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translados procession in Malaga, semana santa 2010

Last Saturday, seeking sunshine and tapas, I flew to Malaga, Spain to join Jon for the tail end of his work trip there. Although Malaga gets 300 days of sunshine a year, I managed to arrive on a rainy afternoon. But despite the damp weather, I had plenty of tasty tapas and managed to catch a few translados processions (in which religious statues are moved from churches to the houses of brotherhoods who will end up carrying the statues on elaborate floats during Semana Santa), so on the whole, an excellent 24 hours in Malaga.

Where to Eat:

Although I wasn’t in town for very long, because tapas lends itself to progressive eating (i.e., hopping from one place to another), Jon and I managed to try five different places in town, and of these, the two we liked best were Marisqueria Casa Vicente and La Moraga.

boquerones at Casa Vicente, Malaga

A marisqueria is a seafood restaurant/bar, and we were drawn to Marisqueria Casa Vicente by the long queues of Spanish families that Jon had spotted there at lunchtime. There was no space at Casa Vicente’s small bar when we arrived at 10 pm, so we took a seat at one of the many plastic tables in the charmless dining room (across the alley from the bar and kitchen).

None of the waiters spoke English, (and in case pointing at dishes at neighboring tables is not your thing, the menu has photos, though the photos are pretty bad) but happily, Jon and I knew what we wanted before we even sat down: the boquerones frito (fried anchovies). Even more happily, Casa Vicente’s were great. Meaty, juicy anchovies encased in a light, crispy batter. Squeeze of lemon. Done. 9 euros got us an enormous pile of these. We liked Casa Vicente’s no-frills charm so much that we went back the next day for a late lunch.

gazpacho with queso fresco at La Moraga

La Moraga Gastrobar was in many ways the polar opposite of Casa Vicente. Where Casa Vicente served traditional, no-fuss seafood snacks, La Moraga aspired to be 100% creativity and trendiness. Croquetas with ham in the middle? So two centuries ago. At La Moraga, croquetas were filled with pork loin or Cartama blood sausage. The crowd was trendy and Spanish-speaking, and wines-by-the-glass included several quality Ribera del Duero offerings.

We had to throw a few elbows to get a spot at the bar, but that’s part of the fun, lol. Best of all, the majority of dishes cost less than 5 euros, so with three tapas and a glass of wine, we were in and out for 25 euros, total. A great place to be at 10:30 on a Saturday night.

interior of Bodegas El Pimpi

Worth a stop for drinks:

Bodegas El Pimpi. It’s in all the guidebooks, and the barrels of house wine are signed by celebrities (i.e., lots of bull fighters and the occasional local boy made good – like Antonio Banderas), so it can feel a bit cheesy. But it’s centrally located; prices are good, and the interior is, overall, atmospheric. Jon and I tried a few Malaga sweet wines here, and none cost more than a fiver, so that was also a plus.

Two places to avoid:

We stopped off at Pepa y Pepe (because I’d read this description on Lonely Planet suggesting it was a chill, typical tapas bar) and waited ages to be served even though the waiter passed by us a million times. He kept giving us the universal “I’ll be right with you” gesture, but after the sixth or seventh one of those, we just got up and left. Maybe the food is good, but oh well.

Bar Orellana is across the street from La Moraga, and although it looked a bit seedy, we dropped by because this March 2009 Guardian article talked it up. The place was packed so Jon was the only one strong enough to push his way to the bar and I hung back near the door, trying to avoid being trampled to death. He ordered a stuffed squid tapas that really looked and tasted awful. Slathered in a goopy brown sauce, the squid had been filled with minced pork, sliced, and served room temperature. I longed to be back across the street at La Moraga.

Picasso Museum in Picasso's hometown of Malaga

Things to do in Malaga:

Malaga had plenty to keep us entertained for a weekend. Picasso was born in Malaga, and the city’s Picasso Museum is peaceful and manageable, showing works he painted from as early as 1894 through to the 1970s. After an hour, I felt like I understood the ways his work changed over time.

The Al Cazaba didn’t hold a candle to Granada’s Alhambra, mostly because Al Cazaba’s interior is bare and undecorated, but it’s quiet and peaceful, so not a bad way to spend an hour.

Feeling a bit bored, we undertook the steeper climb to Gibralfaro Castle, which was nice for the exercise, but an otherwise unimpressive destination. The only reason to make the climb is for views of the city and port. Eh.

