Wednesday, September 29, 2010

elBulli - Roses, Spain - September 15, 2010

It seems not even remotely coincidental that if you draw a line between Figueres and Cadaqués, the sites of two museums dedicated to the life and work of Salvador Dalí, you will come very close to going right through elBulli. There is more than a bit of surrealism going on at Chef Ferran Adrià's famous gastronomical outpost next to Cala Montjoi, along the Costa Brava. The stripping of objects of their normal significance, the incongruous, dreamlike juxtapositions, the subversion of expectations, the quest for a more vivid, superior "reality" - I don't mean to dive right into the debate of food as art vs. craft, and maybe I'm disproprotionately influenced by our visit to the Dalí Theatre-Museum on our way out to elBulli, but the parallels seem ineluctable.

There has been so much said and written about elBulli that it is daunting to try to add something meaningful.[1] A good place to start, which captures both the history and the current state of things, including the announcement earlier this year that the restaurant will be closing after next season, is Jay McInerney's recent piece in Vanity Fair, "It Was Delicious While It Lasted." But having been afforded the extraordinarily rare good fortune of securing a reservation there, I feel obligated to try.

It comes as no surprise to regular readers here that I am a committed advocate of contemporary cooking concepts and techniques like those that Chef Adrià has championed and sometimes even invented - not out of any loyalty to novelty for its own sake, but in the interest of good eating. A couple years ago, I said it this way:
As for my thinking generally about “molecular gastronomy” or “alta cocina” or “experimental cooking” or whatever you want to call it - I'm fascinated by the new techniques, love a clever presentation, am always open to new combinations of flavors, but in the end the ultimate test is, "Does it taste good?" In a truly successful dish, it goes beyond that - the technique or approach not only tastes good, but tastes BETTER than customary preps or ingredients. There’s an intellectual element to it, for sure – look, by the fact that we’re all here, reading [this], that tells you we’re probably thinking about food more, and perhaps more analytically, than the average bear – but in the end the clincher has got to be the pleasure of it.
Which puts me in a bit of a quandary when it comes to evaluating our dinner at elBulli. Because, having now had the opportunity to experience it first hand, it is abundantly clear that "delicious" is only one of many things that Ferran Adrià is looking to accomplish. This is food that looks to provoke, to confront, to test boundaries, and above all, to be like no other dining experience. It aims to be creative as much, if not more so, than to be delicious. In "A Day at El Bulli"[2] it is explained:

Creativity is what keeps elBulli open.[3] This is not only because it is central to the passion and commitment of every member of the team, but also because the creativity of the food is what makes people want to eat here. The restaurant is like a workshop where new dishes, concepts and techniques are developed and shared with the guests. Without an audience, the creations would have no meaning. The guests' enjoyment of the food is difficult to quantify because every person has their own views about cooking and the types of food they enjoy. Creativity, on the other hand, can be measured: it is possible to document a technique and to establish whether it is new. But to be truly creative, a dish must be interesting as well as new. The aim at elBulli is to create dishes and techniques that engage guests' sensory, emotional and intellectual facilities to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways.
So do I judge by my own standards, or by those that the chef has set for himself? Perhaps let's table that question for now, have a run through the actual experience of our meal, and then see what answers present themselves.

The complete set of pictures from our meal is in this Flickr set: El Bulli - September 15, 2010.

The elBulli experience begins with the journey there, a journey that usually starts from the Costa Brava resort town of Roses and perhaps further encourages the surrealist analogies. Winding along the coast through rugged mountainous terrain, past vineyards, olive trees, and the relics of abandoned stone farmhouses, you begin to feel as if you are entering some dream world. A taxi is highly recommended. Also recommended: not arriving too early. The gates do not open until exactly 7:30pm, and if you arrive early for a 7:30 reservation, as we did, there's not much else to do but to kick pebbles.

Once those gates do open, a further dreamscape appears. The white-stuccoed, barrel-tile-roofed building that houses the restaurant and kitchen overlooks a small beach circled by rugged cliffs. The repetitive beat of the surf washing onto the beach can be clearly heard from the restaurant's terrace.

