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Posts from the ‘Spain’ Category


Bergara skewed more traditional than Hidalgo 56. To be honest, I was a little more interested in the décor than the food because even sharing two small pintxos per stop, the third restaurant is where you’re likely to start busting a gut. But the main reason my attention was divided was because the room was a charming grandma/old sea captain mishmash of nuts.

Bergara lightbox photo

Ceramic tea kettles in the shape of cats wearing dresses shared shelf space with steins painted with men’s faces. My spot on a picnic bench put me in direct view of the backlit elephant in the room. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the glowing tableau of pintxos interspersed with more bearded mugs and prancing cherubs. Luckily, I managed a quick photo before the staff turned off the light and started sweeping.

Bergara facade

Do you see a pattern forming? 10:30 pm really is the weeknight dining tail-end in San Sebastián.

Bergara txalupa & croquetas

There is that txalupa, a fritter of wild mushrooms, langoustine, cream and cava, next to two massive béchamel-and-ham filled croquetas. I told you, third meal is the dangerous meal. I didn’t know any better–croquetas in NYC are often tiny little things.

Bar Bergara * Calle General Artetxe 8, San Sebastián, Spain


Hidalgo 56

Bar-hopping isn’t all about la Parte Vieja, a.k.a. San Sebastian’s old town that quite possibly contains the densest concentration of pintxos bars on earth. Gros, the neighborhood across the Urumea River that’s accessible by numerous bridges (it’s not an undertaking like crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot) is a little lower key.


The Kursaal, a glowing auditorium, was on the Gros side, directly across the river from our apartment. I’d wanted to eat at the restaurant inside, Ni Neu, but it was closed the nights I had free eating time available (that sounds so creepy and regimented).

Hidalgo 56 volcán de morcilla

Nearly all newcomers (and likely, regulars too) order the volcán de morcilla. Yes, that would a blood sausage volcano. Instead of molten lava, the dark mountain of meat cut with rice, raisins and peppers is spouting a raw egg yolk sprinkled with salt. Add a swipe of apple puree and you have one complex, fun-to-eat pintxo.

Hidalgo 56 steak & torta de casar fondue

Here, four rare slices of steak covered in potato crisps are served with “fondue” of naturally ripe and runny Torta del Casar. Earlier, we had been discussing how you might eat a plate of charcuterie or cheese, but you rarely see meat and dairy combined in a dish. This was as close as we would get to our dream Spanish cheesesteak.

Hidalgo 56 facade

Hidalgo 56 * Paseo Colon, 15, San Sebastián, Spain


Borda Berri

1/2 Borda Berri, where I managed to squeak in just before the gate was pulled down for the evening, had a different vibe (dare I pull out the H-word?) than many other pintxos bars. For one, no one dining or behind the counter appeared to be over 30. They also had a penchant for American classic rock a la Sweet Home Alabama interspersed with Spanish-language metal.

Borda berri facade

On Saturday night, the crowds spilling onto the street–generally speaking, not just at Borda Berri–felt more off-puttingly Lower East Side, though. Screaming, glass-breaking (though San Sebastián was suspiciously free of zombie-texters, and smartphones, period). Is there such a concept as bridge-and-tunnel or fratty in Spain?

Borda berri taco de bacalao

No matter, I had time to enjoy the first “taco” of vacation. This particular taco was tempura’d bacalao with multiple sauces that I’ve already forgotten. Sauces and drizzles are to pintxos what flowers are to alta cocina.

Borda berri foie gras, plum & mustard

And a sorry photo of bread slices (if the pintxo isn’t served atop bread, you’re usually given bread on the side, which makes the three-to-four-bite concoctions feel like a real meal—plus, you don’t want to waste any of those aforementioned sauces) blocking the chunk of foie gras. The mustard was flavored with mysterious fruity ingredient that I didn’t recognize when reading the chalkboard.

 “Qué es una cireula?” I asked. “Inglés?” the gentleman behind the counter correctly assumed while pulling a menu from behind the bar. After a bit of scanning, I was told “plum” in an equally heavy accent as I imagine my “cireula” sounded to him. Ah, plum instead of apple with this foie gras.

How many of these pintxos bars have foreign language menus hidden away, I’m not sure, but the only two languages I ever saw advertised explicitly on doors—which I took as a signal to stay far away—were English and French. All other tourists are out of luck—and from what I could hear, seemed to speak pretty good English anyway.

Borda Berri * Fermín Calbetón, 12, San Sebastián, Spain

A Near-Random Selection of Spanish Groceries

On the  drive back from Etxebarri, the one-hour-from-San Sebastián source of possibly the best leisurely multi-course meal on vacation (smoked goat’s milk butter!) and the reason why we needed a rental car for the day, I insisted on stopping at the Eroski I spied in a village we’d passed through on the way.

