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Posts from the ‘Spain’ Category


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

Café Nebraska & Vips

1/2 I wouldn't recommend Café Nebraska to anyone unless they were nostalgic for the European trip taken with their mom and sister when they were 15. No, I’m not talking about myself. My family's vacations rarely consisted of more than a two-hour drive to the Oregon Coast. (To be fair, there was a 1984 Disneyland excursion where I watched part of Stop Making Sense in the motel room adjacent to my parents, not knowing what to make of David Byrne's oversized jacket, and a trip to Vancouver B.C. where my dad was too bashful and Hank Hill to go into any of the over-18 shops to buy the Duran Duran posters hanging in the window that my sister and I were clamoring for.)

James wanted to see if Café Nebraska, a Denny's-like chain he had been to over 20 years ago, was still chugging away on the Gran Via. It was, and still is thriving in multiple other locations too. Our first morning was the only time we woke up early enough for breakfast so we stopped by to get some café con leche and plan out our day.

Cafe nebraska churros

Just plain churros, not with thick chocolate for dipping. These crispy tubes actually tasted more savory than sweet, even with the addition of powered sugar.

After 20 minutes we realized we weren't getting our other ordered item, huevos rotos. I’m still not exactly sure what happened but after finally grabbing our waiter's attention and asking again, we still didn't get them. I would've just left but James was intent on getting our eggs, which we did after the third try and angering the waiter who subsequently wouldn't bring our bill after asking for that twice. That’s the Spanish style service legends are made of. Ok then, it wasn't as if I expected Café Nebraska to come with Michelin-starred service…or food.

We asked for huevos rotos, literally broken eggs, because the night before we were mesmerized by numerous people eating fried eggs, ham and French fries from what looked like individual cast iron pans with handles at a tapas bar, and I finally deduced that this was huevos rotos.

Cafe nebraska huevos rotos

This version unexpectedly contained a bed of mashed potatoes drizzled in like a gallon of olive oil, with eggs over easy and fried jamon. This was good in the same way that a giant platter of oozing melted cheese nachos topped with sour cream and guacamole is good. Gut-busting and tasty, but not for every day consumption.

Throughout the week, I spied many variations on this seemingly popular dish. It was a common first course in menu del dias. Quite a few used thick-cut potato rounds, like chips but fatter.

On to Vips. I've mentioned them before out of my own nostalgia. Though I can't seem to find much evidence of the restaurant's existence (just this pin on eBay and a buried mention in this state representative’s bio) and I'm pretty sure they are in no way related, we had a chain called Vip’s (with the apostrophe) in Oregon. I also noticed Vips in Mexico City, which I do imagine is affiliated with the company Grupo Vips in Spain (that also owns TGI Friday’s and is somehow affiliated with Starbucks). But in Mexico, Sanborns is the Denny's-esque place to be so I never checked out Vips.

I had no intention of going to Vips in Madrid, but at 12:30am on Sunday after getting out of a movie, I was starving and concerned about missing out on a dinner opportunity during vacation (James ate a giant popcorn, a.k.a. palomitas so he wasn't hungry but I don't like popcorn. Well, I do like palomitas dulces, caramel corn, which seems to be standard in theaters in Spanish-speaking countries, but I didn’t want to fill up on sweets) our nearby options were limited. Sure, there were a few brightly lit cervecerias with a few older gents at the bar still open but I wasn't sure what kind of food, if any, they might have. And frankly, I was kind of happy to have an excuse to try Vips.

Vips blooming onion

Neither of us had the nerve to try the aros de cebolla, listed first on the paper place mat menu, which I'm guessing was a bloomin' onion.

Vips croquetas

James ordered ham and cheese croquetas. I don’t think marinara is standard at Spanish restaurants. I guess these were more like mozzarella sticks.

Vips quesadilla

I went totally off the rails and opted for a ham and cheese quesadilla. My expectations were not high. The tortilla was a bit overdone and the middle wasn't thoroughly warmed, instead of melted cheese, individual grated squiggles were still detectable. And the salsa was barely more spicy than diced tomatoes straight from a can. The guacamole might've used real avocado, though.

Café Nebraska * Gran Via 55, Madrid, Spain

Vips * Calle de Alcalá, Madrid, Spain

La Taberna de la Daniela

Cocido is muy, muy Madrileño and I’ve never seen it in NYC, so passing up the regional specialty would be morally unacceptable (in my book of ethics). It's essentially every meat you can think of boiled with garbanzos and a few other vegetables. Not such a tantalizing description, sure. Luckily, the chilly weather made such heftiness seem appropriate. I don’t know that the lunchtime stew holds as much appeal when it’s sweltering.

The biggest question was where to try cocido since we’d only have one shot and it’s not something you decide on spur of the moment; most restaurants that feature it require advance reservations. Malacatin concerned me with their too mammoth portions, though I loved their logo of some kid with an ax (or maybe it’s a hoe, I’m pretty sure it’s not a bindlestiff as I initially thought). La Bola, I'm certain would've been fine, but I really wanted to get away from the tourist track  environs of our hotel.

