Showing posts with label Spain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spain. Show all posts

Monday, July 30, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around - Etxebarri Edition

Clearly I'm not the only fan here in Miami of Asador Etxebarri, the wonderful temple of grilling in Spain's Basque Country that I visited a couple years ago:

Gambas de Palamos, Asador Etxebarri, Axpe, Spain, September 2010

Florida Soft Shell Shrimp, Tuyo, Miami, Florida, July 2012

Mejillones a la Brasa, Asador Etxebarri, Axpe Spain, September 2010

Mediterranean Mussels, The Bazaar, Miami, Florida, July 2012

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Koy Shunka - Barcelona

Koy Shunka

Spaniards are fiercely proud of and loyal to the culinary traditions of their native country, and for good reason: I think it's some of the greatest food on earth too. Yet with that loyalty comes a certain - parochialism may be too strong a word, so let's just say that Spain doesn't often seem to take much interest in other countries' cuisines. You won't find many notable Italian restaurants in Spain, for instance.[*]

But lately, Spain does seem to be paying some attention to the Far East. The celebrated DiverXo in Madrid leans heavily on Asian flavors and stylings (the resumé of its chef, David Muñoz, includes a stint at Hakkasan). Kabuki (also in Madrid) applies a distinctly Japanese sensibility to Iberian ingredients. Alberto Raurich, formerly elBulli's chef de cuisine, now runs Dos Palillos in Barcelona, whose very name (meaning both toothpicks and chopsticks) is a play on the connection its food seeks to draw between Asia and Spain.

Perhaps because the Spanish curiosity about foreign cuisines is a relatively new thing, the restaurants that explore those cuisines seem to be perceived as somewhat revolutionary in their native country. Whereas, as I noted after our visit to Dos Palillos last year, much of this stuff just may not seem particularly remarkable to a reasonably well-rounded American eater. For us, Asian food is so ubiquitous that even mediocre shopping center chains carry pre-made sushi.

All of which is primarily to explain why I was a bit skeptical when I heard about "the best Japanese restaurant in Barcelona." But I had indeed heard many good things about Koy Shunka, including that it is a favorite of Ferran Adrià's. And after several days of the indigenous foods, and with a big meal at elBulli on the horizon, we were looking both for something different and something a bit lighter. So we gave Koy Shunka a chance. I'm glad we did.

Koy Shunka

The restaurant is hidden away on a short street in a quiet dark corner of the Gothic Quarter behind a black door that you could easily walk by several times without noticing. You enter upon a dark hallway lined in shale and wood, which ultimately opens up onto a sizable open kitchen positioned in the center of the dining room. There are several seats at a counter that wraps around one side of the open kitchen, as well as tables arranged mostly along the back wall of the dining room.

Koy Shunka

I believe the counter seats are reserved for diners going with the omakase tasting menu, which was our desired format regardless. (You can click on any picture to see it larger, or view the entire flickr set: Koy Shunka)

Tomato salad

The meal started with a cool dish composed of cherry tomatoes, a dashi gelée, shaved bonito, and local Galician seaweeds, presented in a free-form glazed earthenware bowl. It offered pure, simple, clean flavors, and was, interestingly, more than a bit reminiscent of one of the dishes Katsuya Fukushima had served at our Cobaya dinner only a week earlier.

Berenjena con miso

Rounds of Japanese eggplant were grilled with an intensely salty-sweet miso glaze, with the skins removed and crisped up a bit, then wrapped back around the eggplant. A guindilla pepper provided a hit of spice to contrast with the richness of the miso and the smoky, sweet eggplant flesh. I've had a number of different iterations of grilled Japanese eggplants, and this was certainly among my favorites.

Vieira sashimi

Our first fish course was a sashimi of super-fresh sea scallop, sliced crosswise into coins, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and chive, and plated with little rounds of baby corn. The star here, rightfully so, was the scallop itself, with the other components providing a bit of variety and interest without overwhelming or interfering.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Restaurante Arzak - September 2010

Last month was our second visit to San Sebastian and likewise our second visit to Restaurante Arzak. Our first Arzak meal was about a year and a half ago, and the timing proved to be just about right. Though the format of the tasting menu was pretty much identical, roughly 3/4 of the actual menu items had been changed, so the experience offered a sense both of familiarity and freshness.

The menu progression is a fairly customary one: an assortment of "pintxos" or "tapas" to start, followed by a series of dishes primarily focused around various proteins, concluding with a couple sweet courses and mignardises. One of the pleasant things about ordering the tasting menu at Arzak is that nearly every course actually offers at least two options, giving the ability to either tailor the menu to individual preferences or just to provide multiple diners with some additional variety.

At our first Arzak meal we were seated in the more modern downstairs dining room, while this time we went upstairs. For those who have requested seating in the "non-smoking section" at Arzak and been advised that it is not available, I can only tell you that I have now eaten in both dining rooms, and both times we were in the "smoking section." I am starting to think that the "non-smoking section" may be apocryphal.

Like our first meal, this one started with a selection of little bites.[1] (You can see all the pictures from this meal in this flickr set: Arzak - September 2010).

Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos
Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos
A couple of these were repeat performances from our last visit: the ones in the foreground of this picture, described as "puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos," are a signature Arzak dish, a mousse of scorpionfish wrapped in crispy, light threads of pastry. Arriving on separate plates were a tartar of bonito (a lighter-fleshed tuna relative) with corn pancakes, little sandwiches of crispy rice crackers around a mushroom mousse, a shot of a frothy white alubia bean soup with matchsticks of apple, and perhaps the best bite of all, a little mound of serrano ham and tomato, wrapped in flower petals, and infused - through the plate it rested upon - with a mint vapor.

Jamón con tomate
Jamón con tomate
I enjoyed the presentation of these, with each on their own dishes mimicking the feel of casual abundance you find at San Sebastian's many tapas bars, and each was a delicious bite.

Cromlech y cebolla con té y café
Cromlech y cebolla con té y café
This was certainly one of the more unusual-looking things I've ever eaten. Described on the menu as a "cromlech," I assumed this was some culinary term that was beyond my savant-like multilingual food vocabulary. I was wrong. A "cromlech" is a megalith or stone slab - like Stonehenge.[2] That would explain the peculiar shapes. Though named after gigantic stone structures, these were incredibly fragile, with a delicate paper-thin casing (reminiscent of the "tent" over the egg dish we had last year) enclosing a filling of creamy foie gras and caramelized onion. These had to be picked up with the hands and eaten quickly in a couple bites before they fell apart completely. A sprinkling of powdered coffee and green tea provided a welcome delicately bitter note, playing the contrasting role to the rich foie often played by a sweet fruity component.

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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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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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Friday, April 3, 2009

What I've Learned

During ten days in Spain, we had a chance to do some excellent eating. While we experienced a wide range of places, from humble tapas bars to Michelin 3-star restaurants, it was still only a small sample of what Spain has to offer. But I am nonetheless convinced that the Spaniards' passion for and dedication to great ingredients, and to the joy and satisfaction of good eating, make Spain one of the world's great dining destinations. So what broad, pat generalizations can I draw from this limited snapshot?

1. great ingredients cooked properly will make a great dish. This is not some Marco Pierre White* "the only way to cook fish is on the bone with olive oil lemon and salt" rant (about which you can find more discussion here). I'm completely agnostic as to preparation methods and techniques, and think it is just as possible that sous vide or anti-griddle is the proper way to cook something as a saute pan. But it is perhaps an obvious, almost tautological truth, that if you start with great product and don't screw it up, you will end up with something great. Some of the most exciting, satisfying things we ate on this trip were also the simplest - percebes at Goizeko, calçots at Cuines Santa Caterina. Even the Arzak egg we had was as much about wonderfully flavorful egg and truffle as about the technique and presentation.

2. it's just cooking. In large part, and with a couple exceptions, the places that are using contemporary techniques are not doing so as an end unto themselves, but rather just as part of the repertoire of making great food. At Arzak we had spherified mushrooms and solidified foie oils and powdered olive oil sauces, but it didn't seem contrived or forced. In part I think with such a greater concentration of restaurants that are exploring these contemporary techniques, it becomes less "look what I can do" (though there certainly remains an element of that), and more about how those techniques can be used to enhance the entire dining experience.

3. presentation is not a substitute for flavor. We were served some breathtakingly beautiful things in Spain. The "hot and cold crab salad" at Akelaŕe was a visually stunning dish, with the miniature carrot and radish made of vegetable purees, and the perfect-looking meringue mushroom - but it would have been a disappointing dish without such vivid flavors. The creations at Aloña Berri were some of the most beautiful bites I've ever seen, but what made the place so special was that they were just as good to eat as they were to look at. On the other hand, the "esmeraldas de chocolate" at Arzak were also a great visual feat, but that didn't change the fact that they didn't taste like much. Presentation is undoubtedly a component of a great meal, but it can never make up for lackluster flavors.

4. there are few things as revelatory as an unexpected complementary combination of flavors. Arzak used herbs in desserts, particularly in combination with chocolate, to great effect (basil ice cream paired with chocolate spheres and a red wine sauce; a chocolate-rosemary ice cream that was just fantastic). Aloña Berri's pintxo pairing mackerel and foie gras, along with a crisped leek sprinkled with various flavors, worked perfectly. To me, these kinds of combinations - when they work - can make for some of the most magical dining moments.

5. Asian influences would seem to be Spain's trend du jour. Albert Raurich spent nearly ten years as El Bulli's chef de cuisine, but his new restaurant, Dos Palillos, is doing pretty straight-ahead Chinese and Japanese food with only a smattering of hints of his former job. Other places riffing on Asian themes, like Kabuki Wellington and Diverxo in Madrid, are also getting much attention. I wonder how much this may just be a reflection of Spanish food culture not being as familiar with Asian cuisines as perhaps we are here in the U.S., as the East/West thing doesn't seem all that groundbreaking to me.

