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

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Restaurante Arzak - San Sebastian

I mentioned briefly earlier how one of the things I find so enjoyable about Spain is the happy confluence of the old and the new. Ancient buildings stand side-by-side with contemporary architectural creations like the arched glass Bilbao Metro entrances designed by Norman Foster (hence, "Fosteritos"), to say nothing, of course, of the iconic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao. Madrid's Prado Museum, a bastion of classical art, displays an exhibition of modern master Francis Bacon, in a newer contemporary wing built right onto the back of the 18th century building. And often, even the most cutting edge food has roots that go back several generations.

Arzak is generally regarded as one of the high temples of modern gastromony, and for good reason. But its origins were much humbler. The restaurant is housed in a building which was constructed more than 100 years ago and operated by Juan Mari Arzak's grandparents as a tavern. When his parents took it over, they began to run a restaurant, which Juan Mari Arzak began working at in 1966, and over time undertook the process of reconceptualizing and reinventing Basque cuisine. Now, with Juan Mari's daughter Elena intimately involved in the operation of the restaurant, the baton is being passed yet again from one generation to the next (the fourth generation to be in the hospitality business at this site, spanning more than a century).

Arzak is a humble unassuming place from the outside, and even when you step through the entrance, the scene that greets you is of a very traditional-looking wood bar and a couple comfy chairs scattered around what looks, more than anything else, like someone's living room. From there, we were led into a dining room that was considerably more modern - mostly black and white, with walls of rough grey concrete bearing the imprints of various silverware.* Despite the monochrome scheme, the room manages to avoid feeling too sterile. There's no particular dress code and we saw people in all different states of dressed-up to dressed-down.

The tasting menu as initially presented was amusingly brief - I'm not exaggerating much to say that it read to the effect of "apertivos / pescados / carne / dulce ...". Obviously there was plenty more in store. While there was also a standard menu of apps and mains, of course we were there for the tasting menu, and were happy to learn that there were two options available for most of the courses. As a result, we got to try 13 different dishes, aside from apertivos and post-desserts.

A quick word on photographs before I begin describing our meal. While the restaurant allowed us to take pictures, it was solely on the condition that they be for our personal consumption only. I have sworn to none other than Juan Mari Arzak himself that I wouldn't circulate the pictures, and I will keep that promise. As I mentioned before leaving for this trip, I have mixed feelings about the photography thing myself, and while I can only speculate as to the reasons a chef might have for not wanting pictures of his food circulated - the desire to protect techniques or presentations, the goal of preserving the surprise element of a meal, or even just a reluctance to let some hack's crappy photos make your food look bad - I will respect that wish.

Look, I think one of the more interesting things about what's happening in the current "food scene" is the "open source" nature of it, with chefs like Grant Achatz not only putting out cookbooks that pull no punches as to Alinea's methods and techniques, but going even further and running a website - Mosaic - to serve as an ongoing forum for discussion; plus dozens of other chefs with websites and blogs that regularly and happily share information. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to play along or play the same way. The Arzak family has a lot more invested in their restaurant than I invested in our 2-top tasting menu, and particularly given the incredibly warm hospitality we experienced throughout our meal, I have no problem with their position. As a result we're left with my meager descriptive abilities to try to capture the essence of our meal.

Anyway, on to the food -

We were started with a selection of apertivos (I'd consider using "amuse bouche" but I'm not sure whether the plural should be "amuses bouche" or "amuse bouches"), some brought out on our plates, others on a display box that was lit up from underneath.

On the plate -
puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos - a light mousse of scorpion-fish (or rockfish?) wrapped in what was described as fried fideos (angel-hair pasta), but which appeared to me to be kataifi or shredded filo. A good example of the old/new thing. The presentation here was completely modern, but given the abundance of recipes I find online for "puding de kabraroka or "pastel de kabraroka," my guess is that this is a variation on a traditional Basque dish.
bola de setas y polvo de maiz - a spherified orb of wild mushroom, sprinkled with crispy bits of dried corn.
caldito de alubia negra con queso - a little shot glass of black bean soup, topped with a frothy head of liquified white cheese.

On the display box -
raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki - slivers of lotus root chips, sandwiched around a creamy mousse of "arraitxiki", which I can only discern is some common local fish.
arroz crujiente con hongos - crispy puffed rice crackers (flavored with saffron?) sandwiched around a mushroom mousse.

All very nice nibbles to start the meal, the standout for me was the black bean soup, which was light but powerfully flavored, really one of the best I've had. As for the mushroom sphere - I've now seen the spherification technique enough times that it no longer holds any awe or mystery for me. Which is just as well, as far as I'm concerned, because it means I can evaluate a particular iteration based on the most meaningful test alone - does it taste good? Does the technique advance the flavor? Or is it merely gratuitous or gimmicky? Here, I thought the sphere carried the mushroom flavor nicely, and provided a good textural contrast against the light crispiness of the corn dust.

manzana con aceite de foie - three small disks of sliced, sauteed apple, each topped with a round of "foie oil," presumably the fat thrown off when cooking foie gras, though more solid like butter rather than liquid like oil, and then topped with a little sprinkle of sugar and brûléed. A wonderful pairing of flavors and textures, with the slight bitterness of the foie fat balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and the caramelized sugar.

