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Posts tagged ‘Sightseeing’

Ramadan For Mall Rats

Ramadan, which ends today, (time passes so fast) is something I’ve always been vaguely aware of (though not so aware that I booked travel to Dubai before realizing I’d be in the thick of it) but never so much as this year. I'm sure that annually the holy month gets covered by the media, but this year it felt like was seeping everywhere.

Cheesecake factory mall of the emirates

Without actively seeking out any articles, recently Ramadan has been the subject of a first-person account of first-time fasting  in the The New Yorker, in NPR about cheaters, and amusingly to a glutton like myself, mentioned in hand-wringing stories over perversion of its true meaning due to all the pigging-out at decadent iftars (hundreds ate themselves sick and right into the emergency room in Qatar). How restrained can a region that welcomes the first Cheesecake Factory outside the US be?

And malls–The Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates are the biggies, and I do mean that literally even if I'm too lazy to look up their square footage for comparison to their US counterparts–are the places that one (ok, me) might argue are the cultural hubs to best witness the collision of the modern and ancient, or at the very least how the West meets (Middle) East and adapts.

Ski slope mall of the emirates

The man-made ski slope would be the obvious start. And it is nearly the first thing you see when rising up the escalator into the entrance of the Mall of the Emirates where taxis let off passengers scrambling for air conditioned relief.

Apres mall of the emirates

You can have fondue and cocktails overlooking Ski Dubai. I'm surprised they didn't go all New Orleans and use real fireplaces despite the ridiculous temperatures (though Dubai was twenty degrees hotter than the hottest weather I've ever experienced in Louisiana).

Shake shack ramadan duo

Shake Shack holds prime real estate across from the slopes. And while no burgers could be consumed until after sundown, you're able to get your (halal, bacon-free) fix until 3am during Ramadan.

Mall of the emirates ihop

The IHOP directly next door has already opened, and I do hope a chicken veal sausage, turkey beef bacon version of the Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity is on the menu.

Magnolia bakery dubai

The Magnolia Bakery was deserted. No lines, no cupcakes.

Dubai chain grid

The concentration of American chains (ok, Tim Hortons is Canadian) was astonishing. Dubai has doubles and triples of restaurants with zero presence in NYC (though, oddly, Olive Garden was absent). And if you think they are filled with tourists (Americans definitely don't make-up any significant proportion of visitors, who seemed to be very British with a sprinkling of Russian) you would be mistaken.

Laduree duo

High-end imports like The Ivy also have doppelgangers in Dubai. As do confectioners like Laduree and Barcelona's Cacao Sampaka. Maison Kayser, recently exciting New Yorkers, is old news in the Dubai mall world.

  Ramadan hotel food

Covertly sneaking a sip of water or handful of Marks & Spencer trail mix in the bathroom can get old for a non-Muslim mall rat. I quickly figured out that mall hotels were safe havens. (Bizarrely, in Bangkok, a week later in my itinerary, I butted up against so-called Buddhist Lent, where no alcohol was sold anywhere for two days, except in hotel bars. If one must suffer Santana cover bands and iced Manhattans to get a fix, so be it.) The Kempinski, attached to Mall of the Emirates, had a bar full of secret smokers and eaters (no daytime drinking for anyone). We headed in for mini burgers and a dessert sampler, both far larger than the snack we originally were looking for. The Ember Grill at The Address Dubai Mall is where to do the same at the other big mall in town. There, we pit-stopped for a coffee and a smoke just because it felt forbidden and we could.

Texas roadhouse dubai after sunset

Even before 7pm, restaurants began filling up with those anxious to eat. As soon as the prayers sounded–around 7:15 during my visit–masses started trickling into the walkways (from where?) and by 7:30 some restaurants already had lines for seats. Texas Roadhouse was the surprise hit–a number of parties were waiting out front, beepers in hand. What I really wanted to know was if the servers in Dubai also periodically perform country line dances.

Shake shack dubai late night

I returned to the Shake Shack close to midnight, mostly to see if Dubai's version attracted NYC-length lines. That did not seem to be the case–at least not at that hour. It took restraint to not order a burger, but we had vowed to try local fast food brands instead (more on that later).

My biggest two Dubai regrets were being unable to explore more ethnic eats like those chronicled in I Live in a Frying Pan (normally, I balance the modern and franchise-y with local restaurants and street food) because none were open during the day, and my brief four nights in the city meaning only having time for as many dinners, too short a stop to justify a curiosity-satisfying visit to California Pizza Kitchen or P.F. Chang's.

Most Photogenic

Refreshed and invigorated? I don't know what that means. In fact, I may be one of the few people who returns from vacations feeling exhausted, vaguely depressed and unable to get back into routines like typing words for a small number of strangers to read.

So, here are some photos while I get my act together:

The Big Easy, Briefly

I imagine saying The Big Easy is akin to The Big Apple or Frisco or whatever horrible nickname locals would never use. I didn’t go wild with New Orleans photos considering I’ve probably taken shots of most of the classic foods (how many beignets, Sazeracs, and bowls of gumbo does one need to see?) during my four trips over the past decade (still thinking it’s weird that I ended up going the exact same week of February this year, as my first visit in 2002) and I rarely take photos of people or objects or myself anyway. But this is what I ended up with.

Time is short in my world due to a combination of day-job-demands and general inertia, so I’m not likely to blog about any of my meals. I would probably talk about Dooky Chase and how it’s not fair to compare the fried chicken to Wille Mae’s on the next block, as I had intended because Willie Mae’s makes some of the best fried chicken in the country while Dooky Chase is more about the breadth of Creole cooking, as exemplified by the lunch buffet that I intended to bypass for a chicken-only-snack but got sucked into.

