Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Europe: Zaragoza: Videos

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NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:

Overview

Barcelona

More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1

Zaragoza: Part 2 (Tapas!)
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Here are some videos from the trip:
video

This is a video overview of the tapas I had that night.

video
A toast!

Europe: Zaragoza: A Tapas Redux

****************
NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:

Overview

Barcelona

More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1
****************

Zaragoza, a redux: Tapas time
“Oh my GOD”, I exclaimed as I stepped out of the restaurant into the alleyway, “I just spent 50 real dollars on finger foods! I need a waffle!”
That was how my epic tapas night in Zaragoza ended. Or, as I like to think of it, how my epic tapas day, in which I had tapas for all 3 meals in less than 24 hours, began. Please, follow me as I lead you throiugh part 1 of this magical 3 meal saga I will call: Ben Gordon: The Bar Food Chronicles (BG:TBFC).
As I explained in my previous posts, tapas are the class of bar food unique to northern spain. Frequently they are ready to eat nearly immediately, requiring mere seconds in a fryer or broiler. I would direct you to my previous post, where I left after exiting the first of 5 restaurants that night. In order, this is how the night went down:
-Tapas bar A (in previous post)

-Tapas bar B

-Churros y Chocolate tapas “break”

-Tapas Bar C “Meli e Melo”

-Waffle Time!

I will let the photos tell the story of this amazing journey.

Tapas Bar B:

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To start off, we basically ordered a selection of everything. Let me try to remember what these were. I will go from left to right accross the top row, then left to right across the bottom row
-This was a seafood something, I think. It was served in a metal container to give it shape. I think it had shrimp? Most of the tapas here were fairly forgettable.
-This was a seafood gratin- like a seafood salad with cheese (manchego?) melted over the top. I should mention we shared this plate. Have you ever cut a 2 inch wide tapa into three pieces? While drunk? It's hard! At the next place we did no such thing. I wish I had taken more pictures of these- it would help me remember.
-the little one to the right I do remember- it was a croquette, specifically a mussel one. A croquette is essentially potato wrapped around something that is then deep-fried. You cannot see it, but it was actually served in a mussel shell. This one was quite good.
-The next one (at the far right of the top row) was really different. It was a triangular flaky pastry, and it contained piping hot spinach- it had obviously come right out of the oven.
-On the bottom left: that BIG buy is a croquette of jamon serrano and cheese. It was DELICIOUS. We fought over this guy.
-This next one was a seafood salad, in a flaky pastry "boat" almost. It was baked so that it was like a little cup, which held the salad.
-This next one was my favorite. I will talk more about it below.
-I don't even remember the one on the far right. It wasn't very good.

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The one above was really good though. It was essentially another flaky pastry "boat" which held cheese, membrillo (quince paste) and some really caramelized onion. It was very complex- the membrillo was really sweet, which balanced the unami flavor of the cheese and onions, all held together on top of this pastry crust. It was the best tapa there.

Overall, I was not a fan of this place. Although it had the best wine (we-or at least I- was drinking heavily throughout this even) it was also the most expensive, and the tapas were merely average- the previous joint and the next place were much better.

Churros y Chocolate "break"

After the 2nd place, Tyrone and Kyle were both feeling a bit full. So we decided, "Hey-lets get churros y chocolate!". For those of you who don't know, Spain specializes in the churro; a delicious pastry that is very similar to funnel cake, but not "looped" around into a cake form. One then gets these piping hot churros, dripping with grease out of the fryer, and dips them in the thickest, most velvety and sensuous hot chocolate. It really has a consistency of a melted hersheys bar- it is just incredible.

For our mid-dinner chocolate fix, we chose a very serious looking place, called Valor. From outside, we saw gleaming white marble, with crowds of happy people chowing down on the MOST delicious looking churros, which were steaming hot. We were hooked.
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As you can see, Valor takes its chocolate seriously. Each of those 5 machines has a different type of chocolate, with different cocoa percentages. The third one from the left, as you can see, has white hot chocolate. We stuck to the traditional: middle of the road hot chocolate with 3 churros.

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This is Kyle's look when I said I was still pretty damn hungry. He thought I was drunkenly boasting. I wasn't.

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I literally saw them pour these churros into the oil when we ordered. Each one of those suckers is nearly a foot long. This was just one order by the way.

