Monday, March 30, 2009

Teena's Pride CSA

For those who are late to the boat for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), it's not too late. Teena's Pride Farms, with a big assist from Sunset Corners wine & liquor store, did a successful four-week CSA "test program" and is now signing up additional participants for another four-week round. The idea of a CSA is to create a direct relationship between farmer and consumer - the buyer commits to buy a season's worth of produce (shortened here), and the farmer delivers what's fresh and plentiful each week to a central pick-up location. Teena's Pride is supplying the veggies, and Sunset Corners (in South Miami at 8701 Sunset Drive) has volunteered to use its store and its walk-in as the distribution site.

According to Teena's, a typical full share would include:

A box of arugula
3-4 bags of fresh herbs (i.e: chives, cilantro, lemon grass, oregano, thyme, and on and on)
½ lb salad spring mix
4-6 hydroponic bell peppers
4 hot peppers
2 lbs vine ripe heirloom tomatoes
2 boxes mini tomatoes (red and yellow teardrop and sungold)
2 lbs regular tomatoes

Here are the details. All arrangements need to be made directly with Teena's (don't call Sunset):

A four week’s full vegetable share: $160.00 ($40 a week), prepaid to Teena’s
A four week half vegetable share: $100.00 ($25 a week), prepaid to Teena’s
PICK UP: Every Thursday after 1pm at Sunset Corners and before 9pm
LATEST PICK UP: Friday 9pm, after that you lose your share
THE SEASON: April 9th, 16th, 23rd, 30th
(I am not going to post Teena's contact info here to avoid potential spamming, but if you are interested send me an email and I'll get it to you).

All orders must be placed by Tuesday, April 7th.

Pork Pirates? - Please.

Miami New Times gets all up in arms this week over pig farmers in Miami-Dade County slaughtering and butchering their own pigs. Almost all of the article's sturm and drang is over the fact that these farmers (illegally) kill their own pigs for customers, replete with graphic and dramatic descriptions of the process ("the animals are killed like Mafia capos"; "The air is acrid with the twin aromas of blood and shit"). The only thing missing is to name one of the pigs "Wilbur."

Ironically, the description of the slaughtering and butchering process is almost exactly like what is described as happening in the slaughterhouses down the street - the animal is shot between the eyes with a heavy-caliber pistol (the slaughterhouses instead use an electric stun gun), then immediately the throat is slit, the pig is bled, scalded, shaved, and hung, and organs and hooves are removed. According to the article, the whole process takes 20 minutes. At the slaughterhouse? "They follow national slaughter guidelines requiring that hogs be stunned by an electric bolt and that their necks be quickly slit. The carcasses are then hung upside-down and drained of blood." So what's your preference - bullet or stun gun? Paper or plastic? Yes, it's a gruesome business, but it always is.

The alarmist tone of the article is perhaps best demonstrated by this little nugget, describing a police raid on a farm in west Kendall - "among the meat found in refrigerators was what appeared to be neatly packaged horse flesh." (Gordon Ramsay would be proud.) A full 600 words later it's revealed that "what appeared to be horse meat was found by inspectors to be beef." Well - that sort of changes things a bit, doesn't it?

While getting all worked up over the fact that they're killing pigs on the farm (which, of course, is exactly what they're raised for), the article fails to shed much light on several questions that might be of greater concern: (1) are the animals well-tended? (there are suggestions, but no evidence at all, that pigs are fed slaughtered pigs' entrails, but otherwise no information at all on their living conditions); (2) are there health issues? (not according to "state food safety chief" Dr. John Fruin, who said "If a piece of meat is properly cooked, even from an illegal slaughter operation, there's not much risk"); (3) are there environmental issues? (no explanation at all of what the farmers are doing to dispose of waste, nor, for that matter, how it compares to what the legal slaughterhouses are doing).

Look, there's not much reason to believe any of these farmers are artisans inspired by Michael Pollan's boar hunt and his channeling of Ortega y Gasset as described in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (although one of them does claim to be raising feral hogs). But - absent further information not elucidated by the article - this hardly seems like the greatest danger to our local foodways. Indeed, notwithstanding the drama, I suspect the more common reaction is going to be "Where can I get some?" rather than "How horrible!"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo - Barcelona

Paco Meralgo had a few things going for it before we'd even stepped through the door: (1) it was close to our hotel in the Eixample neighborhood; (2) it was open on Monday, when many restaurants in Spain are closed; and (3) its name appealed to my fondness for wordplay ("comer algo," hidden within "Paco Meralgo", means "to eat something").