This is the menu that was posted in front of the restaurant on the day we were there. It is close, but not identical, to what we were actually served. After the meal we were given menus in English to take home.

After a tour of the (surprisingly small, extensively populated, and remarkably quiet) kitchen and the chance to meet Chef Adrià,[4] we returned to the terrace to begin our meal. While sipping glasses of the house Cava (Agusti Torelló Gran Reserva), we were presented with a quick succession of "cocktails" and "snacks":

René Magritte might say, "Ceci n'est pas une fraise." Rather, it is a representation of a strawberry, in semi-frozen form (frozen exterior giving way to a still-liquid center), infused with a bright sweet-sour strawberry flavor, bolstered with the bittersweet note of Campari - an edible cocktail.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Asador Etxebarri - Axpe, Spain

Asador Etxebarri and its chef Victor Arguinzoniz - the "Grilling Genius of Spain," as Anya von Bremzen dubbed him - have been known and adored by the food cognoscenti for some time. And yet in some ways, Etxebarri still seems to get something of the ugly stepchild treatment among the "destination" Basque restaurants. While Arzak, Martin Berasategui, and now Akelaŕe sport three Michelin stars each, Etxebarri only was awarded its first last year. Stars be damned: this was among the most delicious meals I've ever had, with the quality of several of the items establishing themselves as personal benchmarks.

The full set of pictures from our lunch is at: Asador Etxebarri - September 2010.

The story of Etxebarri is well-known at this point. Situated in a tiny village in the hills of Basque Country, down winding roads about an hour away from either San Sebastian or Bilbao, a self-taught chef set out to refine, and in some ways, reinvent, the idea of the asador, or grill-house. Chef Arguinzoniz makes his own charcoals, he's invented his own grilling implements, and he sources the finest product he can lay his hands on, some hyper-local, some from other parts of Spain.

As we pulled into the small plaza on which Etxebarri is situated mid-day for lunch, we found ourselves right in the middle of some sort of race; indeed, I quickly realized I was practically standing on the finish line as runners stomped past and someone called out their times. When we retreated from the race course and found the restaurant, we entered to find the downstairs bar crowded with revelers. While Etxebarri may be internationally famous, it is also still a locals' watering hole. Upstairs in the dining room, in a simple room with an exposed wood-beam ceiling and plain white cloths on the tables, we settled in and ordered the tasting menu.

puré de cebolla
To start, an amuse bouche of a lusciously smooth and silky, soubise-like onion purée, topped with shaved bits of celery and apple.

mantequilla casera
To go with their nicely crusty bread, two butters: the lighter-colored one in the foreground of goat's milk, lightly smoked and sprinkled with ash; the creamy yellow one in the background of cow's milk, pure and rich.

anchoa al salazón
A salt-cured anchovy, tender, meaty, oily, fishy in the best possible way, served over a slab of toasted bread. One of the finest anchovies I've tasted, though a bit less salt in the cure might have let it shine even more brilliantly.

percebes a la brasa
We first tried percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, on our last trip to Spain. They are harvested at extreme peril from rocks on the coast of Galicia, they look disconcertingly like they could be dinosaur toes, they are mind-bogglingly expensive, and they are one of the most delicious seafood items I've ever tasted. The outer casing  is peeled off (sometimes at small peril to the diner, since they can squirt), revealing the little muscle within which has a magically pure brininess. Typically steamed, at Etxebarri they are given the grill treatment, imparting just a subtle hint of smokiness.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - Casa Senra, Mil Catas, Hidalgo 56

Casa Senra is not the most celebrated of San Sebastian's pintxos bars. But after a couple of visits, it's proving to be one of my personal favorites. Senra is not in the scenic Parte Vieja, but in the more business-like Barrio Gros,[*] and its layout is simple and utilitarian: a long bar stacked with platters of pintxos, along with several picnic-style benches along the wall, plus a few tables outside. Its pintxos are perhaps not as adventurous or inventive as some you might find. But the staff is friendly, the quality of the ingredients excellent, and the croquetas - well, they're possibly the best I've had anywhere.