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That is the chocolate. One dips the churro in it. This was incredibly thick- it was literally like they took the best chocolate they could find, melted it, and put it in a bowl. This was not a drink; it was more like a condiment for the churro.

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Oh my god- I don't think there is any better drinking snack than this. The hot, delicious chocolate just coated the greasy hot churro, and combined to form the most delicious snack. It just sank into the moist center. So good.
Tapas Bar C- My FInal Stop. It was called "Meli e Melo"

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This was my first order of 7 items. Keep in mind a few things. First, I ate all of the following myself. Kyle and Tyrone were pretty much checked out by this point, and they were my runners- keeping my wine glass (above left) filled and ordering more stuff when I asked. They were a perfect support team. Thanks guys!

The bartender was also clearly impressed by my skills at eating, and was clearly amused by the fact that I was eating everything they had on sale.
I am going to work around the selection from bottom left, to upper left, moving in a "U" shape.
The tapas here, by the way, were all the bestof any place I had gone. They were all cooked to order, so what was displayed in the counter was a uncooked and ungarnished version of what hit my table. So without further ado:

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This was montadilla of sausage and vegatable, with a little cheese. This was really very good- the cheese was crispy, and the suasage and vegetable (celery maybe?) we both flavorful. It was like a really good, open face sausage sandwich. Also, please note: the plates were all about 2.5 by 2.5 inches, so keep that in mind when mentally sizing the portion. These were usually 3 or 4 bite tapas- a bit bigger than normal.

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This was another montadilla- this time of some very lightly seared steak. Seriously, it was still ruby red in the middle. It was really good thoiugh. I should mention that all of the montadillas were served on some of the most delicious bread I have ever had. In this case, the bread was just firm enough to soak up the delicious steak juice, which dribbled down my chin with every bite.

I was so happy. This was probably one of the best nights of my life. Great wine, incredible food, my best friends next to me, in a Spanish bar, surrounded by people having a great time- it had it all.

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This was another montadilla, of lightly marinated and shredded beef wrapped in jamon serrano. This guy was a beast- the meat portion was an inch in dimater, without a lie. I bit into it the first time, and it was a revelation. First, I got the saltiness of the jamon serrano. Then, the taomato-y bread. Finally, the dense, delectable and incredibly meaty center of shreadded beef. Make no mistake- these were not delicate little finger sandwiches. They were food, with one mission: fill up your tummy!

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This was after two or three bites. You can vaguely see the beef in the interior.

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Going through these photo's is like living that night all over again. This was a deep-fried shell of some kind, kind of like a canneloni, wrapped around shredded pork, very similar to carnitas. I think the sauce that you see around it was a pan sauce from the pork. This was really good- both the shell and the carnitas style pork were really crispy from the frying, but also very distinct, as you would expect from a protein and a starch. All through this meal, Kyle and Tyrone were watching me. This would be a theme throughout the trip, as I routinely ate tremendous amounts. I am also a very slow eater.

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I think this was another tapa of breadcrumbs around more shredded pork or beef- I honestly don't remember.

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You can see the interior here- I want to say it was shredded beef because of the color. Anyway, it as really good. The beef was mixed with some little veggies before being lightly breaded and fried.
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Best dish of the night, right here. I will let you try to guess what it is you are seeing. Is it meat? Is it chicken? What the hell?
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This was queso de cabra- goat cheese. I literally had NO idea what this was when it was plunked down on my table. What they had done was taken some of the most DELICIOUS chevre I have ever had, and then rolled it in a top secret, spanish mix which I think included pistachios, almonds, and maybe bread crumbs. The entire thing was then fried, and garnished with a mixture of quince paste and honey, and then drizzled with some of the most delctable balsamic vinegar I have ever tasted.

This dish was over the top good. Incredible. Give up my day job and becomes a profession tapas eater good. Marry the chef good.

The goaty flavor and creamy texture of the chevre was perfectly balanced by the crispy outside of fried nuts. Keep in mind, the outside was piping hot, and the inside was gooey and delicious, corresponding to how deep it was. The balsamic vinegar was the kind of balsamic that you always hear people on Food TV telling you to buy. It was very sweet, very complex, with hints of fruit. The quince and honey "marmalade" on top of which it was served was delicious as well. The sweet/salty/cheese combo of the marmalade/balsamic/chevre mixture was simply sublime.

