowers." One person's take on the issue of Basque identity.

Akelare occupies an incredible location on a large piece of property on a hill called Igueldo outside of Donostia/San Sebastian. Unmatched view of the Concha, Santa Clara island, Bay of Biscay. I arrived at night, so no pix. But plenty available online. Oddly, the url is Akelarre.net, but the signage is all spelled Akelare. Some of the text below is directly from the menu.


There are two separate menus offered, Aranori (the sloe berry, from which Basque digestif pacharan is made) or Bekarki, (the Euskera word for arugula). They are just the names for option A or B, with no particular significance, i.e. not a tasting featuring arugula or sloe. I chose Bekarki.

The amuses bouche - Left to right, oyster leaf, mussel encased in some sort of chocolate to imitate it's shell, an edible packet of shallot and corn "Beach Pebbles", aerated bread imitating a sea sponge flavored with sea urchin, (sorry, the green item I do not recall and not listed on menu), and codium seaweed tempura flavored with percebes (gooseneck barnacles) to imitate coral. In the background, a small shot of cava with pomegranate arils. The base was breadcrumb sand flavored with shrimp. Before I had a chance to explain that I do not eat mussels, they brought this out. I would have been perfectly content to simply not eat the mussel, but they graciously brought out the same thing made of oyster.

Oyster leaf is a bit of an oddity because it naturally tastes a bit like the ocean. The mussel/oyster had an odd texture, as if it was chocolate with the same breadcrumbs as the bottom of the dish mixed into it. The packet of pebbles was a bit short on flavor. The tempura as well did not taste of much. Cava and pomegranate work nicely together - almost like a Shirley Temple - since pomegranate is the main ingredient of grenadine.


Xangurro claw (spider crab), a blini made of the crab roe and tomalley, with salad of "gurullos" (rice shaped pasta), more crab, and sea beans.


More pix if you clix >>

Closest to foreground on the plate is a razor clam, then white snowball mushroom (fungus), then veal tendon, braised until tender. Suggested manner of eating is to take a bit of each in each bite. This seems a bit influenced by China, as the snowball fungus usually comes from China, and the sauce on the veal tendon seemed to have a little oyster sauce in it. This is probably my favorite course. Clams and mushrooms are together are a great match.


Foie gras with "Sea Salt Flakes and Black Peppercorns". The server says, "I'm going to put for you now, some salt and pepper." And pours about a teaspoon of what appears to be salt flakes, and about a tablespoon of what appears to be black peppercorns on the foie. It seems like it would ruin the dish, too much salt and too much pepper. But the "salt" is made of sugar, and the "peppercorns" are like Japanese rice crackers, but made of (forbidden?) black rice.

Unfortunately, the sugar flakes absorb moisture from the surface of the foie, and it becomes chewy and sticky. Although the foie was cooked nicely, to me the dish was off the mark.


Turbot and it's "kokotxas." Turbot, or rodoballo in Spanish, being a flat fish, does not have a chin the way a hake does. The gag here is that they make a gelatin out of the skin and bones of the turbot, then mimic the shape of the hake's kokotxas, which is that upside down V shape on top of the sauce. The piece of turbot was cooked very nicely. The white sauce is called pil-pil, which is emusified using the gelatin of the fish. The crispy bit there is a chip made from the skin of the turbot, and the powder is made from parsley.


"Desalted" Bacalao. Presented on straw made from phyllo, there's a coating of breadcrumbs that is supposed to seem like salt, as if hadn't been soaked and rinsed of the salt that preserves it. There's also cod tripe in the bowl, and the liquid is tomato water.


Their version of cochinillo, roasted suckling pig. The cochinillo is cooked with Iberico ham stock, then the skin is crisped up. I'm not exactly sure what the semi-clear gel is under the tomato, but it didn't have much flavor. Aerated bread with sweet pimenton.


I'm pretty sure they skipped the hare course for me here, but I didn't notice until just now as I'm writing this. Should have been Roasted Hare loin with it's Royal.

Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Parallel Evolution. High concept dish here. The idea is, starting on the left, is a very young and fresh curd, matched with a fresh grape, then evolving to the right with an aged cheese with aged brandy. From the menu:

-Grapevine, curded sheep's milk and walnut
-Powdered fresh cream with chive and grapes
-Quark cheese with nutmeg and pink pepper aroma, must of tapioca and tomato
-Medium aged Idiazabal with quince jelly and wine dust
-Torta of casar grape with Pedro Ximenez brandy soaked raisins, gorgonzola cheese ice cream


Layered Strawberry and Cream, Colored basil seeds


Mojito (lime, mint, rum) in foam/meringue form. Delicious.



I was excited to go to Akelare, after seeing so many other people's meals on other websites, and seeing rave reviews. Again, take my comments with a grain of salt, but for me it was not as successful of a meal. Perhaps I was there on an off night, but the service seemed a bit uncoordinated. Additionally, I felt like the dishes all had a little gimmick, and several components were lacking in flavor. In my humble opinion, making components appear to be something else is a less sophisticated usage of technique. It's as if there's a wink and a nudge there, "No, see, it looks like a strawberry, but inside it's strawberry sauce and ice cream, get it??" or "It looks like salt cod straight out of the box, but it's already been soaked and cooked, get it?? And the straw is actually phyllo, get it?" Certainly there were no disasters, nothing improperly cooked, no real errors. But several missed opportunities and less than successful choices. Not to my taste.

If you do go, I recommend going for lunch to appreciate the view.

Daytrip: Zarautz & Getaria

I got up early and went to the Bretxa, the local market. It's been renovated not too long ago, so it's modern. But people in the old part still come here to shop. So it's still pretty authentic. Just new and shiny. Then vendors here have taken to sprucing up their displays. It's all about the presentation! In front are the percebes, goose barnacles, just to the left in the bag with the rubber bands are navajas, razor clams, and then a variety of fish.


I picked up a few snacks. People are the same all over the world, and karma is a bitch. I asked the lady at the bakeshop if she had any suggestions. She said, "Everything is good." I said, I know, everything looks good, but do you have any favorites? She said, "They're all my favorites." I said, but are these the best ones? She said, "Different people like different ones." I was trying to be funny but she was not amused. I can relate, I've probably done that exchange almost word for word from the other side. Oh well! This is what I ended up with: On the left, figure eights, which are pastry dough, formed into an 8 shape. These were a touch dry, but ok. In the middle, little Basque custard pies with crisp on top, and anise flavored ring cookies. The custard pies were the best of the three, but a little too yolky for my taste, plus baked a little too hard, so they were a little overcooked and full of bubbles. The anise things tasted like somebody spilled the fake anise flavoring in the dough.


Noel was able to break away today, so he led the way. We took a local train to a town to the west called Zarautz (thah-rahw-ooth), wandered around the town a bit, had a beer, then took a nice 40 minute stroll to the town of Getaria. Um, yeah, it's gorgeous. And I brought the sun with me. That last rock formation out to the right is called the Rat, because it looks like a rat in profile. Head toward the right.


Eh, brah! Da break over by da Rat stay pumpin' today! We go!


More pix after the clicky>>

Getaria's claim to fame is being the birthplace of Juan Sebastian Elcano (or sometimes Elkano), who was the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan had 4 boats, and Elcano captained the only one to make it back. Yet Magellan gets all the credit. We saw at least 4 statues of the guy.


At a restaurant called Mayflower, just overlooking the harbor, we started with txakoli (cha-koh-LEE). Txakoli is a wine made in this area, it's got good acid and it's also a bit sparkling, frizzante. Tasty stuff.


Fried calamari is usually refered to as a la Romana (Roman style) - this one had turmeric in the batter, making it this striking color.


Getaria is known in the region for having the best seafood restaurants, and the premier fish to get is called besugo. It's a sea bream, really clean fish flavor, minimal treatment, just garlic, olive oil, sea salt, cooked on the plancha. It ain't cheap, but it is deeelicious!!


Housemade cheesecake with strawberry sauce. Homey and delicious.


Noel's only been living here for about two and a half years, but he fits in well, despite coming from a very different place and background. As they say, it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at. And this area is pretty amazing. Thanks again for a great afternoon, Noel!