Taberna de la daniela exterior

We chose Taberna de la Daniela, which I later discovered has three locations. We inadvertently picked one further away that we needed to in a neighborhood that ended up being near the big soccer stadium. The subdued area reminded me vaguely of the Upper East Side, and had a proliferation of children’s clothing stores in addition to a mini mall with a TGI Friday’s and Tony Roma’s. Cocidos is spelled out right on the restaurant’s yellow tiled sign lest you had any doubts.

Taberna de la daniela cocido accompaniments

Initially, you are brought what appears to be two versions of romesco. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between the two other than that one was thicker. Long green peppers (odd, since Spaniards are notoriously spice-averse) and pearl onions accompanied the sauces. Were these appetizers meant to be nibbled on or intended to go with the main meal?

It’s times like this when I realize that I actually have more culinary knowledge about Asian obscurities, which I’ve read about and eaten more extensively. My experience with traditional Spanish fare, and European cuisine in general, is much more limited. In some ways it’s more freeing to travel in places like China or Thailand because Americans aren’t expected to speak the language or know shit about anything. The bar is low for us so it’s not as embarrassing to make mistakes. But Spain? Spanish is a common second language in the United Sates; it’s not too much to expect Americans to be capable of communicating. Not making cultural faux pas is another story. 

Taberna de la daniela cocido broth

Soup is first. This broth is neither light nor subtle. I swear it tasted like mutton but that's the one meat not present in cocdio. Must be the pork. Barely detectable beneath the orange surface are fideos, broken vermicelli. This was a lot of soup for two. I wavered between not wanting to waste and seeming unappreciative and not wanting to fill up on liquid knowing the bounty that was in store for us. I sipped two not-quite-full shallow bowls worth.

Taberna de la daniela vegetables

This cocido was listed as three courses; two and three are presented at the same time. The meatless plate was primarily garbanzos with one potato, two dumplings, bits of carrot and cabbage. I just dug in, mixing as I pleased with no idea about the proper procedure. The bib-wearing businessmen next to us ate vegetables first and mushed them down with the back of a spoon. Then one of them cut up a green pepper with a butter knife and added rounds to the meat. I don’t think this was normal.

Taberna de la daniela meat

No lamb, but just about everything else. Chorizo, morcilla, chicken, brisket, pork fat (I think that’s tocino, though I was under the impression that was more bacony), marrow bones and the cross-section of a pig’s foot. I wasn’t that excited about the chicken and pure pork fat blocks made me a little nervous, but it was hard not be impressed with the selection. There are no fireworks with cocido, everything tastes as it is, no wild seasonings. It’s peasant food that people have grown to love, kind of like corned beef and cabbage (another bland dish I enjoy) times a thousand. Though I don’t think I could eat this on a frequent basis. Once a month, no problem.

Taberna de la daniela licores

Diners are sent off with bracing, supposedly fruity but really more herbal, shots of liquor. I really wish I could work that two-hour lunch with wine and digestifs into my daily routine. The practice doesn’t seem to fly, stateside.

La Taberna de la Daniela * Calle de Gutiérrez Solana 2, Madrid, Spain

Tapas Round 2: Casa Toni, La Casa del Abuelo, La Venencia

Numerous times we ended up in another popular tapas enclave near the Puerta del Sol. I was reluctant to take chances on places I hadn't written down (or rather copied, pasted and printed) or heard of because who knows if they would suck or not. I’m not a risk-taker.

One of the many sporadic bursts of rain that punctuated the week hit while I was out trying to stroll instead of power walk. Desperate for a speedy respite, we popped into the first inoffensive, non-packed place we could find. I had wanted grilled pig ears at tiny La Oreja de Oro (on my approved list) but the tavern was prohibitively full both times I attempted a visit. 

Casa toni exterior

Casa Toni, the bar we randomly entered, advertised pig ears too, though the skeptic in me was suspicious of a sparsely populated room with an open table, no less. Too crowded? Too empty? There's just no winning. I don’t think anything was wrong with Casa Toni and we soon realized after easily getting a seat that there was an upstairs dining room people regularly headed to, potentially diffusing mobs. 

Casa tino orejas

The first thing listed on the menu is oreja a la plancha, which was my intended dish. I already knew I liked pigs' ears (as you may have noticed, I'm no grammarian, and now I'm having trouble deciding between pig ears or pigs' ears because I've seen it both ways) but you never know what you're going to get. Resto's pig ear salad is awesome but the pigs' ear salad I had in Macau was pure crunch, no chew, too garlicky and not compelling.

To my surprise, these grilled pigs' ears were the underdog hit of the entire week, even according to James who's indifferent to offal. Quite possibly my favorite thing. These rough ribbons of meat and cartilage had the perfect ratio of fat and softness to tough bits and lots of flat surfaces for maximum crispy char.