The two pintxos closest to the foreground in this picture were a couple of my favorites: bacalao mousse topped with shavings of serrano ham and caramelized onions, and then behind those, soft bacon topped with escalivada-style grilled peppers, fried eggplant, Swiss cheese, and some more onions. Though these are out on the bar for the taking, the bartenders will quickly shepherd them back to the kitchen to warm up before serving.

Additional warm items are prepared by the kitchen as they're ordered, and we tried a couple of these:

Txipirones, served over a bed of chestnut purée, with some confit potatoes, all generously drizzled with a jet-black squid ink sauce, and topped with some frizzy fried leek greens. The combination of squid and chestnut seemed unlikely, but could perhaps be seen as a play on the longstanding tradition of mar y montaña (surf 'n' turf) dishes so common throughout Spain. It was a dramatic-looking dish with equally bold flavors.

Possibly even richer was the "Champi con Foie," with mushrooms and seared foie gras cloaked under a creamy aioli, with some reduced vinegar and a drizzle of green herb sauce for a bit of contrast.

But those croquetas! Available with fillings both customary (jamón ibérico) and perhaps not (almejas con salsa verde, morcilla), these delivered everything you should be looking for in a croqueta: crisp, not overwhelmingly greasy exterior; molten, lightly textured creamy interior; and a generous amount of the chosen filling. The croquetas filled with clams and green sauce were possibly my favorite, though it would be difficult to choose between them and the morcilla ones I had last year.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Allez cuisine!

If you weren't able to catch Chef Katsuya Fukushima at our Cobaya Dinner earlier this month, here is another chance to see him cook:

Sunday, September 26 at 9:00 p.m. on Iron Chef America. Allez cuisine!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - A Fuego Negro, La Cuchara de San Telmo

There are enough Michelin stars in and about San Sebastian to make up a constellation, but some of the best eating in this food mecca can be found in its many bars and their seemingly infinite selection of pintxos. We first visited San Sebastian about a year and a half ago, and sampled several excellent pintxos bars. We had the good fortune to be back in San Sebastian recently, and made return visits to several of those same bars, and some new ones as well.

Last year's post conveys my genuine awe at the culinary wonderland that San Sebastian is, and so I won't repeat myself here. I also won't dare try to recount each of the many morsels we sampled, which would be well nigh impossible. Rather, this is just a list of some of the highlights. Before diving in, though, a couple observations that are hopefully not duplicative of my comments from last year:

First, one of the things I found so remarkable is that even with the plethora of pintxos bars in the town - surely well more than a hundred over just a few square miles - it seems that virtually all of them have their regulars. We couldn't sit down in the homiest little hole in the wall for more than fifteen minutes without somebody showing up who the bartender knew (and usually also knew their drink order). Another thing I found interesting is that there is no firm division between "traditional" and "contemporary," at least as far as the customer base is concerned. Even in the most modern bars, serving the most contemporary, unusual bites, you would find bushy-moustached Basque old-timers enjoying a bite next to tattooed, serially-pierced hipsters. If the food is good, that's all that matters to these people - and most of the food is very, very good.

As I did last year, I'll divide my notes between the Parte Vieja (the "Old Town") on the west side of the Urumea River, and the more commercial Barrio Gros on the east side, running into the Zurriola beach. Our exploration of the Parte Vieja was somewhat limited this time around on account of the Bandera de la Concha, a very popular boat regatta which is apparently celebrated by massive crowds of sloppy drunk teenagers afterwards by crowding into the Parte Vieja, strewing about thousands of broken plastic drink cups, and urinating in the streets. Ah, to be young again ...

A Fuego Negro is a slick looking place done up mostly in shades of black and red which offered some of the most creative and delicious dishes we experienced on this trip. They feature both contemporary takes on some Spanish classics, as well as some more esoteric choices in miniature pintxo form. The menu starts with "Txupitos and Apertifs," clever combinations of a bite and a drink in one little item.