Back in town, I picked up a few things to try from the local supermarket. I thought it was pretty cool that the seltzer came in a plastic seltzer bottle that has it's own lever and everything. The blue bottle a non-sparkling water called Solan de Cabras, and I have to say it reminds me of the water at home in Hawai`i, with a natural sweetness. Actually delicious. Of the beers, my favorites were the Pagoa Red Ale and the Judas. In front is cuajada, it's basically sheep's milk yogurt (it has a touch of the complexity I associate with sheep's milk), and the natillas is panna cotta with caramel. Flan or creme Catalan would be similar, except with egg - a custard. This is just set cream.


Next up, Akelare!

March 09, 2012

I Am A Stubborn SOB

Most guidebooks, most Spainards, most anyone that's been to Spain, will advise against foreigners driving in Spain. Having now completed the driving portion of my trip, I must say I agree with them. I spent a lot of time being frustrated, cussing myself out, cussing out the designers of the streets and roadways, going many km out of the way, down one road just to have to backtrack. Then cussing myself out more. Mind you, I have a fairly decent sense of direction. Beyond that, I also have a compass with me. I also have maps and directions. But a good deal of the areas I was driving in do not label their streets nor building numbers. It was a poor choice on my part.

But I did it anyway. Because I am a stubborn SOB. And I got to see some things and do a few things that I would not have been able to had I gone the more prudent, more relaxing, more economical train tracks.

But I do not recommend it. Seriously. Just go to a more convenient restaurant. One that's closer to a train line. Or a bus line.

Respectfully yours,

Restaurante Arzak

About seven weeks ago, when it seemed like this trip might actually happen, I started making lots of lists. At the top of my restaurant list was Arzak. Last year I had gone to see a panel discussion with Jose Andres, Ferran Adria, and Juan Marie Arzak at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. The comraderie between those three is amazing, and chef Arzak might be the eldest of the three, but he is no shrinking violet. He's feisty and opinionated, and he really won me over. Additionally, I've seen the Bourdain episode in Spain where they go to the pintxo bar and chef Arzak and his daughter Elena (NOT pronounced Elenya, by the way) are in the mix, throwing down the pintxos and txakoli with gusto, then going to the restaurant and making beautiful food. I sent them a short email explaining my situation, and if they had any spots during any part of my stay, I would take it and plan the rest of my trip around that. Which is exactly what happened.

The restaurant is just a short cab ride from Donostia center where I was staying. It's its own building, in what seems to be mostly residential. My reservation was at 8:45pm, which is considered early here. As I enter the foyer, Chef Elena is talking to the hostess about the reservations for the night. I give my name and say, "Hola, Chef." She says, "Ah, you are the chef from Los Angeles. Welcome! Please come with me."

I'm still uncomfortable with the title chef in refering to myself, even though I suppose it does apply to me. But hey, when chef Elena is willing to use it, I'll take it! She leads me directly into the kitchen, where there is an army of people in whites, all buzzing around, getting ready for dinner service. Thirty chefs and cooks in the kitchen. Later I would find out that they are serving 27 guests that night. Granted, probably at least half of the cooks are probably unpaid stagaires (kitchen interns/apprentices), but that's still more than one cook per guest, and certainly the front of house makes it at least 1.5 employees per guest. People tradeoff getting paid for learning and being able to put a prestigious name like Arzak on their resume. Having that many people in the kitchen makes teamwork, timing, and communication that much more important. This is normal for them, they are 3 star Michelin, and so everything must always be of the highest standards.

She explained that chef Juan Marie was away that night, at a conference or something. As if she needed to explain to me why he wasn't there to cook for me. She is an elegant woman, and seems very genuine. She pointed out a few things about how the kitchen runs, and her husband was having dinner at the chef's table in the kitchen.

Then, I was led to the dining room - a modern space, with textures of concrete, wood, steel, linen, and panels of light. There's a column in the middle of the room which functions as their server station and jackstand. Probably the most they could seat in this room is about 36, but tonight it's set for exactly the number they have on the book. There's also a private dining room upstairs where they can accomodate about 25.

The lighting was well designed to light the tables without glare, which made for easy picture taking without flash (the camera I'm borrowing from Matt and Tara does a great job without flash anyway). The customers are surprisingly casually dressed. A few suits, a few sport coats, including myself, but the rest dressy casual. One actually in stylish athletic gear with a turtleneck. This is the bread, salts, and flower on the table.


The captain was very friendly and helped me with my selections. Although I was getting the tasting menu, at Arzak you must choose between two dishes for the later courses, for instance, wild duck versus venison. Should anyone visit, I suggest you plan to go with at least one other person who can get the other items, and you switch plates midway, to try more items. I also wanted to add a foie gras course, which he seemed surprised by, but it's not unheard of when there's not one already on a tasting menu.

I started with a glass of cava(Spanish sparkling wine), and all the amuse bouches arrive at the same time, which makes for a nice pace in the whole meal I think. If five little one biters arrive one at a time, there might be an extra lag between one or the other and it makes the meal take substantially longer.. From left to right, on the stand, a pintxo with cod wrapped by extra fine kataifi, a little corn soup with truffle, toward the background a rectangle of potato covered in puffed amaranth on an edible red bell pepper cracker "plate", a gooseberry with potato chips to mimic the gooseberry covering, and a cutout of a goat cheese and turmeric "pate". I don't have the menu with me (it's in a box that I mailed home) so I'll add more detail later. If you can't see the goat cheese on the black slate, right click and open the picture in it's own tab. The gooseberry is on that little rack because there was dry ice under there, and they poured hot water on it at the table to get the "smoke" effect.

More pictures and comments after the jump>>

This is my favorite course. Underneath is Iberico ham and a variety of citrus supremes (in season now). At the table, they add 2 oysters with shredded konbu seaweed. One of my favorite things in the world is ponzu sauce, which is dashi (Japanese broth with smoked bonito), konbu seaweed, yuzu, and soy. So this is kind of in the same universe - citrus, seaweed and seafood. The liquid is also poured at the table, it's ginger water. There are so many Japanese flavors here, clearly it is their style using Japanese combinations. Incidentally, the waitstaff are all in black, but with a gray apron that seems to be based off a Japanese apron. Kind of retro-futuristic.

Jamon Iberico is omnipresent in Spain, but for the most part it is not paired with many things. Either a plain plate of jamon, or in a simple sandwich, or maybe crisped up. But I've always thought that some Spanish hams have a funky marine/oceany/umami quality to them. Another aspect that reinforces umami is the use of sweet and savory, and there are sweet elements from the citrus, konbu and ginger water, and savory from the Iberico and oysters. This dish had many layered flavors, with contrasts of acidity and freshness. Just fantastic.


I had a glass of white wine, but the name is in my notes. In the middle are three chunks of a small lobster, the two clothespin shapes are like cake or bread made with the cooking liquids and tomalley, to either side are crisp breads coated in hemp seeds and toasted, and across the top are some greens with a whole grain mustard vinaigrette. The upper left is a "sidecar" of extra microgreens salad, tapioca pearls, and the whole grain mustard vinaigrette. I think this is so they don't have to find a spot on an already busy plate for a pile of herb salad. The lobster had a very concentrated, specifically lobster flavor. Maybe poached or cooked sous vide with lobster stock. Hemp seeds have a nice texture and nuttiness to them. Excellent.


This is a slow poached egg, finished on the plancha (griddle), with a film of tomato (I think they make a sauce of tomato, and mix it with a gelling agent - then when they apply it to the egg it sticks rather than slides off), a wafer of kataifi flavored with herbs. I don't recall what that dark item is. Oh, there should have been a mussel here on the right, but I can't eat mussels these days, so they just omitted it. The red is breadcrumbs with Spanish paprika, and some edible flowers. I like that the white was firm - a lot of times when they do these slow cooked eggs, the white is like a mottled jelly, which is not so appealing, in my humble opinion. The wafer was a little hard to eat with knife and fork, but it was a tasty dish.


There's a fish course that I'll have to insert later.

I asked for a glass of tinto, which ended up being the Arzak house rioja. Excellent. Nice pairing with the venison tenderloin, hot chilies, red wine sauce, beans, and tiny lettuce salad. Very nicely cooked venison. It's hard to tell here, but the dark green leaves in the salad (spinach?) were individually punched out in circles, to match the tiny lettuce leaves. The chilies weren't so hot, but even for as much paprika as the Spainards use, their heat tolerance is very low. Their motto is usually "Sabroso, pero no picante" - Flavorful, but not spicy hot. I was well on the way to being full here.