The restaurant has a clever layout, basically mirror-imaged food bars on either side of a workspace for the staff, with one side being a smoking section and the other non-smoking. Each side has additional counter seating around the edges of the walls, with several small tables scattered throughout. The decor is simple and minimalist, with painted brick walls and blocky blond wood tables and stools. Indeed, the primary "decoration" is at the food bar itself, which houses a magnificent selection of seafood, including fantastically colorful bright red gambas on ice in a big bowl and lots of other little delicacies under a sushi-bar style glass countertop fridge, including beautiful scallops with their roe still attached, and some of the biggest oysters I've ever seen.

The menu (available in several languages) had a long list of mostly tapas-style options, with a strong focus on the seafood items decorating the bar. We started off with what was the best pan con tomate I've ever had. I know it seems almost silly to get excited over something so simple and ubiquitous - but this was great. The bread was crisp and toasty but still permeated with the juice of sweet ripe tomatoes, enhanced with an assertive but not overwhelming whiff of garlic, and generously drizzled with some really good olive oil. We accompanied that with a plate of some very nice jamon iberico.

Zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella were nicely fried; though I enjoyed the gooey, stringy mozzarella, I usually prefer a lighter cheese with these so as not to overhwelm the delicate blossoms. The croquetas filled with fish and seafood also showed a deft hand at the fryer. The best thing we had, though, came from that ostentatious display of seafood at the bar. "Berberechos" translates as cockles, a small, round-shelled clam. Simply heated on the plancha and sprinkled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, these were absolutely delicious. They were fresh, briny, plump, and more tender than any other clam I've had.

We had a couple misses as well. The Catalan-style beans brought young favas, still in their fuzzy outer shell, cooked with bits of pork and a big slice of black sausage; I didn't love the texture of the beans, and an herbal presence (mint?) seemed out of place. A tortilla with artichoke, instead of being the thick frittata-like slab we'd anticipated, instead was a skinny, almost crepe-like omelette. We would have done better ordering the artichoke on its own, as we saw several people happily chomping on the fried artichokes.

We closed out with a classic, a crema catalana. Their version was happily creamy, dense and eggy, my only gripe being that the brûléed topping was perhaps taken just a bit too far and had a slightly charred taste to it.

This was a nice casual place that still obviously takes its food plenty seriously, which is a nice combination. I'd happily go back, especially to try more of those beautiful seafood options.

[I know, I know - there sure is a lot of talk about Spain here for a "Miami food blog." Only one more dispatch from Spain before we return to regularly scheduled programming.]

Paco Meralgo
Calle Muntaner 171
Barcelona 08036
94 430 90 27

Friday, March 27, 2009

Good Weekend

Just a sampling of a couple interesting goings-on this weekend:

Taste of MiMo along Biscayne Boulevard. Saturday March 28 from noon to 5pm, several restaurants will be offering various bites for $2 - $5. Participants include (from north to south, roughly) Anise Taverna, Red Light, Ver Daddy, Moshi Moshi, Le Cafe, Che Soprano, Moonchine, Casa Toscana, Wine 69, Uva 69, and Kingdom.

Fairchild Food and Garden Festival at Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Sat. March 28 and Sun. March 29 from 9:30am to 4:30pm, promising culinary demonstrations using local products, a farmer's market with actual local growers, a fruit and vegetable contest for the "ugliest, largest or prettiest" fruit or vegetable, and programs for the kids ("Composting with Worms!").

And if that's not the kind of good weekend you're looking for, there's always this one.

Dos Palillos - Barcelona

After three great days in San Sebastian, we swung over to Barcelona for the final leg of our trip. Our first restaurant visit was to Dos Palillos. Dos Palillos is the creation of Albert Raurich, who from 1999 through 2007 was the chef de cuisine at El Bulli. Those expecting another temple of modern gastronomy or showcase of cutting edge cooking technology, however, might well be disappointed. At Dos Palillos, Raurich, along with head chef Takeshi Somekawa, instead explores - using mostly traditional cooking methods - the curious parallels and intersections between Spanish and Asian cuisines.