If the weather had been nicer, the beach would have been appealing, too. It’s not white sand (this is Europe, after all), but it’s long and there’s a pretty, tiled boardwalk running alongside, which I could see being pleasant.

Overall, Malaga was worth visiting (perhaps as part of a tour of Andalucia, generally), but I liked Granada and Seville more.

Marisqueria Casa Vicente, Calle Comisario, Malaga; +34 952 225 397

La Moraga, Calle Fresca, 12, Malaga; +34 952 226 851

Flights from Malaga to London take just over 2 1/2 hours, and Malaga Airport has recently opened a snazzy, gleaming new terminal that includes an outpost of La Moraga (which wasn’t bad). To reach Malaga center city, I caught the no. 19 public bus for 1.10 euros right in front of the arrivals building. It couldn’t have been easier (or cheaper).

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interior of a Cafe Viena in Barcelona

interior of Cafe Viena in Barcelona

When Jon and I arrived in Barcelona, we arrived hungry. Because it still was too early in the day for a real meal, when we read this April 2009 New York Times description of Cafe Viena as serving “a perfect snack,” we thought we’d give the place a try.

So we asked our B&B owner (a super-in-the-know Barcelona native) where we could find this place, and it was like we’d asked him where we could find a McDonald’s.

His answer (in a brief summary) was: It’s a chain. Go there only if you want to eat total junk. It’s on Las Ramblas. Enough said.

The thing is, after years of following Mark Bittman’s recipes and enjoying his European travel articles, we couldn’t believe the guy would be so wrong. And we eventually found ourselves on Las Ramblas anyway, passing by Cafe Viena. So we popped in.

First indicators were not good. The place is wedged in between a lot of busy high-street shops. And hanging next to the front door is this cheesy reproduction of Bittman’s original shout out in October 2006:

signs at Cafe Viena flog a 2006 Mark Bittman quote

signs at Cafe Viena flog a 2006 Mark Bittman quote

But you know what, the jamon flauta (ham on a baguette) turned out to be pretty tasty. My crappy photo below doesn’t do it justice. There was a crispy baguette and slices of fatty, salty, melt-in-your-mouth jamon. Simple and good.

jamon flauta at Cafe Viena

jamon flauta at Cafe Viena

For under 6 euros, the Cafe Viena sandwich was a *far* superior version than what we had a few days later at Fast Good, Ferran Adria‘s “fast food” venture.

I admire and support Adria’s idea that fast food doesn’t have to use cheap ingredients. (Allegedly, the ingredients in Fast Good come from the same purveyors Adria uses at El Bulli).

jamon panini at Ferran Adria's "Fast Good" restaurant

jamon panini at Ferran Adria's "Fast Good" restaurant

But food snobs beware: Cafe Viena did a much better job than Fast Good when it came to fast jamon sandwiches. The bread on the Fast Good version was burned. All I could taste was charcoal. And the thing cost almost 8 euros (i.e., it was more expensive than our Cafe Viena friend).

groovy interior at Fast Good in Barcelona

groovy interior at Fast Good in Barcelona

I’ll give style points to Fast Good. But for a fast, cheap meal, Cafe Viena works. It’s not the “best sandwich” of my life, but Jon and I enjoyed it immensely.

Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis, 115; +34 93 317 14 92; northernmost bit of La Rambla; closest metro station: Catalunya

Fast Good, Carrer de Balmes, 127; +34 93 452 23 74; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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Bar Mut exterior from Barcelona Unlike

Bar Mut exterior (photo from Barcelona Unlike)

Although I’ve always read that Barcelona is no tapas town (this article, for example, explains how Catalunyans historically preferred a full sit-down meal), Jon and I couldn’t resist the siren call of small plates in Spain.

On the high end of the tapas spectrum was Bar Mut, which is a short walk from Diagonal metro in Eixample district, where you’ll find Gaudi goodies La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia. (If you think the area feels like the Upper East Side, you wouldn’t be far off the mark).

Bar Mut is a small, French-looking spot complete with marble-topped counters, brass-and-frosted-glass fixtures, a blackboard menu, and that hazy gold lighting that characterises all charming late-night spots. I’d read only rave reviews of the place, and Bar Mut’s open for business on Sunday, which was a big plus.