When this hit the table, I saw the glint in the eyes of my companions. I shut them down immediately, and made them get their own. I would make my own mother get one of her own rather than sharing this incredible treat (sorry mommy!).

At this point, I was nearly in ecstasy. You could have shot me and I wouldn't have minded; nothing could get me down.

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This was another croquette, but I quickly realized here that this was a very special restaurant where I was eating. They obviously were doing new things with old tapas staples.

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This was a croquette in the same way that the previous item was "only" some cheese.

First off, it was fried in incredibly hot oil, for a very delicate, incredibly cripsy crust.

Second, the mixture was one of sublimely smooth and buttery potato, mixed with cheese and artichoke that had been pureed into a very fine blend together, forming a gooey, molten center, which you can see above.I bit into it, and just as my teeth moved past the delightfully crispy crust, my taste buds were assaulted by a full compliment of cheese, potato and artichoke. It was just incredible. I can hardly describe it in words.

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At this point, I had ordered more. Thus, the item above is not featured on my full table shot, nor were the following.

These were lean strips of pork, which had been lightly breaded and then fried. These were merely OK- at this point, I was in sensory overload. To be noticed, anything I put in my mouth would have to be amazing. The next item did that.

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What the hell is that, you may ask. Well, allow me to dissect it for you. What you see on top are tiny, tiny eels.

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This is it after a bite- I nearly swooned here. Basically, what you have is a GIANT calamari, into which the chef had put a mix of much smaller, incredibly tender fried calamari with a very light tomato sauce, and then topped it all with the eels. At this point, my mind, she was blown. I was amazed- it ewas just the most creative, delicious thing. The giant calamari was crunchy and flavorful, and I hit this incredible hot mix of smaller calamari, the juice of which had permeated the bread on the bottom.

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In any sort of lesser meal, this tapa would have dominated. In this case, it was above average. What the chef had done was, taken a baked potato and filled it with shredded beef, and topped the entire thing with a savory custard of egg and cheese, and speared the entire thing through with rosemary sprigs. I love the presentation on this.

Desert: Waffle

After that, I walked to a waffle place and proceeded to order the most ridiculous item I could think of. I knew I wanted it to be a waffle.

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I had them cook me up a fresh waffle, and cover it with two scoops of dulce de leche ice cream, a chocolate shell, and then top it with more chocolate, caramel, almonds and walnuts. I then got some more of that incredible spanish hot chocolate to drink. I also drizzled it over every bite.

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Here, you can see the waffle and chocolate.
So, what did I think of the meal?
Probably one of the best nights of my life. I had so much fun. The entire experience was one of travel- from bar to bar, tapa to tapa, wine to wine, cuisine to cuisine., I felt like I was riding a wave that didn't stop until I collapsed, exhausted, in my bed. And I would do it all again, plus more, in the drop of a hat, without a seconds hesitation.
I hope you enjoyed the photographic journey as much I did eating it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Restaurant Review: Dim Sum at Kwong Tung, Des Moines

Dim sum in Des Moines. It sounds like something to avoid, doesn’t it? In fact, my last foray into the world of little dishes (last year) was OK- below average, but whatever. The choice is important. It comforts me to be able to get dim sum.

However, I am now happy to say that there is a above average dim sum place in Des Moines now. I know- super exciting!

Kwong Tung first came to my attention when my friend Jim Duncan- who writes the excellent Cityview Food-dude column, as well as his own blog- reviewed them in his column. I immediately emailed him, to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating as a result of Iowa water. He confirmed it, and we went today.

For those of you not familiar, dim sum is the traditional Chinese weekend morning meal, which is characterized by small dishes of various sorts of dumplings. In general, DS is only available on weekends. At Kwong Tung, it is only served Sundays.

I walked in to find the dining room pleasantly full. There were no carts, but all food was made to order, and always piping hot. I should mention they do an excellent job of showing you the food (through a pictographic menu), which takes some of the scariness out of ordering.

I will let the photo’s show you what I ate, rather than simply telling you.

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Above: Some shu mai- open dumplings filled with a mix of pork and shrimp. The filling was the strong point of these- I could clearly taste chunks of ginger, pork and shrimp, which was a pleasant reminder of what they are. It was obviously homemade, which is a good thing.