Dos Palillos is located down the incredibly narrow Carrer Elisabets in the funky El Raval neighborhood, on the ground floor of the Casa Camper hotel (a product of the Camper brand which sells moderately hip sneakers for what seem like incredibly high prices). The name - which means "two toothpicks" - is itself a play on those aforementioned commonalities, analogizing between the toothpicks commonly used for eating tapas and the chopsticks of Asian cuisine. Small portion sizes likewise bridge the two food cultures, the Spanish tapas being easily comparable to either the small dishes of a Japanese izakaya or Chinese dim sum, as does a respect and appreciation for prime raw ingredients. The restaurant's layout also plays on the Asian/Spanish theme, with the front area being a very typical (almost nondescript) looking Spanish bar, while after passing through a beaded curtain, the back room houses an Asian inspired food bar with open kitchen (which actually reminded me very much of a low-budget version of a L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon). I always like an open kitchen, and particularly enjoy the intimacy of this kind of layout, where the person who prepares your food is often the one to actually hand it to you.

It certainly seems to me that the Spanish-Asian mashup idea is gaining increasing traction in Spain, with Dos Palillos and Kabuki Wellington and Diverxo in Madrid (both of which we missed) as prominent examples. What's less clear to me is whether there's really anything so remarkable about it, as we in the U.S. are pretty accustomed to seeing these type of East-West hodge-podges (i.e., Asia de Cuba, Sushi Samba ... - and yes, you're certainly welcome to question whether it's being done well). But let's set aside that question for the moment, and focus on the most important question - how's the food? The menu on the Asian bar side offers a couple tasting menus at different price points for more extensive course offerings (I think in the more casual front bar you can order a la carte as well). The most expensive option was, I believe, €65 for about 15 courses. Here's the rundown.

[Sorry for the atrocious layout of this post - I'm working on fixing it. I've cut back on some of the pictures and added links to them instead. The full set of pictures can be found here on flickr].

wontonswontons - crispy fried shells enclosing a fine mince of pork (I believe, memory is fading), generously sprinkled with pungent pepper. A great, addictive snack. Also served at the start of the meal were some vibrant magenta pickles, presumably colored with beet juice though I'm not sure what the pickles themselves were made from.

chicharrones - perhaps not what they were called on the menu, but these were perfectly fried strips of chicken skin, assertively spiced with curry powder. Even better than the wontons.

summer rollsummer roll - again, perhaps not what it was called on the menu, though certainly what it reminded me of, a light rice paper wrap filled with vegetables, served cool, and topped with grapefruit segments, chili threads and tiny baby sprouts. You'll see a couple dipping sauces in the corner of the picture, one a ponzu, the other a fruitier orange-yuzu sauce. These were presented, almost Benihana-esque, at the beginning of the meal with appropriate dipping suggestions for some of the early courses.

sardine sunomono - a typical Japanese dish of vinegared fish and vegetables, done here with nice fat slabs of silver-skinned sardine, along with lightly pickled cauliflower, carrots, cucumber and topped with fresh kaiware (daikon sprout).

ankimoankimo - one of the standout dishes of the night, perhaps in part because it's one of my favorite ingredients. Ankimo is monkfish liver, poached and chilled, and served here with a couple different kinds of seaweed (the dark green type being one I'm used to seeing in Japanese dishes, the red branched one more unusual for me), with a slightly sweet reduced soy sauce along with cubes of a jelled citrus sauce. Monkfish liver is sometimes called "foie gras of the sea," which might be a bit generous, but it does have something of that same richness and depth of flavor along with a bit of a seafood twang.

navajasnavajas - another standout, some of the smallest, most delicate razor clams I've ever seen are served cold with a Thai red curry sauce and flecks of sea beans and more colorful seaweed.

chawan mushitrout roe chawan mushi - a chawan mushi is a Japanese custard, with an incredibly delicate quivering texture, here infused with dashi flavors and topped with trout roe. A beautiful presentation, and the flavor and texture of the chawan mushi were wonderful. The combination with the trout roe could have been fantastic, but unfortunately the roe were dissatisfyingly firm in texture. They had very little give and were almost crunchy, a jarring contrast against the creamy chawan mushi. I think I would have preferred the more giving, liquid texture of a salmon roe to pair with the custard.

tempura tomatotempura tomato - simple but surprisingly good. Juicy, sweet cherry tomatoes are fried with a very thin tempura batter, and topped with a dab of wasabi. Just the slightest hint of crunch from the batter, followed by a gush of near-molten hot tomato, followed by the kick of the wasabi.

