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Posts from the ‘Spanish’ Category

Preview: Graffit

There’s still a lot of hubbub surrounding Spanish food (or have we moved on to Scandinavia?). Yet, for such a de moda cuisine, there are many swaths of the city lacking a single Spanish restaurant, modern or traditional. I can’t believe it took until last week for South Brooklyn to get a tapas bar (no, La Mancha doesn’t count).

Maybe I’m geographically biased, but the dining diversity on the Upper West Side has always felt a bit bleak. That’s why it’s surprising that Spanish chef, Jesús Nuñez, has decided to open his first New York restaurant on W. 69th Street. Known for deconstructions, playful presentations…and a penchant for graffiti art (hence, the name, not to be confused with Jehangir Mehta’s Graffiti) hopefully his vision will translate in this staid neighborhood.

This is a preview of what Graffit will be serving when they open in November. As this dinner was hosted at Compass, chef Milton Enriquez contributed dishes, as well. Free food clouds one’s judgment so this is by no means a review. Just the facts. I will say that I would likely return on my own. Mercat, Txikito, Casa Mono and countless other tapas bars are justifiably popular, but I would say that we haven’t had a creative full-on Spanish restaurant since Ureña.

Graffit sangria six textures
Sangria in Six Textures

Graffit fuji apple endive salad

Fuji Apple, Endive Salad
Greek yogurt, manchego, tangerines, pistachio vinaigrette

Graffit carabinero, langoustine & prawn carpaccio

Carabinero, Langoustine and Prawn Carpaccio
Saffron Cream, Sauce Américaine, Olive Oil Gel and Sea Dust

I wasn't going to editorialize, but this was my favorite–so much color and flavor crammed into such small surface areas.

Graffit tortilla de patata

Potato + Onion + Egg = Tortilla de Patata

Graffit hudson valley foie gras

Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Meyer lemon curd, brussels sprouts, porcini mushrooms, toasted pinenuts, 50 -year old balsamic

Graffit dover sole

Pan Roasted Dover Sole
Sunchokes two ways, poached hen egg, white truffles, parsley beurre blanc, osetra caviar

Graffit bacalao in salsa verde.CR2

Bacalao in salsa verde, kokotxas, traces of bell pepper

I also like the use of mauve and bisquey earth tones, which aren't intuitively appetizing.

Graffit braised veal cheeks

Braised Veal Cheeks
Celeriac, chanterelles, cipollini onions, mustard asian pear salad

Graffit venison

Chestnuts, Wheat Risotto, Lentils and Pumpkin

More of those flesh tones–and lavender micro cauliflower. Yes, I'm a sucker for unnaturally colored food.

Graffit orange julius

"Orange Julius" jasmine granite

Graffit pina colada

Piña Colada
Curry scented pineapple sorbet, coconut bubbles

Graffit molten chocolate buñuelos .CR2

Molten chocolate buñuelos on a canvas of colors, flavors and textures

Graffit lollipops

Graffit sweets

More lilac hues. A fitting send-off.

Graffit * W. 69th St., New York, NY

La Nacional

I wouldn’t say that I’m one of those I’ve been going there since before you were born when things were better types. Yes, I remember Sripraphai when it was a single-room operation, and I’m suspicious of the new valet parking-and-reservations Tanoreen. Even though I believe there is no glory in gloating at newcomers, I feel a little sheepish about having never visited La Nacional till now. I’ll never know its grimy, pre-renovation beauty.

La nacional third world plumbing

The new iteration is hardly shiny and modern, though. While commonplace in Mexico and Thailand—my last two foreign frames of reference—I never encounter the quaint please no paper in the toilet plumbing in the US. That’s charm! And bizarrely, I was faced with the exact bathroom situation the very next day at Ocean’s 8, a subterranean Prospect Heights pool hall/sports bar that appears to be in a former movie theater.

La Nacional’s tapas are derrière-guard and old-fashioned, relying heavily on garlic and olive oil, not spherification or food play. The dim windowless main room with a spruced up checkerboard floor, is crying out for a haze of cigarette smoke. Clean air is the most un-Spanish thing about the scene.

La nacional tapas

/p>We ordered enough tapas to constitute a meal: patatas bravas, garlic shrimp and oblong and round croquetas filled separately with chicken and shrimp. Shades of brown and orange dominated.

La nacional patatas bravas

The patatas bravas were perfunctory, but lacking a super hot interior with seared edges. They could’ve been more golden. Huh, I have seven totally different patatas bravas in my Flickr stream, more than I thought. Maybe there is no universally agreed upon style.

La nacional albondigas

These albondigas, a pork-veal blend, were very soft and springy. Meatballs are on trend, right?

La nacional bar

The two men on stools with similar taste in hats were easily 35 years apart in age.

La nacional exterior

It turned out that we didn’t need to order any end-of-meal cheese. We peeked our heads into the art opening that was taking place upstairs at the Spanish Benevolent Society, and wine, Manchego and chorizo were for there for the taking. I did stuff a few bucks into the donation jar.

La Nacional * 239 W. 14th St., New York, NY


Is it shameful to eat chain tapas in a city with a grasp on creative Spanish nibbles (unlike other places in the US where eggrolls, sliders and mini-pizzas have been bestowed with the T word)? As someone who has eaten chain tapas on their home turf, Cañas y Tapas in Madrid, I say no.