Half-way through devouring this plate like the drenched, starving beasts we’d become, we noticed two of the cooks looking at us and laughing, possibly thinking that those American gluttons must not know what they're eating. (I don't doubt that's an uncommon mistake if you couldn't read Spanish and just pointed to the first thing on the menu). Believe me, we knew what we were doing. All I could think was that if this was the ho hum version, Oreja de Oro's must be insane. 

Casa tino patatas bravas

These patatas were specifically brava, spicy (I use that descriptor loosely) sauce only. Often you see patatas bravas served with aioli too; at Casa Toni that rendition had some made up name like patatas bravaioli. Thank goodness they were crispy because I hate all-mush steak fry-type preparations. Portions of both the potatoes and ears were larger than anticipated.

Casa Toni * Calle de la Cruz 14, Madrid, Spain

Casa del abuelo exterior

Casa del Abuelo is directly across from Oreja de Oro, and both bars were perennially packed. When we spied a gap at this gambas specialist we jumped. For lunch we dared to try food court gambas al ajillo (oh so much more on that later) so for variety we had our prawns a la plancha here. 

Casa del abuelo gambas a la plancha

Saline and moist, similar to Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, these crustaceans were fun bar snacks. And there's nothing more fun (ok, I can think of a few others) than tossing heads and shells onto the floor. We were standing at a tiny marble table but the bar had a garbage trough along its front. It’s also not unusual to see cigarette butts stamped out and tossed to the ground indoors. I not only feel weird smoking inside restaurants, but ashing on the ground feels criminal. 

Casa del abuelo garbage trough

Oreja de oro coupon Apparently La Casa del Abuelo and La Oreja de Oro are more than just neighbors, they are affiliated. Upon paying the bill for our shrimp we were given a coupon for a free chato across the way. I didn’t know tapas bars gave out coupons; it was almost carnivalesque. I felt like Charlie with his golden ticket, though a tiny €1 glass of wine isn’t the grandest prize. I intended to take them up on their offer after seeing Watchmen, but at 12:30am on a Sunday night the gates were down. I never did get to taste those golden ears.

La Casa del Abuelo * Calle Victoria 12, Madrid, Spain

With dusty bottles and sawdusted floor, La Venencia is a classic sherry bar–and like much of Madrid, seemingly straight from a '20s movie set. I do like the specialization aspsect of many tapas bars. Casa Labra is another, known for things made with cod, and Las Bravas, is always teeming with patatas bravas eaters, obviously. I just don’t see a tapas bar that only served variations on the same few ingredients thriving in NYC. 

La venencia interior

The back room was fairly empty because it was near to closing time, if I'm correct either 1am or 1:30am. Despite what people say about Madrid being a late night city, that didn't seem to be the case. We've encountered this phenomenon countless times on vacation. We're still bright-eyed at 3am and nothing's open. Sleeping till noon is the downside to not being tired in the middle of the night. I think it balances out; it just means that I rarely eat breakfast in foreign countries. 

La venencia olives & manzanilla

I didn’t experiment, only sipping a single glass of dry manzanilla and picking at some olives. I'm no olive connoisseur but every single type we were offered, and we were given many in every shade of green and brown, tasted different. So many olives. These were salty and richer than ones I'm used to in the U.S. or maybe the sherry was enhancing the olives’ flavor.

La venencia manchego

No skimping on the Manchego here.

La Venencia * Calle Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain

Tapas Round 1: Cañas y Tapas, Txirimiri, Casa Lucas

If people only know one thing about Spanish food, it's tapas. (At least I thought so until the person who sits six feet from me at work stared blankly when I uttered the mysterious word in response to his "What did you eat in Spain?" question. I'm a speed talker/mumbler so I thought I wasn't enunciating properly and repeated "you know, tapas.” Then again for good measure, “tapas?” Uh, no.  I thought that was the easy answer, not wanting to get into pig ears, percebes or 12 miniature courses employing, yes, a little foam.) Or maybe paella, damn, I should've just said paella.

I have mixed feelings on Spanish tapas. I love the concept of lots of little things spread out over an evening yet I’m crowd-phobic and don’t enjoy eating while standing (or walking, for that matter). But it must be done. I can concede that our American style of tapaing (I also love that tapear, to eat tapas, is a verb) with full table settings is a mild aberration yet still be ok with it.

We ended up in the thick of two tapas hubs (at least for tourists, and I will always wonder how Europeans are already drunk by 11pm and chanting what I imagine must be sports anthems outside in large groups) on our first two nights.

Ok, I'm not ashamed to admit that our first stop, hours off the plane, was a chain. I love franchises, so there. Sure Cañas y Tapas is tourist friendly, positioned right on the Gran Via, but I wouldn’t call it a trap and Spanish speakers were in the majority (not that all Spanish-speakers in Madrid live there. I don't imagine many of the English-speakers I see every day taking photos with the Financial District bull live in NYC) even at the early hour of 9pm (where it's still jarringly light out in Madrid, for contrast the sun set at 7:35pm in NYC on April 15).