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Above: Next up, we had some har gow. These were OK- the shrimp was not particularly good (as could be expected in Des Moines). In a dumpling where the filling is only shrimp, that is a fairly serious issue however. I would not reccomend these, although the wrapper was good- a theme that held up throughout the meal.

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Above: Rice noodle roll with shrimp. I did not like these at all, even though they are my favorite at home. The wrapping on these was not very good, and the shrimp tasted like cotton swabs. The fact that the wrapping was no good is interesting, because later in the meal I had the same rice noodles with pork, and the wrapping was fantastic- I don't know why it skipped this dish.

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Above: Lo Mai Gai, which is sausage and chicken in dense sticky rice in a leaf. I was surprised by this dish, as I normally dislike it in LA- I find that rice too dry and overly starchy. However, here the dish was just superb- the rice, chicken and sausage were all very moist and well flavored- a far cry from the dish I dislike in LA. Very interesting.

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Above: Stuffed green peppers. This dish was a standout- the peppers were thick, crisp and perfectly cooked- tender, but still with a crunch. The filling was good as well- shrimp over rice, covered in a black bean sauce. It is rare when I say that the best part of a meat dish is the vegetable portion, but there you go. I should also say that I have never had anything like this. However, I am sure my friend Andy will tell me more about this than I ever needed to know. (Hi Andy! Don't kill me for the various issues in this article! I love you!)

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Above: Char Siu Bao. Oh bao, what a troubled relationship I have with you. You see, I used to love bao: they are sweet, fluffy and delicious. I'm bored of them now. However, my companions dug into these guys, which is unsurprising: they are delicious, if a little boring. However, Kwong Tung does a very good rendition of them, with some of the best bao that I have had. However, I was disappointed by the char siu (roast pork) inside: I thought there was too little, and what there was not very high quality. That is a fairly common issue. Because of the labor involved in making really good chinese roast pork, only the best dim sum places make their own- most buy it from somewhere else. In Des Moines, I could imagine sourcing good Char Siu is rather difficult, so I will let it slide.

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Above: Fried taro filled with meat. These were excellent- both the wrapper and the filling were superb. I had also never had these before, and would definitely order again. Andy- maybe you have had these before. They were new to me.

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Above: The same dim sum, but an interior shot. They were piping hot as well.

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Above: A dish of char siu (roast pork) over rice. As I said before, the char siu, which is used as a filling in a variety of dim sum, was merely OK. It wasn't bad, just not great.

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Above: The single best dish of the meal: beef tripe with ginger. It was absolutely superb. The trip was tender, cooked to perfection, an delicately flavored with ginger. I loved this. Plus, it get major points for being both weird AND delicious.
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Above: Jin Dai, or fried dumpling with a sweet filling. They are really good, but more of a desert. However, we devoured them. Kwong Tung's rendition was quite superb.

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Above: Rice noodles with pork. The wrapping on these stood out, and I very much enjoyed them.

Overall, I really enjoyed Kwong Tung. They did a great job of making some delicious dim sum subject to the ingredients they had. I look forward to visiting again and trying some more of their dishes. I should also mention this- dim sum is not like sushi. The prices are extremely reasonable- most dishes are in the 2-3 USD range. Go there!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

2nd Course


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NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:
Overview

Barcelona

More Barcelona
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2nd Course: Some light snacks: Zaragoza
My winter break was a marathon

Training started early: Thanksgiving. I tried to cram as much food in there as I could. Pies, turkey, cheese- I did it all. Then I went back to school.

The period before my trip was one of intense, last minute training to my digestive system: I had to be able to handle multiple rich meals a day. I trained on a rigorous diet of LA’s ethnic food: Mexican, Chinese, Japanese. I did it all, and then boarded a plane to Europe.

Barcelona was like the start of a race: I was a little disoriented and lacked discipline. I didn’t quite know what to do. In Zaragoza, I started to hit my stride. I tried to identify cute and interesting little local eateries. I gauged the climate of cafes before entering, dissected the exterior menus with a more practiced eye. At bakeries, I only went for the most exotic or delicious looking, trying to avoid the mundane or ordinary.