Lizarran exterior When I heard that, Lizarran, whose parent company also owns Spanish chains like Cantina Mariachi and CH!NA ¡BOOM!, had spread as far as Russia and even had a location in a place called Walmart Commercial Centre in Shouzou, I needed to see their first NYC outpost in person.

Despite being in Soho, the restaurant feels more awkward and earnest than its surroundings. Maybe I’m just responding to the little table with flowers and bottles of sitting outside the front door. Welcome to Spain! handwritten in rainbow chalk above the tableau.

I feared a reliance on greatest hits—brie on the cheese plate didn’t put me at ease—and while a good deal of the printed menu was perfunctory, blackboard specials like carrilladas (pig’s cheeks), morcilla (blood sausage) and callos (tripe) were more adventurous than the tortilla and gambas everyone knows and loves. 

Lizarran interior

On the early side of Friday night, the narrow brick-walled room with a large amount of tables in the back, was far from bustling. I know I can be crowd-phobic but tapas demand an element of conviviality (indoor smoking wouldn’t hurt the mood either). Diners were composed of an after-work group enjoying pitchers of sangria, gallery girls making a dinner of a single vegetarian pintxo, and a young couple lording over an item each like they were entrees. I would never occur to me to stop in a tapas bar to eat a bowl of soup.

Pintxos, things served atop slices of bread and held together with a toothpick, are housed under see-through domes at the counter much like you’d see in Barcelona. Periodically, servers will pass by tables with a sampling, and you can pick and choose, $2.50 a piece. We ate two. The rest of this meal we ordered from the menu.

Lizarran chorizo pintxo

This was a simple chorizo pintxo like you’d get for free with a drink in Madrid.

Lizarran piquillo pintxo

The fried piquillo was a bit more elaborate. Our server had no idea what the pepper was stuffed with so I took a chance assuming it was salt cod. It turned out to be shredded meat, more beefy than porky. No, I couldn’t say for sure and this wasn’t alarming.

Lizarran pulpo a feira

Pulpo a feira wasn’t terribly paprika’d but the octopus was tender.

Lizarran huevos estrellados con chistorra

Huevos estrellados con chistorra sounded similar to the good and greasy huevos rotos we’d encountered in Madrid. The concept was the same. These sliced boiled potatoes were too healthy, though. A crisp-fried base for the eggs and stubby Basque sausages would’ve been perfect.

Lizarran croquetas

The two croquetas I ate from this sampler were made of ham and spinach raisin. I never find fault with croquetas.

I would like to see more emphasis on the pintxos because that’s where Lizarran could differentiate themselves from other tapas bars. The setup was a little confusing; it wasn’t clear if you were supposed to wait for someone to bring them by your table since there isn’t a steady dim sum-style stream (or enough patrons to demand fast turnover) or if you should go up to the un-inviting counter and choose your own.

Lizarran * 45 Mercer St., New York, NY

Mercat Negre

3/4 I’ve only been to Mercat on Bond Street once when they were having one of their visiting Catalonian chefs cooking a special menu. I liked the few things I ate well enough. How would the restaurant translate to Williamsburg?

It hasn’t exactly. The menu is much smaller, no cured meats or cheeses at all, though the room is airy, high ceilings, lots of wood and white brick. The service was typically Williamsburg—amiable, though harried and forgetful no matter how empty or busy—which I always mentally prep myself for and am rarely proven wrong.

Sure, it’s new and quickly became bustling. When I first entered there was only one other couple in the then cavernous, nearly Medieval looking room, The Boy With the Arab Strap played in entirety. Soon enough, though, the bar stools filled, the din rose and two large parties had descended, one in the private second floor space and another group of fifteen inches from us at a long row of cobbled together two-tops.

Mercat negre croquetas The food is hit and miss. Stick with the fried snackier items and you’ll be fine. The croquetas, here spinach, pinenut and raisin in oblongs and shrimp in balls, were the highlight. Nearly greaseless, their crusts were perfectly golden with a arm oozy interior. I even liked the croquetas at chain restaurants in Spain, though, so maybe I’m easily impressed. 

Mercat negre bomba

The bomba wasn’t what I expected at all. Described as a chicken and pork meatball, I still wasn’t picturing one large ground meat orb coated in mashed potato and fried. Minus the aioli, there was something almost British about this. All it needed was a scattering of green peas. That’s a sobrassada and cheese empanada hiding in the background. I will say that the prices are fair. Empanadas, though tiny, were only $1 a pop, croquetas $2 each, same with the bomba.

Mercat negre patatas bravas

The patatas bravas were done in a thick handcut potato chip style rather than in more traditional cubes. I did see huevos rotos served like this in Madrid earlier this year so it’s not a completely un-Spanish thing to do. I like tasting more of the potato’s softness, but these were still enjoyable.

Mercat negre coca topped with escalivada & sardines

Cocas are thin, cracker-like flatbrads treated like pizzas. This one was minuscule—it’s not even visible in the photo—and overwhelmed by the topping of vinegary sardines and escalivada, a.k.a. red peppers and onions grilled to sweet softness and dressed with olive oil.