Foie gras. I don't recall the components at this moment. In the sidecar is shaved walnuts, almonds, and crushed chicharron (crispy pork rinds) as garnish for the foie gras. I thought it would be a tasting portion, but it's like a full course. My fault. Just too much. I left some behind. Tragedy.


During the meal, chef Elena visits every table to make small talk and check that everything is going well. She's very poised. At one point, however, she came out a tiny bit flustered and said, "I have just been told your venison may not have been warm enough..." and was about to launch into apologies. But my dish was well made, and I told her so. She thanked me and went off to another table to talk about it. Damage control, I guess.

On the left, spheres of warm chocolate, strawberry sauce, and basil sorbet. Sidecar of chocolate sorbet. Excellent. So full and feeling the wine at this point.


Lemon Tart. The curd has some sort of candy shell to help it stand up like that, with crumbled cookie crust, The red sauce may have been from pacharan, their sloe berry liqueur, a touch bitter. Vanilla bean ice cream. Beyond full at this point. Uncomfortable. And kinda buzzed. My own fault.


Chef Elena came out again to apologize that she was saying goodnight, she had to leave early in the morning for a trip, but she hoped I enjoyed my meal. So gracious. Yes, I did enjoy my meal.

I asked for the migardise (usually cookies and bonbons or something) to be wrapped up to go, and I made a somewhat unleisurely exit. Back at the pension, here they are. I don't really understand the nuts and bolts joke, but they're made of chocolate. The anise ones aren't particularly anise flavored.


I've eaten in some very nice restaurants, but this is my first official 3 star dining experience, and it did not disappoint. They manage to be mostly serious while still being very hospitable. To me, it's clear that they deserve all their accolades and prestige. Maybe they are not on the bleeding edge anymore, maybe certain things feel a bit past the curve - but that's a young person's game. As one of the trailblazers, they have pretty much moved past gimmickry and are just using technique to make elegant, tasty food. This would be a great meal anywhere, and in a setting like Donostia/San Sebastian, it just makes it even more special. Very enjoyable and highly recommended. I'm grateful to have experienced it.

Donostia for Chinese Lunch

After I left Etxebarri, it takes just over an hour to get to Donostia/San Sebastian. After some freeway hijinks, I found the right neighborhood for my pension and settled in for the evening.

The next day, on the way to return the rental car, picked up this ensaimada. Deeelicious. Not really native to this area, but this was a good one. Little bit of apple filling inside the rolled part. I admit, I'm obsessed with these things.


Have I mentioned not to rent a car in Spain? Yeah, don't do it. I found the rental place okay, but then I realized that although I had filled the tank just outside of town, just some incidental driving and being lost and whatever, it was like 1/8th of a tank less than full. Were I to return it less than full, I would get charged 20 euro (about $23 bucks, plus like 3 euro per liter, even though it's only about 1,45 euro per liter. So it would have been about US$50 surcharge just because it was one tickmark less than full. So I set about finding a gas station, of which there aren't many in this resort town of Donostia/San Sebastian. So basically, a few miles over to the freeway onramp, then kinda get on the freeway, but they have a chicken out roundabout to head back in town. Then I missed a turn and had to go around the hill again. Good thing I topped off! By the way, gas stations don't have the little fume blocker accordion thing on their gas pumps, so the fumes are rushing out as the gas gets pumped in, and it seems like a static electricity spark or a cell phone call would light the car up in an instant. I'm not complaining - just saying, don't rent a car, don't smoke while pumping gas.

This is the main cathedral close to the center of town. I should mention, the nomenclature around here is a little confusing. The Vieja, or Parte Vieja or Old Part of town, is along the northeast part of the Concha (circular beach) and goes on a bit toward the east. This is where most of the pintxo bars and the Bretxa market are. The center, where I stayed, is not too far, kind of the middle part of the Concha but stretches south, away from the water, but is more modern, and is the cool shopping area. Antiguo (sounds like it would be the old part, but it's own old/modern area), is furthest west, toward Ondaretta beach.


Donostia is the Euskera (eh-oos-keh-ra, the name of the Basque language) name for the town, San Sebastian is the Spanish name. Euskera and Euskadi culture were actively suppressed during the Franco era, so from being a dying language, it is now used openly and taught with regular Spanish to most children. Has some parallels to the Hawaiian language resurgence in Hawai`i.

Noel is a college buddy of mine who I had lost contact with, but we recently reconnected on the facebook. He currently lives in Donostia/San Sebastian, and he graciously rearranged his schedule to show me around, do a bunch of research, introduce me to his friends, and gave me a look at real life here, which I never would have gotten. I'm so fortunate! I would have just eaten from one side of the city to the other without seeing a damn thing or meeting anybody.

I was ready for a change of pace in terms of cuisine, so we went to a Chinese/Japanese place for their menu del dia. This is all over Spain, at all types of restaurants, more commonly for lunch, but occasionally for breakfast and dinner as well - a reasonably priced price fixe menu with a few choices for appetizer, a few for main, a small dessert, and often a drink, like a small glass of beer or wine - all included. Pork cutlet with sweet-sour sauce.


More Spanish Asian food after the jump! -->>

Noel's sushi assortment

Noel's chicken stir-fry with simple fried rice.

My BBQ duck stir-fry with a few veggies in there. Whaaat!? Overall, pretty decent. Like in LA what might be your second choice of your local Korean owned Chinese/Sushi delivery place. I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment - just that sometimes, you want something convenient and not so expensive and tasty, and this is in that vein. Plus, these guys are a long way from home, as are we, and it scratches the itch, so to speak. The duck was good, I imagine they either import it or make it themselves, since there probably isn't a Chinese BBQ shop around here. Could have used a lighter hand with the oil, but the sauce was pretty much in the ballpark. Rice was really well made, though, and not greasy. Either way, we had a great time catching up on the old days and what we've done in the interim.

Noel's green tea flan. Mine turned out to be a glass of cava with sorbet in in.

Donostia is a very special place. It has the most Michelin starred restaurants per capita in the world, apparently. It has incredible architecture, breathtaking views, and fascinating culture. Really one of the most intriguing areas I have visited. I guess I brought the sun - Noel says it's not always like this, but the whole time I was there it was gorgeous. Someone doing a little surf fishing.


Fear not, plenty of food to come. I'm going to give this next one it's own entry. Restaurante Arzak.

March 08, 2012

Pastoral Precision

Today, the first order of business is to get on the road toward Pais Vasco - it's a good 4 hour push under good conditions, and I wanted to try and get to the restaurant early to possibly get a look in the kitchen. I was out the door by 6:15am, which is pretty early around these parts. Unfortunately, getting out of Madrid was tougher than anticipated. I got out of the city center fine, but getting onto the autopista del norte was the tricky part. Wrong directions, or bad driving on my part left me on the west of the city, when I wanted to go north. Finally, I asked a bus driver how to get to M-40, the belt freeway around Madrid, and he directed me to continue west. Then a good long endrun around the northwest portion of the city finally put me on the right track. Personally, I have found driving here to be very difficult. I do not recommend it.

Around Spain, you may see this roadside icon: the Osbourne Bull. It's an interesting story - it was originally advertising for a particular brand of brandy de Jerez, but it became adopted by many as a sign of Spanish pride. Not everyone, however. It's 14' high, and some of the placements are so eyecatching, you can see the bull from miles away, silhouetted against the horizon.


I guess this would be the Christmas tunnel. Har har. Sorry.


Ironically enough, even though I had trouble getting to this point and beyond, at least the roads and road signs are more consistently marked up here in the mountains of Pais Vasco. The road from this vista was on the map as G632, but in fact it is labeled G636 on the road. One of the frustrations while driving in Spain was having to stop so often to ask for directions, am I going the right way, etc. I imagine even Spaniards would have to do the same if they weren't in their home area. I started to look at it like a slowly tightening spiral - just get close to this area, then ask for directions. Then get closer, and ask for directions. Go past it, ask for directions, come back. Very time consuming.


Our destination today (you're with me, right?) is Asador Etxebarri, in Axpe, near Atxondo. Those are pronounced et-che-barrr-ee, in AHZH-peh or some people say ATCH-peh, near Ah-tchon-do. Yeah. Euskera, the Basque language, is a little tricky. Fascinating, though. It's not a romance language, it's roots go back further and with less outside influences than either Spanish or French.

Here's more scenery from the back of the restaurant. From what I gather, the climate in this valley is often like this - clouds over the valley soften the light, and little shards of sunlight cut through from time to time. It's like living in a lightbox. From my table during the meal, I watched a small herd of sheep move from one corner of their pasture to the other, all under this surreal glow.