shiu maishiu mai - steamed dumplings, stuffed with minced pork and shrimp with a hint of foie gras, if I recall right. These were fine dumplings indeed.

tuna don - very lightly seared tuna belly (toro in Japanese, ventresca to the Spaniards) over sushi rice, served with sheets of nori and a dab of wasabi for some DIY maki. Nice rich fatty tuna.

japoburgergyoza - pan-fried pork dumplings, a/k/a postickers. Good but nothing particularly special about this iteration.

japoburger - a plump little miniburger, seared just rare, laid over some lightly pickled cucumbers for something of a banh mi effect.

verdurasverduras - stir-fried vegetables, a nice melange including baby bok choi, snow peas, baby corn, baby carrots, all in a light soy-based sauce, and flecked with little micro sprouts and flower petals. Decent but not very exciting.

chicken yakitori - the traditional Japanese skewered and grilled chicken, lightly brushed with a soy-sake-mirin sauce and sprinkled, I believe, with schichimi togarashi.

fruit saladfruit salad - pieces of pineapple, mango, strawberry, melon, prune, goji berry, a cube of tofu-textured creamy coconut, macerated in a reduced anise-infused tea. Hey - is that a spherified something-or-other in the middle there? Nope - just a good old-fashioned lychee. The fruit salad was followed by a creamy yuzu ice cream, which just missed the mark for me.

Overall, while I enjoyed all of our meal, and a few items were truly excellent - the ankimo, the navajas, the tempura tomato in particular stand out - several others struck me as no more or less special than something I could get at my neighborhood izakaya (though in fairness, I happen to have an excellent izakaya pretty close to me despite the relative dearth of good Japanese food in Miami). There also wasn't all that much that really struck me as a real fusion or confluence of Asian and Spanish cookery - rather, this was pretty straight-ahead Chinese and Japanese for the most part. It's good eats, and I'd happily recommend it as a fun, satisfying, and fairly priced meal, but there's nothing particularly revolutionary going on here, which is something of a disappointment given the chef's resume.

I'm not sure how much to read into it, but it is interesting that both Raurich and Albert Adrià (creative director at El Bulli and brother of Ferran Adrià), who recently opened the relatively traditional tapas bar Inopia in Barcelona and even more recently announced he is leaving El Bulli, both appear to be retreating from the avant garde. One of the most remarkable things about reading A Day at El Bulli (once you get past the overwhelmingly self-congratulatory tone) is the incredible focus on the methodology of creativity. There can be little doubt that the level of creativity and innovation expected must be phenomenally demanding and draining. Sometimes you just want to serve some good simple food. Though "simple" may be understating the level of quality and flavor that many of Dos Palillos' dishes acheive, there's nothing wrong with that either.

Dos Palillos
Carrer Elisabets 9
Barcelona 08001
93 304 05 13

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reading Material - Part III - James Beard Books

In Part I and Part II, I listed links to the pieces I could find that were nominated for James Beard Media & Journalism Awards. Finally, here's the nominees for the James Beard Book Awards:

Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited
Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans
Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook

BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes
Baking for All Occasions
The Art and Soul of Baking

The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea
The Wines of Burgundy: Revised Edition
WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide

How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition): 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food
Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook
The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh

Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta: Recipes from the World-Famous Spa
The EatingWell for a Healthy Heart Cookbook: 175 Delicious Recipes for Joyful, Heart-Smart Eating (EatingWell Books)
The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life

Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China
Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lovers Treasury of Classics and Improvisations
Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
Decadent Desserts: Recipes from Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte
Haute Chinese Cuisine from the Kitchen of Wakiya

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs
The Science of Good Food: The Ultimate Reference on How Cooking Works

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes
Mediterranean Fresh: A Compendium of One-Plate Salad Meals and Mix-and-Match Dressings
The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef

And there you have it. Happy reading.

Reading Material - Part II

More links to the James Beard Award nominees for the journalism awards. Part I is here.