Mercat negre arros cacador There are two rice dishes: one seafood, one meat, available in two sizes. This is the smaller one, which contained rabbit and pork. The grains weren’t fully cooked, some mostly scattered on the surface were completely white and still opaque, and the meat was a little greasy yet not in a way that moistened the rice. This was the dud of the batch.

Taste is subjective, though. James ordered a Ward Eight, which I’ve never had before so it’s hard to compare. After a sip I did comment that it wasn’t very sweet, meant in a positive way. I’m not crazy about sugary beverages, alcoholic or not. The woman sitting next to us later ordered this same drink and a few minutes afterward asked the server for more simple syrup, which they brought to the table no problem. It’s never even occurred to me that you could or would doctor a cocktail. Then again, other than fries, I never salt or pepper my food at restaurants either. And I didn’t say anything about the crunchy rice.

Mercat negre interiorNow that I look deeper, though, a Ward Eight doesn’t typically contain sugar, just a touch of grenadine, and Mercat Negre’s version goes primal with straight pomegranate juice. My conclusion: the cocktail isn’t meant to be particularly sweet. The customer’s always right?

While assessing our meal–James thought this was a one-shovel restaurant while I thought it was more two-shovel with kinks to work out–he commented, “I liked that tapas place by the BQE better.”

What tapas place by the BQE? Zipe Zape? That was just a few blocks from this place and it’s gone. “Do you mean Allioli?! Grandpa, you do realize how long ago that was?”

I had a vague idea just how long ago that truly was because I remembered debating whether or not I should watch the Daniel Pearl decapitation video a few days before this dinner (nay won over yay) then got squeamish about eating a baby octopus’ head at Allioli when normally I’m not troubled by such things.

And that is one beauty of blogging about food before food blogging was such a thing, I have a record of practically everywhere I’ve dined since the dawn of the millennium (as well as non-dining at Zipe Zape in its previous incarnation, Kokie’s). I can also concede that caving and buying a smartphone does have benefits, primarily being able to look up crap from the past on the spot. What was at 291 Grand Street now, anyway?

We strolled down Grand on our way to the G train, and it turns out that the space is now that Caracas Arepa Bar offshoot. Yet another indie chain.

Mercat Negre * 65 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY

Jamon Jamon

Despana jamon price

Feeling flush, more from birthday week high than from financial windfall, I sprung for three see-through slices of $159/lb bellota jamon iberico at Despaña yesterday. That worked out to approximately 80-cents per bite.

Despana jamon bellota

I don’t know that I could immediately discern the difference between this coveted ham and a good quality Serrano. But it’s very distinct and more desirable to me than ordinary prosciutto. Is it unfair to compare Spanish and Italian cured meats? The texture is firmer and overall meatier with substantial stripes of fat, less salty and almost blood-metallic with a strong flavor that’s on the verge of decay. Yet not gross at all. The taste lingers with you and something (I really need to look into this) causes a mild tingly sensation in the mouth, sort of the way some aged cheeses do.

Despana gallego You can get a bocadillo using the pata negra ham for $25 but I opted for the more pedestrian Gallego at $8.50. It uses Serrano ham, chorizon and a cow’s milk cheese I wasn’t familiar with called Arzuea Ullloa. I love ham and cheese, though this is one of those rare sandwiches that could just as strong through the power of meat alone. This is a sandwich worthy of more than a camera phone shot but believe it or not I don't typically carry a camera on me.


1/2 I don’t really eat at places like Amada in New York. There's something Meatpacking District about the popular Philadelphia Spanish restaurant and its environs, which also includes sceney mega-eateries like Buddakan and Morimoto (both now with NYC outposts). I wouldn't go so far as to say Amada is style over substance; the food was solid but I don't think the bulk of their clientele is serious about what on their plate.

The small collection of kitchen-side counter seats a few steps higher than the rest of the room seemed to be the foodie section, and tellingly occupied by diners a good decade or two older than the rest of the couples and groups of men dressed in mirror image uniforms of untucked patterned oxfords and jeans like the sales guys in my office. I didn't even notice the women.

I also had my eye on Cochon, a pork-centric French BYOB, but settled on Amada because I like Spanish food. (Though it might’ve been folly since we were just in Madrid—do you really want to compare a cuisine on its on turf to a second or even first tier American city's version? I did.) Plus, Ecuadorian chef Jose Garces, who's developed a mini empire based on the cuisines of  Spain, Mexico and Peru (with a dash of China), had just won a James Beard best chef award for the Mid-Atlantic region. That must say something? I haven't even eaten at The Modern and Gabriel Kreuther was our winner.

I hate to say no when asked, "Have you dined with us before?" because it's not likely I'm going to be enlightened by whatever is coming my way. In this circumstance, I acquiesced and we were prodded to order three-four dishes per person. That initially seemed a bit excessive. Then next thing I knew we were picking wildly from the menu, trouble that stemmed from a 9:45pm reservation without a proper lunch to cushion the two pre-meal gin and tonics at a dive down the street (perhaps I should've compromised with a single $12 violet tequila martini called Talk To Her—yes, the cocktails are all Almodovar inspired). "Small plates" can wreak havoc when ordering on an empty stomach. In the end we definitely picked too many—seven items in total—and easily could've done with one less dish, probably two, and should’ve asked for our cheese at the end.