More pix and notes to come.... Clicky >>

I arrived a little over 2 hours later than I had originally wanted, but oh well. Naturally, I got the lunchtime tasting menu. The first course is a simple garlic soup. However, it had a very concentrated jamon broth as it's foundation. With chunks of tender ham skin, cooked to the point of being gelatinous, and copious amounts of garlic, cooked slowly to be mellow and sweet. A couple sat down a few tables away, and the fellow was vegetarian, but didn't eat shellfish, so I'm guessing Jewish. Well, he asked all the right questions except, is the soup made with ham. He asked two different people, is this vegetarian, they said, "No meat" because there wasn't any actual meat in the soup. Just a super rich ham stock and chunks of skin. He ate it. When I discretely asked the waitress about it, she said, "Ah, it's just a little ham..." I'm pretty sure he'll never have any "meat free" soup as tasty as this one!


This is a ball of fresh mozzarella, pickled rhubarb and a few microgreens. Squeaky texture, well salted, not my favorite. Rhubarb was great.


I added a foie gras course. Housemade foie terrine, caramelized pear, pear puree, toast. Excellent.


A crouton with a lightly cured sardine on top. Salted, but balanced by the natural sweetness of the fish. Or there may have been some added sweetness in the curing process.


These are berberechos, berberetxos, or cockles. Most like a clam, but meatier, and the shell is ridged, rather than smooth like a clamshell. The sauce is very minimal, citrus, parsley, olive oil, but there was something yellow or orange in there as well. Maybe tomato pulp or a less sweet orange?


Beautifully fresh and beautifully cooked lobster, tomalley intact. Nice flavor from the grill. For shellfish on the grill, the fire should be very hot, and a little char on the shell gives a very particular aroma and flavor. As I ate the lobster, the olive oil had taken on the color and flavor of the shell. Succulent!


Here is an egg yolk warmed via natural hardwood smoke, covered in truffle, in some sort of puree. Maybe a thin potato puree. The yolk of an egg is already a natural emulsion, so it's the original, natural sauce. Eggs and truffles are a classic combination. The subtle smoke adds a wonderful layer of complexity. In my opinion, it's also unusual to have any smoke element with truffles, except bacon, because normally chefs want the truffles to be the star of the dish. But it is delicious.


This is one of the Basque specialties - kokotxas, or ko-ko-chahss. It's the tongue and chin from the fish called hake. It is cooked very slowly so that it all turns to gelatin. There are a few threads of meat running thru the chin, but it's all about the gelatinous texture. The sauce I believe is a gelatinous fish stock, parsley, and olive oil, emulsified.


Here is a piece of mackerel, carefully cooked, with parsley sauce and braised celery. I'm not a fan of saying, "That was the best mackerel I've had in my life." It might be true for that person, but it depends on the life that they've had. I bet this would be the best mackerel that almost anyone would have ever had. If mackerel is overcooked it gets dry, despite it being an oily fish. Here there is no aspect of dryness, and so the oil of the fish is just flavorful and luxurious in the mouth. Celery was subtle in flavor but tender and pleasant to eat.


Iberico pork tartare, seasoned as chorizo. Yes, raw pork. Just barely warmed. The aroma from the fire reinforcing the smoke in paprika. Being warm, the pork releases some of its fat, resulting in a very rich mouthfeel.


This is the chuleta, or bone-in New York steak, almost tataki style (just seared). I've seen on TV that during service, they have several fires going at once, perhaps different woods (he was a forestry service ranger at one time) to be able to achieve different effects, depending on how they want to cook the item.

Note that no juice is running on the plate. It's been carefully cooked, and carefully rested. Note also that the fat that normally surrounds the steak on the bottom has been removed after cooking - probably very charred, but intentionally so. I like a good rare steak, but this was blue. I gather that this is common at many restaurants here. But the meat was warm as well, so I think they must sear it well on one side and rest it on something just warm, like 120 degrees F. Like a dry sous vide. Or maybe sous vide, then sear, but that seems unlikely. The chew is different, and definitely the juice from the steak keeps coming. As throughout the meal, the amount of salt was superb.


Part of the story of Etxebarri is that the chef grew up in a time where people in this area still cooked all their meals on wood burning stoves. So everything has either the taste or aroma or impression of fire and/or smoke. Mealtime means fire and smoke. Even desserts have influence from the fire. This one is usually called smoked milk ice cream, but it's actually more like ice milk - much less fat than ice cream. Still smooth and silky, but it doesn't coat the palate. It's there and then it's gone. Very sophisticated, I think. And the smokiness doesn't overwhelm it - if you didn't know what it was, you might think it was flavored with nuts or something. The red was strawberry sauce.


Finally, a mini Savarin (cake) in syrup with vanilla bean ice cream. Simple and delicious.


Please take my comments on all of these meals with a grain of salt, since I will have only visited there one time and eaten one series of dishes on one particular day. The manipulation of the ingredients is very minimal here, someone might think, what's the big deal, he's just grilling a steak with salt and pepper? True, most people have experienced great food from a wood fire - maybe your father cooked a great steak on your 12th birthday, or you went to the beach and grilled lobsters when you were 8 years old and you ate a whole lobster by yourself, etc. In a sense, many items here are within reach of a home cook. I think the difference is everything here is cooked with precision and intent. They consider, what is the best quality of this ingredient that we can present, and how do we cook it to exemplify that.

I don't want to overstate it, but the result is like eating in one meal, the best grilled food you've ever had, maybe from different parts of your life, plus more and better grilled food than you've ever had in your life. One course recalls eating grilled chorizos while camping, the next is something new, the next course recalls going on a road trip to find barbecued oysters, then dad's prize steak. To me, to be able to evoke memory and emotion (especially without gimmickery or pretense) through a meal is a great accomplishment. It is no small task to travel to Etxebarri, (take the train or bus) but I'm glad I did it.

March 07, 2012

Surgical Strike: Madrid

Okay, no time to waste: today I'm hustling up to Madrid to break up the driving to Pais Vasco from Valencia. Valencia to Madrid is about 360km or 224 miles. Then tomorrow Madrid to Axpe for lunch (up in the mountains) and then on to Donostia/San Sebastian is about 600 km, or 373 miles total. Good thing I got unlimited mileage! Otherwise, I would have been looking at a surcharge of 0,49 euro per km, separate from and on top of gasoline, which would have been prohibitive.

The same day as the shots at the Mercado Central, I packed up at the pension and went to the car to leave. I had gotten a good parking spot, because even though it was 15 blocks from the pension, it was a white zone, meaning unrestricted parking - I could have left it there for a week. They're desireable, so as I was packing up, a couple asked if they could have it. So I said sure, but can I ask you for directions to L'Albufera? The directions went something like this, but in Spanish.

"L'Albufera? Hmmm. Okay. Okay, go out here, straight thru the roundabout, then turn right at the Grand Boulevard. Okay? So you're gonna turn right, okay? Okay. Then you go, you go, you go, es-straight, for a long time. Okay. Then you are looking for a sign for Salou. Turn a right. Okay? Okay, then follow that, you're gonna pass the Museum of the Sciences on your left, okay. Follow the signs for Salou, and that takes you to the highway. Okay? Okay. It's a easy. Okay. Good. Have a nice trip. Okay." Replace okay with "vale" for the more authentic flavor.


L'Albufera means lagoon, which is a body of water separated from the ocean by a strip of land. The albufera south of Valencia is saltwater, and is a bird sanctuary, wetlands, natural preserve. It's a birdwatching destination, and people go camping and recreating, lots of bicyclists, etc. The flats around the Albufera are the rice growing areas for Valencia, which takes great pride in it's rice and rice cuisine. I missed taking a picture of the actual Albufera. These is pretty much what the fields look like at this time of year. I saw some that were closer to being planted, they had been irrigated and lines plowed in. Although Valencia is on the Med and further south, it's still a bit chilly at night.


There are a few towns along this strip, and I guess this is where Valencianos would have a little beach condo or something to come down to during the summer. Now, it's deserted. Like post-apocalypse deserted. Little bit creepy.


Flying the Heirloom LA colors!! Standing in the Med! Forgot how to use my self-timer!


