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

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I'll Have What She's Having

Glad to know I'm not the only one pondering what to call this new-fangled cooking thing going on, but here's one I think I'll pass on: "ORGASMIC" ("ORganoleptics, Gastronomy, Art, & Science Meet In Cuisine"). I mean, I'm a big fan your spherified such-and-such and so on, but there's really only such much you can accomplish with hydrocolloids. For some things, you have to stick with traditional fare like Katz's Delicatessen (and she didn't even have the corned beef).

For more reactions, look here, or here, or here (everyone's jumping on the bandwagon!); but here's a heartfelt counterpoint.

Edited to add: let it be noted that this new proposed name has always been inherent in the original:

"mOleculaR GAStronoMy"