Amada tuna dip No dainty amuses here, this was a tuna-based dip, akin to something you might see stuffed into a pequillo pepper, with crackly flatbread triangles. It got ignored because within minutes everything non-cooked came out in overwhelmingly successive waves. There was too much going on.

Amada jamon serrano

Serrano ham was fine but nothing special. We didn't really need this. The accompanying cornichons, mustard and caper berries were totally Gallic and a little off-kilter even though they suit cured fatty meat.

Amada cheese

Caña de cabra with fig-cherry marmalade, Manchego with lavender honey and Roncal with black olive caramel. I guess we didn't have to order three cheeses but I like sampling a variety. I expected to be drawn to the olive caramel (which I can't even remember and blurred with the fruity jam) but was surprised at how amazing the Manchego with honey was. Normally, I’m kind of creeped out by the gooey cloying sweetness of honey and I never would eat it straight (I felt doubly vindicated after recently reading Ruth Reichl doesn't like the bee product either, doubly because I had read that sentiment before) and I hate eating flowers too, but something about their pairing created a magical savory reaction. We ended up using it for all the cheeses and futilely looked for a jar among the many Amish stands at Reading Terminal Market selling honey (and separately, lavender flowers) but clearly it's not a specialty of the region.

Amada patatas bravas

Deconstructed patatas bravas were reminiscent of the tiny filled cylinders we just had at Sergi Arola Gastro in Madrid. These were fatter and rougher, a lot more potato per aioli dollop, though not mealy like the traditional version can be.

Amada pato con datiles coca

I will never not order a sweet-meat combo even topped with cheese so the coca with duck and dates was impossible to ignore. It was certainly classier than a ham and pineapple pizza but the concept isn't all that different.

Amada pulpo a la gallega

The paprika-dusted rounds of octopus and potato were tender and zapped with flavorful char around the edges. We could've eaten twice the amount. I do need to look into why squid is always cheap but octopus is often pricey.

Amada habas a la catalana

Ok, we had to squeeze some vegetables in. Warm limas and favas in a vinaigrette were substantial and had great texture. Who knows why lima beans have such a bad reputation.

Amada cordero relleno

The breaded lamb chops stuffed with goat cheese and sitting atop blobs of romesco came late in the game so I didn't have the appetite to appreciate them. One of the most expensive dishes at $19, these weren't a necessity. Now I know.

Amada sweet

Way too full for dessert (but not for a midnight run to both Geno's and Pat's) we were sent off with a simple thin almond cookie.

Amada * 217-219 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA

La Vaguada

Ok, this is it, no mas. I'm finally finished the with sporadic Madrid recapping. But I would feel empty inside if I didn't briefly mention my mall excursion. I always visit a mall when on vacation. Obviously, I only travel to big cities, but even Penang had one, which only surprised me a little since Asians have quite an affinity for mall culture. Only Mexico City posed problems with its Santa Fe mall hidden way on the outskirts, inaccessible by public transportation. (Not really surprising at all considering their seeming lack of a middle class. Maybe that's why NYC can't sustain a proper mall either, too-rich and too-poor all smooshed together.)

La vaguada

Madrid had more than one centro comercial to choose from; we picked La Vaguada because you can get there smoothly on the subway. I figured it would be a rinky-dink Manhattan Mall atrocity, but it was the real deal with an enormous supermarket, or rather a hipermercado, Alcampo, that was way larger than Fairway, and that was just the bottom floor. Upstairs, they sold washing machines, plus-size smocks, saws, and more relevant to my needs, a cheap corkscrew. I should know the answer to this since I cover retail topics at work (I’ll look into it tomorrow) but why do we not have grocery stores inside US malls? Here, I'd appreciate the convenience. In other countries, for the fun of experiencing packaged foreign food.

I feel self-conscious taking photos inside grocery stores, but do regret not capturing the entire towering aisle heaving with hoof-on whole jamon. Canned seafood is also allotted an unusually large proportion of shelf space.

The heart (or I guess if you were corny like me, you could say stomach) of any mall is its food court. I didn't know what to expect from a Spanish food court. And it wasn't really fast foody (no Cinnabon but a homegrown chain Canel Rolls with savory versions like cheese and bacon) but a level ringed by sit down restaurants and tapas bars (and a hair salon, movie theater and video store), almost exclusively Spanish in culinary style.

Vaguada food court

Bocatin is a taberna specializing in sandwiches, a.k.a. bocadillos. Way in the background is Gran Sol Marisqueria  and Cervecería. I like that beer is prominently mentioned everywhere. Drinking in an American mall just seems weird.

Cantina mariachi

The non-Iberian offerings included The Wok, Istanbul, L'Alsace and Cantina Mariachi. It was also hard to ignore the plywood covered a giant coming soon ad for Taco Bell, fittingly with a larger than life packet of mild salsa. The first public (naval bases don't count) Taco Bell in the country opened not so long ago in December. The chain has never been a success in Europe (or Mexico, duh) so I wonder how the Spanish will take to Crunchwraps.

Gambrinus cerveceria exterior

We chose a random casual eatery, Cervecería Gambrinus, that I later saw all over the place. Their logo is a portly pageboy’d Falstaffian guy called Gambrinus. From what I could deduce the lore is German not Spanish. Maybe it’s like our use of Friar Tuck in association with drinking establishments.