More pix and notes after the jump! Clicky-

For the wine geeks, everything is still dormant, but what appear to be the cherry blossoms have bloomed (the tree covered in white - complete guess on my part), so the first buds are probably pretty close. Note also the traditional low style of training the vines, meaning to maintain and harvest is backbreaking work. But old vines usually mean big flavor. And by the way, it's gorgeous here. The picture looks a little warped, but it's because the slope goes up and back to the right.


Once I arrived in Madrid, there's about 2 1/2 hours that I lost by being lost. I took the right exit, but then Madrid has these tunnel on-ramps directly to freeways. Great if you wanna get out of the city. But in my case, before I knew what was happening, I was on a freeway west, and the first exit was about 3 km away from where I wanted to be. So, I try to find a main street or something to get back to the city center, but I'm far enough out that there aren't even signs for city center, it's more like suburbia. Finally, I stop to buy a better map, but they only have a regional map, without much detail. I find a policeman who gives me the whole speech about, it's very difficult to drive in the city, you're better off leaving your car here and taking the bus or a taxi. I'm sorry, I have to have the car, I know it's not smart, but how do I get there?

It went something like this, in Spanish, "Okay, go down this alley, and take the third exit from the roundabout, go left. Okay? To the left! Okay, follow that, it's gonna turn left and go down the hill. Okay. There's a freeway on-ramp there, but you can't turn onto it from there, okay? You go past it, turn around, but there's no roundabouts. You have to turn into a neighborhood, turn around and come back? Okay? Okay. Then turn right onto the autovia. Okay. Then take the same exit, follow the signs and good luck. Okay? When you get near Plaza Mayor, just park it the first place you can, and walk the rest. Next time, don't drive. Okay? Good luck. You're welcome. Okay." Thanks, officer.

From this point, I got into the city, but still had another hour or so trying to get close enough to the old city center to drop the car. It was quite an afternoon, and again I felt foolish as my already short time in Madrid was being wasted. I did see just about everything you can see from a car, though. Trade-offs, I guess.

I got cleaned up and I had some time to kill before my reservation for dinner, at 10:30pm! Conveniently, there was a location of Museo del Jamon right on my street. This is a little bocadillo of jamon iberico bellota (the acorn fed ham) with tomato. It's an amazing sandwich, but it's hard to taste the subtleties of the ham, so I ended up taking it apart. Still tasty. This location of MDJ is small, and they didn't have much of a selection from the deli area. Prices were way jacked up. Touristy. And they just didn't seem that helpful, even eavesdropping on other Spanish customers.


My pension was right behind this stylish market called Mercado de San Miguel. It's been updated and has a few token food stalls, but the emphasis is more on wine, tapas, and the social aspect. Beautiful local people and tourists alike, a tapas crawl in a food court. But nice. Really good energy in here. Probably there's better tapas in the surrounding neighborhood, but this one is just sexier.


One thing I've been thinking about is, what happens to all the trimmings from the ham? What happens to the rest of the pig? It's so expensive that I've always saved the scraps, boiled it for stocks, made soups out of it, etc. But even it a little store, the volume of scraps must be a lot, because they have many hams that they're slicing from at any one time. Well, somebody must have thought the same thing but back at the slaughterhouse, because these claim to be bellota fed, pata negra chicharron and meaty chicharron (has a thin strip of meat and fat attached to the chicharron, made from the belly area - it looks like the C shape on the upper right). It's definitely an industrial product, like this all occurs in a factory, it looks too perfect, definitely machine cut, machine fried. But it's good and cheap - 2 euro for a big cone. Kind of a rip off that they charge extra for sauces, though.


Montaditos are usually on baguette, but one of the shops just has these pullman toasts with little toppings for 1 euro each, about US$1.35. Left to right these are mojama (semi-dried tuna loin) with olive oil and marcona almond, vetresca de atun (conserved tuna loin), and their version of pulpo a la Gallega (octopus with paprika, Galicia-style). They're all pretty, but not to my taste. Mojama is kind of semi-dry, so it's not quite jerky - it's like gummy jerky. Other tuna they didn't really do anything to it. And the octopus itself was okay, but to try and eat it with this sandy bread was not appealing. The toast is just a little to dry, and the toppings I chose are too dry. I guess the ones like bacalao in mayo might have been better.


The main event tonight is Restaurante Botin (bo-TEEN). Botin holds the Guiness world record as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world, founded in 1725. The house specialty is cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig. I again had to get out of town early the next day to drive up north, so I stopped in to see if I could slip into an early table, and they were able to accomodate me. Nice for me. Having already had a few snacks, I just went straight for the real deal. It's quite an operation there, three floors, everything old but in good condition. History. Actual history. Tradition. Pride. Not fake nostalgia, faux distressed finish, manufactured oldness BS.

The roast pig did not disappoint. And I had high expectations! They had me at roast suckling pig. As with all pig, it's all about the skin. The skin of suckling pig is much thinner than an older one, so the crunch is much more delicate, and they have it down pat. It's a marvel. And the particular piece I got is right in front of the shoulder joint on the left, and the first few ribs on the right. Perfect for me. I got a little bit of the start of the belly, some of the shoulder. Incredibly juicy. Like a chicken that's been brined and fried exactly right, but it's pork - milder than most pork, since it's so young. But juicy. Hard to imagine it being any better than this. The seasoning is minimal, just salt, garlic, and a little paprika on the inside. Probably nothing but salt on the outside skin. Seriously. Winner. There's also a couple of fried potatoes on the plate, and some pan juices. The pan juices I think they doctor up a bit more. They also have other sides a la carte like a steakhouse.

I guess if you're a PMI (Persona Muy Importante) or a large table, you can get the whole cochinillo brought to the table, and they show you how tender it is and how crisp the skin is by "carving" it up with the side of an ordinary dinner plate. The skin shatters and the bones just release. It's sort of a one dish restaurant, although they have filet mignon and some appetizers. Pretty much every person at every table gets this. And it comes out fast, the waiters are just serving plates of cochinillo all over the restaurant. The kitchen must just have them rolling all night. And it all looks just as good as mine, golden, crispy, juicy. Very impressive and memorable. Highly recommended!


Early out tomorrow. Good night.

March 05, 2012

A Valencia!

Note: I'm falling behind on the blogging, so just FYI, I"m putting these back in chronological order, on the day which they occurred, rather than the date that I'm writing them. Thanks! ~Tad

As I mentioned in the last post, I'm tasting a beer developed by Ferran Adria called Inedit, which I believe means Uncut. It has a similar profile to a Belgian white such as Hoegaarden, but a little more subtle, a touch of citrus, a bit of creamyness, and lighter carbonation. The website refers to barley, wheat, orange, cilantro, and licorice. I enjoyed it, but there are lots of good beers out there.


Here's the sunrise on the day of driving to Valencia. I really enjoyed being in Tarragona, maybe next time I'll actually see all those Roman ruins and whatnot...


The autovia (highway) is over a mountain pass, so it's quite windy, and there are modern windmill farms. It's hard to tell from this photo, but this windsock was s t r a i n i n g at it's tether.


More pix and notes below ...

Some of the mountains to the West. BTW, taking these pictures from a moving car with one hand while also driving is really dumb, I do not recommend it.


The Banco de Valencia building downtown.


There was some sort of fireworks festival going on, and the police were not letting cars into the inner part of the city, which is where my pension was located. So after about 90 minutes of trying to get close and failing, I just parked about 15 blocks away and walked. Then I had to wait for the host to come to drop off the keys, he said 20 minutes, but it was actually an hour and twenty. So I was quite frustrated, my already short time in Valencia was just being wasted. Then when I asked for the wi-fi password, he said, "Oh, eesa no working. A guy eesa coming tomorrow at 9am, okay?" Well, I almost lost it. We had a few words about it, and he said, "Eesa on me. You no pay. I don want you have a bad feeling in Valencia. Okay?" Ordinarily I would have paid anyway, but this time, I just said thank you and bought him a bottle of wine.

My pension for the night was near the Mercado Central, but I arrived later than expected, so I saved it for the next day. Here I found some empanadillas and a pastel de calabasa. Valencianos have an affinity for pumpkin for some reason - there are pumpkin doughnut stands everywhere, and the little one is a little turnover with a sweetened pumpkin filling. The empanadillas are like empanadas, except they are made with puff pastry rather than regular pastry dough. The one on the left is sobrasada, the spreadable, cured sausage, or the other is pisto, which is tuna, tomato, bell pepper and onions. Great idea, but not my favorite.