Made (Better) In Japan - Alan Richman, GQ
BBQ 08 (The Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas) - Patricia Sharpe and staff of Texas Monthly Magazine
My Cherry Amour - Monique Truong, Gourmet

Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly - "A Proper Brasserie," "A Fine Palate," "Pho Town"
Adam Platt, New York Magazine - "Faux French," "The Mario of Midtown," "Corton on Hudson"
Tom Sietsema, Washington Post - "Great Expectations," "Robo Restaurant," "An Earned Exclamation"

Greens of Wrath - Barry Estabrook, Gourmet
What Good is Breakfast? - New York Magazine
How to Feed Your Mind - Rachael Moeller Gorman, EatingWell

BA Foodist - Andrew Knowlton,
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook - Hank Shaw,
Our One-Block Diet -

Dorie Greenspan, Bon Appetit - "Bacon-Cheddar Quick Bread," "All-Purpose Holiday Cake," "My Go-To Dough"
Corby Kummer, The Atlantic - "A Papaya Grows in Holyoke," "Beyond the McIntosh," "Half a Loaf"
Laura Shapiro, - "Campaign Cookies," "Why Does America Hate Ratatouille?," "The Lord is my Chef"

Revolution by the Glass - Jon Bonné, San Francisco Chronicle
Billionaire Winos - Jay McInerney, Men's Vogue
Viva La Revolucion! - Alan Richman, GQ


Gourmet Cookbook Club - Ruth Reichl,
The Test Kitchen - Ruth Reichl,
The Whole Hog Project - Mike Sula,

Knead, Pray, Love - Celia Barbour, O, The Oprah Magazine
Benedictions - Aleksandra Crapanzano, Gourmet
My Sweet Life - Alan Richman, GQ

If I can summon the energy at some point, there's also Book Awards too ...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading Material - Part I

In my last post I mentioned the local chefs still in contention for one of the James Beard awards. In addition to the chef and restaurant awards, there's a whole panoply of various media and journalism award nominations. I started rooting around to see how many of the nominated pieces are available online and thought I'd share the links for this extended reading list. I doubt I'll ever plow through all of them, but some that I'd already come across - like the piece on Schwa chef Michael Carlson - are excellent.

Some I can not turn up at all, some may be limited access, and I'll be doing this in at least two installments. Again, the whole list of nominees is here.

Obsessives: School Lunch Revolutionary -
The Art of Blending -
Savoring the Best of World Flavors, Volume III: Vietnam and the Island of Sicily -

Big Night. Big Mystery: Why Did Michael Carlson Vanish the Day After Serving Dinner to the Greatest Chefs in the World? - Monica Eng, Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune
Sushi Bullies - Katy McLaughlin, Wall Street Journal
Sound Check - Tom Sietsema, Washington Post

Morality Bites: Mustering Some Sympathy for the Bedeviled Ham and Beef - Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune
The Pope of Pork - Kristen Hinman, Riverfront Times
The Tender and the Tough - Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer

High on the Hairy Hogs: Super-Succulent Imports are Everything U.S. Pork Isn't - Rebekah Denn, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Perfection? Hint: It's Warm and Has a Secret - David Leite, New York Times

Chicago Tribune - Carol Mighton Haddix
San Francisco Chronicle - Jon Bonné and Mirlam Morgan
Washington Post - Joe Yonan

Eating Small in New York - Alan Richman, Departures
The Grilling Genius of Spain - Anya von Bremzen, Food & Wine

What is Southern? - Edna Lewis, Gourmet
The Wild Salmon Debate: A Fresh Look at Whether Eating Farmed Salmon is ... Well ... OK - David Dobbs, EatingWell

More to follow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beards Shaved

I posted earlier with the local slant on the James Beard Award semifinalists. The actual nominations were announced today. South Florida products still in contention (all for Best Chef South):

- Zach Bell of Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach;
- Douglas Rodriguez of Ola in South Beach; and
- Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami's Design District.

Also on the Best Chef South list - John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, MS and John Harris of Lilette in New Orleans.

Out of the running? Sra. Martinez for Best New Restaurant (and let it be noted, in my original post I nailed all five of the finalists for this category!); Palme d'Or for Best Service and Best Wine Service; Dean James Max of 3030 Ocean and Edgar Leal of Cacao in the Best Chef South category.
Michael Schwartz and a chicken
I'm thinking a Beard is in store for Michael - though as you can see, he's already got one (and a chicken too).*

The whole list is here.

*Picture via, though I don't think it's originally theirs either.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Akelaŕe - San Sebastian

One of the perversities of South Florida dining is that, despite our location right on the ocean, there are actually few restaurants that offer waterfront dining with a view, and even fewer that provide a quality dining experience. The same is not true of San Sebastian, if Akelaŕe is any indication.

We visited Akelaŕe for lunch to take advantage of those views, which was a good call. The 15 minute drive from downtown San Sebastian takes you up into the hills which overlook the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The restaurant, a cooly modern dark grey structure, sits high in those hills looking out through a wide expanse of glass on an even wider expanse of water and sky.