And how I wasn’t feeling Herbsaint, but my urge for modern Southern/NOLA cuisine was more than satisfied by newish Sweet Olive in the lobby of The Saint hotel where the minimalist, lucited style bucks typical New Orleans frippery. Drum (the fish), pimento cheese, sweet potato, fried oysters, collard greens, grits, crawfish, chow chow, banana pudding, and red velvet all get elevated.

Beating the Heat

I don't know that anyone would notice one way or the other, but I am in San Francisco (well, was over the weekend) and Portland this week and will be back to posting some time soon.

So far: Bar Agricole, Benu, Bar Tartine, Lers Ros, Oakland taco trucks, Flora and Le Pigeon.

Coming up: Pok Pok, Char Burger, Paley's Place, Castagna, Tasty n Sons…and more.

Who knows if I'll write about it all.

Eastern Shore…and More

Sure, all-you-can-eat crabs at Clemente’s is fun, if not unique in Brooklyn, but Maryland’s Eastern Shore it is not.

I spent the weekend leading up to Fourth of July in Kent Narrows, a little sliver on the Chesapeake between Annapolis and…I don’t really know what’s on the eastern side that’s too northwestern to be the more popular Rehoboth Beach or Ocean City. (I’m a west coaster, sorry.)

Crab deck front

You can get crabs at a number of restaurants in the area. I only acquiesced to the Crab Deck because it was James’ pick and he had been there many times before with his parents. Not that his family is neccessarily crab experts.

Crab deck dozen

Even closer to their home, crabs don’t come cheap. They are bigger than the blue crabs you often see here, though, and a dozen of larges split between two with a pitcher of beer is a feast. This Old Bay-encrusted pile will set you back about $65. James thought they were kind of small for larges, though they seemed ok to me. Jumbos are decadent. They didn't have Extra Larges.

Crab deck hushpuppies

Hushpuppies are the only accompaniment you need.

Crab deck patio

You can feed any leftovers to the plump ducks that hang out on the deck looking for scraps.

Crab deck bar

You can also have a drink at the bar while listening to John Cougar played by DJ Ritchie Lionel.

Big owl tiki

Big Owl Tiki Bar down the way made me feel young, pale and non-leathery. ‘70s music ruled. Whenever I drink out outside of NYC, I am reminded that people over 40 like to have a good time in public with alcohol. I’ve always attributed their absence here to delayed procreation (and that any female over 28 is made to feel old at most Brooklyn bars). Forties are prime child rearing years in the city where in other locales that’s the start of empty nesting. They’ve done their time; now they’re having fun.

Harris crab house facade

Harris Crab House does big business with busloads of tourists. I had to stand in this spot for some time to wait for them to pull away from the front of the restaurant (they were also blocking in our car).

Harris crab house soft crab sandwich

I just had a soft shell, or soft crab as they call them, sandwich since I’d just eaten six hard shells the night before.

Harris clams & beer

Once again showing my local ignorance, I thought soft shell clams would be the equivalent of soft shell, pardon, soft crabs, but they are the same thing as steamers and are called soft shell to distinguish them from the harder quahogs. On a fried bender here. And beer for breakfast.

The narrows facade

The Narrows is a little bit fancier, with tablecloths and grilled fish instead of brown paper and wooden mallets. It was also the scene of my first semi-in-restaurant marriage proposal. A boat slowly bobbed past the back picture windows while its inhabitants held a banner reading “Will you marry me?” If a situation ever called for a battered, fried ring, this would be it…but no.

Narrows crab dishes

Crab two more ways: in a dip (with Virginia ham—so local) and in a cake.

We then headed to the big city, influenced by the commercial loop on the Holiday Inn’s TV advertising mostly Annapolis restaurants over and over again. I watched the damn thing at least five times. Level was not part of the promotional show, but small plates (thankfully, they did not call them tapas) and mixology? Maybe.Why not take a break from beer in plastic cups and crustaceans?

As suspected, it was a little dude bro. This wasn’t a handlebar moustache establishment, more like fitted t-shirts and leather strap necklaces. Even so, not everyone was down with the concept. Two women out on the town, probably my age, which is to say older than 30 but not quite 40, sat at the bar on the opposite side of the corner and were asking about wine. The bartender suggested a pinot noir. One of the women firmly said, “no” and when the bartender left them with the menu she said loud enough that I could hear, but not that he could, “what a dipshit” and they stormed off. Total mismanaged expectations. Ladies wanted a richer oenophilic experience and dude just wanted to geek out on homemade bitters. It's a tough crowd in the big city.

Level cocktails

I wouldn’t exactly call the cocktails seasonal. My State Street Manhattan (maple cured old forester, cinnamon vermouth, apple bitters) was pure autumn. The Aviator (blue coat gin, maraschino, HUM liqueur, grapefruit juice) was a little brighter. The Smoked Margarita (hickory and lavender smoked herradura, lime, agave, smoked salt) was my favorite; summer but tweaked.
Level small plates

Grilled eggplant, ribs and lamb sausage with spaetzle (ok, more fall flavors).

Creamsicle Back to Kent Narrows, afterward. I’m still mildly traumatized by Red Eye’s Dock Bar, where I managed to talk the guards down to two for $5 instead of $10 to be in the thick of dancing wedding parties and a huge stage with a cover band belting out Warrant and Ozzy.