This is where I acclimated to being enshrouded in cigarette smoke, how to maneuver and finagle spots at the counter and the level of assertiveness needed to get served and pay the bill. Not that anyone is rude, eh, some are brusque, but mostly they are just inattentive. If we were in the Applebee’s of Spanish food, I was none the wiser because the food was far from crappy. Then again, I’ve eaten a few riblets in my day.

Canas y tapas morcilla & croquetas

Morcilla de Burgos isn't the intense sweetish blood sausage that I'm used to. This was crumbly and contained a good amount of rice. I think a blood sausage hater would like this if you didn't mention the word blood when serving it to them. Madrileños seem to enjoy dry crackery things, and all sorts of them turn up in breadbaskets along with non-dried out slices of bread. Simple ham croquetas are hiding in the background.

Cañas y Tapas * Calle Gran Via 71, Madrid, Spain

We moved onto La Latina, three metro stops away, and as we accidentally discovered later, less than a 20-minute walk from our hotel. Madrid was surprisingly compact. Barely walking the distance from Houston to 14th Street puts you into a totally different neighborhood. We kept ending up in La Latina without even meaning to. Cava Baja is the main tapas strip in the area, and the side streets are equally plentiful.

I was torn on Txirimiri. The front bar was jammed predominantly with under-30s drinking cañas, smoking and not really eating any of the pintxos (as a Basque place it's all about things on bread and lots of K’s and X’s) displayed in cases while the restaurant in back was sparsely populated with over 40s. Who to emulate? Was it stodgy to eat a real meal? Instead, I blindly picked two pintxos and found open space on a ledge to house my plates.

Txirimiri tortilla pintxo

Despite being told what this was, I couldn't tell you exactly what it as called. I think it's a tortilla sandwich. Served room temperature, it contained potato but as you can see, also ham and crumbles of cheese. Caramelized onions were also tucked in. It might not have been my first choice, it’s simply what caught my eye immediately and I was reluctant to ask about every last thing on the counter in my so-so Spanish. This ended up being a minor problem the whole week. I read Spanish, particularly food Spanish, very well but if I’m only verbally told what's available it garbles in my brain. Luckily, there isn't anything (other than melon) that I won't eat so I don't mind being surprised with what I end up with.

Txirimiri pintxo

This was a jamon-wrapped nugget of goat cheese topped with mushrooms and garnished with basil oil. A lot of flavor is packed into these little bites. I would've tried a few more offerings but we needed to explore more. I vowed to return for proper dinner another night but that never happened; we ended up at Kulto al Plato, another creative Basque tapas place instead. So many regrets.

Txirimiri * Calle del Humilladero 6, Madrid, Spain

Small and boxy Casa Lucas felt more traditional, with an amicable older counterman and a quieter vibe. It's not a scruffy taberna. We had a few glasses of red wine. I couldn't tell you what because I don’t always pay the same attention to what I’m drinking as to what I’m eating (though I’m trying to be more astute). But this definitely wasn't a cheap house wine place—there was a thought out list written on the chalkboard and best of all, nothing was over 3 euros (ok, so that’s cheap). I'm accustomed to spending as much, if not more on alcohol than on food, so it was a pleasant surprise to find perfectly nice glasses of wine for $3.25 rather than $10 for a change.

Casa lucas freebie

What added to my notion that this was a more traditional or at least genteel tapas bar is the fact that this was the only place we encountered the entire week that gave us a freebie with our drinks, as I think is more commonplace in locals type places. I won't say no to salchichon.

Casa lucas ventresca

We shared ventresca, tuna belly atop roasted red and green peppers. Tuna, and canned seafood in general, is huge in Madrid. I didn't take a photo but entire grocery store aisles are devoted to clams, mussels, anchovies and what seems like every iteration of tuna imaginable. This was lively, vinegared in an escabeche style. So much better than water-packed Chicken of the Sea.

Casa Lucas * Calle Cava Baja 30, Madrid, Spain

The Rain in Spain

Once again, humans and sights are distressingly absent from my vacation photos. At this point I've given up on even trying to be well-rounded. (I've also discovered that I take abysmal outdoor photos, I'm still working on that.)

Comic Relief. There is only one constant on all vacations: a Robin Williams movie will inevitably play on the plane. Thankfully, there were 20 to choose from (I tried watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but can never sit through movies on planes. A rousing game of Bookworm did keep me occupied for a while) so Dead Poet’s Society wasn’t forced on me. Later in the week I had a strange brief dream, more romantic than sexual, involving Robert Sean Leonard (who was in Dead Poet’s Society and who I’ve never given much thought to ever) but he was supposed to be some indie comic, if I can type such a phrase straight-faced. Also, had a dream that Oliver Schwaner-Albright, a New York Times dining section writer that I no absolutely nothing about, called me. On the the line was a gay man claiming that my father was a relative in common and he knew this because he was working on a documentary with Ken Burns. I kept insisting there was no way we were related but he wouldn’t believe me.