Here, "Fino & Ajo Ibérico" took the form of half-frozen "cloves" of ajo blanco, the classic Spanish garlic soup, with cubes of fino sherry gelée and a fine dice of apple.

"Salmorejo Txerry Sobre Migas Ibéricas," meanwhile, was served as a orb of the gazpacho-like soup, infused with sherry, in sorbet form, nestled in a little bed of bread crumbs, and sprinkled with a bit of pimenton. Both of these were wonderful, invigorating bites.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Four Chefs for Success for Kids

If you missed the last Cobaya dinner and want to get a preview of Chef Douglas Rodriguez's new restaurant, De Rodriguez Ocean, or if you just want to sample the cooking of four great local chefs, or if you want to support a worthy charity - actually, if you want to do all of those things - you may well be interested in the "Four Chefs for Success for Kids" event on September 15, 2010.

I know, that's a lot of "fours" and "fors" - almost four, actually. Stay with me. The event will feature Chef Rodriguez, Andrea Curto-Randazzo (of Water Club and the late and lamented Talula), Timon Balloo (of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill), and Tim Andriola (of Timo). Those are, in all seriousness, four of my favorite chefs in town. Tickets are $75 per person, $120 per couple, and all proceeds go to Success for Kids, a non-profit organization that creates and implements programs to empower at-risk children.

To purchase tickets, email or call 305.405.6380. I'd be there myself, but I've already got a dinner reservation that night, which would be tough to cancel. Which is also my way of saying that I'm off to Spain for about a week. Hasta luego.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Katsuya Does Cobaya

On Sunday evening, Chef Katsuya Fukushima was the "Visiting Dignitary" for the latest Cobaya dinner. Katsuya for the past fifteen years has worked closely with über-chef José Andrés, including as head chef at the minibar and Café Atlantico in Washington DC. Local über-chef Douglas Rodriguez (Ola, De Rodriguez Cuba) was the gracious host at his not-yet opened new restuarant, De Rodriguez Ocean in the Bentley Beach Hilton on South Beach, and also contributed a few dishes.[1]

This dinner presented a lot of firsts: there were several first-timers in the group; it was Cobaya's first time working with an out-of-town chef; it was the first time doing a dinner with a group of this size (over 60). We always encourage chefs to do the kind of cooking they really want to do, and as a result we often get to see a side of their culinary repertoire that may not be apparent from the work they do in their restaurants. For Katsuya, who is perhaps best known for the cutting edge culinary hijinks of minibar (which you can see in this episode of Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie), this actually meant less high technique, and more of a focus on the cooking of his Hawaiian-Japanese heritage. The full flickr set of pictures from the dinner is here.

While the group gathered at the bar, several passed hors d'oeuvres circulated around the room. I did not catch them all, but did get to try a couple: a potato-encased fried fish skewer spinkled with salt and vinegar powder, a perfect one-bite fish-n-chips; and a textbook crispy/creamy croqueta, with a filling of serrano ham, apple and curry. I missed the "ginger beer" cocktail, a highbrow/lowbrow combination of ginger juice, Domaine de Canton liqueur and Miller High Life.

salmon and tuna ceviches
At the table, Chef Rodriguez started things off with a sampling of several ceviches, served family style. I've always loved the ceviches he's served at Ola, though I was less enamored of the ones I tried at his more recently opened De Rodriguez. These hit all the right notes for me, highlighting without overwhelming the fish. Ribbons of salmon were paired with citrus and micro-herbs, while cubes of tuna were matched with cubes of watermelon, acting as their visual doppelgängers. The exotic sounding "tambour rouge,"[2] procured from a sustainable farming operation in Africa, had buttery, hamachi-like flesh that was nicely paired with pickled fennel and grapefruit segments. I thought each of these had great balance and flavor, though the poke-like tuna was my favorite.

tambour rouge ceviche
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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Solo Bistro - Bath, Maine

The Squire Tarbox Farm's produce is perhaps put to even better use at Solo Bistro, in the town of Bath about fifteen minutes away. Bath is one of these pristine, postcard-perfect old towns that seems to have not changed at all in about 150 years, but Solo Bistro is a surprisingly contemporary-looking place. It looks like it was furnished straight out of a Design Within Reach catalog, with molded-plastic chairs in several hues, bare blond wood tables, Le Klint lights hanging from the ceiling, and exposed brick walls (the huge gray stones in a more lounge-y downstairs area are even more dramatic). The food is perhaps not quite as contemporary as the decor, but is equally well-constructed and precise.