ostras vegetales - two plump oysters bathing in a tart sauce, sprinkled with briny sea beans and capers.

bogavante con aceite de oliva "extra blanco" - a beautifully tender lobster, served over a bed of white olive oil powder (typically made using maltodextrin), which was then topped tableside with a spiraling pour of broth that re-emulsified and partially liquified the olive oil powder. To some degree I thought it was a shame to do so, as when done right I enjoy the texture and flavor sensation of these powdered fats as they "rehydrate" in your mouth. A little salad of tiny greens and herbs was presented with the lobster, in a separate bowl. These little "side dishes" were something of a recurring element of our dinner, and sometimes (as described below) I didn't understand the purpose of the separate presentation.

cigalas sobre liquer de hongos y algas - two langoustine tails, again just wonderfully fresh and perfectly tender. The printed menu we received after our meal says "liquer de hongos y algas" but what I recall is a yellow corn sauce flecked with corn kernels and infused with a hint of vanilla, along with a translucently thin, golden brown crispy chip. Alongside in a separate bowl was another langoustine tail, this one over a bed of tiny sprouts. I don't know why.

del huevo a la gallina - "from the egg to the chicken?" Arzak's answer to the perennial riddle, this was the only course where we both received the same dish, and it was a good one. A translucently thin, bright yellow sheet of egg yolk is wrapped like a cylindrical tent balanced in a shallow bowl. Lurking within is a perfectly cooked "Arzak egg" (wrapped in plastic wrap with goose fat and truffle oil before poaching - and yes, that link is a recipe from AARP online magazine! For another take, here's a spin on it from Ideas in Food), generously flecked on top with fresh black truffle shavings. Tableside, a warm chicken broth is poured over the yellow tent, which softens and begins to melt, making a sauce for the egg. Just a great dish all around, both presentation and flavor, though the egg was wanting of a tiny pinch of salt.

rape bronceado - "bronzed" monkfish. The monkfish itself was given a light glaze that gave a reddish-orange hue on the outside edges (making it look even more like the "poor man's lobster" it is often called), and again, perfectly cooked. It was plated with a medium-brown jus (which again, I believe may have been chicken) which then had another sauce spooned over tableside; as the second sauce hits the first, it produces vibrant, shiny bronze pools, almost like the iridescent look of an oil slick. Accompanying on a separate plate were a couple of bright bronze "crackers," really more like paper, folded into abstract origami-like shapes. I believe Elena Arzak (both Elena and Juan Mari visited each of the tables multiple times throughout the night) explained that the paper is made primarily with onion, and the color comes from a product that is typically used in baking. Very cool stuff, and the use of color was clearly a recurring theme throughout the meal, a subject Elena apparently addressed at Madrid Fusion a couple months ago.

lenguado con aceite de jengibre y pan de coco - two filets of sole stacked on top of each other, surrounded by several little disks of melon, along with several little cubes of croutons (described as "pan de coco" but I couldn't discern the coconut), with a ginger-inflected sauce and a scatter of tiny, brightly colored green and red sprouts on top. Light and elegant.

pato azulón con perdigones dulces - "azulón" means dark blue, I believe, though honestly the duck didn't look all that blue to me. It did have a dark glaze on the outside while still being red within, so maybe this was a play on the American steakhouse order of "black and blue" (though I kind of doubt it) [edited to add: an astute reader has relieved me of my ignorance on "azulón" and "perdigones" - check the comments below]. In retrospect, the shape of the duck was interesting, more like a thick-cut beef tenderloin than a duck breast, perhaps it had been re-shaped with Activa. Surrounding the duck were several spheres (the "perdigones dulces," which I believe translates to "sweet pellets," presumably like some sort of candy) again with just sensational colors - a couple a soft shiny pink, a few others an even shinier silver. The pink ones tasted predominantly to me of sherry vinegar, while the flavor of the silver ones was somewhat indistinct. The duck itself was just a bit tough (though Mrs. F ordered this medium, a degree more than I would have). A delicate little salad of baby frisee, topped with a little crispy cracker flecked with pine nuts and sesame seeds, was served alongside.

foie con "tejote" - several triangles of nicely seared foie gras, plated with several little "lozenges" of a jelled raspberry along with some crispy little chocolate bits, then supplemented tableside with a vibrant yellow corn sauce. I loved the combination of the foie with the crispy chocolate bits, but this really sung with all of the components combined. A glass of Sauternes was poured to accompany. Another of my favorites for the meal. (Can anyone help with the "tejote" reference? The only translation I can find refers to a "molcajete y tejote", or mortar and pestle).