The restaurant is extremely-well-known, so when we turned up for our 10:30 pm booking on a Sunday night, it was still packed.

marinated anchovies for 13 euros at Bar Mut

marinated anchovies for 13 euros at Bar Mut

Understandably, the restaurant sent us the one server who spoke fluent English, but he turned out to be sort of an arrogant, condescending guy, insisting that it’d be easier if we left the ordering to him. In a good mood from our aperitifs, we agreed, and he proceeded to skip all the dishes on the blackboard that we couldn’t quite make out, and instead ordered us basics like jamon iberico and marinated anchovies. High quality, beautiful stuff, but I couldn’t help feeling that Jon and I needn’t have traveled to Barcelona to eat expensive, good-quality basics.

ventresca con tumbet (tuna)

ventresca con tumbet (tuna belly)

An order of ventresca con tumbet (tuna belly) sounded promising, but turned out to be very good-quality tuna that had been cooked until it tasted canned. Based on its melt-in-your-mouth texture, the tuna was probably brilliant when it was raw, and it seemed a shame (to me) to have cooked it up and shredded it on a slightly-limp green lettuce salad.

cochinillo (roast suckling pig)

cochinillo (roast suckling pig)

The cochinillo at 18 euros was very good, making it the one dish that our server recommended that was especially noteworthy. The skin was incredible – thin and crispy, and extremely easy to break apart. Apparently, the kitchen first cooks the suckling pig sous vide before crisping the skin on the grill before serving. Much as I loved the classic oven-roasted version we ate in Segovia in the Ribera del Duero, the skin on the traditional version was sometimes a bit too shiny and hard to eat easily, so I’d say Bar Mut’s contemporary version was a real improvement.

carpaccio huevos fritos (our superstar dish of the night)

carpaccio huevos fritos (our superstar dish of the night)

Still hungry, Jon and I used pidgin Spanish to ask another server what he’d recommend, and without hesitating, he pointed us to the carpaccio huevos fritos. Unsure what would be raw (i.e., the carpaccio bit), we figured anything with fried eggs would surely be a winner, and at 14 euros, the dish was the highlight of our night: fried shoestring potatoes on a bed of raw egg yolk with some veg thrown in. The crunch-creamy textures were great, and the comfort factor of all those potatoes mixing with the rich egg yolk is not to be underestimated.

With a bottle of Carmelo Rodero crianza for 25 euros (I love the relatively-low markups on wine in Spanish restos!), our tab for two before tip totaled 110 euros. It was a lot of money for an inexpensive wine and five or six tapas dishes. I’d have been more wowed if we’d gotten more of the interesting items on the menu. So if you go, try to order on your own, and definitely go when there’s shellfish available. Bar Mut knows how to source, and I’ll guess that when there’s shellfish on offer, it’s the best money can buy.

Go for high-quality versions of tapas classics. Go if you’re touristing out in the neighborhood gawping at the Gaudis. And if you really want to be wowed, eschew the help of the English-speaking server and order the dishes you’ve never heard of from the blackboard menu.

Bar Mut, Pau Claris, 192; +34 93 217 43 38; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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egg "souffle" with vegetables at Gresca restaurant, Barcelona

egg "souffle" with vegetables at Gresca restaurant, Barcelona

Jon and I really enjoyed most of our meals in Barcelona, but the stand-out for us was dinner at Gresca.  This July 2008 NYT article on “bistronomia” described the restaurant thus:  “Gresca practices bistronomia, which means it’s one of a growing number of Barcelona restaurants dedicated to offering high quality, contemporary — and yes, occasionally clever — cooking at reasonable prices.”

How could I resist?  An elegant break from tapas and seafood at reasonable prices – I rang up right away and booked for 10 pm on Saturday.

grilled sardine with pancetta "film" and sesame seeds

grilled sardine with pancetta "film" and sesame seeds

I’m glad we showed up at 10, not only because I wanted to eat when the locals eat, but also because I doubt anyone in the kitchen was concentrating on much except football earlier that evening.  *Everyone* in Barcelona was watching the Barcelona-Madrid football match.  It was, after all, El Clasico.

Without being anywhere near a TV, Jon and I felt like we’d watched the game with every groan and cheer that we’d hear coming from homes and bars in Barcelona.  And lucky for us, Barcelona won, which I think put everyone (including the kitchen) in a happy mood by the time we arrived at the restaurant for dinner.