The staff were happy to serve us in either Spanish or English, and were easygoing and accomodating in every way. There are two tasting menus offered as well as a la carte dishes, and they had no problem at all doing a tasting menu for me while Mrs. F ordered a la carte. I opted for the "Menu Aranori," while Mrs. F had an egg with caviar, cauliflower, and chive butter, followed by a fish soup "a la Donostiana." They also offered a wine pairing to go with the tasting menu, while Mrs. F ordered by the glass. The full set of pictures can be viewed here on Flickr.*

To start, they bring out what looks like a box of bonbons, and indeed even when it's opened, the contents look like little candies. But these are savory rather than sweet: the powdery item is an artichoke "polvoron;" the wrapped item a parmesan "coquito" (little coconut?); the golden one filled with creamy idiazabal cheese with a lightly crispy coating; and the fuzzy item a "momia" (mummy) of carnitas wrapped with tororo kombu seaweed (this one particularly delicious).

An entertaining start to the meal (accompanied by a flute of Deutz NV Champagne to good effect).

Next, another little starter, one component a play on tradition, the other another play on the eyes and palate. To the left, a giundilla pepper filled with an anchovy mousse (I was looking all over for the seam by which they stuffed it, and our server explained that they inject it) over a powdered "soil" of olives. This is a take-off of a traditional pintxo called a "Gilda" which we saw everywhere (even more frequently in Bilbao than in San Sebastian, actually) of skewered anchovy, olive and giundilla pepper. On the right, a morcilla "bonbon" with a sprinkling of cocoa on the outside. Both were excellent.

The first course of the tasting menu was "txangurro frio y caliente en ensalada con su coral," a salad of cold shredded crab over a bed of crab coral "soil," along with a warm grilled claw, with a gazpacho sauce and astonishingly realistic trompe l'œil vegetables. Resting on the cold crab is a miniature carrot (made from a firmed puree of carrot) and a miniature radish (same idea, with a sharp horseradish bite to it too), much like little marzipan fruits, while to the side is a "mushroom" of a mushroom-flavored meringue which crumbles when pressed with a fork.

Visually these were just stunning, but what really impressed me was the flavors. Each item distinctly and vividly tasted of what it represented, and the crab itself, especially the warm claw, was delicious. They poured a nice Pazo Señoráns Albariño to go with this.

Next, "gambas con vainas al fuego de orujo". A cast iron pot is brought to the table. Inside the pot are three raw head-on shrimp, sitting on top of greyish stones. The waiter explains that the stones have been soaked in a distilled liquor made from wine grapes, and proceeds to bring lit match to stones and starts the cooking. About a minute or so of flames, with the waiter holding the lid close to the top to reflect back the heat, and then the lid is put back on the pot for the shrimp to finish cooking for another minute.

They are then plated with some slivered green beans, dabs of green bean puree, and a powder made from the cooked, dried shrimp shells. A fun presentation and some great, flavorful shrimp as well. I was very happy to see that I was encouraged to eat these with my hands and suck on the heads, as they brought a finger bowl out for post-shrimp cleanup. I can't recall the producer of the wine they matched with this, but it was quite nice, a grenache blanc / viognier blend if I remember correctly.

The next dish was "setas con 'pasta al huevo'". An assortment of different wild mushrooms were laid out along a sheet of dark slate, over which "noodles" made of egg white and egg yolk were laid. An emulsified, whipped pine nut oil (texture like a mayonaise) was dabbed on one side as a sauce. Another unique presentation, and the mushrooms were excellent, apparently given mostly dry heat so as to concentrate their flavors. However, the "pasta," while a clever presentation, had a slightly bouncy texture. An interesting and effective pairing for this course - a 30 year old Amontillado sherry. Unusual and just on the cusp of overwhelming, but I thought it accented the earthy mushrooms well.

"Lenguado en el mar de coral" (sole in a sea of coral) was another visual treat, filets of sole with the top and bottom filets re-attached to each other like a recomposed whole fish (presumably another Activa trick), plated with the sole's roe, along with black and green "caviar" made from spherified squid ink and algae, respectively, as well as an emulsified sauce from the fish's cooking juices. The fish was juicy and flavorful, enhanced even further by the sauce. The squid ink caviar I thought were very good, the green ones were a bit too "grassy" tasting (like spirulina). This was paired with a young Ribera del Duero that was still somewhat rough around the edges, a pairing that didn't jibe for me at all.