Gambrinus cerveceria gambas al ajillo

I love gambas al ajillo, maybe even more so for the saucy remnants. I could just pour the shrimp, chile and garlic infused olive oil into and dish and eat it alone with crusty bread.

Gambrinus cerveceria chicken wings

Ok, so we ordered chicken wings, a.k.a. alitas. You get what you deserve doing such a thing but we were curious. Pallid tomato sauce inevitably accompanies fried chicken parts in other places (marinara in Hua Hin). I realize putting blue cheese or ranch dressing on poultry is an American abomination.


Because I'm childish this café gave me pause. I thought a bit, and duh, it's a cute abbreviation of Vaguada Mall.

Vaguada market

One of the cool things was that despite housing a clean modern supermarket (and a weirdo smallish storefront that only sold packaged frozen food—can you imagine an entire store devoted to Tombstone Pizza, Banquet Chicken and Hungry Man Dinners?), the shopping center also had a series of rows emulating traditional market stalls: seafood, produce, dried legumes and nuts, butchers, cheese and the like.

Just across the way, on the same floor, was a tattoo parlor. Not so traditional, I would say.

La Vaguada * Monforte de Lemos 36, Madrid, Spain

Kulto al Plato

Kulto al Plato appears to have next to nothing written about it in English. I only knew that it had won best tapas bar of 2008 from Metrópoli magazine, which could mean anything. No one ever agrees with best ofs and I'm not sure what kind of weight that publication holds among food-lovers in Madrid.

From what I had read, it seemed like it would be a nice in-between restaurant, not formal like Sergi Arola Gastro but more creative than a typical tapas bar, being Basque and all (I have no idea why their cuisine is so tradition-breaking). The casual environment with serious food almost feels more Manhattan than Madrileño.

The food is very playful and employs plenty of twists on classics, which obviously weren’t classics for me. That’s the tough thing, it’s not just the language. If you’re a foreigner you’re lacking the appropriate taste memories. I know enough from reading about Spanish cuisine to recognize some of what they were tweaking but have no original dish to compare it with. I’m sure I missed things that locals wouldn’t have.

Kulto al plato menu We chose the eight-dish tasting for 25 euros. If you sit in the restaurant I think you have to do a tasting (there’s also an 11-course version for 40 euros). In the bar, you can order a la carte. There didn’t appear to be any menus, just a giant chalkboard with lots of words using X’s and K’s interspersed with little cartoons and commentary. I was facing the board and close enough to scrutinize much of it (though, sadly not close enough for a decent photo). 

We didn’t really know what we were going to get but it was for the best. Picking from the menu would’ve been a little overwhelming and I’m sure I would’ve missed some gems. It was like a little Spanish culinary lesson. But it’s really about the taste, isn’t it? Would it really matter if a diner came in blind and had never heard of gazpacho? Does identifying the riff make a new-style tomato soup more enjoyable than judging it on taste alone?

Kulto al plato vermouth olives

Aceitunas con vermu. This was a lot of olives for two people or maybe I just have a small appetite for olives. But of course these were no ordinary olives. Thankfully, they weren’t doing that Adrià alginate olive spherification thing that seems to wow people (not that I’m above wowing, but they’ve even done it on Top Chef now). These were real olives, it was the red centers that were faux pimento. Instead the olives were filled with a sweet, boozy gel meant to mimic vermut. I never tried the popular aperitif when I was there, but it’s common enough that bars have it on tap. From what I understand you drink it on ice with a lemon slice.

Kulto al plato vermouth olives packaged

You can also buy a 12-pack to go. I almost considered picking a few up as fun souvenirs. We were flying out the next morning but I was afraid they wouldn’t keep or they’d get confiscated.

Kulto al plato salmorejo with flowers

Salmorejo con brotes y flores. Ack, I knew I wasn’t going to get of Spain without being served flowers. It happened on my last trip too. I have a phobia about eating flowers, even stems on things like spinach, give me the creeps. Not that there’s anything wrong with the taste. I tried to concentrate on the rich, chilled tomato flavor and tune out the pretty foliage.

This menu was like a research project. It wasn’t until I returned home that I could look at my blurry, harshly lit chalkboard menu photo and try to put together what we’d eaten and what half the words meant. Flores=flowers, sure, but salmorejo means nothing to me. Now I know that it’s a cold tomato soup similar to gazpacho, but thicker due to the use of more bread. I think brotes are sprouts in this circumstance but I’ve also seen it as microgreens.

Kulto al plato licorice avocado crab

Txangurro+aguacate+regaliz. We all scream for ice cream, well at least they do in Madrid. Frozen savories seem to be quite a thing, and I’m all for it. Left to right, these tiny spheres were licorice, avocado and crab. Individually, they might be kind of weird but as they melt and flavors meld, it’s just right, though licorice dominated by a hair. The crunchy sea salt atop the sea green scoop added nice texture and salinity. Here’s a recipe and a prettier photo of the dish from their original restaurant in San Sebastian, A Fuego Negro.

Kulto al plato spinach sesame feta salad

Espinaca roja, verde, cebolla y queso feta. The spinach salad was no great shakes. Feta, red onion and lots of sesame dressing.