Sometimes I just choose poorly, and this was one of those. It was recommended in a guidebook, the place looked kinda cool, and it's themed for the Fellini movie 8 1/2. This is a stale montadito of anchovy, caviar, tomato and quail egg. A montadito is a type of tapa served on a piece of bread, usually it's some sort of mayonaisse-ey salad mounded up on the piece of bread. This just had been sitting around too long and too salty overall. Color looks weird because of a yellowish lightbulb overhead.


Here is their octopus done carpaccio style, with thinly sliced cooked octopus, tomato, arugula, balsamic reduction, and hazelnuts. This actually was pretty good hazelnuts and octopus were suprisingly good together, but not my style, and the proportions were off. Plus, it's like wannabe Italian food. I paid and left.


I wandered around a bit and came across this little place called El Cato, which I believe is "the Tasting". Of course, being in Valencia for only a day, I was looking for a good version of Paella Valenciana. First off, I got house cured anchovies, which were marinated with salt and vinegar and olive oil. Much fresher than anything from a can, but strong and fishy in a good way.


Then they suggested the puntillos, which are the smallest size of calamari, an inch or less long, simply dusted and fried. The chipirrones are kind of a medium size, their bodies about 3" long, then after that they're just calamari. They're so small that they haven't really developed a quill yet, so they're eaten whole.


Next up is a Basque sausage called txistorra, here cooked with hard apple cider. For me, the apple flavor is a little confusing, but it is nice that it's a little acidic, and it helps cut the richness of the sausage.


Here is their Paella Valenciana. According to their chef Jose, a traditional version just has chicken, possibly a few chunks of pork, garrofon (large, creamy whitebeans), sofrito (aromatics + tomato) and chicken stock. Jose was also tending bar that night, so I got to ask him all my "what is a proper paella" questions. He knows his stuff and shared some of his knowledge with me. It was great to see the native Valencia pride as he talked at length about different varieties of rices, cooking times, risotto v. paella, his whole mise en place for five kinds of paella, cooking over fire v. cooking on a stove, etc. Thanks, Chef Jose!


Stands like this are all around town, selling fresh churros, doughnuts, and most also have pumpkin doughnuts (bunuelos de calabaza), though this one didn't. The bunuelos have a very wet, sticky dough, almost like a batter.


After a few hours of shut eye, got motivated to get over to the market as the sun rises... I had already decided to buzz over to Madrid for a day (I know, not long enough) so I needed to get an early start to drive to Madrid.


The stick shaped pastry is called a farton. Yes, farton. Emphasis on the o. Valencianos like to drink orxata (a cold drink made from chufa, or tiger nuts) and dip this in the orxata. This orxata is similar to Mexican horchata made from rice milk. The other round pastry is a less than satisfying mini-ensaimada. Note the appearance of the mini-ensaimada.


The next time you go to your friendly neighborhood cephalopod stand, compare these offerings. Full size cuttlefish, or sepia. Reproductive organs A in the middle and B in the pan on the upper right, normal sized calamari, and baby octopus. When I asked the shopkeep what the middle ones were, she said, "huevos de sepia". And the other ones on the upper right? "The same." she said. I have labelled for you what I think they are using some advanced biological terminology.


Sobrasada is usually associated with Mallorca, an island on the Med side of Spain. It's a soft textured sausage, cured, but remains spreadable. On the left, is the more common size, about that of a small loaf of bread. On the right is a large format version, prob 13" across at the widest part.


Here is what I feel to be a proper ensaimada. It is a pastry, where the dough is stretched thinly, covered with some sort of oil (traditionally it's lard, but today it's probably vegetable shortening), sometimes with a line of some cooked apple filling, then rolled up into a rope, and then COILED up like a spiral. It's similar to a laminating process, and also similar to making roti paratha. But anyway, the little flakes and voids here are clues to it's correct texture. If it looks like bread inside, with a network of holes, to me it's not a good ensaimada.


Valencia oranges?!? Hey, this is Valencia! They got 'em everywhere, even as street trees, and this is when they bear the most fruit.


Next, on to Madrid.

March 04, 2012

Sleepy Sunday in Tarragona

I needed to finally kick jet lag, and it's so gorgeous here, I decided to stay another night.

Also, I'd like to thanks Matt and Tara for everything, but specifically because they're loaning me their smaller camera, and I'm using it exclusively. Among other things, my camera doesn't do nearly as well in low light, and since most of my food shots are indoors, I just take their camera for everything. I think it does a great job with all the other pix also. There's a lot less tweaking to do before I post, so that helps speed things along for blogging purposes. I also tried a few of those stitch panorama shots and a short video that I can put up later. I'm going to start saving up for one...after I pay this trip off!

Sun coming up over the Med.

There's a large modern cargo seaport here, as well as a small local fishing fleet, so I decided to walk down to the harbor, even though it's Sunday. There was a little drum core and brass section getting ready for a parade, I'm guessing for Easter? The guys in front are carrying some kind of rack that's not decorated yet, it appears.


Different boats for different catches - this one of the left looks like crab or lobster traps, the ones with lights are for squid, I believe. They're attracted to the lights at night.

More pix and notes after the jump!

Chocolate covered cookies and fruit drink. Spain was...errr... very "influential" in the Philipines, although it's not considered a Latin country. That's all I got. Just wanted to show the Filipinos. They also have white Filipinos, with white chocolate. Insert your own Ilocano/Visayan joke here.


There's no plaque. This might be Caesar? Looks pretty old. Right hand has the scepter with the snakes. By the way, think about how far Rome is from here. To have conquered and held this area is pretty impressive.


Dear Internet,
please let someone see this who will import Crabbie's Ginger Beer to the US.


Alcoholic ginger beer, about the same as beer. In the old days, the only way to make something fizzy was to give it sugar and yeast and bottle it, like beer. All ginger beer used to have moderate amounts of alcohol, then they started carbonating it and it didn't have to be alcoholic anymore. But why would you want to? The fermenting gives it a little backbone besides sweetness, and they add other flavorings, probably lemon and something else. This is really tasty.


This is one of the pastries I got from the booth at the street fair yesterday- Forn Francesa. This one is made of strudel-type dough, pastry cream, pine nuts and chocolate drizzle. How could that be anything but excellent?


A storm blowing west over Spain.

Roman ruins. This apparently was part of a Roman circus, like Russell Crowe and chariots and Christians. Like history and stuff.

Around 4pm everything starts shutting down because this is a tourist area during the slow season, and it's Sunday. Bad timing on my part, I just started looking for a snack. I ended up at this chain called Viena. It's a Viennese themed place (there's some kind of Hapsburg connection there, right?), with espresso drinks, danish and croissant, and Spanish sandwiches. These are tiny little guys, like a small hot dog bun sized ficelle. The sausage one is xistorra (spicy) and Iberico ham. The Spanish eat well. For fast food, this blows the doors off of Panera or Subway or Togo's or any of that shite. And that's a mug of beer. Estrella Damm. It's a touch sweet and light, almost like the beer equivalent of a Coke, but it still tastes like beer. Damm Cerveses is the brewery, the also make Bock Damm, Free Damm (no alcohol), Inedit (the beer that Ferran and Albert Adria helped develop, I'm about to go to my room and taste it) and Limon Damm, which is 60% beer, 40% lemon drink. Insert your own Damm joke here.

Everything here is old. And cool.


This is the other item from Forn Francesa - puff pastry nut tart, with apricot jam as the base. Excellent.

Gonna try to get an early start tomorrow, back to the harbor to see some local fish, then down the coast to Valencia, then a quick stop in Madrid, then back up to Basque Country. I'm confirmed at all four of my four top choices for restaurants, so it should get pretty interesting up there.

March 03, 2012

Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!

After about seven self-inflicted smacks on the head, 45 minutes of complete panic, then grief, then acceptance, then another heart attack moment and a lot of bad words, I finally got a car and got out of Barcelona! I'll be back for a few days at the end before flying out.

I'll spare you the ugly details, I'll offer them as lessons learned and traveller's tips. Keeping it pos...

- Make your car rental arrangements before you leave the US.

-Advertised rates (Internet websites) are for local residents - Americans pay completely different rates because of Loss/Damage Waivers and "other considerations".

- Make your car rental arrangements convenient to the place where you want to actually pick up the car.

-Use an American car rental company, but go to their foreign website, ie instead of Avis.com, try Avis.es for Espana, Avis.fr for France, etc.