45 euros per person buys  you a treat of a tasting menu, which included the beautiful egg white souffle pictured at the top of this post.  An egg white, whipped up and somehow baked and stuffed with a runny yolk, on top of a bed of fresh, firm vegetables.  It was both simple and a big surprise.  And delicious.  Runny yolks and fresh veg make a perfect partnership, and the souffle added a bit of magic and wonder.  And that’s how I’d describe most of the dishes at Gresca – classic, good-tasting combinations, but prepared in a sometimes-surprising and interesting way.

Things got off to a strong start with a single grilled sardine covered in a thin layer of translucent pancetta fat and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.  Meaty, nutty, salty.   You’d never know you’d eaten a fish.

salted mackerel on a bed of egg yolk crumbles

salted mackerel on a bed of egg yolk crumbles

There was no mistaking the salt-marinated mackerel as fish, though its oiliness blended well with crumbled bits of egg yolk to create a soft, cream mayonnaise taste (which I suppose makes sense – egg yolks + oil = mayo).   I liked that simply crumbling egg yolk into crumbs made it unrecognizable at first.  I thought they’d be pop rocks or some other gimmicky ingredient.  But no, just rich, soft yolk.

hen-of-the-woods and chanterelle "ravioli" at Gresca

hen-of-the-woods and chanterelle "ravioli" at Gresca

The mushroom “ravioli” was beautiful.  They looked like calla lilies and fittingly tasted delicate.  Light wonton-style skills perfumed by fresh, high-quality mushrooms.   It both looked and tasted wonderful.

Gresca onion soup

This dish – a version of French onion soup – looked kind of scary.  The dark blob in the middle (that looked a bit sea monster-ish) was a whole mushroom, which added a chewy earthiness to the soup and covered a wonderful chunk of melting cheese.  The tangy-sweet onion broth, the cheese, the rich mushroom – all combined to create the most intense french onion soup, but in an elegant-looking way.  I watched the well-dressed, older guy next to us tip his bowl into his mouth to make sure he didn’t miss a single sip.

seared scallop and tiny shrimp at Gresca

seared scallop and tiny shrimp at Gresca

The single, enormous scallop was excellent.  Sweet and seared the way I love – crunchy brown on top, warm, pink and intensely sweet inside.  The crispy, fried baby shrimps added saltiness and crunch to balance out the scallop.  I must confess all those pairs of little black, beady eyes were mildly disturbing, but not for long.  Someone should sell those things in a bag – they’re perfect for snacking.

sweetbreads at Gresca

sweetbreads at Gresca

By the time the meat courses started arriving, I was flagging.  But when the sweetbreads showed up, I knew stopping would be a travesty.  The inside was that nice creamy meat flavor you get from offal, without the heaviness of, say, foie, and the delicate slices of scallion and coriander lightened things up further.

pigeon at Gresca restaurant

pigeon at Gresca restaurant

Pigeon.  Rat of the sky.  My favorite.  Again, beautifully cooked.  Juicy and rare with a crisp, salty skin.  But thank god it was the last savoury course.  I must be getting old, because I don’t see why, at 10 pm, I couldn’t easily polish off all this food.

"lemon sorbet" at Gresca

"lemon sorbet" at Gresca

When the sorbet course arrived, I was, at first, horrified.  At quick glance, it looked like another fish course, covered in pistachio and garnished with onion.  But no, thank goodness it was a light lemon sorbet with a good bite to it thanks to the preserved lemon.

"pina colada" at Gresca

"pina colada" at Gresca

And we ended dinner on another playful, refreshing note.  The restaurant’s version of a pina colada.  That’s a crunchy milk chocolate crust you see, filled with coconut and pineapple sorbet and liquer, I think.

At 45 euros a person, people should be pounding down the door at this place.  Gresca isn’t big, so book.  And enjoy.

Gresca restaurant interior

Gresca restaurant interior

Gresca, Carrer de Provenca, +34 93 451 61 93; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

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Gaudi's Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Gaudi's candy-colored Casa Batllo, Barcelona

The first time I visited Barcelona was in November 2005, and back then, I made the mistake of not making any dinner reservations in advance, which meant that by the time I rang up highly-sought-after Barcelona restaurants, I was too late. So instead of swanking it up at the likes of Comerc 24, I ate several highly-forgettable dinners in indifferent tapas bars (you know, the randomly-chosen type that look crowded with locals but turns out to be filled with locals who must not care what they’re eating)

Still, there’d been bright spots last time – enough to make me long to revisit. I remember lunch at Cal Pep, for example, where my neighbor at the counter, an old Spanish guy, grabbed my right hand (which was holding my fork) and forced me to stab some of the braised calamari right off his plate.