Mountains etxebarri

Natural beauty must be tempered by commercialism. Seeing another country’s groceries is always important on my vacations. There was a Lidl, like Aldi in the US, a block from our apartment but I craved a full-blown supermarket.

Despite sounding vaguely Russian, Eroski, is a Basque word, and the name of a sprawling shopping center selling groceries, clothing, camping gear, everything, like Fred Meyer, the one-stop store I’ve missed for close to 13 years.

Eroski jamón aisle

The ham aisle is always the most impressive aspect of a Spanish grocery store. The unbelievably large rows of canned seafood (tuna, sardines, anchovies, mussels, razor clams, cockles, octopus and more) are also trademarks.

Eroski tortilla

Ready-to-warm tortillas filled a refrigerated case. This was perfect for preparing in the morning since I rarely go out for breakfast, home or abroad.

Eroski pizzas

The tortillas shared a space with pizzas. This brand not only created unusual flavors like kebab, they each include a packet of sauce to be baked in. Chimichurri? Barbacoa a.k.a. barbecue? Why not? Not a single ham and pineapple (the favorite in Oaxaca) was to be seen. Clearly, the Spanish aren’t averse to pairing fruit with meat: jamón and melon is classic and as I’ve mentioned before foie gras almost always was served with something apple-y. Maybe they just a need a nudge in the right direction.

Eroski basque birthday cakes

Happy birthday cakes in Basque.

Eroski filipinos

Um, Filipinos.

Eroski fantasinis

Apparently, they have a fondness for chips that look like ghosts. Fantasinis must be closely related to Fantasmas I saw in Madrid.

Spanish lays & ruffles

Chorizo and jamon play a prominent role in the chip department. The Ruffles truly tasted like ham while the Lay’s mostly of salt.

Eroski friends

Man’s best friend gets the English language treatment. Miao, the feline version, does not.

Spanish hello kitty snacks

Hello Kitty is everywhere, from Cheeto’s to Phoskitos snack cakes with a font that bears a striking resemblance to Snickers.

Pantera rosa duo

Another cat, The Pink Panther, lends his name to waxy, strawberry-iced Twinkie-like treats.

Eroski klak

Klak is a blatant Kit Kat clone.


Goiz-Argi was a good place to start. On a Wednesday night, our first night and still getting our bearings, this compact bar had enough breathing room to survey the small selection of fairly traditional pintxos on the counter and listed on the wall.

Goiz-argi facade

A hit of fizzy txakoli in a tumbler (I later began ordering vino tinto or cañas, small beers which seemed to be synonymous with zurritos, which I originally thought were even smaller, because that seemed more standard with locals—there are also a lot of rosado drinkers—than the white Basque wine) a brocheta de gambas, one of their specialties, and a wildcard, simple morcilla accompanied only by charred green pimientos, no fruity purees or hidden foie gras, set my foundation for the week of eating and drinking.

Goiz-argi brocheta de gambas

In much of Spain, at least in Barcelona and Madrid, there is the truth that only tourists go out to eat before 9pm. You look like a rube otherwise. So yes, you may not dine until 10pm but I learned the hard way that that doesn’t mean the entire evening has been extended. Most restaurants close by midnight so the opportunity for dining is short. After that, you may find yourself eating at Vips, the Denny’s of Spain.

Goiz-argi morcilla

San Sebastián turned out to be shifted even earlier. On this first night out we didn’t leave the apartment and make the two-block-stroll to Goiz-Argi until 9:30pm. By 10:30pm, many pintxos bars were already sweeping up and stacking stools. Weekend nights are the exception. Patrons spill onto the streets until midnight (though not much later) making it impossible to even consider entering. On a Saturday night attempt to return to Goiz-Argi, we were shooed out by owner as we tried to squeeze in past the hordes and had the grate pulled down behind us. No nonsense.

Goiz-Argi * 4 Fermín Calbetón, San Sebastián, Spain


Bar Zeruko

Zeruko, where foie gras hides in every crevice and otherwise responsible adults leave sleeping infants unattended in strollers out front, turned out to be one of my favorite places to eat in San Sebastián. (In the late ‘90s a Danish mother got into serious trouble for employing this carefree parenting style in NYC—at a Dallas BBQ, no less.)

Zeruko facade

You see, pintxos bars are tiny, often narrow places, many standing room only and even though they are now safe for forming lungs (smoking was finally banned indoors in Spain at the start of 2011, much to the dismay of my loving-to-smoke-on-vacation self) parents haven’t taken this as the signal to start maneuvering strollers inside. Clue number one that I wasn’t in Brooklyn anymore.