From here, we shifted over to the sweet side of things:

sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos" - (soup and chocolate "among vineyards") it seems Arzak has been doing variations on this dish for some time. This particular version took the form of six chocolate spheres, arranged in a triangle like billiard balls in a rack, in a bowl with a sweetened red (wine, I presume) soup, along with a scoop of a vibrant green basil ice cream. The item that really jumped out, in a good way, here was the basil ice cream, whose flavor matched the vibrancy of its color. I would have liked a more potent chocolate flavor in the chocolate spheres, particularly to hold their own against the ice cream.

esmeraldas de chocolate con láminas de rosquillas - three disks of an incredible dark, slightly iridescent green were plated within a ring of lightly golden powder (presumably a powder of doughnuts, which it seems is the translation for "rosquillas"). The disks contained fluffy chocolate within and the emerald color of the outside casing was, we were told, derived from spinach (always nice to get some vegetables with your dessert). While these were beautiful to look at, I thought they were - like the chocolate spheres in the other dessert above - somewhat muted in flavor. A sidecar of a chocolate ice cream infused with rosemary, on the other hand, was just fantastic, providing an interesting reiteration of the chocolate and green (herb, this time) combination.

bizcocho esponjoso de yogur - another absolutely beautiful dessert,this one was composed of yogurt sponge cake (I'm guessing this was made using a variation on the Adria microwave sponge cake method described, among other places, here), along with pools of coconut pudding and shards of thin dried pineapple, along with little branches of chocolate, all arranged to look like a coral reef. Just stunning, and great flavors too.

dulce lunático - what looked like three caramel turtle candies in fact were just a thin candy shell enclosing a brightly tart gushing liquid center. Served on a plate with several round darkly colored, slightly jelled discs of sauce, and a white powder, however, I had trouble making out the flavors of these. Didn't fully "get" this dish. However, I did love the calabaza ice cream that came as a sidecar, further enhanced, I believe with mace.

At some point, one of our servers heard Mrs. F mention that this was something of a 15th anniversary dinner for us (though not actually our anniversary, we do try to take our "sans kids" trip every year around our anniversary, and it was reasonably close) and they brought out a beautiful box constructed of milk and white chocolate sheets, enclosing within them a lovely layered chocolate cake, topped with a chocolate "15". An incredibly thoughtful and unbidden gesture, and delicious too. No gripes here about lack of flavor, this restored and revived my love for good milk chocolate.

A nice selection of petit-fours closed the meal, including chocolate candies with finely chopped corn-nuts, chocolate shards layered with caramel, cubes of pineapple jellies, and very nice little white bean truffles.

The wine list had a broad selection of young and old wines, we went in the latter direction and had a 1982 Bodegas Lan Rioja Viña Lanciano Reserve, which was absolutely beautiful, still with lots of life in it. Also a couple glasses of muscatel to accompany the desserts.

It is impossible to describe the experience of dining at Arzak without mentioning the gracious hospitality of Juan Mari Arzak and daughter Elena Arzak as well as all of the restaurant staff. From the moment you walk through the front door, you feel welcomed as a guest, not simply a customer. Both Juan Mari and Elena walked through the dining room and greeted each table, but it was not merely a quick cameo appearance. Indeed, both of them came back and visited again multiple times throughout the meal, making sure everyone was happy, and gladly answering questions and providing explanations of the dishes. And not to take anything away from Juan Mari, but Elena Arzak is quite simply one of the most gracious, graceful, warm and endearing people you will ever meet - as well as prodigiously talented. The future of Arzak seems to be in good hands.

Avenida Alcade Elosegui 273
San Sebastian 20015
943 278 465

*We were, despite being non-smokers, seated in the smokers' dining room as the non-smoking room was already fully booked. Ironically, there was only one table of maybe a half-dozen seated that I noticed lighting up, and while it was a brief and unwelcome distraction, it wasn't that big of a deal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pintxos in San Sebastian

tapas bar
From friends, tour guides, and food and travel TV shows, we'd been conditioned to believe that San Sebastian was a kind of culinary Wonderland, with more Michelin stars per capita than possibly anywhere else on earth, and tapas bars lining the streets with riotous displays, each trying to top the next. Well, unlike the South Florida real estate market, Bernie Madoff's rate of return, and many other things that sound too good to be true, San Sebastian really is everything people say it is.

In early March, it was still off-season in San Sebastian, and we were regularly deluged with rain and even hail. But it was easy to see why San Sebastian becomes one of the great playgrounds of all Europe in the more temperate months. Its setting on the Bay of Biscay, situated on two massive, impossibly perfectly curved arcs of beach (Zurriola to the east and La Concha to the west), with hills rising up around either side, is almost ridiculously picturesque. And the sheer abundance, quality and variety of the pintxos (the Basque variant on tapas) to be found in such a multitude of local bars is truly staggering indeed. It really is much like being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but without the risk of blowing up into a gigantic blueberry like Violet Beauregard ("Stop. Don't.").

Though we had a couple high-end restaurant meals already booked before we came, we saved a couple days for sampling the pintxos of San Sebastian. It took us a little practice to navigate the etiquette of pintxos-eating. In some places you'd just ask for a plate and serve yourself, while in others the system was point and ask. Most bars have hot items that aren't displayed but are listed somewhere, usually on a board or occasionally on a menu, which have to be ordered. These were often some of the best items, notwithstanding the incredible displays of cold items laid out on the bars. For locating and researching these places, I found the website, Todopintxos, to be a very useful resource. The Hotel Villa Soro, about a 10-minute walk from the Barrio Gros, made a great home base for exploring San Sebastian.

The following are my notes from tours of the Parte Vieja (the old quarter, on the west side of town) and the Barrio Gros (newer part of town on the east side). There are literally dozens of places we did not get to, and it seems you could devote a happy lifetime to investigating each bar's specialties.