So Jon and I returned last weekend for three full days of good food and relaxation, dividing most of our time between the winding medieval streets of the Born and the upscale gridiron of the Eixample district, where we stayed in what was effectively our own enormous flat for 90 euros a night (rented out as “the Chimney Room” by BarcelonaBB).

Because it was a holiday weekend in Spain, too, Cal Pep was closed. But having become a much more seasoned eater and traveller over the years, I had in mind lots of other options. (Many thanks to this August 2006 post by Chocolate & Zucchini, and to this July 2008 article and this April 2009 article from the New York Times, as well as the very up-to-date TimeOut Barcelona guidebook).

We had very good (2 pm, of course) lunches at ready-for-franchising Taller de Tapas and grande dame seafood specialist Els Pescadors and smile-inducing snacks at Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria, and even at a local chain, Café Viena.

Dinner on Sunday was at 10:30 pm at the super-lively Bar Mut and on Saturday night, we had a truly outstanding, I-can’t-wait-to-go-back dinner at Gresca, each of which I’ll blog about in upcoming posts.

spacious and gracious interior of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, Barcelona

spacious and gracious interior of Santa Maria del Mar cathedral, Barcelona

We enjoyed the browsing, tasting and yapping of buying Spanish wines at the Vila Viniteca, which also happened to be steps away from Santa Maria del Mar, whose interior spaciousness and natural brightness is both surprising and memorable. (We ignored it the last time we were in Barcelona – it was on our way to Cal Pep – but having just read Ildefonso Falcones’s melodramatic-but-touching novel, Cathedral of the Sea, Jon and I were especially keen to see the place this time around). And inevitably, we ate a lot of gelato (courtesy of the fresh-and-fast Gelaaati!).

Of course, research and planning only take you so far. We had a pretty horrendous snack at Bar Boqueria (in the Boqueria, which goes to show you that there are truly miserable tourist traps even in Food-Lover’s Ground Zero) and a mediocre lunch at Ferran Adria’s foray into fast food, Fast Good. We also spent almost an hour searching out Jamonisimo, the jamon sh0p where Adria, Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon buy their cured meats, only to find that the shop inexplicably closed on Monday (and no, it wasn’t siesta time).

Sometimes you just get unlucky.

Still, we were so lucky to have been able to go back to Barcelona. I ate my weight in navajas (razor clams) and jamon and enjoyed the warm, sunny weather. It was the perfect weekend break.

Taller de Tapas, Carrer l’Argenteria, 51; +34 93 268 85 59; Born district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Els Pescadors, Placa Prim 1; + 34 93 225 20 18; Poblenou district; closest metro station: Poblenou

Bar Pinotxo, practically the first stall you hit in the Boqueria as you enter from Liceu metro; closest metro station: Liceu

Gresca, Carrer de Provenca, +34 93 451 61 93; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis, 115; +34 93 317 14 92; northernmost bit of La Rambla; closest metro station: Catalunya

Bar Mut, Pau Claris, 192; +34 93 217 43 38; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Vila Viniteca, Carrer de Agullers, 7; +34 902 32 77 77; Born district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Gelaaati!, Carrer de Llibreteria, 7; +34 93 310 50 45; Barri Gotic district; closest metro station: Jaume I

Fast Good, Carrer de Balmes, 127; +34 93 452 23 74; Eixample district; closest metro station: Diagonal

Jamonisimo, Carrer de Provenca, 85; + 34 93 439 08 47; Eixample district; closest metro station: Hospital Clini

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morcillo sausage lasagne at Fuenta de la Acena restaurant

morcillo sausage lasagne at Fuenta de la Acena restaurant

For this post, my last on the Ribera del Duero wine region, I wanted to talk about restaurants. There are lots of places in the region that serve traditional food (i.e., roast suckling pig and roast suckling lamb), but in hopes of something more updated, we tried two more upscale places I’d read about: the restaurant at Posada Fuenta de la Acena, and El Molino de Palacios.