Zeruko more pintxos

Clue number two was the pricing. I’ve thought about why pintxos bars don’t/couldn’t thrive here (Txikito being the only example I can think of). We have plenty of small storefronts and a love of creative food, but the ingredients would demand higher prices, as too the rent, and a small $12 plate of food—what I could see being charged in NYC—would make the whole thing overly precious.

Zeruko pintxos

In San Sebastián you may only have a little glass of wine (beer, cider are also acceptable) for the equivalent of $2 and one dish, maybe $4, and consume it in less than ten minutes. Time to move on to the next spot. Your 5 euro meal—something to savor, but not to fetishize—has earned you a brief spot at the bar or a ledge.

Zeruko pintxos more

Now, allow me to fetizishe the food. Zeruko differed from standard approach where cold dishes are displayed on the counter and warm ones are listed on a chalkboard menu to be ordered sight unseen on description alone. Here, everything available was piled onto the counter and there was a menu, some of the two matched up and most items if pointed at or asked for would be whisked to a back kitchen and gussied up in some manner.

Zeruko alcachofa y foie

Like the artichoke I saw being consumed by many. I mangled the word alcachofa with anchoa (anchovy) and had to point to sort things out. I wanted something light and vegetable-based. Ha, but what I was eventually served was deep-fried, stuffed with foie gras, painted in gold leaf and surrounded by a swirl of caramel sauce; a rich wallop consumable in a few bites. So, this is how it’s done at Zeruko.

Zeruko bacalao
A simpler package of something fishy, likely bacalao, swaddled in thin zucchini slices served straight from the counter.

Zeruko langostino glass

Langostino glass (I know this is the official name, even though I don’t understand the glass part, because on our second visit we ordered from the menu rather than picking by sight) turned out to also contain foie gras, possibly the most popular ingredient after mayonnaise in the region, along with a fruity compote. Foie gras was almost always paired with fruit and 95% of the time, apples. In this case, though, berries.

Zeruko cochinillo

Taco de cochinillo lechal confitado con mostaza dulce y Grany Smith. Once again, the taco that wasn’t. This time it turned out to be a square of suckling pig.

Zeruko morcilla y foie rebozado con pistacho
Morcilla y foie rebozado con pistachio
. Yep, more foie gras, blended with blood sausage, encrusted in pistachios and drizzled with raspberry sauce. Our drizzle was more of a dried-on speck because I asked for this dish just as they were about to toss out three that had been ordered and not wanted. Would I be ok with one of these? Yeah, I ate someone’s reject.

I did not try their famous “la hoguera,” featured on the cover of the one book I bought, Pintxos de Vanguardia a la Donostiarra. It’s likely you’ll see at least one person (usually whole groups) with the diy charcoal smoked cod atop a mini grill. It draws attention—just like a sleeping baby left alone in a buggy.

Bar Zeruko * Calle Pescadería 10, San Sebastián, Spain

Spain ‘Splainin’

Deep, insightful wisdom gleaned from travel will follow shortly (ok, it won’t). It’s more likely that I will just be talking about what I ate in San Sebastián for a while (and not until I catch up on my work work because I’m responsible that way) with a little bit of NYC thrown in here and there.

What I can say now:

  • Whenever in Spain, I know that I’m going to have to eat flowers. I’m not crazy about eating flowers (psychologically, not from a taste perspective) but it’s a fact of alta cocina. I ate 11 dishes containing flowers in eight days.
  • San Sebastián was severely lacking in cats; it’s a total dog town. I saw a fluffy Himalayan pop out of the bushes at Mugaritz and that was it. Latin American is also doggy. Southeast Asia is full of street cats.
  • Many women in Spain—not just older women, and I’m guessing not just smokers (80% of the population it seems)—have very deep voices, like that House of Sand and Fog woman deep. I don’t know how this happens. Also, 30% of the women over 50 in Bilbao had short magenta, pink or purple hair. This also can’t be explained. The Guggenheim effect?
  • King beds are really just two twins placed in a larger frame. This is not just the case in rentals like the apartment I stayed in on this trip, but also at modern hotels like I experienced in Barcelona. I caught part of a TV documentary (yes, I always watch TV on vacation) about a teen trying to obtain the abortion pill at pharmacies in Spain and the staffers just kept giving her pamphlets about natural contraception. I wonder if these beds count?
  • At La Cuchara de San Telmo I overheard a group of men, maybe German and Dutch, speaking in the bridge language of English about dining (and disparaging American food as overly battered and fried). One was going to Noma. Another was recounting a nine-course tasting menu eaten somewhere I didn’t catch. Afterwards, he “wanted to go eat a hotdog.” Good to see that I’m-still-hungry-$200-and-ten-plates-later isn’t a uniquely American rubric. Here, it’s “I could eat a Big Mac.” Neither battered, nor fried.

What I can show now:



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