This is an activity one can only indulge in a city packed with restaurants, cafes and bakeries. Fortunately, Zaragoza is just that. MOD_5061.JPG

Above: Some more of that delicious foccacia pizza, which I bought for the train trip to Zaragoza from Barcelona. I forgot to tweak my camera settings back to normal for this picture, which is why it looks so vivid. It was actually a much more normal color.

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Above: The tremendously large train station at Zaragoza. It was also quite cold, and tremendously empty.

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Above: Some totally awesome street lamps in El Tubo.
My friends and I stayed in the heart of “el tubo”, a compact warren of small streets and alleys that plays host to most of the action in Zaragoza. It abuts the river on one side, with a gorgeous square dominated by two magnificent cathedrals, which cast a shadow (literally) over the entire area. When I hit the ground out of the train at 11, I wasted no time.

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Above: One of the magnificent cathedrals.

I dropped my bags off at my very cute (and very family run) hotel and went to find lunch for my friends and me. We stopped at an OK little café with a prix fixe menu. It was relatively mediocre, but had a desert that was unique in my experience, called cuajada. It was essentially unsweetened panna cotta, served in a very narrow bowl, with some honey on top. When I took a spoonful, I got a little honey and a little desert. The honey then slid slightly into the indentation, making the bites subsequently less and less sweet until you were left with only the desert. While very cool, and definitely unique to me, I was not thrilled with it, or with the meal as a whole.

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Above: The cuajada. You can see the honey on top.

However, my afternoon snack at Leonidas was more in keeping with my idea of a desert. It was located on the main pedestrian thoroughfare that bisects el tubo into two halves, and commanded prime real estate next to the square with the cathedrals. I entered to find stands lined with all sorts of amazing chocolate creations, but I had eyes for only one thing: waffles.

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Above: The aforementioned pedestrian thoroughfare in Zaragoza. One could walk down it, and at the end see the imposing mass of the cathedral. It was filled with really cool shops of all stripes, as well as alleys that led, ever so enticingly, to food.

I should explain that a properly made gaufre (as they are called in France) is a European art that I have not seen replicated in the States. The waffle is rough, undisciplined around the edges: they do not worry about using the entire waffle maker, which gives it this incredible abstract shape. In addition, the texture is much thicker, much doughier, and the outside is very crispy. I would not be surprised if they dusted the waffle maker with sugar before pouring in the batter.

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Above: Nutella Waffle. As you can see, the edges are browned. They are not in fact burned- that it actually caramelized deliciousness!

My Leonidas “street waffle” as I referred to it was topped in the only way known to civilized men: with nutella. It was incredible. Hot off the waffle maker, the nutella was slathered on haphazardly, and melted into the crisp indentations of the waffle. Delectable.

That night was Tapas night.

Tapas, for those of you who don’t know, are unique to Spain. They are small portions of food, usually either ready or very quick to cook, that one eats at bars. In cities such as Zaragoza, one hops from bar to bar, nibbling and drinking until you are both drunk and full of delicious food. I love tapas.

This was probably my favorite night of the trip.

I started off, accompanied, as always by T Dog and K Spitz, in a fairly normal bar, where I had three standards. The first was just some really good shrimp in a beer batter, hot out of the fryer. The second was cuesco de cabra: goat cheese that had been baked. Both of these were very good. I consumed these with some Spanish beer, the name of which I forget. For the rest of the night, I opted to instead go for wine, which was a good call- much more delicious.

The first two were very good: the shrimp was searingly hot, and very juicy- not at all overcooked. The cuesco de cabra was delicious, but I do love goat cheese, so it was a bit of a gimme. My next tapa, however, shined. It was a montadilla, a sub-genre of tapas which means that it is something on toast. In this case, it was a montadilla de bacalao: salted cod on toast. It was stellar- the toasted baguette was hot and crunchy, while the (fried) cod was thick, and covered in a very thick, creamy cheese that made it taste like a gratin on toast. The thing was nearly too large to fit into my mouth, which would be a theme with montadillas. I bit through, and first encounter the creamy cheese, then the crunch of the toasted baguette, and then finally the soft, creamy center of bacalao. That was really when the night started.

I ended with two more tapas: one order of jamon con choreras and a montadilla del alfochas. The first was a hard boiled egg, which had then been wrapped in jamon Serrano, dunked in batter and then deep-fried. My readers should note that I had no idea of this when I ordered- I literally simply saw a row of batter covered things, and pointed at them with no knowledge of what they contained. The moment of realization would only come after the first bite, as the taste hit my tongue and I was able to peet inside the mysterious tapa.