It's a short menu with maybe a half dozen choices each for starters and mains. We began with a smoked tomato tart which I suspect was indeed using some of those same tomatoes we'd had at the Inn (the Squire Tarbox Farm was included among about a half dozen local suppliers listed on the menu, and the restaurant had been recommended to us at the Inn). Their sweet and tangy flavor was given another layer of complexity from light smoking, as well as a touch of richness from some melty local Hahn's End cheese and a short crust. A lentil and bacon soup was richly flavored without being plodding or heavy.

Lobster risotto was creamy and suffused with crustacean goodness, generously studded throughout with the picked meat of a whole lobster which happily was tender and not overcooked. A sprinkle of truffle salt was perhaps unnecessary, but also much more subtle than the typically overhwelming artificial notes of most truffle oils. Possibly even better was a vegetable risotto, flavored primarily with carrots (why are the Maine carrots so crazy good?) and tomatoes, giving the rice a ruddy orange hue. The "Bistro Burger" made with house-ground beef was juicy to the point of sloppiness, a good thing in a burger, topped with some nice cheddar and a brioche bun and served with some good herb-flecked fries. Only the flatbread, topped with grilled mushrooms and creamy mascarpone, failed to make much of an impression.

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Squire Tarbox Inn - Westport Island, Maine

After a couple days in Portland, we worked our way up Maine's coast to less populated territory: Westport Island, where we stayed at the Squire Tarbox Inn. The town of Westport was formed in 1828 on a petition started by one Samuel Tarbox and signed by all 73 of the residents. In nearly two centuries, that's grown to a positively bustling 745 residents, and it remains primarily a fishing and farming town.

History runs deep in Maine: Samuel Tarbox (the "Squire") was the great-great-grandson of one John Tarbox, who came to Massachusetts from England in 1639. The Inn is comprised of what was originally the Tarbox house, built in 1763, as well as the "newer addition" which was built in 1820. More recently, the original house, along with the "newer addition" and a carriage barn, have been converted to an eleven-room B&B.

We had first stayed here nearly fifteen years ago, at which time the property was also home to a dozen or so nubian goats (in a farmhouse, not in the rooms, fortunately). The inn had a restaurant that made its own cheese and used other dairy products from the goats throughout its menu. Since that time, the property has changed hands, but the new owners have in their own way carried on the agrarian traditions. The owners' son has turned several acres behind the property into an organic farm, which supplies vegetables to not only the inn's small restaurant but several other local restaurants as well.

Though the herd of nubian goats are gone, the Inn's owners did adopt a foursome of new goats (who unfortunately were being neglected by a prior owner; unlike the nubian dairy goats, these serve no purpose other than to entertain our kids), and the farm also hosts a flock of chickens and a small crew of piglets so unremittingly adorable that they could make you briefly - briefly, I say - consider giving up bacon.

Breakfasts at the Inn were simple and hearty, the highlights, unsurprisingly, being those things that came from the Inn's farm: fresh eggs with beautiful sunrise-orange yolks, home-made zucchini bread, stewed peaches plucked a couple days earlier from the tree a few yards from our room.

The same was true of dinner at the Inn. The owners are Swiss, and let's face it, the Swiss are not exactly known as culinary trailblazers.[*] The menu is mostly basic "continental" fare, and the closer we stayed to the farm, the better things tasted. A simple salad featured several greens from the garden, as well as a nice celeriac salad and a classic vinaigrette, perked up a bit with some dried cranberries and pine nuts. Even better was a tomato and mozzarella salad, with gorgeous, perfectly ripe red and yellow tomatoes straight out of the greenhouse directly behind the dining room.

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