Bar Aralar - not particularly on any recommended list, this just happened to be open and in the right spot for us as the rain started coming down especially furiously. Yet it's a great example of what is so wonderful about San Sebastian. We were just looking for someplace to dry out for a couple minutes, ducked through the door, and were greeted with a tableau at the bar of maybe a couple dozen different brightly colored pintxos, a couple gleaming chrome beer taps, and a dozen hams hanging from the ceiling. The tuna-stuffed piquillo pepper was nice, as was a plump artichoke wrapped in bacon. A pintxo topped with a vibrant greenish white seafood spread tasted mostly of pickles, and I couldn't make out what else was in it. A very old-school place, where the bartender simply asks whether you want a small plate or a large plate so as to take items for yourself, and then charges on the honor system as to how many pintxos you had. Clearly a spot that has its regulars - it was amusing to watch as the bartender began to pour drinks for a few people as soon as they'd entered the door, before they'd uttered a word.

Gandarias Taberna - a warm pintxo of queso cabra wrapped with bacon was delicious; even better was one described as "milhojas de manitas y hongos", a layered concoction of shredded pigs' trotter meat and thin slivers of porcini mushroom. A brochette of cordero (lamb) was only OK, as was a pintxo topped with angulas (baby eels) and piquillo. They had a large selection of wines by the glass with all of them held in one of those high-tech Enomatic dispensers.

La Cepa - we caught the tortilla with bacalao as it was coming from the oven, and it was absolutely delicious. A little sampler of their chorizo was also excellent. The "gabilla," a croqueta type thing with big chunks of pork, serrano ham, and cheese, didn't do it for me. We should have taken the hint from the chorizo, as their specialty seems to be their Jabugo ham products.

La Cuchara de San Telmo - this place had been recommended by numerous sources and perhaps our expectations were too high, or perhaps we ordered poorly. It's a shoebox of a place, and difficult to find, with a barely discernable sign, and a street address on the "Plazuela del Valle Lersundi" which perhaps ought to be called a "Plazuelita" as it's not much more than a tiny indentation off Calle 31 de Agosto. Once inside there's a narrow, drafty bar area with room for about 8 place settings and at the back of the room a tiny, roughly 4'x8' kitchen. More contemporary in approach, everything is made to order. A canelon de morcilla was pretty good, the pasta filled with a rich oozy blood sausage, and the dish brightened up with a stripe of an herbaceous green sauce. The problem I had was that pretty much everything we ordered had almost the exact same presentation. The foie with manzana brought a seared hunk of foie gras served over a bed of apple puree, with again the same stripe of green sauce; and then a duck breast (slightly overcooked and tough) came over a bed of orange puree, with yet again the same green stripe of sauce. Any one of them individually I would have thought were good, but when ordered together gave the impression of a one-trick pony. Again, maybe just a case of poor ordering.


Aloña Berri - perhaps in contast to La Cuchara de San Telmo, I thought Aloña Berri was absolutely everything it was cracked up to be. They describe themselves as "alta cocina en miniatura" and the description is apt. It seems almost absurd to call a one-bite item a "dish," but many of Aloña Berri's creations are so remarkably layered and architectural both in flavor and literal structure that it seems appropriate. These were some truly awe-inspiring and delicious things.

guillerThis is a pintxo that came in an Asian soup spoon, one bite, more than a half-dozen components. From bottom to top, a puddle of creamy confited bacalao, topped with a smooth eggplant puree, hollandaise sauce, quail egg, aioli, trout roe, crispy fried spinach leaf, and a sliver of fried purple potato. Beautiful and delicious.

This one was possibly even more impressive. Mackerel, stuffed with foie gras and glazed with what I believe was a pan sauce bolstered with some vinegar, on top of which is balanced a long sliver of fried leek, sprinkled upon which are various salty, sweet and other flavor components - green herb powder, demerara sugar, trout roe ... you fold the sliver of leek upon itself and eat the whole thing, getting the sensations of each of the powders as you find them. All of which is to say nothing of the combination of the rich oily mackerel with the rich oily foie, a great take on a mar y montaña similar to the combination of eel and foie you see in some higher-end Japanese restaurants these days.

Bar Bergara - Bergara is a much more straight-ahead kind of style than Aloña Berri but everything we had was quite good, including a pintxo topped with juicy sweet diced tomatoes and a scatter of slivered fried onions, another with a bacalao "meatball" and a similar topping of fried onions, and one topped with salad rusa, shredded hard-boiled egg and a shrimp on top.

Casa Senra - when you see more than a half dozen different croquetas listed on the menu, including with clams and green sauce and with chipirones (baby squid), the clear message is "Get the croquetas". By an accident of translation we got the morcilla croquetas rather than the almejas I had sought, but they were still very good, scooped using an ice cream scoop, lightly crispy outside, tender and oozy inside, studded with bits of sausage. I wasn't aiming for the croquetas de morcilla because we'd also ordered the "morcillitas," a skinny home-made blood sausage that was creamy and redolent with spice, served with a green garlic olive oil emulsion and piquillo peppers. A bocata of fried eggplant, sauteed onions, bacon and cheese was also very satisfying.

The amazing thing to me is that for every place we tried, there are probably a half dozen we missed. Even more amazing, for every pintxo we tried at each of those places, there were probably a dozen or more that we skipped. Consistent 12-13% return, year after year after year? Don't believe it. San Sebastian, culinary mecca? Believe it.