The second tapa- the aforementioned montadilla de alfochas- was incredible. A deep fried artichoke heart, filled with mushrooms, balanced precariously on top of toast. At this point, I was on my third glass of wine. In a later post, I will detail the rest of the night- maybe even in full multimedia splendor (movies!). Stay tuned! Suffice it to say, the rest of the night was legen-(wait for it)-dary!

The next morning, early, we left for San Sebastian. Let me just say this: you have not heard the last of tapas!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amuse Bouche: Barcelona

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NOTE: This is part of an onging series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:
Overview

Barcelona
****************

Just a quick article here:

I wanted to give a little bit more flesh to the article about Barcelona; maybe some more editorial comments about Barcelona, as well as our experiences there. The main lessons I took away from Barcelona was their attitude towards food, the importance, as Epicurus said, "Of not just what you eat, but with whom you eat it", and the pleasures of simple things.

Barcelonians, as I talked about in my previous article, devote the "proper" amount of respect to their food. What this means to me, is that they think about what they are eating, and with whom they eat it. I saw very little fast food in Barcelona; very little food, even, that could be eaten easily without sitting down. And that is the cornerstone of the quote above from Epicurus. Barcelonians, and Europeans in general, understand the importance of food as both a social gathering and as a necessity to live. Their culture, especially leisurely mealtimes, that last a long time, with many bottles of wine, reflect their view of the importance of the social ties that are generated through the shared experience of dining.

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To wit: the picture above. At the beginning of the trip, we immediately felt this different culture of slowing down and savoring both the experience of dining with good friends, as well as the actual food. I think that is a lesson many in the world do not take away. That is the idea of taking activities that you have to perform, such as eating, and turning them into a pleasurable experience. I have found that as I try to apply this philosophy more and more that tasks that are neutral, to even mildly unpleasant, can become a simple pleasure in life is you stop and think about how you can enjoy that experience more. Often, its not much more difficult than taking a deep breath and looking around you.

End of philosophy! Here are some photos to give a sense of place to the Spanish restaurants.

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Above: A menu of a bar where we went on our last morning for breakfast. You can see breakfast is 2.70 euro for a bocadillo and a drink. I cannot overstate how delicious a bocadilla de tortilla and some coffee of "chocolate fuerte"(literally: "strong chocolate") is when you just wake up.

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Above: a bocadilla with Tortilla Espanol. Nummy.



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Above: One of my favorite things about Europe: the signs advertising the menu. These are a visual representation of the "personality" of the restaurant, in my view. The font, the way it is decorated, all of these things give one subconscious cues about the restaurant.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

1st Course: Barcelona

****************
NOTE: This is part of an onging series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:
Overview
****************
1st Course: An assortment of fresh seafood

Barcelona

Barcelona is a gourmet’s Disneyland. When I stepped out of my hostel to begin my first day exploring the city, I was overwhelmed, both with the scope of culinary specialties in Barcelona and the scale of the city. It is the kind of city where one can spend years and never fully know; it has a predilection to dark, windy side streets and alleys that are invariably stocked with bars, restaurants, bakeries and small markets that beckon seductively.IMG_1145 copy.jpg

Above: A storefront of a butcher. There is a definite connection in Barcelona between the death of an animal, and your dinner.

Food is given serious attention in Barcelona. Women stroll along the alleys, deep in serious thought to the merits of the baguettes at a particular bakery, to the deficiencies of the tapas displayed in the window of a bar. I spent many hours during my stay wandering those back alleys, going wherever the window displays looked good.
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Above: A man playing a leg of jamon serrano as a guitar. In an advertisement.

Besides my aimless, bohemian wandering, I really did have definite goals in Spain. I wanted to have paella by the seashore, and I wanted to enjoy a hearty meal of raciones, the hearty bar food of Catalunya, preferably with some of their young, sparkling white wine called cava. Neither was difficult to complete, I am happy to say.