I was taken with a particular large, spiky bleach blonde, cartoonishly made up  wild woman, a biological woman, not a John Waters character as I had originally thought, who was picking fights with everyone and offered me a Mento from a roll she’d been hiding very successfully in her cleavage. She wrote down the recipe for a Creamsicle, the drink she’d been ordering all night.

I sympathized with her chaperone, a sane woman, her Facebook friend who never gets to go out, who couldn’t have been over 30, divorced with two grade school-aged kids with special needs. She told me how lucky I was not to be married or have children and seemed surprised that I’d come all the way from New York City to hang out at Red Eye’s. No obligations, that's me. But when she’s 40, maybe she’ll be free again? Right? Say yes, or I'm going to feel bad.

Crab deck signage


I briefly chatted with Elena Arzak as she said goodbyes to groups of lunchers slowly trickling out the door in time for what would be American dinner. When Mugaritz invariably came up (I imagine at least 80% of foreign Arzak customers likely dined at both in quick succession) she said something curious: “They’re French.” Obviously chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is not, so she must’ve meant the food. In turn, that would imply that Arzak is more Spanish. Or should I say Basque?

As a librarian by training, I enjoy categorizing things and what designation to give these topsy-turvy restaurants is problematic in the same way that food cooked by Indians in Singapore but not necessarily found in India, confounds me. Not to eat, but to designate in tidy checkboxes.

Initially I might’ve said Arzak and Mugartiz were both Spanish because they’re in Spain. But this is Basque country. But are their ingredients overtly Basque? Kokoxtas are used at Mugaritz to non-traditional effect. Green tea, yuca and huitalacoche are used at Arzak.

Arzak facade

Arzak, unassuming in the same residential part of San Sebastián since 1897, lacks lush grounds, livestock or herb gardens to ogle. The restaurant is being run simultaneously by the third and fourth generations and is firmly entrenched as a local restaurant. It’s unquestionably Basque—at least in spirit.

Arzak amuses
All of the amuses, plus the corn soup with figs and morcilla, arrived at once. (I tried not to go overboard with the individual glamour shots and just focus on tasting the food. If anything, note-taking is more useful than photo-snapping because a month later I only have fleeting memories of how things tasted.) You must be quick with that camera or you’ll miss the dramatic dry ice effect created when tea is poured around the sweet-salty ham and tomato balls. On the left is a puffed yellow rice filled with a wild mushroom mousse. Displayed on the spindles are nuggets of kaitaifi-wrapped kabrarroka (this translates to scorpion fish, but I think is similar to hake) paste. I noticed the crisped vermicelli being used on at least one pintxo, maybe at Zeruko. Strawberry halves topped with rolled sardines was the most unusual combination, though the oil and sweetness worked. Fruit and fish can be friends—or at least acquaintances.

I decided on a Bierzo wine because…frankly, I’m more knowledgable about food than wine and yes, Michelin starred restaurants in Spain are where you can totally dork out on Riojas, but I didn’t want to misstep with a pricey bottle. Bierzo is more of an up-and-comer in the US, fairly inexpensive and perhaps more versatile for a tasting menu since Mencia grapes are lighter than Tempranillo or Garnacha. Plus, I recognized Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos del Bierzo as being a forgotten wine on my to-try list from a few years ago. Bizarrely, this exact bottle was called out in a Food & Wine article about Pinot Noir alternatives I just found at the gym. The only odd thing was that on the menu it was listed as 2007 and I was brought a 2008. The presenting and tasting of the wine is usually uneventful and I’ve always secretly wished I had something more to say during the ritual. And yet I didn’t make any mention of the bottle discrepancy; it just didn’t seem worth it with the language barrier and price point (this is like a $22 wine in NYC—I think it was marked up to 40 euros at Arzak). How different could the two years really be?

Unless you ask a million questions or are privy to behind-the-scenes looks at the involved food preparation, you will never know how complex a dish is based on menu description, and not likely through taste either unless you’re a total pro.

I’m not a sensual eater (and generally hate the word sensual). I like a dish more after I understand what has gone into it, but I don’t think anyone should have to know the 20 steps and ingredients incorporated to enjoy a meal. It should work both ways even if peeks into the process add meaning.

Arzak cromlech y cebolla con té y café
Last weekend I watched the new Cooking Channel show with the dopey title, From Spain With Love, and the host was shown by the Arzaks how this dish, cromlech y cebolla con te y café, was made. Me, I only knew that onion, tea and coffee were ingredients based on the description. Now I know that the shells are made from dough of yuca and huitalacoche that puffs when fried. The foie gras nugget that sits inside was detectable when eaten—you’re instructed to quickly flip them over as not to lose the filling from the open base and eat the creation out of hand—but I missed the green tea nuance that I now know is there.

So not Basque in flavors, but completely so in conception. A cromlech, as I neither learned from TV nor from description but from the internet, is an ancient circle of burial stones. Grave markers on a plate, essentially. More morbid than playful? I thought they resembled the freakish looking Dumbo octopus.

Arzak bogavante coralino

Bogavante coralino was significant for its use of kaolin, the clay I’d also seen used at Mugaritz. I want to say that the stiff, chalky smudges were green from chlorophyll, but I can’t find any evidence of that. The sesame crisps, soft lobster meat and onion crunch provided much contrasting textures.