Bar Aralar
Calle Puerto 10
San Sebastian
943 42 63 78

Gandarias Taberna
Calle 31 de Agosto 23
San Sebastian
943 42 63 62

La Cepa
Calle 31 de Agosto 7
San Sebastian
943 42 63 94

La Cuchara de San Telmo
Plazuela del Valle Lersundi
San Sebastian

Aloña Berri
Calle Bermingham 24
San Sebastian
943 29 08 18

Bar Bergara
Calle General Artexte 8
San Sebastian
943 27 50 26

Casa Senra
Calle San Francisco 32
San Sebastian
943 29 38 19

Monday, March 16, 2009

Goizeko Wellington - Madrid

For our final meal in Madrid before heading north to San Sebastian, we went to Goizeko restaurant, part of the Goizeko Gaztelupe group which includes five restaurants in Madrid and Bilbao under the supervision of Chef Jesús Santos. Yes, I know it's odd to be going to a Basque place in Madrid, right before we head off to Basque country, but it was recommended by a dear client whose opinions I trust, and we were looking for something lighter and seafood-focused before hopping on a plane the next day. Besides which, our San Sebastian meals were going to be more on the alta cocina (or should I say "modern gastronomy") side of things, so Goizeko provided an opportunity for more traditional Basque fare, though still with some updated contemporary flair. It all worked out just fine.

Goizeko is located in the Hotel Wellington in the Salamanca neighborhood, but you would have no idea it was there unless you knew to ask. We did so at the front desk, and were steered through the posh lobby lounge to a small door literally at the very back of the room, which but for a tiny sign reading "Goizeko" might have been a broom closet for all appearances' sake. When we emerged on the other side, we walked into a restaurant that was more airily modern than the rest of the hotel, with mostly cream and gold and light wood surfaces all over. This is a fairly sizable hotel restaurant and business was pretty quiet while we were there (on a Tuesday night), though there was a large group of diners in a private upstairs room.

We started off with something I've long wanted to try, percebes de Cedeira. Percebes, a/k/a goose barnacles, are harvested along the coast of Galicia (apparently with no small degree of drama and peril) and look somewhat like an amputated alien claw or limb (as you can sort of see from the photo above - sorry no actual pix from the restaurant). An order for two people brought roughly a couple dozen of these beautiful but strange-looking (and expensive) things. As we dumbly stared and marveled like the apes before the monolith, our server deduced that we'd never had them before and happily (1) retrieved bibs; and (2) showed us what to do. Eating percebes involves bending them to snap through the shell of the tube part - "abajo!" ("down!"), our server quickly cautioned me to avoid spraying myself with its juices - which exposes a little nubbin of meat inside. The texture is just slightly resilient and bouncy, not so much as a clam, almost more like a cooked mushroom, and the taste is just like the unbridled essence of the sea - briny, with a tiny whiff of iodine, and utterly pleasing. We absolutely loved these.

I followed the percebes with an app that was a variation on an ensaladilla rusa. For some reason that I don't fully understand myself, I am mental for the salad rusa or "Russian Salad," a concoction of cubed cooked potatoes, carrots and peas bound together generously with mayonaise (and sometimes some good canned tuna). What's so great about that? I dunno. It does something for me. Goizeko's version took the classic salad rusa and turned it into croquetas, scooped into large balls and lightly fried (almost like a tempura batter on the outside of them), which were also bolstered with herring roe, adding a light seafood flavor and an interesting textural note. Mrs. F had a lobster salad, a large claw taken out of the shell and plated with a nice toss of greens, an interesting touch that the salad was dressed in part with a slightly gelled sherry vinaigrette on the bottom of the plate.

Goizeko's menu, in addition to the usual pescados and carnes, has a section of "classics" for old-school dishes. I ordered the pochas y almejas from this section of the menu, a classic combination of white beans and clams. The stew was absolutely delicious, the beans and their thick broth completely suffused with the strong, fresh brine of the clams. A simple dish but a satisfying one, the only complaint being a surprising paucity of actual clams (less than a half-dozen shells in the whole dish). Mrs. F had grilled calamares that were wonderfully fresh and perfectly cooked.

I sadly cannot recall the producer of the Txakoli we had with dinner, which the sommelier recommended when I told him of my fondness for the Basque white. The wine, which had a few years bottle age on it (I had never even considered Txakoli as remotely age-worthy) traded the spritzy freshness of a new Txakoli for an intruiging salinity, while still having that bracingly palate-refreshing acidity. The wine list (the whites, anyway, where I was looking given our seafood-centric ordering) happily was chock full of options in the € 30-40 range.

For dessert I thought I was humoring Mrs. F's chocolate cravings but it turned out I pleased one of my own particular food fetishes as well. One of my fond childhood food memories is of Baskin-Robbins' Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet, a dark, almost black chocolate sherbet spiked with a well-balanced whiff of orange (in retrospect, a surprisingly sophisticated item for 1970's Baskin-Robbins).* They rarely had it in our local store and I recall my parents would get particularly excited when they did. What a delightful surprise to find the flavor duplicated almost exactly in Goizeko's "chocolate y naranja en texturas." The dessert presented several variations on the chocolate/orange combo - a gelato that was nearly a dead ringer for my Baskin-Robbins favorite (and trust me, that's a compliment in this camp); balanced upon a sheet of dark chocolate flavored with orange; hidden underneath which was a lighter chocolate mousse ringed with little crunchy bits; interpersed around which was some candied orange peel; all on the back of a turtle (just kidding on that last part).