Kulto al plato tempura

La txiki-huerta en tempera con ketxup casero y ali-oli de patata. I didn’t know what the heck txiki-huerta was (Spanish is enough to decode—Basque is just asking for trouble) and I still don’t, but obviously these were tempura’d vegetables: carrots, onions, chile peppers, eggplant. The dips included homemade ketchup and potato aioli. The aioli was the odd component, for sure. Creamy, rich and yep, starchy not eggy.

Kulto al plato bacalao

Bacalao con “currymigas” sobre coliflor. Salt cod is ok, though I managed to eat not one bite of it until our last day in Madrid when I had it for lunch as part of a menu del dia at La Camarilla (I never wrote about it because it’s wasn’t that exciting—despite how it appears, I don’t actually write about everything I eat), and then again here for dinner. There was no question that this was the superior preparation, but once again, it’s one of those regional things you may or may not know about. Migas that Americans might be more familiar with is the Tex-Mex style using sautéed torn up corn tortillas and eggs, Migas in Spain are breadcrumb-based peasant dish often associated with Extremadura. Of course, I’ve never eaten migas, I just recall reading about them in The New Spanish Table. Book smart, street stupid.

So, they’ve flavored their breadcrumbs with curry and use them as a crunchy garnish for super Spanish salt cod. The thick cauliflower puree offered a nice mild pillow for the strongly flavored fish.

Kulto al plato wagyu burger

“MakcoBe” with txips. Ok, now hamburgers, I understand, they’re speaking my language. But there still had to be an un-American in joke.  There was a cartoon dog next to the menu description with the caption, “De Cobi no!! De wagyu” I have no idea how I recognized the line-drawn dog as the ’92 Barcelona Olympic mascot, Cobi, yet I did and felt very pleased with myself for getting the humor. Essentially, no, it’s not Cobi meat, it’s kobe/wagyu.

All you need to know is that this is a mini burger with chips. The sesame seed bun was adorable and I think it might’ve been ketchup-flavored. The chips were like homemade Terra Chips. Frankly, I don’t remember the quality of the beef at all because I was more caught up in the presentation.

Kulto al plato pineapple cake coconut ice cream

The pineapple cake with coconut ice cream was fairly straightforward. A decidedly non-tropical sprig of rosemary kept the sweets from being too sunny.

Kulto al Plato * Calle Serrano Jover 1, Madrid, Spain

Sergi Arola Gastro

Ok, let’s get the Michelin stars out of the way. I always put off writing about the more serious restaurants as if you need to give them more thought and weight. Eh, this is a blog, let’s keep it light.

Catalonia gets all the accolades. Can Roca, where I ate in 2006, just made the fifth spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and has also received its third Michelin star. Madrid doesn’t have any three-starred restaurants. But I did want to see what was happening on the higher end and you really have two choices: Santceloni and Sergi Arola Gastro, both with Catalonian chefs. Why no homegrown heroes? I chose the latter because if I only have one meal I’m more interested in razzle dazzle than produce worship. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

But Gastro is still fairly staid with muted neutral décor (I can’t remember a thing about it and am convinced the room was draped in shades of beige and sand—this is what the long, narrow dining room actually looks like) and formal but warm service. This was the one splurge meal and we picked the 130 euros 12-course tasting menu minus the wine pairing (I wasn’t feeling that flush).

Instead, I picked a wine from Bierzo because I’ve been interested in that region and was steered toward a light red reminiscent of pinot noir that was a little less money (50 euros) than the one I originally asked about, which was appreciated. There’s nothing worse than getting an unwelcome upsell. I felt like a rube, though, when the wine was presented to me because I expected it to be a white. I know Bierzo is a region not a grape (in this case it was the the mencía) but I had seen the word scrawled on a few chalkboard wine lists and always under the vinos blancos. Knowing is half the battle.

But one can only feel so intimidated when others chose beer as their aperitif. They really do love their cañas in Madrid. When asked what we wanted to drink while looking over the menu and snacking on “tapas” I blanked and just asked for cava. Cocktails? Beer? Wine? Not a tough question, I just wasn’t sure what was typical. This, as well as an after-dinner glass of port were a gratis part of the meal.

Unfortunately, I was fussing around with my camera’s color balance when I was supposed to be enjoying my tapas so the first two photos turned out like shit and I only had one sip of my foamy truffled shot before it got whisked away. There is certainly a good argument for just eating your food and eliminating the distraction of a camera at the table. It’s a hard habit to rid yourself of, though.

The tapas, in an unfocused shot here, included radishes, endive with romesco sauce, olives (the best ones we had all week), crispy cheese puffs, croquetas and my surprise favorite, peeled cherry tomatoes flavored with little more than salt and olive oil. One of those simple let the produce speak for itself things that pays off.

It was decided that the dishes would be presented in Spanish and if we had questions they could answer in English. Most of the staff seemed to have decent-to-fluent English skills but I would prefer someone speak in their native language in their own country. Well, when I can understand it; dishes described in Chinese wouldn’t be so helpful to me.
Sergi arola gastro anchovy ice cream

Anchoas: servido en un cornete de pan y tomate. The English translation on the menu I received at the end of the meal (and which I’ll be using here verbatim, odd translations included) simply says anchovies in a coronet with bread and tomato, but the cone itself is the bread and tomato. Admittedly, those flavors take a back seat to the cold salty fish ice cream. Perfect in a bite but you probably wouldn’t want a whole bowl of it. There were a lot more ice creams to come.