Arzak side salad
Many of the courses, as well as the desserts, came with little sides. I didn’t keep track of all of them, but these greens that sat atop tapioca pearls, accompanied the lobster.
Arzak mejillón y huevo espolvoreado

Mejillon y huevo espolvoreado. I completely forgot about this course. The yolk was not a yolk but an orange jellied disk made from mussels. Sometimes I think you’d need to eat each dish at least twice on separate occasions to get a true feel for them.

Arzak rape marea baja
For the fish course, I chose rape marea baja because I’d loved photos I’d seen of the monkfish paired with tropical shades and crystalline blue stars flavored of curacao. I will always order the blue thing. The flavors were very light, though, some shells mildly fishy, others sweet. The coral was tempuraed seaweed (and I was given more shells and coral on the side). I wouldn’t have noticed how light if we hadn’t swapped plates half-way through and I noticed how much more distinctive the sole was.

Arzak lenguado con mamia
Lenguado con mamia
, paired with an orange sauce and sweet red wine soaked croutons had more punch. I’m assuming the head cheese was the thin, meaty strip hidden beneath the pool of sauce. Mamia is a curded dessert, which I’m guessing (always with the guessing—I take back any earlier hesitation; this food is super Basque, at least in a way that could only make total sense if you were familiar with the original) is the thick white topping on the sole. Maybe I just liked this dish because of the sweetness; their penchant for seafood and sweeter accompaniments was new to me.

Arzak cordero con romero y curcuma con salsa
The meats, while delicately portioned, had heft. I picked the cordero con romero y curcuma. Despite the flourishes—flower petals, of course—and rosemary infused oil with red pepper sheet, this was not a wildly untraditional lamb dish, but a very good one.

Arzak jamón y esparrago
Its side was white asparagus stubs wrapped in jamon and served as tempura.

Arzak pichón asado con maíz y flor de azaha
Pichón asado con maíz y flor de azaha. The pigeon with corn and orange blossom was nearly as good. Black olives and cucumbers rounded out the flavors.

Arzak side
A side salad with a little pigeon leg.

Arzak sopa y chocolate entre viñedos
We said yes when asked if we liked chocolate. I don’t know what happens if you say you don’t. I suppose you’re not served the sopa y chocolate entre viñedos, a wavy bowl containing a shallow pool of strawberry soup occupied by shiny grape-like blobs filled with chocolate. An even bigger sphere of basil ice cream lies half-submerged in the pink liquid. More ice cream, I want to say chocolate, was served in the square dish.

Arzak jugando a las canicas de chocolate
Jugando a las canicas de chocolate
. More chocolate orbs, these more wizened and meatball-like in appearance. Or I should say marbles since the dish translates to “playing with chocolate marbles.” The side ice cream for this was dessert was tart, pink and dubbed “tutti frutti.” I might have guessed strawberry bubblegum.

Arzak fractal fluido
And one more. Hidromiel y fractal fluido starts with a dish of clear honeyed water. As red dye (made from vodka, carminc acid, sugar and water I discovered.  If you have free time on your hands, here’s the recipe. It’s a doozy.) is dripped onto the plate it blooms and zigzags like blood rushing into capillaries.

Arzak hidromiel y fractal fluido
The thin, lightly sweetened sauce is then spooned over chilled upright wedges of white chocolate-covered lemon ice cream.

Arzak piedra de pistachio y remolacha
Piedra de pistachio y remolacha
. Beets, pistachios and a spongy cake.

Arzak chocolates artesanos
As I mentioned in my impressions of Mugartiz, I thought it was interesting that both restaurants end with an allusion to tinkering. Mugaritz with chocolate nails poked into a flowery ice cream one, and at Arzak a full range of nuts, bolts and Lego-like cubes.

Arzak dining room

After saying goodbye, I started heading across the street to get a photo of the restaurant’s exterior despite its understated presence. When we got to the crosswalk, I realized Juan Mari Arzak was already there waiting for the light to change. I’m a horrible small-talker, and can barely make what even counts as small talk in Spanish (I’d already gathered from when the chef made the rounds during lunch that he didn’t really speak English—that’s more Elena’s role) but it’s weirder to not acknowledge the person who just spent hours in the kitchen preparing the special meal you just ate.

I did muster in my so-so Spanish, “Do you live nearby?” He said “yes” and pointed up the street. I’ve always envied people who can walk to work. Maybe my eyes showed the pain of 13 years of subway torment. I was half-concerned that the elder Arzak was afraid we were going to follow him home.

“Uh, ok, bye! We’re going this way.” I may be a poor conversationalist, but I’m totally not a chef-stalker.

Arzak * Alcade Jose Elosegui 273, Sebastián Spain


El Corte Inglés Menú del Día

El Corte Inglés is the Macy’s of Spain, and no great shakes, I know. But beyond the obvious culinary attractions of San Sebastián, I needed more bait to get James to take a vacation (if it were up to me, I'd stay out of NYC half the year). Having a mall and a subway (TV and internet access goes without saying) are the two unspoken requirements for cities we may visit.

In the 11-and-half-years we’ve been dating (ha) Bangkok, Toronto, Montreal, Barcelona, Madrid, Shanghai, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Singapore and London have had both; the only exceptions being Macau, which was a Hong Kong addendum and Penang, which only had a bus system but made up for it with amazing food and a hotel abutting a shiny, air conditioned mall. Oaxaca had neither, and tellingly, I traveled there alone (though took a cab out to Plaza del Valle, where fast food and a strip mall lurked).