"Cochinillo asado con 'bolao' de tomate y emulsión de ibérico" was some of the best suckling pig I've ever had. The pork was wonderfully tender, the skin golden-brown and crisp but not leathery and hard. It was plated with puddles of "Iberian emulsion," a thick glossy sauce with a rich hammy flavor, another more tart (balsamic?) sauce, a few slightly pickled tomato "petals," and a couple chunks of a semi-sweet meringue sprinkled with a tomato powder. A great combination and an inspired takeoff on a classic dish. A nice young Priorat went nicely with the pork.

Interpersed throughout these were Mrs. F's a la carte orders. The egg with caviar and cauliflower was another beautiful presentation, a fat sheaf of vibrant yellow egg pasta (?) stuffed with a smooth cauliflower mousse, topped with a generous spoonful of caviar and crowned with a curlicue of chive butter and resting in a pool of almond milk dotted with olive oil. Very elegant and luxurious. This was followed with the seafood soup "a la Donostiana," which paled by comparison. It was basically a traditional Mediterranean seafood soup, with shrimp and fish brought out in a bowl and then the seafood broth ladled over. The one nod to contemporary cookery was a "spherified clam," which just seemed out of place and also ineffective, yielding a clammy (not in a good way) gush of tepid clam juice. I was interested to see that the sphere could withstand the heat of the soup and maintain its structural integrity. If this had just been a great seafood soup we would have been perfectly happy - but it wasn't that either.

"Leche y uva, queso y vino en evolución paralela" - milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution. From one end of the board to the other, pairings of milk/grape in various states of fermentation and development are paired together. First - solidified milk, dotted with a little green gel (of grape leaves?); powdered requeson (a ricotta-like cheese) with halved green grapes; a soft quark cheese strongly flavored with nutmeg and rose pepper, with jellied grape juice and tomato; a firm, semi-cured Idiazabal sandwiched with membrillo, along with a powder of wine; a ball of soft Torta del Casar balanced atop some raisins; and finally, a scoop of Gorgonzola ice cream with a hint of brandy. A great concept, but the flavors of the dish sort of missed for me. Some, like the solidified milk, were simply bland, while others, like the nutmeg-flavored quark, were overwhelmingly strong. For a pairing, here they went to a sherry again, this time a 30-year old oloroso. Nice and not overly sweet, which worked with the cheeses.

"Otra tarta de manzana" - "another apple tart." Not sure what the other one was like, this one involved layers of crisp puff pastry, in between which was an apple-flavored "pastry cream" made solely from apples and sugar with no flour or cream. A liquid praline sauce was swirled around the tart, along with a couple pools of an apple jelly flecked with apple seeds. Over the entire thing, a sheet of edible apple-flavored grey paper with the restaurant name printed upon it in cocoa. The tart itself was quite good, with a vivid apple flavor (despite no actual apple in sight, as noted on the menu); the paper, however, while a good gimmick, tasted much like a fruit roll-up (the edible printed paper is a trick that Homero Cantu at Moto in Chicago has been doing for some time.) An eiswein paired well.

The final "petit fours" were something of a disappointment. In a glass dish the size of an ashtray are balanced a couple of walnuts and a couple chestnuts, on top of some little silver pellets. Another trompe l'œil trick? Not quite. These are, in fact, nut shells, split and hollowed and filled with an idiazabal/walnut/quince mousse and a chestnut/chocolate mousse, respectively. Both were somewhat bitter. A couple of other little candies came along as well, the best being little chocolate and raspberry nuggets with pop rocks that fizz in your mouth as you chew. Fortunately, our server warned us that the silver pellets were not edible!

The amount of labor that must go into the production of some of these dishes is fairly staggering, and many are truly remarkable visually. The use of savory meringues is something I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else, and I thought it was very effective. But what I most enjoyed - with a few exceptions - was that the flavors were well-honed and vibrant. The crab, the gambas, the mushrooms, and the suckling pig in particular were all just delicious and really worked to enhance the quality of their key components. Even without the visual tricks or clever presentations, these would be great dishes.

Paseo Padre Orcolaga 56 (Igueldo)
San Sebsatian 20008
943 31 12 09

*They had no issues with photography at Akelaŕe, and even set up the box lid again to show off the display of apertivos when they saw I was taking pictures.