Sergi arola gastro baby squid sandwich

“Bocata”: de calamares fritos con mermelada de limon/Baby Squid: fried in a sandwich with mayonnaise and lemon jam. This was gone in a flash and I hate to say that I barely remember it. Though I never tried one, battered, fried calamari ring sandwiches are common street food in Madrid so I got that this was a tweak on that but didn’t have memory of the original to compare it to.

Sergi arola gastro patatas bravas

Las Patatas: “bravas” al estilo Arola/Potatoes: “bravas” Arola-style (spicy fried potatoes). Ok, these were freaking adorable and fun to eat. This is when we noticed that the chef loves doing tiny food. Not in an obnoxious way, though. The crispy little potato cylinders were hollow inside and housed the lightly spiced tomato sauce, capped with dollops of aioli. This was a play on a classic dish that I totally understood.

Sergi arola gastro beet sashimi avocado ice cream

Remolacha: en “sashimi” al estilo de Alain Passard con helado de aguacate/Beetroot: Alain Passard “sashimi” style, avocado ice cream. I see they’re being all British with the beetroot instead of plain ol’ beets. I have never eaten at L’Arpege or in Paris (technically, I probably ate something there in ’89 when my student exchange group spent the night in the capital before flying back to the US) so I can’t speak to the homage. The slightly sweet, toothsome squares of beet paired well with the cold, creamy avocado. I feel like there was a licorice component tying this dish together but I don’t see overt evidence of that on the plate.

Sergi arola gastro anchovies apple salad

Boquerones: “a la Espalda” con ensalada de manzana y sirope e sidra/Fresh anchovies: “a la Espalda” style with apple salad and cider syrup. We loved this not just for the bright, tangy flavors but for the insane attention to miniature detail. In the background are the world’s tiniest cubes of apple topped with a lentil-sized dab of sauce and finished with a baby leaf of what I think was parsley (whenever I think an herb is exotic and ask, it turns out to be parsley). James pictured a hamster chef crafting Lilliputian food. I imagined a perfectionist Japanese intern slaving away in the kitchen over these precision tasks (I’ve seen more than a few behind the scenes photos of high end Spanish restaurants, and I swear there’s always a young Japanese guy present).

Sergi arola gastro seafood with seaweed mojo

Parrillada: de pescado y marisco con un jugo natural y mojo de algas/Barbecue: fish, seafood with a natural juice and seaweed “mojo.” Lots of delicate grilled things from the sea. I was excited to try percebes, those rare prehistoric looking goose barnacles, and made a point to savor them. Yet now, just a few weeks later I can’t dredge up how they tasted.

Sergi arola gastro foie gras stuffed with duck confit

Foie Gras: en “torchon” rellena de confit de pato con verdures y sopa de cabello de angel/Foie Gras: “torchon” stuffed with duck confit with vegetables and its consommé. Sometimes tasting menus go wild with foie gras and kill you with heaviness too soon. This was the first very rich dish, though it wasn’t overwhelming because the consommé added a sense of lightness.

Sergi arola gastro red mullet beans morcilla jamon

Red Mullet: beans and peas sautéed with black sausage and fat Iberian ham. The above series of dishes come to everyone then you can select your fish and meat courses. This was mine and it was perfect for me. Beans and morcilla always go well together, the firm buttery fish had wonderfully crisped skin and there was a hint of salty, porky jamon. I prefer fish dishes that have a little heft.

Sergi arola gastro fish

Lenguado: con manteca de setas, col picuda y gnoquis de cítricos. James’ sole was on the lighter side and came with mushrooms, cabbage and a single gnocchi served on a spoon.

Sergi arola gastro pigeon & basmati with candied fruit

Pigeon: basmati rice stewed with candied fruits and vegetable, charcoal grill oil. I also like dark meat and sweets together so this Moroccan riff was an obvious choice. The rice was little chewy-firm and after serving tableside there was quite a bit left over in the pan. I wondered what they did with the extras and shortly found out: they offer seconds.

Sergi arola gastro white pork with spinach

Cerdo Blanco: fricasé, tirabeques y espinacas. James’ meat course. I’m not sure what is meant exactly by white pork, if it’s a specific breed or a pig that is fed a particular diet. This almost looks like Shanghainese food to me. The spinach is on top, I’m not sure where the snap peas are.

Sergi arola gastro coconut tamarind blood orange

Coco: lágrimas de tamarindo y naranja sanguina/Coconut: tamarind tears and blood orange. The first of the desserts and it was certainly pretty and refreshing. This was mostly fruity even with the creamy island of coconut. I think by “tamarind tears” they are referring to the little brown dots on the white puck, interspersed with mint leaves.

Sergi arola gastro rhubarb wtih pea ice cream pineaple soup

Ruibarbo: guisado en frio con helado de guisantes y sopa de piña/Rhubarb: cold stew with peas ice cream and pineapple soup. This was unmistakably rhubarb, a fruit I had never associated with Spain. The pineapple broth doubled the sweet tartness and the pea ice cream…I’m not really sure. If anything, it tamed the fruits’ sharpness.