Tortoises vs. Hares. When I saw a Spanish thirtysomething couple saying "adelante" and mocking a fast walker, exaggeratedly pumping their arms up and down, I knew I was in upside-down town. No matter how hard I try to ease up, I cannot stroll. I enjoy barreling past people and storming around; that's why I wear flats. (Just yesterday I got suckered into taking one of those Facebook quizzes about my inner nationality and very unsurprisingly I got German. I've never been pegged so accurately: "You are precise yet romantic, efficient yet dreamy, friendly yet somewhat suspicious of others…you are easily annoyed by the slowness and/or stupidity of others.") But Spain, like much of the world outside NYC is composed of slow movers. Abnormally slow movers, like the motion of their feet is a visual trick like that Russian Futurist dog painting (who knew it was housed in Buffalo?). It looks like they are putting in a lot of effort yet they're moving at what I'd estimate to be 60% of a normal gait. For fun, I tried to match everyone else's strides but it was physiologically and psychologically damaging. I don't necessarily enjoy being in a hurry but I find it insufferable to get stuck behind someone on a sidewalk or staircase and not be able to pass.

Mad Props. Which brings me to the matter of the pervasiveness of canes and crutches and not just among the elderly. James even commented on this and he's not one to notice such things. Why do so many people in Madrid need walking aides? I've also wondered why I see more people with vitiligo in NYC than anywhere else on earth, so maybe it's just one of those things.

Aw, Nuts. I’m a sugar limiter but I’ll make exceptions for extraordinary sweets. Unfortunately (for me, not my health) most of what I saw displayed in Madrid bakeries was frankly, kind of resistible. Everything seemed brown, tan, beige, crumbly, hard, dense and dry—the anti-Demel. Soft, moist and colorful is where it’s at. I didn’t take any photos; you’ll just have to believe me. When I started seeing Frutos Secos advertised on the windows and awnings of their equivalent to a corner deli, it reinforced my impression of their odd palate. Dried fruit as a calling card? It only now occurred to me to look up frutos secos and as it turns out the phrase isn’t literal: it means nuts of all types and dehydrated legumes and garbanzos. Still shrivelly and dried out, though.

Black Lungs. I know Europe still clings to cigarettes more strongly than the US but even France has banned indoor smoking. Not so, Spain (I don't recall Barcelona being so nicotine-crazed). The only other places I've been where smoking was still semi-tolerated indoors were China and Macau (not Hong Kong) but that's nothing compared to Madrid, and besides, in Asia the behavior is kind of a men-only thing where Spain is equal opportunity. Not only is smoking rampant in most public spaces, smoking sections are nearly nonexistent and yet no one seems to have a problem with this. If you even light up while outside in the US, you are certain to get at least one dirty look or pathetic scolding cough from a passerby. I smoked through half of my teens, all of my twenties and a bit of my thirties, though I haven't smoked seriously in six years, meaning I don't buy packs but might have a cigarette at a party, equaling no more than two-three cigarettes a month I would guess. I only smoke when I drink and only rarely then. Yet, I love smoking. It's not a nasty habit to me and I was sad to give it up (if I didn't have high blood pressure and get gross-feeling and raspy, I would probably not stop). I always cave on vacation just as I eat as I please when not in NYC. Luckily, I can turn it off in a (rapidly failing) heartbeat. I can smoke like a locomotive for a week and then not touch a cigarette for months. It's a gift. Unlike sugary and fried foods where once I start, I can't stop eating junk and that's all I want to eat. I'm still trying to get back on track with a semi-healthy eating regimen. Last night it was homemade fried chicken but today it is oatmeal, sashimi and jogging (is it '80s to use the word jogging? At least I didn't mention aerobics. I hardly move fast enough to qualify as full-fledged running).

Strange Brew. Beer is the drink of choice, not wine, cider or sherry (yes, sherry's a wine). I think outsiders equate Spain with wine but as my Madrileño Spanish teacher pointed out, "ir de caña" going for beer is a common phrase where no one says "ir de vino." Even at high end restaurants, men, women, young and old had cañas on the table while perusing the menu, though a bottle of wine might eventually be ordered to accompany a sit-down meal. More oddly to me were the Lilliputian portions. Everyone seems to drink juice glass-sized beers these s-called cañas or equally tiny glasses of wine dubbed chatos. They're cheap, like 1.50 euros and intended to accompany a single tapa. My concern was that these bars are so intimidatingly crowded that getting another drink was barely worth the hassle. Perhaps that is why a one-drink/one-tapa crawl is standard procedure.

Underground. We rode the subway numerous times per day and not only was it never crowded (once it did approach NYC levels of uncomfortable closeness) we never waited more than four minutes, which was easy to gauge since they have those nice arrival time boards hanging on the platform. I love efficiency (uh, oh, that inner German is getting excited)! They even have a Bibliometro, a.k.a. a staffed library kiosk in the middle of some stations…and riders were actually checking out books. What did weird me out was that the subway doors do not open automatically. This was not immediately apparent to me on my first day trying to disembark and I panicked. A passenger getting off or on has to either push a button or pull a lever (depending on train style) and the trains are so uncrowded that at stops many doors simply stayed shut. Is this an energy-saving tactic? It made me nervous that a door might malfunction and I would be stuck on the subway car.