-Some foreign ATM's are allowed informational access to your account some are not. So some may let you check your account balance, SOME MAY SHOW BALANCE 0,00 Euro.

-Saving a few bucks by using public transit is fine, but it's also okay to take a cab sometimes.

-ALWAYS be nice to your car rental agent. She can let you pay five times as much or discount it AND give you unlimited kilometers for the entire rental.

-When driving solo in a foreign country, have a route picked out with autopista names(equivalent to I-5, I-10, etc) and city names. Tough to read a map and drive.

Having said all that, it is funny how lucky I am sometimes. Sometimes.

Se llama, Pussy Wagon. Or Nissan Note.

I got out of town, but was still hopped up on adrenaline and nervousness, so I pulled off to a rest stop. I found these items. Yes, that's Ruffles, SPANISH HAM flavor! Pretty good, actually, for being chips. They target local markets with local flavors, so I've had ones from Thailand, Japan, Mexico, Singapore and maybe others. And a self-heating cup of tea. Not that it stays warm, it gets itself warm from being cold. There are three compartments in this cannister - the tea, and two separate chemicals. When you want hot tea, you break a seal so they mix, and there's a mild exothermic reaction that warms the tea. Kinda like that one Die Hard movie. I haven't tried that one yet.


The title of this entry refers to the fact that Spain has a lot of roundabouts, which I haven't experienced very much. I'm figuring it out. Super convenient for making a U turn. The reference itself is from National Lampoon's European Vacation where they get stuck on the roundabout for a couple of hours....

Keep going! More pix after the jump.

Largest/best preserved Roman aqueduct in Catalunya. The Devil's Bridge. Tthe story goes, the maker of the bridge made a deal with the devil to build an aqueduct that would stand for a 1000 years and he could have the first soul to drink the water that flowed over it. They sent a donkey to drink the water, so by letter of the agreement, the Devil took the donkey's soul. Or something... Crafty Spanish lawyer/aqueduct builders or gullible civic engineer Devil?


Roger de Lluria is the street that my room was on last night, and it's also the name of the street that tonight's hotel is on, too. Must be important guy. Here's his statue.


Ibericus specializes in Spanish ham and sausage, many grades and types. There's tons of mom and pop shops doing that on a local basis but these guys have 12 locations all over Northern Spain, Kinda like Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf of ham and sausage.


Here's a half racion (portion) of each - Iberico cheese and Cinco Jotas Sanchez Ramirez Carbajal ham, which is the most prestigious one they carry in the shop. They sell it for about $150 per pound, which is approximately 7 times what an average Italian prosciutto would be in a gourmet shop in the US. Like any other premium good, it's based on all kinds of things in addition to the quality of the ham.


It's like walking around in a postcard here. Really beautiful.

Let me tell you something else about driving in Spain. You're driving, it's a cool looking old farmhouse, you're driving, it's gorgeous scenery, then WHAM, there's a fucking castle. A real fucking castle. With the city walls and everything. Sieges and catapults and jousts happened here. I think.

It's Saturday, and there was a early evening car show/craft fair/clothing sale on the local rambla (promenade). These ladies had amazing looking baked goods. Forn is bakery, Francesa is French lady. Coques is plural for coca, which is sometimes a plain, foccacia/ciabatta type bread, or in her case, she is making sweet ones, vegetable and anchovy ones, ones filled with meat, chocolate, etc. I got some treats to try tmr am.


Right across the way from her was a guy with amazing cured sausages. He was handing out samples with the "first hit is for free" strategy. He had a few sausages called Iberico extra or bellota extra, meaning it's meat from the prized pigs that they make the best hams with, which is still extra marbled and the bellota ones have been eating acorns, etc. Awesome. Also he had one called morcon which is like chorizo but with big chunks of meat mixed into the sausage, so it's like meat surrounded by meat flavored by meat. Also sobrasada de Mallorca, which is cured, but soft in texture, like Italian 'nduja - spreadable cured sausage. Rich and tangy and spicy and porky. All good things. Those white slab there are bacon made from Iberico pigs, which I believe is called salmado.


One thing I definitely wanted to do was attend a calcotada, a party where the featured item are special spring onions, grilled over fire (often grapevine clippings), then they're sealed up in coolers to steam themselves. They're eaten with either Romesco or sometimes salbixada, which is related but just adapted for calcots. The outer layers are peeled off (sometimes they leave the dirt on during cooking because it's discarded anyway. If they tried to wash them, it might push the dirt into the layers of the onion making it worse anyway. The proper form is to hold it by the green/charred top, swish it in the sauce and lower it into the mouth like a swordswallower, eating primarily the white portion of the onion.


The place I chose is called Restaurant Masia Bou it's price fixe, with the other courses being lamb chops and butifara sausage, potato, artichoke and canellini type beans. The weird part about this one is that a couple of different sources said this was the originator and best one. When I stopped in the town to ask for directions, this old drunk and the bartender got into a discussion about which one is better. So I thought, okay, at least the young guy is one more vote for this one, I'll go with this (most of the time in a situation like that I'd take the old grizzled guy's advice).

So I arrive, and it's empty. Lights are on, but no cars in the parking lot, no one in the restaurant. I walk in and it's just the waitress. I asked if they were open, if something is wrong, she said no, just no reservations tonight besides mine. Hmmmmmm... do I back out and go to the other place? She had a strange confidence even though she was a little embarassed that the place was empty. I mean crickets and tumbleweeds. They probably could seat 200 or 250 people at once if you count the outside areas. Yet I think I ended up being the ONLY person they served tonight. So I started thinking, well, I could stop by the other place and just get a small portion to try it.


Ultimately, it was more or less well prepared and tasty, so I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything. It's like festival food, not fine dining. The other place had about 10 cars in it, so maybe people are just thinking about Easter and futbol and whatever.

Thinking about staying in Terragona another day, then heading down to Valencia.

March 02, 2012

Moving. Grooving. Doin' it, you know?

Xocolate amb xurros from Dulcinea at the end of my street, just around the corner from the Santa Caterina farmer's market. Really dark chocolate, not as rich and sweet as the other one, which is better by me, but still a little too sweet for me, if you can believe it. Pretty much the best version I can imagine, don't get me wrong, it's delicious, but to me it's just too much like dessert first thing in the morning. Amy would probably put sugar in it. And cream. And then grab mine out of my hand. Ha ha. I do like the little loops. On that Mario Batali tour of Spain, they went to a place that just makes a continuous spiral and sends it out to you, like a large pizza size spiral of just fried xurro. Or actually, I think that one has a different name because it's crispier. I'm still down to find that!!


I moved to a new room today, because I had only planned to stay until this morning, but I just wasn't ready, and there's so much I can still do in Barcelona. Anyway, yet another pass thru la Boqueria. El Quim, which is a tapas/kitchen stall in the Boqueria was on my list, but they're on break for a couple of weeks. Hopefully I can catch them on my last days in Spain. These are live sea urchin - erizos - and whelks, or sea snails. Not sure of the local name.


In the middle, those little purplish things are percebes, which are barnacles. I haven't had them yet, but some people think they're one of the best things out of the ocean. You gotta be careful with that - people will tell you anything to make you try it - like it's good for your sex drive or it's unbelievably delicious. In the front are red gambas, behind the percebes are cigala - langoustines. You can tell because of the long claws, sometimes people call them Nordic lobster or Northern lobsters.


More pix and notes after the jump below...

Casa Mila, aka La Pedrera by Gaudi. Just a few blocks from my new room.


An exhibit of materials from El Bulli recently opened in Barcelona, and Anna was nice enough to remind me about it. I had seen some banners near the airport, but almost forgot about it. It's pretty cool - they got thru the whole history, then the transformation from grilled seafood shack and mini-golf course to best restaurant in the world. They have the original notebooks, handwritten, of all the dishes and techiniques they were inventing. A lot of that stuff seems passe now, but they invented/repurposed all of it. Super meticulous. Very inspiring. It seems like something they could make into a traveling exhibit, so it if comes near you, it's worth seeing. And by the way, Ferran pronouces it "el BOO-yee" which I've been saying wrong all these years, apparently.


My room for the night: quite an upgrade. Shared bathroom across the hall, but modern renovation & styling, a sink inside the room, TV, full swing windows, great location about 3 blocks from Placa Catalunya. Hostal BCN46. Further away from La Rambla, but I was ready for a change.