That San Sebastián supposedly had a Corte Inglés, helped matters. Except that it didn’t. The address listed online was nonexistent. I was totally up for finding one, though. Bilbao had one (and a metro and a lightrail, both of which we rode on a day trip. I don’t talk art, but Paul Pfeiffer’s The Saints was the best thing at the Guggenheim) but we’d already been to that more modern city, which brought up the question, “Why didn’t we stay here?” Pintxos, that's why.

Pamplona, the next biggest city, was only an hour by bus in a different direction. El corte inglés billboard

El Corte Inglés' familar font on a  billboard. The sure sign that we were getting closer to civilization.

El corte inglés pamplona

And then we waited in line for lunch, the only pile-up during the week.  Everyone loves a menú del día, the affordable workhorse midday prix fixe served in nearly all restaurants. They’re rarely exciting—so much so that I won’t document another from Bilbao’s Café Iruña—but usually good value. While waiting in the entryway between the cafeteria and El Corte Inglés' branded travel agency, I had plenty of time to plan my three courses.

I was totally going to get a hamburger because I hadn’t encountered one in Spain yet, plus it came with an egg, which seemed oddly Australian. I also spent an inordinate amount of time parsing that a rollito de primavera wasn’t some rolled arrangement of spring vegetables but a spring roll. Duh.

El corte inglés crema de calabacín

Soup is usually dreary to me, but I ordered it anyway hoping it would counteract the fries I would have next. Once again, I exposed my shoddy Spanish. Crema de calabacín, was not a squash like the orange pumpkiny calabaza I see at stores in NYC, but zucchini, which I guess is squash too.

El corte ingles salad fixings

If you order the ensalada mixta, which I did not, you get to make your own pepper-free dressing.

El corte inglés hamberguesa

Ugh, una hamburgeusa wasn’t a hamburger either. I was most definitely wasn't expecting a naked, well-done patty. At least I had the fries and egg to make up for the lack of a bun. And the pleasure of eating a regular person’s lunch instead of something Michelin-starred or smothered in foie gras. Actually, they did have foie gras and fries on the regular menu.

El corte inglés natillas I had far more trouble at this department store restaurant than any complicated pintxo bar. I saw a bunch of people eating chocolate cake at the end of their meals, but all I saw as dessert options were yogurt, sorbets, rice pudding and natillas. I thought natillas was something custardy, but ordered it anyway because it was the only thing I wasn’t 100% sure on so it could possibly be the chocolate cake. No, it was a cinnamony custard. Where did everyone get the chocolate cake?

El Corte Inglés * Calle Estella, 9, Pamplona, Spain


Chiseled Basque mountains, country roads hidden from global positioning systems, fields of shaggy sheep, old men in berets? Too postcard perfect. And to eat an unadorned cast of sea creatures, their essence sullied by little more than salt, butter and charcoal smoke? More simple perfection. Maybe too much so.

Etxebarri parking lot

I wasn’t convinced that Etxebarri was for me. Do you think I talk about chain restaurants and all of their cheese-smothered, common denominator glory because I’m being ironic? No, I need the grotesque in my life, and by grotesque I mean greatness. I’m also confused.

Sheep in axpe

It doesn’t seem right for me to deride Americans’ blind obsession with Italy and all the Tuscan trappings while allowing for faux stone farmhouses and never ending bowls of pasta in the suburbs. I hate our fixation with old world charm. When everyone agrees on what natural beauty is—A grassy rolling hill? A vineyard at sunrise?—it becomes a cliché.

Next you start travertining up your suburban home, installing a wrought iron wine rack and putting up wallpaper borders painted with clusters of grapes. Mass produced facsimiles cloud what was appealing about the original in the first place and it all starts seeming tainted.

Now, I have a hard time with genuine Italian landscapes because it makes me think of Olive Garden. Yes, the Olive Garden that I occasionally enjoy. Like I said, I’m confused.

Etxebarri facade

Luckily, there isn’t a mainstream fetishization of Spanish culture in the US—at least not beyond calling anything served on something smaller than a dinner plate, tapas. When I stand in a courtyard in Axpe and stare at  a whitewashed stone facade, I don't think Vegas casino or Cheesecake Factory (maybe a little Swiss chalet).

But of course, Extebarri, an asador famous (even my mom knew it from No Reservations, which I thought she wasn’t watching anymore because she thought Tony was arrogant) for chef  Victor Arguinzoniz’ mastery of smoke—and its hard to get to location between San Sebastián and Bilbao—is no facsimile. It’s also all that it was cracked up to be.

Etxebarri chorizo

We’d been gorging on various chorizos from a fancy deli near our apartment; little spicy ones, fat vinegary ones, but none of the cured sausages were as soft and balanced as the three fork-and-knife slices we were served as an introduction.

Etxebarri goat butter

The thick slab of smoked goat’s milk butter, the creamiest cream mixed with full-on barnyard funk and campfire, was almost overpowering at first. Rich, sooty and caprine with only a few paper-thin slices of mushroom for diversion, this was possibly the most decadent treat I’ve encountered, no truffles, foie gras or gold leaf necessary.

Etxebarri gambas

Palamós prawns, mine with one feeler that unfurled a half-foot off of the plate, were spot-on. I pulled the head from the body before thinking to suck the head and had to salvage the rush of smoked, buttery liquid with a hunk of rustic bread. I could make a whole meal (a very expensive meal) out of these meaty crustaceans. These were a highlight.

