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Posts tagged ‘Tapas/Pintxos’

Hidalgo 56

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


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

Hidalgo 56 volcán de morcilla

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

Hidalgo 56 steak & torta de casar fondue

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

Hidalgo 56 facade

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


Borda Berri

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

Borda berri facade

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

Borda berri taco de bacalao

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

Borda berri foie gras, plum & mustard

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

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

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

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


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

Goiz-argi facade

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

Goiz-argi brocheta de gambas

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

Goiz-argi morcilla

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

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


Bar Zeruko

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

Zeruko facade

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

Zeruko more pintxos

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

Zeruko pintxos

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

Zeruko pintxos more

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

Zeruko alcachofa y foie

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

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

Zeruko langostino glass

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

Zeruko cochinillo

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

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

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

Bar Zeruko * Calle Pescadería 10, San Sebastián, Spain

Palo Cortado

Palo Cortado is an ideal restaurant in that I will be able to use my visit as fodder when asked to explain en español what I did the past week in my weekly Spanish class, two-and-a-half blocks away. It’s also the only tapas bar in the area—Reds Produce never really caught on and La Mancha, technically in Brooklyn Heights, has always seemed a bit off—so by default, it’s welcome on this burgeoning stretch of lower Court Street.

The food is traditional, straightforward, no gastronomic pyrotechnics in the modern Catalan tradition.  And that’s fine. I suspect they’ll reap benefits from Buttermilk Channel’s spillover.

Palo cortado meats & cheeses The small square table could barely contain our selection of meats (chorizo, jamon iberico, lomo embuchado) and cheeses (caña de cabra, idiazabal, valdeon). I had idiazabal at home in the fridge, so ordering more when out is a testament to how much I like the smoked sheep’s milk cheese. I always feel like they cut the jamon a bit too chunky in Brooklyn, but I’ve stopped caring. It doesn’t really affect the taste, and they captured enough ivory ribbons of fat in the slices.

Palo cortado croquetas There’s something about fried balls of mush that makes them end up tasting the same even though they were crafted from very different and often tasty base ingredients. The goat cheese with truffle honey, jamon with piquillo sauce and bacalao with salsa verde would’ve been nearly indistinguishable without their accompaniments as signals. Croquetas do beat mozzarella sticks with marinara, though.

Palo cortado patatas bravas I’ve had so many versions of patatas bravas in the US and Spain that I don’t even know what’s standard or if there is a standard. Aioli and tomato sauce, one or the other, pimenton, no pimenton, cubed, sliced thinly into rounds, sauce on the top, sauce on the side. These golden squares did have nice crispy surfaces, and a good ratio of lightly spiced tomato sauce and thin aioli. It’s hard to have a problem with a fried chunk of potato.

It’s nice having a walkable place to drink a glass of Rioja and nibble on chorizo and Marcona almonds, but I wouldn’t feel right telling anyone to travel more than a subway stop or two to pay a visit. Palo Cortado is best for lazy locals feeling tapas-deprived.

Palo Cortado * 520 Court St., Brooklyn, NY


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

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

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

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

Lizarran interior

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

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

Lizarran chorizo pintxo

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

Lizarran piquillo pintxo

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

Lizarran pulpo a feira

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

Lizarran huevos estrellados con chistorra

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

Lizarran croquetas

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

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

Lizarran * 45 Mercer St., New York, NY

Mercat Negre

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

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

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

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

Mercat negre bomba

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

Mercat negre patatas bravas

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

Mercat negre coca topped with escalivada & sardines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercat Negre * 65 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY


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

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

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

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

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

Amada jamon serrano

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

Amada cheese

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

Amada patatas bravas

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

Amada pato con datiles coca

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

Amada pulpo a la gallega

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

Amada habas a la catalana

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

Amada cordero relleno

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

Amada sweet

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

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

Kulto al Plato

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

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

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

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

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

Kulto al plato vermouth olives

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

Kulto al plato vermouth olives packaged

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

Kulto al plato salmorejo with flowers

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

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

Kulto al plato licorice avocado crab

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

Kulto al plato spinach sesame feta salad

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

Kulto al plato tempura

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

Kulto al plato bacalao

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

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

Kulto al plato wagyu burger

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

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

Kulto al plato pineapple cake coconut ice cream

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

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

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