Finally got around to trying some cheeses I picked up at Formatgeria La Seu. All delicious. The Uff surprised me in a good way - a goat cheese in the washed rind style where they use beer to wash it and help give it complexity. Taaassssttttttyyy. I'm not the biggest goat cheese fan, but this was tangy in a way that wasn't so goaty...or less goat-forward... And this was pretty damn good for supermarket bread. There are so many little bakeries in the city, but none near my room. I apologize. I will do better.


Ok, so I'm a jerk. I made a bunch of reservations in Pais Basco, but not so much in Barcelona. I probably could have spent more lead time doing that, because again, a place I had planned to go to was tiny and I couldn't get in - it's called Gresca. Totally my fault. Anyway, the other spots I've been looking at were in the other direction, and I didn't feel like scrambling around all night, so I just asked the hostess for something she recommended in the area. Which turns out to be really enjoyable. Restaurant Osmosis. It's the kind of place that almost every cook talks about opening - like about 50 seats, I'll change the menu all the time based on what's best at the market, not too expensive so people can come all the time, casual dress, but feels plush inside, just a small list of good wines, etc.

Chips, Kalamata olives, and spiced Sicilian olives. No Spanish olives??!? Whaaa...?!?

Bread service. Good bread, local olive oil from Tarragona, maldon fleur de sel, Hawaiian black sea salt, and Himalayan rock salt, plus some other oil for comparison. They charge 1 euro for this, (about US$1.35) which is totally fine by me. Nice to have some salting options during the meal, too.


Foie gras mi cuit with apple and vanilla. That's a not unsmall, meaning good sized block of cooked and molded foie gras on top of a wafer. I loves the foie. My only comment is that it was straight out of the fridge cold. And it needed salt, but I had 3 nice salts to choose from.


They should have sent me the carrot cream/pumpkin soup dish here, but they juggled it by mistake. This is Risotto Milanese with llengua de bou and camagrocs mushrooms. Llengua de bou means bull's tongue (just the Catalan name of the mushroom) and the camagrocs look like thinner chanterelles. Fresh shelled peas, good Parmigianno-Regiano. Nicely done, if a bit traditional ... to Italy.


Monkfish with sepieta (baby cuttlefish), artichokes and asparagus. Nicely cooked, great sauce, which was like a sweet garlic cream something. Maybe green garlic.


Carrot cream, pumpkin soup, bacon, and sausage chip. Really well made, velvety soup, my guess is they emulsified the bacon fat in it and strained it at least twice. Smoooooth. The carrot cream was down in the bowl with the bacon and the chip in it, then they poured the soup at the table. The chip was good, the bacon didn't do much, but overall a great soup course.


Crispy pig back with licorice. You had me at crispy pig back. It's from a suckling pig, which they refer to as cochinillo. Different than the one that's famous in Madrid, though. There's some truffled potato puree holding that stack of fried potatoes together. The pork could have actually been a little crispier. I also had to figure out for myself that the dust on the plate is the licorice, so my first few bites had no licorice flavor. But it was delicious.


Mango sorbet, pineapple chip, raspberry ice, passionfruit sauce, fresh mango. Mango, pineapple and passionfruit must be in season somewhere...


Chocolate trio, closest is Bailey's ice cream with cookie crunch, tequila and sponge cake in a chocolate shot glass, and a ball with chocolate ice milk inside - eaten in one bite. I make fun of the brush, but I guess it looks cool at times. Not my favorite course, but B- for effort.


I enjoyed it, it was like a comfy neighborhood restaurant where they do some stuff to keep things interesting, and you'd go back every few months for a good meal. I get it that not everyone in Spain has to make Spanish food. But if you say you're market driven, use the market, chef.

Tomorrow I'm getting out of Dodge!! I'm not sure what my Internet access situation will be like, so there may be some radio silence...

March 01, 2012

Got the Bull by the Tail

Semi-obligatory picture of the entrance to the Boqueria. Note the official name of the market on the sign.


Gambas rojas (red shrimp) from the plancha, olive oil, grey salt. Done. Delicious. Pinotxo Bar. Ordered pan con tomate to wipe up the oil and juice.


Navajas (razor clams), same treatment, plus a splash of water for steam. Awesome.


More pix!! Continued after the jump!

Capiputo, a stew of veal and veal breast, maybe a little pork belly, with some zucchini, eggplant and a couple of grapes. Rich, super-reduced gravy with lots of gelatin. Excellent.


Same kind of ensaimada as yesterday, but bruleed face down on the plancha with sugar for the crunchy brulee effect. Over the top.


Breezed through the Carrefour supermarket location. Took this photo of part of the ham/sausage section.


Walked over to the Mercat Santa Caterina. A little calmer and a lot cleaner. Fewer tourists. Similar levels of quality.

Walked thru the Sant Pere neighborhood toward the Arc del Triomf. These are xuxos, or xiuxos (chu-chohs), a little pastry cream inside, these were fried and miniature sized. Sometimes they are baked and look more flaky, like a croissant type of dough, pastry cream inside, sugared outside. I saw one at Bar Pinotxo that looked almost like a kouign amann, but in tube form.


The Arc del Triomf. Sorry, I don't know which triomf it was built for. Very cool and very impressive as a public space.


Outside the sciences museum and park, there's a 2 or 3 block long water feature.


I hadn't really noticed how cramped and claustrophobic I had been feeling until I got to this part of town. The streets opened up a little, and there's more public space. A few trees make a huge difference.


Considered going into the Picasso museum, but didn't think I had enough time. Stopped at Formatgeria La Seu at Anna's suggestion. Great cheeses, great lady. I took a photo, but I neglected to ask for permission first. She seemed a bit peeved, so I won't put it up. Worth a stop if you love cheese. She works directly with farmers and cheesemakers, so her supplies vary based on the seasons and whims of cheesemakers. Closed for all of August and the first part of September every year.

I got my phone unlocked at a little shop, so I now have a cell phone to use! No email on the phone, though. Later, I picked up an afternoon snack. This little shop has been at the corner of this placa since the 1950's or something. These are a little more elaborate than a lot of the sandwich places around BCN. This one is sausage and calcots (spring onions, now in season).


For dinner, I knew I didn't have much of a shot, but I went by 41 degrees, which is owned by Albert Adria. First time on the BCN metro, easy peasy. The reservations are hard to come by and they only have 31 seats or something. Tickets is also their restaurant right next door, which is larger, but again booked up like crazy. Upon opening the door to 41 degrees, the first face I saw was Albert's, so he's definitely there running the show.

Foiled at that plan, I went to plan B. This morning at breakfast I was sat there (ha!) next to a local couple and asked them if there were any restaurants they'd recommend. They suggested Vinya Roel on Carrer de Villarroel in the Esquerra Eixample area. Much swankier than I expected, very modern decor, plus a wine shop. You can buy any bottle and they'll open it up to serve it for dinner for just a few euro. Pretty good deal for wine people. Here's a half order of Salamancan bellota ham, fried artichokes, romesco sauce, and coca del Maresme (basically pan con tomate on a special thin bread - it's the best form of bread for this, I think). Closest to ciabatta with very open, irregular crumb structure, but very crisp on the bottom.


Calcots (cal-sohts) are in season now, they're onions that are mounded up in a special way when they are planted, so the onions grow in a big bunch. They have a much taller white section than say, regular green onions, and not really any bulb. They look almost like leeks or Tokyo negi. There's a outdoor party/cookout called a calcotada where people grill the onions, then wrap them up and put them in a cooler to steam. Then everybody stands around, swishes the onions in romesco sauce or salvixada sauce, and lowers the onions into their mouths in one piece. This is a take on that, except they're battered and deep fried, and I ate it with a knife and fork. Still would like to go to one of those parties, though.


This is a single scallop, cooked on the plancha, with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper. Still has the coral attached, and it was still attached to the shell. I suppose so the diner knows that it's a diver scallop, not just a scallop cooked and put onto a shell.


Braised Oxtail with pearl onions and champignon mushrooms (button mushrooms). Pretty much like Beef Bourginogne, but I imagine they used Spanish wine and oxtail instead of stew meat. Excellent.

My lame joke of the day is that Barcelona's mascot is the bull, and I had oxtail for dinner, thus the title of the entry. I regret it, but it's a tiny bit more interesting than Barcelona Day 3.

Tomorrow, I have to decide if I'm leaving town and driving around for a bit before San Sebastian/Donostia. Thanks for reading!!