We found the service to be very friendly, helpful, and eager to please, which proved to be a pretty consistent theme of our entire visit (what can I tell you, coming from Miami this comes as a real shock). Goizeko was a great experience and I was happy we found it.

Next - pintxos in San Sebastian.

Goizeko Wellington
Hotel Wellington
Calle Villanueva 34
91 577 01 38

*I am not alone in my obsession.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Future of Fine Dining?

A brief, but somewhat topical, digression before returning to regularly scheduled Spain trip programming. This article, "Should Fine Dining Die?" by Anya von Bremzen in Food & Wine, is an excellent read. Her latest cookbook The New Spanish Table is great too, with lots of solid recipes (I've successfully made several) including a number contributed by some of Spain's top chefs, as well as some good background on Spain's different regions and their foods.

Having just happily experienced a couple Michelin 3-stars, I'm firmly in the "Why can't we all just get along?" camp on this subject. If you don't like fine dining, nobody is going to make you sit through it (Mrs. F might have an argument on this point). But I think it will always have its partisans (though the number of people who can afford it is surely declining, which is another issue entirely) and practitioners, and tend to agree with the conclusion of the article that these places will generally continue to be on the vanguard of creativity and experimentation as long as they have the resources available to them. I will have some further deeper thoughts on what I perceived to be the refreshingly un-snobby Spanish approach to fine dining either along the way or upon the conclusion of my Spain updates.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Restaurante Viridiana - Madrid

Restaurante Viridiana is the creation of chef Abraham García, a true Renaissance man. Aside from being a successful chef, he is a film historian ("Viridiana" is also the name of a 1961 movie by Luis Buñuel, and the restaurant is decorated throughout with stills from various Buñuel movies), and a regular blogger on El Mundo. How many menus quote from James Joyce's Ulysses? Given his affinity for one of the original surrealists (a take on Buñuel that might be somewhat overplayed as a a description of his overall body of work), you might expect García's food to be way "out there," but in our couple meals there, a few years apart, I've found his technique and overall approach to be fairly traditional, though happily borrowing flavors and spices from around the globe, Latin America in particular. However, while our first dinner there a few years ago was one of those almost perfect, transcendent experiences (which surely we have come to mythicize over time), our recent visit was more hit-and-miss, though still a fine meal.

Still on American time, we showed up several minutes before 9pm and were the first to arrive at the restaurant (the host looked to still be putting on his tie), but we were graciously received and seated. It's a small, intimate place, no more than a dozen tables total, and a few more groups of diners filtered in shortly after us. Service was very friendly and helpful, though todos en español.* We were started with a couple apertivos before our orders arrived. The first was a soup of curried lentil supplemented with king crab meat - warming and nicely (not overpoweringly) spiced, though the crab was mostly lost. That was followed by an interesting salad of fresh leaves (radicchio, a beautiful and bracingly bitter red-leaf lettuce, several different brightly flavored sprouts), various pickled things (a tid-bit of herring, a pickled onion, a cube of some sort of pickled vegetable), an olive-oil soaked sun-dried tomato, a few slices of very nice chorizo, and a crescent of luscious fresh melon. Very refreshing and a nice wake-up for the appetite.

Dinner took something of a detour from there. For an app, I had a dish described as "arroz meloso con costillas de cerdo, senderuelas, y langostinos del sur," (even though they had English menus, I like using the Spanish because it reads to me like poetry - the English translations usually sound so much more pedestrian). The dish was a nice spin on a mar y montaña (surf-n-turf - interesting how that concept has its Spanish analogue), and the senderuelas - which I believe were translated on an English menu as "fairy ring mushrooms" - gave a nice flavor to the creamy, rich rice. The shrimp (not langoustines - Spanish names for many seafood items differ from here in the U.S. and I'm still sorting out the many different genres) were separately grilled and laid over the top to avoid overcooking. But the pork ribs unfortunately were chipping off little bone shards everywhere, making their way into just about every bite. Now unlike some people, I have no issue whatsoever with eating food from the bone (as my main course will attest) but this was a very unpleasant distraction.

Mrs. F meanwhile started with the dish that had made us go all goggle-eyed from our first visit - "huevos de corral sobre mousse de hongos ("boletas edulis") y trufas negras ("tuber melanosporum") (parentheticals - excluding this one - in the original, not added by me (which I note due to my own personal predeliction for parentheticals)). This is a farm-fresh fried egg, served in an iron skillet with a mushroom (specifically, porcini) mousse, topped with a generous shaving of fresh black truffles. The first time we had this dish at Viridiana, it would have easily made a list of Top 10 Things I've Eaten. Yet somehow this time it didn't quite hold up to the memory. The egg was just as delicious (why are the eggs in Spain so much better than our eggs? And why do the yolks glow with that beautiful sunset orange color?), but the mousse seemed somewhat flat, whereas last time it was light and frothy and simultaneously more redolent with mushroom flavor. And the truffle, despite the generous dusting, did little to share its magical perfume with the dish (perhaps just a result of it being later in the truffle season than our last visit and the truffles not being as fresh). Still good, just not on the same level as our memory of the dish.