Etxebarri baby octopus

The octopus were small where the prawns were mighty. Grilled, but not charred, the little creatures were served in a straightforward manner with only a little smudge of ink for reference. I’ve seen other write-ups where there was an accompanying onion jam, but all I remember was the naturally sweet flesh, no extra sweetness.

Etxebarri shaved mushrooms, egg yolk

Wild Saint George’s mushrooms formed a tuft atop of a perfectly runny egg yolk (I can’t tell you how many times in recent history I’ve been served a way too stiff yolk—ok, twice, both in Brooklyn). Despite the egg’s brightness, this was a very quiet dish, a respite course. I don’t recall what was listed on the menu, but I imagine these were hongos. I’d asked my Madrileño Spanish teacher before my trip whether they used seta or hongo in Spain and he said seta. Of course, hongos abounded on every menu in San Sebastian and sat whole, big as a baby’s head in baskets on countertops. I’m not sure if this is because the Basque region is crazy for wild mushrooms or that my teacher isn’t really into food—I mean, he eats soyrizo.

Etxebarri pea soup

Pea soup showcased more spring produce and was smokier from wood than ham. Ok, there was a tiny wisp of jamón lurking the green puree. And of course, a flower.

Etxebarri angulas

Angulas, not the imposter gulas seen in grocery stores and on pintxos, were buttery, slippery with an unexpected crunch like firm fish noodles. I tried looking for their microscopic eyes to remember they were actually eels.

Etxebarri sardine

No eyes on the plump, headless sardine. The oiliness was cut by the handful of arugula.

Etxebarri txuleta

Even though full—little things always add up—I knew the chuleta was coming and was excited for a hunk of meat. I’d been anticipating its arrival after seeing family-sized versions of it on the tables of large groups of Spanish-speakers who’d ordered a la carte (which isn’t a bad idea if you’ve been once and already did the tasting to know what you like most).  I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a doggie bag in Spain, or Europe in general (it seems to be ok in Asia and Latin America), a bolsa de perro? (Bolsa para perros, which is what you get if you Google bolsa de perro,  is something very different.) So, the medium-rare-verging-on-rare (beware, done meat-lovers, you’re not asked) slices of aged beef had to all be eaten on the spot. A super-vinegary side salad helps revive the appetite. We discreetly tried to get all the fatty, charred remainders clinging to the bone without resorting to using our hands and gnawing. Those are the best bits.

Etxebarri lemon custard

A lemony custard, supremely eggy, sugar powdered, and possibly the only non-smoked dish.

Etxebarri smoked milk ice cream

Can you smoke ice cream? Of course you can. The innocent-looking scoop of vanilla hit with an ashy background and berry (blackberry?) sauce made me think that s’mores might be good with a smudge of fruity jam.

Etxebarri rainy courtyard

The only rainstorm of the week hit when we were inside.

I thoroughly enjoyed the blast of nature and purity, in fact, it might’ve been the most memorable meal of all from this week in Spain, but I still made (ok, he wanted to go too) James pull over the rental car at Eroski, a massive supermarket, in a small town right before the highway on-ramp. It was time to cram-in some less picturesque culture.

Etxebarri * Plaza San Juan, 1, Axpe, Spain


I’ve put off writing about the Michelin-starred portion of my now-ancient-seeming vacation (I already need another one!) because, honestly, if you follow restaurant blogs to any degree and even casually keep up on Spanish cuisine, you’ve probably seen countless versions of these photos before (I just chanced upon a stranger’s fresh Mugaritz batch this morning via vias on Twitter) and probably captured with more finesse. Maybe you’ve seen the potatoes that look like rocks or the haystack out front near the parking lot or maybe shots of a blogger in the pristine kitchen at Mugaritz (I didn’t ask—that’s just something nice they do). I was here, I ate this, I did this! Me too.

Mugaritz entrance

Who knows the motivations that drive the mortals paying out of their own pockets to travel to far-flung destinations, snap photos and post their uninfluential impressions online. Are they showing off, bragging? Sharing knowledge, being servicey? As the I Ate At El Bulli Pieces build to a crescendo (men named Adam are now helicoptering in? By the way, have you ever seen an IAAEBP  not written by a man? ) I can’t fault a single non-Heather Graham (is Spain considering her a VIP like Hasselhoff being big in Germany?) for wanting to document and capture a memorable dining experience, despite the lack of vintage Dom Pérignon (at least none of the last call at El Bulli missives referred to it as champers, ugh) and five dozen courses. Mugaritz may not be El Bulli–and it doesn't need to be–but common folk should also be able to indulge in blathering on about their trips to Spain. Me, I like to dork out on food.

Mugaritz dining room

And not all food bloggers and Chowhounders are starry-eyed. Mugaritz is the most polarizing of the San Sebastián upper tier. That many say the service and atmosphere trumps the food, had me a little nervous. Yes, the cooking is far more conceptual than Extebarri and even more so than at Arzak, where experimental techniques are also employed (a little more playfully), but anyone with the means to do so  should certainly experience Andoni Luis Aduriz’s food first-hand. At least once. Once might be enough for most. I would go back for a different season, if I lived closer by.

Mugaritz kitchen

I went in a little blind, not scrutinizing Flickr beforehand or knowing much about the philosophy. I’m paraphrasing a bit but when given the kitchen tour a third of the way through the meal by one of the chefs, Oswaldo, he explained that they were “focusing on texture,” a worthy sense to explore and one less prized in the West unless we’re talking about popcorn and potato chip crunch—Americans love crunch.  In parts of Asia, people enjoy the crackle of cartilage and fried bones, slipperiness of noodles and the mucilaginous quality of fermented soy. 