You Kin't Do It. Dunkin' Donuts is Dunkin' Coffee in Madrid. Maybe they don't know what donuts (or even doughnuts) are because the chain calls them rosquillas, which from my observation of traditional bakery windows seemed denser and hefty than yeasty frosted American donuts, which is what Dunkin' Coffee were selling. I'm not a donut person and forgot to peek at what flavors were on offer. While at Alcampo an awesomely enormous modern supermarket (with a department store on the second floor) in the Vaguada Mall, there was a guy dressed up like a donut and handing out chocolate-iced samples in individually packed plastic shells. The container just said Donut, so maybe it's a new marketing push. To spare his dignity, I did not snap a photo.

Stay Seated. Just as in Buenos Aires, movie theaters have assigned seating. I like this (perhaps it's that inner German in me). I often see a movie I would never watch in NYC while on vacation (Madrid: Watchmen; Mexico City: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; Buenos Aires: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Penang: Red Eye). After purchasing a ticket, you can show up late as you'd like knowing you have a seat waiting for you. None of that annoying NYC up-and-down, hovering, maneuvering, squeezing into empty spots at the last second in the dark. Or maybe that's just my issue because I tend to go to movies early and get a good seat, then have to stand up to let people in and out for the next 20 minutes.

One Last Thing. No one has ever questioned me about my last name in NYC (eh, in the early 21st century a Puerto Rican girl who signed me up at the world's most demoralizing Lucille Roberts on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border suspiciously asked me if I was "Spanish") or the few big cities I've visited in Latin America. They have no reason to since Garcia is the eighth most common surname in the United States. Might as well be Smith or Williams.  But both the woman who checked me in to my hotel and the woman who checked me in for my flight home seemed unusually curious about my last name and made a point of mentioning how Spanish it was. The older airport woman simply asked if I could speak Spanish while the younger hipper girl at the hotel scolded me playfully. My only authority on Madrid-ness, Pablo the teacher, said, "They think all Americans have names like Jackson." For the record, Jackson is at 18th place in surname popularity.

And by the way, it rained all six days I was in Spain. Like a mold, I thrive on chilly dampness, though.


There’s nothing I hate more than a straggler, so my final brief missive from last month’s Argentina vacation must be posted now or it never will see the light of day. And I know everyone’s dying to hear about Basque food in South America.

Despite speaking Español (or Castellano, as they say, you know, just to be different) Spanish food is scarcer than you might think in Buenos Aires. Italian culture is definitely more pervasive.

Burzako is near the San Telmo market, a big Sunday afternoon draw. I’ll admit that I only gave it a quick stroll through because I’m not wild about outdoor markets (I went to Brooklyn Flea for the first time Sunday and was kind of eh about the whole thing, though I enjoyed my slightly pricey Jamaica-flavored shaved ice sweetened with agave syrup from Chida).

I was expecting a more rustic restaurant, but the room was more elegant with white tablecloths and floral arrangements. Being lunch, we only ordered tapas, which I wouldn’t say were particularly Basque. The entrees leaned that way, though.

Burzako langostina croquetas

It’s hard to resist a croquette/croqueta/kroketa (American-approved French, Spanish or Basque, whichever you prefer). These non-oily fritters were filled with a gooey langoustine mixture and topped with an aioli type sauce.

Burzako cheese

I couldn’t tell you everything on this cheese plate, but I’m fairly certain the blue was Roquefort as that was by far the blue cheese of choice in Buenos Aires.

Burzako pulpo

I have no idea why the octopus was so expensive. At around $18 if I’m remembering correctly (there’s no Menupages to refresh my memory) the plate of pulpo a la gallega was pricey. I felt compelled to try it, though. It was definitely tender and I like anything spiked with pimenton.

Burzako jamon crudo

I ate a lot of jamon crudo on vacation. I also drank quite a bit of tinto, and was always surprised at how high they filled wine glasses when ordering by the glass. I’m more value-minded than concerned with my wine being able to breathe so this was a fortunate quirk to me.

Burzako * Mexico 345, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Can Manel la Puda

Paella? “Eh.” My usual reaction. Paella? “Aargh!” The response from the Italian guy sitting near us. Talk about gusto. He maniacally downed his plate of rice in mere minutes, then pumped his fists low and close to the table while briefly shouting like a pirate. I couldn’t help but admire his enthusiasm. He’d spent practically the entire time between ordering and receiving food, explaining how great paella is to the other backpacked, beachy guy sitting across from him. I didn’t even need to understand Italian to figure out what he was talking about.

CanmanelValenica may rule when it comes to this famous dish, but we had to at least try paella once while in Spain. There are countless renditions, but the pervasive style in Barceloneta, the coastal strip of the city, is paella marinara with seafood. Touristy, overpriced restaurants dominate this area. Can Manel wasn’t expensive (€12/$15 per person for the paella), it might’ve been middling, but I wouldn’t have known any better. We were enjoying ourselves despite dining al fresco (something I hate in NYC). The cava and beers probably didn’t hurt our disposition either.