For a main, I had the tuétanos de ternera, the most shockingly abundant order of marrow bones I have ever seen. There were at least 8 big fat marrow bones crowded onto the plate, with nothing else other than a pile of toasted slices of pan integral and a small salad of baby arugula and pomegranate seeds (which was unfortunately literally bathing in way too much dressing). For those of us who love marrow, this is all we need for a happy meal. The bones were roasted perfectly, the marrow pulling out of them hot and quivering but still intact, ready to be shmeared onto a toast and quickly steered to the mouth. García is clearly a big fan of the oft-neglected "fifth quarter" or offal, indeed has devoted a whole cookbook to offal recipes, "De Tripas Corazón."

Mrs. F went in another direction for a main, having the "skrei (bacalao fresco) a la parilla con mojo de chile chipotle." Skrei (I learned post-dinner through the magic of Google) is a Norwegian (not Basque, as I'd assumed) word for fresh Arctic cod, and in particular is a designation used only when it is caught in the months from January through March as the fish return to the Norwegian coast for spawning. The fish, supposedly "in its prime, full of energy and fertility" is in perfect condition for eating. Even better, it seems that because of strong Norwegian regulation, the skrei, unlike many other cod populations, is sustainably fished. I'm usually not a big fan of the flaky white fish varieties, but this was quite lushly textured and good eating. In fact, on tasting it Mrs. F and I both assumed it had been oil-poached in some manner, yet the menu's description indicates only a simple grilling. Given Chef García's fondness for offal, I'm surprised, having read how the Norwegians also treasure the liver and roe of the skrei, that these did not make their way into the dish. The sauce which accompanied was an interesting cross-cultural amalgam, somewhere between a Mexican mole and a Catalan romescu. Some soft-cooked raf tomatoes and garlic-laden slices of eggplant accompanied. We saw these sweet raf tomatoes in restaurants and markets throughout our trip, a green-and-red striped, somewhat knobby thing for which the Spaniards apparently happily pay about 3x more than a regular tomato.

We drank a 2001 C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Riserva with dinner, a nice elegant Rioja with just a bit of age on it and plenty of life. Really nice to be able to find a wine like that at only €62. Not sure how to appropriately factor in exchange rate, but the original retail release price on this wine was $48 US.

Instead of dessert we opted for cheeses, which brought an interesting assortment - an Idiazabal, a Torta del Casar, a Cabrales, a Marcellin, and an Epoisses. Little bowls of a sweet tomato jam and membrillo accompanied. The Torta del Casar was probably my favorite, the Marcellin still being a little too firm and the Epoisses also not quite fully ripe (though for other diners, perhaps all for the best - Epoisses is a legendarily stinky washed-rind cheese, so stinky that it is supposedly banned from public transport in its native France). Our waiter confessed to us that he hates the stuff, but "the chef loves it."

Though we overall had a fine meal, there were a couple really glaring off-notes (the bony rice, the side salad with the marrow bones swimming in dressing) that surprised me, even aside from the egg and mushroom dish not quite living up to our memory of it. An off-night? Perhaps even literally so. We were there on a Monday night, which is often "chef's night off" here in the U.S. Maybe it was true at Viridiana as well.

Restaurante Viridiana
Calle Juan de Mena 14
Madrid 28014
91 523 44 78

*Which is fine by me - Mrs. F has some conversational Spanish skills and I have a savant-like ability to read menus and recognize most food words. I understand Spanish sort of like dogs understand human speech - I hear the words I need to know. Like a dog hears "blah blah blah BONE blah blah RIDE blah blah BOWL blah blah WALK," I hear "blah blah GAMBAS blah blah JAMON blah blah HUEVOS," and understand enough to know something good is about to happen.

Madrid - Tapas and Such

Our first day in Madrid started propitiously. After arriving from Miami early in the morning, we swung by our hotel expecting to simply drop off our bags, and were instead told they would have a room available for us within a half hour (this at 9 a.m.). Early check-in is a much appreciated thing after an overnight flight. Indeed, pretty much everything was perfect at the Villa Real and we have generally had very good experiences with all of the Derby Hotels group.

Madrid pastries
After fortifying ourselves with some coffee and pan con tomate, and ogling the pastries in the window of this bakery that invariably draws a clutch of old ladies also ogling the pastries, we did some sightseeing and fortuitously (or so I would have Mrs. F believe) ended up around the Cava Baja for lunchtime. While a true tapas crawl requires some reserve and discretion, getting only a couple little bites at one place (hopefully the best it has to offer) before moving on to the next, frankly we were too tired and hungry to be so judicious. We settled in at the first promising place we saw for lunch, which happened to be Casa Lucas. We lucked out. Casa Lucas is a simple, modest-looking place with a small bar and about a half-dozen or so tables with blocky modern wood chairs scattered about. We sat down just before the lunch rush, which was a good thing as the place rapidly filled to standing-room-only (and barely that) as we ate. They offer a choice of several montaditos (which is what I've generally seen "things on bread" called, though didn't see the term used much in Madrid, where they were simply called "tapas" or occasionally "pinchos", a variation on the Basque "pintxo"), as well as a number of other prepared dishes served in larger "racion" portions.