6. Arzak is doing some interesting things with colors. The manipulation of color was a recurring theme in our meal at Arzak. The "bronzed" monkfish, with a sauce that also became speckled with bronze when another sauce was added tableside; the "perdigones" in iridescent silver and pink with the duck, the "esmeraldas" of chocolate with a shiny green shell made from spinach, were remarkable effects. But see 3 above - if the flavors aren't there, the dish will still disappoint.

7. Akelaŕe is doing some interesting things with echoing of flavors. It only occurred to me in retrospect, but one of the things that was common to many of our dishes at Akelaŕe was that the same flavor would be repeated in different forms in the same dish. The crab came as a cold shredded salad and a warm grilled claw, as well as in the coral "soil" underneath. Prawns were served over another "soil" made from dried ground prawn shells. Sole was served with an emulsified sauce made from the fish's cooking juices. Roasted suckling pig came with pools of "Iberian emulsion" which echoed the porcine flavors. Many of these dishes only had a few predominant flavors, a far cry from, for instance, Alinea dishes with "too many garnishes to list." This is not to say that one is any better than the other, only to note the dramatic difference between the approaches.

8. there's no good reason for any restaurant to be stuffy. Arzak and Akelaŕe are both Michelin 3-star restaurants, but there was not the slightest hint of stuffiness or haughtiness at either place. The restaurant staff at both places were warm, friendly and relaxed. Indeed, the solicitude that Juan Mari and Elena Arzak showed for everyone in the restaurant while we there - ourselves included - was one of the most memorable, and rewarding, things about our meal. Elena in particular is just one of the warmest, most genuine people you could ever have the good fortune to meet.

So that closes the chapter on our venture to Spain, and we'll now return, for the time being, at least, to the original premise of this blog - good eats in Miami and surrounds. Thanks for your patience.

*Given that his "Chopping Block" show lasted only a few episodes and nobody other than Mrs. F and I have seen the movie "Mystery Men," I doubt there is anyone else in the universe that will get this reference, but MPW's messianic "insights" on the show reminded me of none other than The Sphinx -"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions." "To learn my teachings, I must first teach you to learn." "When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack." Am I the only one who finds these things just a little bit formulaic? I know this guy was supposed to be one of the greatest chefs in England, but ... maybe it was the checkerboard Spicoli Vans that made it hard for me to take him seriously.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cuines Santa Caterina - Barcelona

Sometimes the most satisfying meals come when you're not really expecting them. I must have read about Cuines Santa Caterina before we left for Spain, but recall being leery at best - though I liked the idea of a restaurant tied to a market, I was wary of the menu description, which sounded like an unfocused hodge-podge of cuisines. But the afternoon before we left Barcelona, I found myself drawn to the market's multi-colored roof. Unfortunately, the market itself was closed, but its restaurant, Cuines Santa Caterina, was open and hopping.

Though it didn't look like much from the outside, the restaurant was deceptively large. The front holds a rectangular tapas bar with seating on all sides for a total of about 25 people, but the restaurant space stretches way back, with several different stations (a cold station for salads, a sushi station, and an open kitchen that seemed nearly half the length of a football field), with counter seating along the cooking stations and a combination of communal and regular tables throughout the rest of the room. Over the open kitchen, a huge display scrolls items from the menu in red LED lights, like a train-station departure list.

The menu was laid out as a grid, with the top of the page listing basic ingredient categories horizontally ("vegetables / rice / fish / meat / egg") and the left side listing different preparation styles ("vegetarian / mediterranean / oriental / grilled"). Then within the grid were the various menu items, organized both by primary ingredient and prep style. A little confusing at first, but after a little while it started to make sense.

I was very excited to see calçots on the menu, after having just seen them in the stalls at the nearby Boqueria market. Calçots are a Catalan thing, wherein they take a white onion bulb, replant it, and then cover the shoots with earth as they grow from the bulb, yielding tender, sweet, leek-shaped onions. They were flame-roasted until completely blackened on the outside, and served steaming hot on a terra-cotta shingle. Eating them is a messy, finger-searing business, which requires pulling down the blackened outer layers of the calçot to reveal the tender white steaming center, which is dipped in romesco sauce and then eaten sword-swallower style, often involving some quite inelegant contortions. These were fresh, sweet, and absolutely delicious, simply the best onions I've ever had.

While I blackened my fingers and twisted around dangling onions over my head, Mrs. F had an appetizer of a a provoleta, a dish of grilled provolone cheese that I've always associated with Argentina. Here, it was served bubbling hot in a cazuela, topped with a dice of tomato and a nice, pungently herbal and garlicky pesto. Very good and almost too much food for an appetizer. She followed with some delicious grilled baby calamares, served with shaved asparagus and a dribble of sauce of the squid's ink. I had a very nice rice dish, made to order and served in a cast iron pan, with wild mushrooms, butifarra sausage, morcilla, and chicken. The rice was permeated throughout with the aroma of the mushrooms, and had nice crispy bits around the edges.

I had low expectations and they were vastly exceeded, indeed everything we had was just great. I have no idea if everything on the ambitious menu is of the same quality, but after our experience, I'd be willing to try.

Cuines Santa Caterina
Avnda. Francesc Cambó 16
Barcelona 08003
93 268 99 18

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

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

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.