Normally, I’m not crazy about rice dishes that aren’t Asian (a weird bias, I know). I imagined that Barcelona, while not known for its paella, might still outshine anything I’d tasted in the U.S. and this did prove true. I was curious about squid inky arroz negro, which was also on many menus, but no one else seemed to be ordering it. I think 90% of the diners were brought seafood paella. The cooks must be bored to death.

Paella_1 You’re shown the finished paella in the cooking vessel and then it’s taken away and divvied onto individual plates. I did notice some tables kept the pan and were serving themselves like they’d feel cheated if they didn’t witness what was happening to every last grain. I’m not that high maintenance. People were also very fussy about where they were seated. I was just happy in Spain because they gladly offer four-seaters to couples, a practice not practiced here.

The rice was chewy in a good way and the additions were just enough, not excessive. Pieces of fish and squid were plentiful and one giant prawn, a mussel and one cute langoustine (I’d never seen one of these shrunken lobster creatures in the shell) were placed on the side. The overall consistency was moister and oilier than I’ve had in the past. Good oily, not greasy, which seems to be a Spanish hallmark.

Can Manel la Puda * Passeig de Joan de Borbón 60, Barcelona, Spain

Kiosko Universal

KioskouniversalAs I feared, much lauded Bar Pinotxo was a no go at the Boqueria. Not because it’s slim on seating and I fear crowds and tall backless stools, but because it was shuttered for the August “vacation.” Luckily, there are a handful of tapas bars scattered throughout the market and nearby Kiosko Universal was bustling and open for business. As we walked past the counter, two seats magically opened up and I grabbed them.

Then we had the task of trying to decipher the tiny type Spanish menu scrawled on the blackboard over the stoves. I couldn’t make out a lot of the words, but something with garbanzos and spinach jumped out. I love the chickpea and blood sausage recipe from New Tapas: Culinary Travels With Spain’s Top Chefs that was adapted from Bar Pinotxo, so I figured Kiosko might do good things with nubby legumes too. Laced with chunks of pork, the rich, oily vegetable duo made a hearty first course. I then noticed that practically everyone around us had the same dish. It was popular with good reason.

Kioskochickpeas Next, we went the “what do you recommend route” which I never do in NYC because here I know what I want. It was decided that we’d try a mixed seafood plate because that seemed to be their thing and I like surprises. There weren’t any bad surprises in Barcelona (at least not food-wise. Being cut off from the internet for a week because our hotel was in no hurry to fix it was unexpected. I did begin to see the beauty of the Blackberry, though I’m still not ready to give in to a cell phone or PDA of my own).

A few minute later we were presented with what might be the world’s tiniest clams, shrimp, squid, a white fish (I’m not knowledgeable enough to figure out fish types by look and taste) and what I’ve since discovered were razor clams. KioskoseafoodI had no idea they were skinny and wormy like that but was glad to have been introduced to a new shellfish in its most basic form.

I’ll admit to not being much of a “let the food speak for itself” ingredient purist. I like spices and sauces (though I draw the line at Red Lobster cheese on everything madness). Here, I finally got the appeal of simple grilled seafood enhanced by salt, olive oil and parsley. Nothing good can come of creamy honey BBQ sauce on your fish.

Kiosko Universal * Rambla 91, Barcelona, Spain

Cinc Sentits

1/2 I share a cubicle wall with an executive assistant who's been having all sorts of trauma in the past few days trying to organize an off site something or another (I totally don't understand these overblown cushy corporate events masquerading as business) in New Orleans. The trauma stems over a choice of restaurant. The powers that be keep leaning towards contemporary New York style venues, which haven't been very accommodating while the assistant thinks that it would be more fitting to patronize a classic, old school, white tablecloth Creole restaurant since those don't exist here. She asked my opinion and in this situation, I was like go with the classics (really, I would recommend not limiting choices to the French Quarter, but that's another matter).

Cinc Sentits might prompt a similar dilemma. Compared to many of the inventive, playful restaurants in northern Spain, Barcelona's Cinc Sentits is colder and more minimalist. The clean lines and neutrals punctuated with splashes of crimson feels, well, more New York. The family who runs the restaurant are fluent English speakers and smoking isn't allowed. I like Spanish and cigarettes, but this didn't lessen the European dining experience. The ingredients and wines were resolutely Spanish–you wouldn't find these combinations in Manhattan.

I’m going to try and keep this from getting too wordy. I went to town blabbing about Can Roca only because I have trouble being succinct. This time I’ll just jump into the photos immediately and talk later. And no, my memory isn’t that good. I only recall every detail and wine pairing because I had them email me a PDF menu (after all those glasses of wine, it slipped my mind to ask at the end of the meal). I do like how this practice seems to be de rigueur in higher end Spanish restaurants (we received a pretty print out from Can Roca, as well). It would never occur to me to ask for document of what I ate in NYC.