At Mugaritz texture wasn’t being completely favored over taste, but prioritized to some degree. In fact, I was a little surprised to hear that they don’t use local produce, but cross the French border and shop at markets in Saint-Jean-de-Luz where the vegetables are smaller, better textured and the flavor concentrated. Despite a penchant for morphing  ingredients, Mugaritz is very about nature. Once I realized this approach, my expectations shifted for the remainder of the meal and gave me a different perspective on what I had already eaten.

Mugaritz cards

You’re given the option to submit or rebel. I wonder how much the menus vary because everyone seems to rebel. “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering,” you’re warned. When all of the amuses started arriving at once, willy-nilly with hard to catch explanations, some in English, some in Spanish (I took the suggestion of not seeing the menu ahead of time so everything would be a surprise) we joked, “It’s working–they are trying to fluster us!” I’m high-strung, so it doesn’t take much.  But really, a tableful of treats to start has been the modus operandi at most modern Spanish restaurants I’ve dined at, not the one-by-one procession I've encountered in the US. This is when you can sit back and sip your aperitif; cava, non-vintage, if you’re me.

Mugaritz piedras comestibles

Piedras comestibles. The edible rocks with a kaolin (an edible clay, which I ate twice in this week, oddly–or maybe not for San Sebastián. I only knew what it was because a million years ago when I visited my sister after she first moved to the UK, I noticed an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal called kaolin and morphine. Did I just whet your appetite?) shell. These are served with an aioli for dipping and they’re sitting in a pepper mixture, probably the only pepper I encountered the whole spice-phobic week. Weirdly, these did not taste super-potato-like but kind of bland. Maybe it’s those French low-flavor vegetables at work.

Mugaritz cerveza de legumbres tostadas, tapa de olivas y albuias con tomillo

Cerveza de legumbres tostadas, tapa de olivas y alubias con tomillo. The warm “beer” made from toasted chickpeas and olives crafted from beans (for those who’ll never taste Adrià’s famous spherefied green olives) set the tone. The temperature and earthy, mealiness messed with the expected cold and yeasty, briny tastes.

Mugaritz cristal de almidón y azúcar manchado con praliné y coraels del buey de mar

Cristal de almidón y azúcar manchado con praliné y corales del buey de mar. I immediately started losing track of what was what—was this real sea urchin or “sea urchin?”—and stopped over-analyzing. Crackly and sweet like uni candy, I tried to enjoy the arrangements of the food as they were, not a puzzle.

Mugaritz focaccia de almidón de pueraria a la parilla

Focaccia de almidón de pueraria a la parilla. Brittle, crackle-bread skeleton, grilled and made of a powdered herb called pueraria. I don’t know what the tomato-y swipes were. Maybe a little challenging in its plainness.

Mugaritz el verdor de guisantes lágrima animado con acederas rojas y mascarpone

El verdor de guisantes lágrima animado con acederas rojas y mascarpone. Rice krispie peas without much distraction from the listed mascarpone.

Mugaritz soup progression

Sopa de mortero con especias, semillas, caldo de pescados y hierbas frescas. This broth epitomized Mugaritz for me. It was certainly some crunchy soup. Interactive dishes are tricky—how long should I pound this stuff before we move on to the next step? Sesames in your teeth, blasts of pink peppercorn, slightly bitter herbs so prominent, I barely even noticed the fish broth after it was poured. Flavor and texture.

Mugaritz shhh...muerdete la lengua

Shhh…muerdete la lengua. Ok, I do like puzzles even though I said above that I was trying to take everything at face value too. But in this case, we were told to guess the secret ingredient. Something beefy? Indeed, cow tongue had apparently been, cooked then pulled apart strand by strand (I would never have the patience to stage at a restaurant) and dried into floss. I’m crazy about meat floss, though I like mine fried, Thai-style full of chiles and shredded lime leaves. This was more purist, a little Brillo-y and it even had the dreaded flowers, while the predominant flavor was roasted garlic hidden inside the bramble. But when thinking back to Mugaritz over the course of a week, this is the dish that always came to mind first. Pretty, kind of grotesque, fanciful. I wouldn’t want to eat an entire meal of compositions like this, but I appreciated the diversion.

Mugaritz potaje meloso de pan cubierto de carne de buey de mar y geránio rosa

Potaje meloso de pan cubierto de carne de buey de mar y geránio rosa. I was not crazy about this one. Yes, yes, I’ve admitted my baby-ish aversion to flower petals in my food, but it’s purely a visual mental block. This soup, though, was completely perfumed with geranium, much worse than actually seeing petals. The shredded crab mixed with hunks of soggy torn bread created a white, floral sludge that was hard to finish. I can’t fawn over everything, right?

Mugaritz potaje de avellanas con nácar

Potaje de avellanas con nácar. Similar to boiled peanuts, but hazelnuts with crispy pearlescent candy. I would not call this a potage.

Mugaritz lomo de merluza servido en un jugo lechoso de brotes de coles estofadas

Llomo de merluza servido en un jugo lechoso de brotes de coles estofadas. From here the dishes started veering more into what I’d call food food, rich, little, elegant bowlfuls. I’m not sure what cabbage shoots are, but they were as mild as the hake

Mugaritz láminas de entrécula, emulsión de carne asada y cristales de sal

Láminas de entrécula, emulsión de carne asada y cristales de sal. A petite cut of beef from around the kidneys, the opposite of the region’s beloved txuleta, was served with an emulsified grilled meat butter that ranks right up there with Etxebarri’s smoked goat’s milk butter.