Sergi arola gastro chocolate cake chile pepper coulant strawberry ice cream

El Chocolate: coolant a la pimiento verde y helado de fresas/The Chocolate: green pepper coolant and strawberry ice cream. I was wary of this one not so much because I’m anti-molten cake but because I’m not wild about bell peppers. It turned out that green pepper meant jalapeno or a similar green chile pepper. There was tingly heat with no overwhelming vegetal bluntness. Nice.

I was happy that at the end of the meal you are presented with a dated menu detailing what you just ate. High caliber restaurants usually provide menus if asked but I prefer it being a given because I am a dork that way. The amusing thing was that apparently it was determined at some point that James was more adept with the language because his menu was in Spanish and mine was in English. I was not insulted, though I didn’t think my Spanish was that abysmal. It is handy for comparing translations such as black sausage for morcilla. I would say blood sausage but maybe that didn’t sound appealing.

Sergi arola madelines lime jelly

After dinner madelines are served with citrus candy that look like pebbles and a lime jam. Another couple that came in at 11:30pm (we were early birds at 9:30pm), the ones who had beers as an aperitif, blew through their meal before we were done and took their candy tray with them downstairs to the small bar. We followed soon after. The sleek room was occupied by a good number of young rich kids, kind of like a Madrileño cast of Gossip Girl.

I had an exemplary whisky sour, with egg white foam and all; it was finely crafted and should be for 12 euros. Maybe we frequented chichi bars but I found drinks to be Manhattan in price. Fun, deco Museo Chicote, across the street from our hotel had 10 euro gin and tonics (but they were enormous) and Del Diego, just behind Museo Chicote, (which I had to visit because the Time Out guide described it as ‘80s Wall Street and I wanted to see what a British writer’s idea of that era might look like) had similarly priced cocktails. And no, it didn’t remind me of Wall Street in the least. And of course in all venues, you could puff away till your lungs burst, and 90% of the imbibers were doing just that.

Sergi Arola Gastro * Calle de Zurbano 31, Madrid, Spain


Ok, if you’re a freak who still don't know what tapas are (and I’m coming to the startling realization that there are many—last night while dining with my grandma that I never see she asked what we did in Madrid. James answered “tapas bars,” which she heard as topless bars. It took a few minutes for it to sink in that we were talking about two entirely different things) I’m naively hoping that you must know paella. Rice with saffron and stuff in it, you know?

Yes, it’s a Valencian thing but being in Spain at all brought us closer to the ricey specialty than eating at say, Socarrat in Chelsea. I’ll admit right up front that I’m not a crazy rice-lover, but I think it would be a shame to pass up a paella opportunity on its home turf.

We chose Balear over a few other options in Madrid, not really on a whim, there were a few other contenders but out of practicality. We were happy to discover that Balear was open on Sunday, a day that many restaurants pack it in.

Balear exterior

Judging from the cheery yellow walls and palm trees hinting at tropical chic, I’m guessing Balear refers to the Baleriac Islands. It was almost enough to make me forget it was 50-something degrees and wet outside. After a few glasses of cava (arroces and cava are displayed together on their signs and I’m susceptible to advertising).

Balear tapas

No appetizers were ordered because we were afraid extras would overstuff us. Maybe we were being overly cautious. I was fine with the pan con tomate and tuna escabeche that comes standard.

There were so many choices, I was interested in rabbit and snail, but ultimately we picked the mixta, which included a little bit of everything. And I’m still not clear on the difference between arroce and paella, both are rice dishes with things mixed in and both variations were on their menu.

Balear paella mixta

Before I could even come to my senses or snap even a blurry shot, a no nonsense Filipina came out and manhandled the paella. Within seconds, 90% of the pan’s contents of were scooped with two large spoons and tossed onto our plates. Wham.

Balear romesco aiolli

The major difference from what I’ve seen in the US is the addition of aioli and romesco as accompaniments. Nice. But still a bit baffling. Do you dab a bit onto individual bites or mix big blobs into the pile of rice on your plate? Even though I’m normally wary of mayonnaise, I loved the extra richness.

The paella, itself, was just right. Chewy, slightly oily but not too sticky, with grains that just cling together. Mixed in were shell-on prawns, rings of octopus, slices of chicken, combined with slices of green beans, peas and strips of red pepper. I honestly find it hard to describe what saffron adds to a dish, though I know its absence would be missed if it wasn’t there. It tastes sunny.

Balear pudin

Up until this point we had been too full to order postre, a.k.a. dessert, anywhere. I was determined to try at least one Spanish sweet before leaving. I was most impressed by the wooden cart with shelves enclosed in glass that gets wheeled to each table. I am a sucker for a dessert cart. I chose the pudin, which looked to me like a rectangular flan. Visuals are important; if I’d only heard the word pudin I would’ve imagined a pool of pudding. Blah.  I didn’t realize until later that this was quite a generous potion and richer than any other versions I tried. Yes, it is like a crème caramel but much thicker and richer; this had a consistency closer to cheesecake than the expected slipperiness. The substantial wedge was drizzled with an orange-flavored sauce that made me wish I hadn’t waited until the end of vacation to try a postre.

Balear * Calle Sagunto 18, Madrid, Spain