I scratched my itch of paella at a delightful seafront restaurant along the Barceloneta; the shorefront that was renovated for the 1992 Olympics. Along the shore there are dozens of paella restaurants, all with excellent patio seating under heatlamps, because it was just slightly too cold to do without. So after a morning of exploring the seafront, it was a pleasure to sit down along the Spanish seashore and order two paella, some sangria and a few tapas as appetizers. To sate my ravenous appetites, as well as the hunger of my traveling companions, we ordered small, whole squid that had been sautéed very simply in some olive oil and garlic, as well as some croquetas de jambon: potato croquets with that succulent Spanish ham.

To say that this food was bursting with flavor would be to gloss over the delicious nuances of each of these dishes, even though they were but mere appetizers. The very small, baby squid were chewy intiailly, but quickly yielded to ones morsels, allowing you to savor the delicious combination of garlic, oil and squid- a combination that is undeniably nautical, and will, I am sure, forever take me back to that restaurant. The croquets were not as nuanced, but rather more juvenilly delicious. Who can resist the siren appeal of cheese, delicious, mouth-wateringly tender and flavorful ham, and fried potato? While not as “exotic”, they were equally delicious, and went great with some fruity Sangria.

To follow, we ordered two paellas. The first was a paella mixta: a typical seafood paella of whole shrimp, prawns, clams and mussels in a golden bed of saffron rice. The second was a paella de arroz negra: a paella with rice colored black with squid ink. It tasted strongly of ham and calamari and mussels, and was far better than the simpler seafood paella. It had all the elements that make a great meal for me: good food, great company and great location.

For dinner, we cleaned up and headed into the charming area of town know as the barri gotic; a winding sprawl of small one lane roads that contains that vast majority of the cities small, charming restaurants. We happily wandered into an inviting cava bar, which we later found was recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook that was my bible.

We wandered in starving, as we would to most meals in Barcelona, because dinner is usually eaten at 2, and dinner can be as late as 11. The Casa Delfinn’s wood paneled ceiling was great, but what we really craved were some hearty raciones. Fortunately, the cava hit the table quickly, as did our food. We started off the omnipresent pan con tomates: a simple baguette, toasted, and then rubbed with garlic, olive oil and the flesh of a tomato. It kept the cava company as we waited for the real meal to begin. The following courses did not disappoint. The first racion was a dish of inch thick octopus tentacles: perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful, although aggressive looking. It was followed by an Iberian sampler, which included manchego cheese, jamon Serrano, copa and a morcilla sausage. We concluded with a seafood sampler of salted cod (bacalao), cuttlefish, prawns and shrimp. The meal was a wonderful sampler of Barcelona’s many specialties, and whet our appetite for slightly more sophisticated fare.

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Above: A selection of montadillas; snacks on toast, in other words. From left to right, you are seeing salted cod, anchovie, and jamon serrano.

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Above: One of the most crazy looking dishes. This was octopus a la catalan. On the right are some golden potatoes. The octopus, by the way, was perfect, and nearly and inch thick.

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Above: Assorted mariscos (seafood). We have shrimp, prawns, squid, and then salted cod that had been cooked. This was OK- I am not a huge fan of the work needed to de-shell shrimp and prawns.
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Above: That quintessential bar food: pan con tomates.

You see, while my companions and I do not mind sharing per se, we enjoy having “our own” food. Café Gloria, in the same old neighborhood as Casa Delfinn, provided exactly that on our second night, with a prix fixe menu that was the foundation of one of my favorite meals on the trip.

I should mention at this point that in Spain and France, the prix fixe menus almost always include wine; a very civilized practice. The Café Gloria, it should be noted, was no exception. Their straightforward housewine, served in an unadorned bottle, was the perfect lubricant and companion for my three course meal.

It started out with homemade cannelloni (yes- Italian!) in a cheese gratin. Following it up was some classic café food: a entrecote ternera (steak), which was gorgeously seared on the outside and juicily rare within. For desert, I had the quintessential flan. It is not my favorite, but I felt I had to get it once. My companion Tyrone picked the best main course, however: cornero al horno en su jugo (shank of lamb braised in its own juices). I should note this was to be a trend- Tyrone always seemed to pick the best looking entrees. Anyway, the lamb was flavorful and tender, and while my steak was no slouch, his entrée was far superior. We got up from dinner to discover that it was somehow 1:30 in the morning: we had been at the table for two and a half hours. I am happy to report we maintained that pleasurable dining speed for almost all of our dinners.