We did the Gran Àpat (chef’s tasting menu) with wine pairings because I don’t trust my own judgment when it comes to the vino.

shot of warm maple syrup, cream, cava sabayon and rock salt
They made a point of saying it was Canadian maple syrup, which James thought was funny for some reason, like that's a mark of quality worth emphasizing. If I'm correct, the chef, Jordi Artal, was raised in Canada so I didn't think it was that weird. It would've been stranger if they'd said Spanish maple syrup.

foie gras with violet marmalade
A different tapa was described in the menu I received so I don't know the finer details.  I do have an aversion to eating flower petals, but I can deal with essences like rose, lavender and violet.

peach gazpacho, extra virgin arbequina olive oil, Forum vinegar glaze
I'm still not sure what Forum vinegar is, but it appears to be a Spanish wine vinegar. I was relieved we didn’t receive a melon soup that I’d read about, which I actually would’ve tried because I hate closed minded diners even more than I hate melon.

foie gras "coca"
forum vinegar-glazed leeks, crisp sugar shell, chives
wine: schmitges riesling spätlese (v.q.a. mosel, germany)

So, I never got the red pepper coca I tried for twice at La Vinya del Senyor. This was as close as I’d get, which I’m guessing isn’t that close at all considering the use of quotes.

galician diver scallop
sweet onion escalivada, sunchoke puré, iberian ham chip
wine: pazo piñeiro albariño (d.o. rías baixas, spain)

Traditionally, escalivada is Catalan grilled vegetable combo. I only learned that this very second.

wild mediterannean sea bass
false shellfish risotto, parsley oil
wine: can feixes chardonnay (d.o. penedès, spain)

I think they mean that the risotto isn't a true risotto. The shellfish aren't false, they're langoustines (I asked). I'm not crazy about parsley (or dill, but that's beside the point) but I love anything so vividly green.

iberian suckling pig
priorat and honey glaze, apples deglazed with ratafía
wine: closa batllet (d.o.q. priorat, spain)

This is one of those sous vide masterpieces. They specifically mentioned that it was cooked at 70 degrees, and I wasn’t sure if they were just telling that to Americans because we have issues with bacteria and this slow boil-in-a-bag cooking method. Inspectors were confiscating sous vide equipment here not too long ago. And people question why there’s so little avant garde cooking in NYC.

This was probably my favorite dish, but I love anything that includes crispy pork skin and is both sweet and savory. Ratafia is a liqueur that is either made with bitter almonds or peach pits, I’m not sure which.

artisanal spanish cheeses
forcam : picota cherry and lemon-thyme salad, cascarral : soft almond cube, valdeón : red wine-poached pear
wine: bàrbara forés dolç (d.o. terra alta, spain)

We were instructed to eat the cheeses and accompaniments left to right, mild to strong. I’m kind of a sucker for rules, so I did just that. The middle one might’ve been my top choice. I do love blue cheese, but it can be mouth-zinging even with a sweet pear slice and glass of caramelly wine to balance the flavors.

textures of lemon
ice cream, cake, curd, and espuma with vodka granizado
wine: chivite vendimia tardía moscatel (d.o. navarra, spain)

I noticed that another couple at the restaurant (as well as people who've blogged their meal) had this dessert paired with Grey Goose vodka. I'm not sure why we got the moscatel and if that's a better or worse choice.  I also noticed that a guy at a different neighboring table had eaten all the goo and left the cake behind. What kind of freak doesn't like cake?

valrhona chocolate "crocant"
home-made nocilla praliné, roasted hazelnut ice cream
wine: noe pedro ximenez (d.o. xérès-sherry-jerez, spain)

I could’ve sworn there was banana in this dessert, though there’s no evidence of that from the description. And all I have is the description to rely on since I ate the whole damn thing before realizing that I’d never taken a photo. I always wonder if others finish every dish when they do tasting menus or if we’re just gluttons. The portions weren't enormous here so I didn't feel bad. (At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, though, we almost died from the massive food intake and probably should've left more bites behind.) I’d been so good about capturing every course up until the very end, too. I blame the wine.

I'm scared that I'm becoming jaded (like last night I had some supermarket prosciutto because I was dying for cured ham and it just tasted salty and dull like those thin Land O' Frost lunchmeats I loved as a kid). When I came back from vacation my supervisor (whose personality is like 85% of the reason why I had to get out of there) who's all trendy restaurant obsessed, asked, "Oh, did they serve things in shot glasses?" "I love it when they use spoons like that. I want to do that at a dinner party" Ugh.

I would declare shot glasses and spoons as totally over (because, you know, I'm very influential in these matters) but I don't honestly think they're ubiquitous country-wide. Oh shit, I just remembered that they were totally mentioned in yesterday's NY Times article, "Tiny Come-Ons, Plain and Fancy " (barf) . It's not until you see a trend adapted at Cheesecake Factory that you know it's five years past its prime. Now the contrarian in me never wants to eat an amuse-bouche presented in either of those forms ever again.

Cinc Sentits * 58 Carrer Aribau, Barcelona, Spain