Mugaritz ossobuco royal trabado con aceite de bogavante tostado

Ossobuco royal trabado con aceite de bogavante tostado. That would be ossobuco in quotes. I originally thought this was bone marrow, but it might be tendons. Whatever the silky nuggets may be, they’ve been cooked down to a hyper-concentrated, gelatinous state and flavored with lobster oil. This is where bread comes in handy.

Mugaritz rabito de cerdo ibérico, hojas crocantes y aceite de semillas tostadas

Rabito de cerdo ibérico, hojas crocantes y aceite de semillas tostadas. The pig’s tail had been distilled to the point of two textures: opposites: gooey and crisp. Each bite pure pork. I have seen other photos of this dish with crackers on top. Maybe it’s better in its purest state?  Another surprising thing we were told when in the kitchen earlier on was that we should feel free to voice any dislikes ahead of time (I would never say flowers, though I might think it) to let them know if we wanted more of something or another course. That seemed kind of outrageous to me like when my stepsister once asked for more mushrooms on her schnitzel at The Rheinlander (she got them). I wouldn’t feel right about it, but this would be the dish for sure. I could just be an gelatinous-umami maniac because the preceding dish had the same appeal. Of course, at this point you’re not really hungry for double-portions of anything.

Mugaritz brioche helado de vainilla con agua de cebada

Brioche helado de vainilla con agua de cebada. Definitely more of a fluffy snowball than a brioche. I did not really notice the barley.

Mugaritz crema fria de limon con nabo encurtido en azucar no dulce

Crema fria de limon con nabo encurtido en azucar no dulce. White was the theme for desserts. This was lemony and served with what I thought was jicama but I’m now seeing was daikon. They both have that similar neutral crunch that could work in a dessert.

Mugaritz cucurucho de flores y clavos

Cucurucho de flores y clavos. Flowers, ice cream and chocolate nails stuck into a box of chocolate dirt. It was interesting that they contrast the delicate with the utilitarian at the meal’s end. Arzak also has a send-off array of bonbons that includes candy nuts and bolts.

Mugaritz patio

Afterward, lunchers retired to the still-sunny patio for coffee or a glass of cava—and a cigarette, the tell-tale sign that you may be surrounded by food-travelers, but not Americans.

Full set of Mugaritz photos.

Mugaritz * Otzazulueta Baserria. Aldura Aldea, 20, San Sebastián, Spain


La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo and Zeruko were the only pintxo bars I visited twice. The variety of food demanded it and both left me with the feeling that I didn’t get an adequate initial experience due to the bodies-to-open-space ratio. During the first La Cuchara excursion on a Sunday afternoon, we had to squeeze and hover until a ledge opened up and then instantly felt the pressure to free up our space (this is what it normally looks like inside). It’s a popular place.

La cuchara de san telmo facade

On a Tuesday night, though, the narrow room was practically empty. We weren’t even hungry, but had to seize the opportunity luxuriate in the relatively open space. It was just us and a motley crew of European men speaking to each other in heavily accented English about how horrible American food is because one of them was taken to a Southern restaurant where he was served fried alligator that was flavorless with batter thicker than the meat. But did it taste like chicken? More than once I overheard Europeans speaking in English about Americans customs. Of course our food isn’t all fried, but yeah, at most non-upscale restaurants the check will be brought before you ask for it.

La cuchara de san telmo foie con jalea de manzana

Foie con compota de manzana. Simple, seared foie gras with apple jelly and plenty of coarse sea salt. For 3,6 Euros? This dish sums up San Sebastián’s affordable luxury.

La cuchara de san telmo vieira toro envuelta en tocineta de bellota

Vieira “toro” envuelta en tocineta de bellota. I goofily pride myself on my Spanish food vocabulary (not my conversational skills, definitely not those). I know the words for mussels, clams, razor clams, langoustine, lobster, shrimp, soft-shell crab, crab, many fish, and spider crab and cod cheeks in Basque…ok, I’ll stop, but I had never heard the word for scallops. I just chose vieira because I liked the toro in quotes and figured it would be something playful. Um, and I could parse that there would some sort of ibérico bacon involved. Yes.

La cuchara de san telmo oreja de cerdo caramelizada

Oreja de cerdo ibérico salteada y crujiente. I will always order a pig’s ear anything if available. Spanish and Filipino preparations always get the gooey/crisp thing right, though I had never encountered an entire ear served whole like a steak. Usually, I see this cut sliced into chunks or ribbons. Maybe it’s just to disguise its original origin?

La cuchara de san telmo pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada

Pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada. Ok, I learned another word: berza. I hadn’t expected any cabbage on my pintxos. Charring the octopus and sautéing the greens turned both kind of sweet.

La cuchara de san telmo canelón casero de carnes de cocidos

Canelón casero de carnes de cocidos. Boiled meats doesn’t make this filled pasta tube sound so attractive, but you know it’s not going to taste like gray shoe leather. I chose it because I only wanted something small (this was on the already-full-of-foie-moriclla-and-suckling pig second spontaneous visit). One useful thing that I noted after being able to get an unobstructed view of the menu, was that you can order any pintxo as a ración, which would be entrée-sized in the US (we’re the only weirdos who call the main dish an entrée—it seems like everyone else in the world uses that for appetizers) or half that. Maybe you’d like a whole plate of canelónes?

La Cuchara de San Telmo * Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, San Sebastián, Spain