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Above: My friend Tyrone's lamb. Excuse the camera work. I was tipsy.

I’m not going to lie about that meal: that wine definitely hit my bloodstream before the food, which really led to a splendid hour long debate concerning communism versus capitalism- a argument that was ongoing throughout the trip. However, it was a academic argument, and led to a pleasant night with no hard feelings.IMG_1234 copy.jpg

Above: This desert was not as good as it looked. I am not sure what it is.

Barcelona’s dining hours cannot be bettered. My day started bright and early. I would hit a cerverceria (a bar) or a cafeteria for some coffee and a pastry.

In general, I was not the most impressed by Spain’s pastries- I think that the Germans cannot be bear in the noble art of making a hearty breakfast treat, and the French are far superior in the flaky, more delicate style of pastry-smithing. The arena in which Spain excels is the savory pastry, that golden-brown pinnacle of fast snack, the empanada. An empanada, when done correctly, is a flaky, delicious crust that is folded over a savory, meaty interior. In the US, I have seen that filling be either ham, beef, chicken, seafood or vegetables. In Barcelona, the only filling I ever saw was tuna with tomatoes and olives. Make no mistake-this wasn’t just some grocery store “Chicken of the Sea”, water packed tuna- this was tuna with some real flavor! Juicy and tender! An with every bite, delicious little morsels of olive explode in your mouth. My first empanada was such a flavor revelation that I literally could not identify the filling when I first bit into it. I had to become a culinary private eye.

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Above: Emapanada de aton- that delicious tuna emapanada.

This was not the first time I had to assume that roll- throughout the trip, I had to use all five senses to tease apart what a dish actually was, especially as we left Spain and France, where I had a basic grasp of the language. While the menus were all in English, the descriptions could be of any quality. This was really a blessing in disguise. For example, the dish I described above- cornero al horno en su jugo. On the menu, it was described simply as “baked lamb”. The more literal translation is “lamb roasted in the oven in its own juices”, or, as I would title it, “some of the delectable, tender lamb you will ever have. It has been braised with a delicious blend of spices in its own juices, and it now falling apart tender. Don’t even go for the knife- you won’t need it”. Obviously, that is too long for a menu; however, I think you get my point. We would find frequent surprises like that on our travels.

Back to meal times: Barcelonians are night people. At 8, we would just be catching the bars and coffee shops opening up. We would sight see until about 10 to 11, when I would usually swing by someplace for a bocadillo and some wine. Bocadillos are the ubiquitous Spanish sandwiches, made on a relatively thin baguette. The fillings can be over any variety, although the most common varieties are tortilla (an egg preparation very similar to a frittata- served room temperature), jamon Serrano or sabrosada- a type of delicious sausage. However, the filling can be anything.

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Above: Two bocadillas and a delicious cafe au lait, or as it is called in spain, "cafe con leche".

The bocadillia would give me the inner strength to continue onto a late lunch- around 3 in Barcelona, and a bit earlier in the rest of Spain. Lunches could be anything- from paella, to foccacia pizzas and apple crumble (pictured below). It really depended on our mood.MOD_4461 copy.jpg

Above: Foccacia pizza's are big in spain. I don't really have a better word for them- essentially, they were toppings on a very light foccacia bread. This one, which I had for lunch in Barcelona, was the best in Spain. On top are some delicious sausage chunks, as well as a thick layer of well caramelized onions. I should mention they are also quite large- this was about 8 inches long, 4 wide, and at least 2 thick.

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Above: Desert. Some of the best apple crumble I have ever had. It was absolutely incredible- mouth-wateringly flavorful.

Around 7 or 8, I would generally get a trifle puckish- snack time! This could be anything. Oftentimes, it would be whatever I picked up in a market- from tapas, to chocolate, to more bocadillas.

Finally, around 12 to 1 we would have dinner, as I have described. The great thing about these hours is that they let me eat the food of three days in one- very handy! Keep in mind that I was also snacking on any sort of unique candy bar, pastry or other culinary delight that was for sale. Damn those Spaniards and their gorgeous window displays! See below: the beautifully sculpted marzipan creations that some of the more gourmet candy shops specialize in.
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Above: Some marzipan creations in the window of a pasteleria

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Above: My friend Kyle (left) and myself (right) on the plane to Barcelona.