We started with a couple each of their "Mancha" and "Madrid" pinchos, and followed with a racion of the "fardos de calamares." All were delicious. The "Mancha" was topped with a pisto (a/k/a ratatouille), along with a fried quail egg and a sprinkle of slivers of crispy bacon. The pisto was brightly flavored, sweet and rich with olive oil, and the whole combination worked wonderfully. The "Madrid," topped with a shmear of a sweet tomato jam and a tender, unctuous revuelto of eggs scrambled with morcilla and onions, was even better. The calamari dish, perhaps due to my extremely limited knowledge of Spanish, was not at all what I expected. For some reason I was anticipating something stuffed. Instead, what came out were several long strips of calamari, wrapped in the middle with a strip of bacon, the whole thing fried, served over a generous dollop of aioli, along with a couple quenelles of a black squid ink mousse and a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. (I later figured out that "fardos" means "bales"). The strips of calamari baled together almost looked like some sort of reconstructed squid, and this dish somehow managed to come off as refined and goofy at the same time. The calamari was very good, but the game-changing element was the squid ink mousse. Not sure what the mousse was constituted of, but it went beautifully with the crispy strips of squid. Of all the tapas places we noshed at in Madrid, this is the one that really stood out. If I had one complaint, it was that so many of their items were only available in "racion" portions (and priced accordingly), which limits the variety of things you can sample.

That evening, we stayed close to home base and meandered near the Plaza Santa Ana for dinner. Our options were somewhat limited as many places were closed Sunday evening. Of note - a nice montadito of foie gras and apple at Vinoteca Barbechera, and another of ventresca (tuna belly) and roasted peppers; patatas bravas and pimientos de padron at Las Bravas. We got a curious dose of "gringo treatment" at Las Bravas, where our server insisted on giving us fork and knife instead of the customary toothpicks for our bravas (even after asking!). It wasn't unfriendly at all, just peculiar. Anyway, I thought their bravas sauce was great, even though I prefer my potatoes crispier. I do love the places like this where they have their specialty, and you know what everyone is ordering as soon as they walk through the door. Perhaps they're getting something else as well, but you know they're getting those bravas. I also loved this painting prominently displayed there, so much so that I'm going to put it up again (besides, I've got no other Madrid food pix to post!):

Before moving on to my next post, I should also mention the rather awesome bocata de calamares at El Brillante, located right smack between the Museo Reina-Sofia and Atocha station. I know it's the tradition to get your calamari sandwich somewhere on Plaza Mayor, but I do enjoy the one at El Brillante.

Next up - dinner at Viridiana.

Casa Lucas
Calle Cava Baja 30
Madrid 28005
91 365 08 04

Vinoteca Barbechera
Calle del Principe 27*
Madrid 28039
91 523 78 04

Las Bravas
Calle Alvarez Gato 5
Madrid 28012
91 532 26 20

El Brillante
Plaza Emperador Carlos V 8
Madrid 28012
91 539 28 06

*I have seen several addresses listed online for this place. The street is in fact Calle del Principe. In any event, it's on the southeast corner of the Plaza Santa Ana.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Back from Spain

My first trip to Spain was only a few years ago and I instantly fell in love with the country, even though now after a second short visit I still only feel like I am barely scratching the surface. I like the comfortable, almost nonchalant blending of old and new, in the architecture, the culture, the food. I like the seemingly endless brigades of older women in Madrid with their sensible shoes, their warm earthtone-colored coats, and their little dogs, constantly in the streets (Mrs. F took to calling them the "Old Lady Army", or "O.L.A."). I like the international, nightclubby feel of Barcelona, all eurotrashy without the bad attitude. And I like the lush green hills of the Basque country, with the barns made of stone that seems to glow golden when it catches any sunlight, and the sheep that must have claws to hang onto the steep hills as they graze. And (of relevance hereto) I love how one of the uniting and unabiding qualities of seemingly all its people is a passion for good food. And how they have the innate understanding that just about everything is better if you put some ham on it, or an egg - or both.

It will take me a couple days to gather my thoughts and get caught up, but there will be reports on tapas crawls in Madrid and San Sebastian, visits to Viridiana and Goizeko Wellington in Madrid, Arzak and Akelare in San Sebastian, Dos Palillos, Cuines Santa Caterina and Paco Meralgo in Barcelona. Some highlights: percebes (goose barnacles) at Goizeko; pintxos in San Sebastian's Barrio Gros; the whole dining experience at Arzak; the cochinillo and the view at Akelare; the navajas (razor clams) at Dos Palillos; and calçots at Cuines Sta. Caterina.

And yes, there will be some food porn. (I did, for a couple of meals, officially become "that douchebag taking pictures of his food"). Want a preview? How about this:

Not your style? OK, how about this:

More to come.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spain ... On the Road

Yup, just me, Batali, Bittman, Gwyneth, and Claudia Bassols (ahh...), driving around in fancy cars, blathering on endlessly and mindlessly, and occasionally having some tapas or something. OK, it's actually just me and Mrs. F, no fancy cars, and we'll spare you our mindless blather. But we will be doing some good eating in Spain and I will report back, though it may not be until our return. If I get the chance, I'll apologize to the King and Queen for Mario's linguistic foibles. When I return, I promise, in addition to reports from España, lots more Miami restaurant discussion, and less cursing and porn references. Adios amigos.