Oddly, both are housed in former water mills, but the former served modernized traditional dishes, and the latter (disappointingly) turned out traditional dishes at higher prices than you’d find at the rustic local joints serving the same dishes.

On the day we visited Vina Mayor and Arzuaga Navarro (i.e., the western end of the Ribera region where you’ll find the famed Vega Sicilia winery), we drove over to Quintanilla de Onesimo for a 2 pm lunch reservation at Fuente de la Acena.

It was a good thing we’d made a lunch reservation, or else the kitchen probably wouldn’t have opened that day: this pretty-but-sleek restaurant was completely empty. The dining room is spread over two floors and the sunny top floor overlooks the Duero river, meaning the place is big and it felt *really* empty. Luckily, our party of four was all the party we needed.

Although Fuente de la Acena offered a 34 euro prix fixe menu, the prix fixe choices sounded uninteresting, so we stuck with a la carte options.

Overall, starters were much stronger than mains (more creative and delicious), and the richness and large portions meant that at 8-10 euros a starter, you could have a fine, economic lunch comprised entirely of starters.

Standout starters included Jon’s lasagna of morcillo, the region’s traditional blood sausage. I have to confess that as much as I love a bloody steak, I have issues eating congealed blood stuffed into a sausage casing. But I suppose if you sneak *anything* into familiar and appealing lasagne sheets, I’m all over it (see photo at the top of this post). This rendition of blood sausage was sweet and creamy – no steely blood tang, as I feared. While I’m unlikely to start craving morcillo anytime soon, I’d eat it again.

pickled foie gras at Fuente de la Acena restaurant

pickled foie gras at Fuente de la Acena restaurant

Pickled foie gras didn’t sound attractive (because unless it’s accompanying Vietnamese food, pickled veg ranks very low on my list of favorite foods – probably down where blood sausage normally dwells), but at my friend Colleen’s encouragement, I gave it a try. And hey – it was excellent. In fact, it hardly tasted pickled. No pucker-your-lips vinegar sourness at all. The foie was characteristically rich and meaty with a hint of sweet pepper flavor. Served cold and spread on toast, the pickled foie gras was basically the best pate of your life.

pulpo y gnocchi at Fuente de la Acena

pulpo y gnocchi at Fuente de la Acena

And what’s a trip to Spain without pulpo (octopus)? Gnocchi with pulpo, which really tasted like bacon somehow, was served with a rich, tangy, creamy cheese. Meat, carb and dairy in one – easily a delicious, filling meal on its own.

But why would we stop after just four starters? We continued on to four main courses (most at 20 euros), two desserts and several bottles of wine. The resto serves an up-to-date-styled version of cochinillo, which was good but no better than in the traditional, inexpensive places we ate. And the fancier cuts of meat (such as roast Iberico pork tenderloin) were disappointingly bland – nothing at all like the almost honeyed-sweet-nuttiness of the version I still remember having at Mugaritz. Mugaritz’s version remains the pinnacle of my pork loin experience. (I know – how insane was that last sentence?)

Fuente de la Acena’s wine list covers all the region’s wonderful reds with surprisingly little markup. Because we were able to try a variety of wines at lunch, we tried (and fell in love with) the 2001 Vina Mayor “el Secreto,” which vineyard was luckily just a 2-minute drive away.

I wouldn’t call Fuente de la Acena a destination restaurant, but if you’re already in the Ribera and want a little more creativity and modernity, Fuente’s worth a visit. At 65 euros per person for a ton of food and good wines, I thought our lunch was good value, and in warmer weather, sitting outside by the river would be unbeatable.

lamb chops at El Molino de Palacios

lamb chops at El Molino de Palacios

Now, as for the “other” converted mill restaurant . . . we’d read about El Molino de Palacios (in Penafiel, Spain) in this April 2006 Travel + Leisure article and this Gerry Dawes blog post also mentioned it as a place worth visiting. The restaurant is, of course, very pretty on the outside – all quaint stone walls and prime waterside location. But once inside, like several other restaurants in the region, El Molino de Palacios looked like its last facelift was in the late 60s, which isn’t exactly the decade you want to freeze in time.

In the end, I should have noticed that this more-recent-than-2006 (August 2007) L.A. Times article was unimpressed with the food at El Molino de Palacios, but hey, live and learn.

On the plus side, the chef herself took our lunch order. We were going to go with more roast baby lamb, but we were told that if we’d wanted lechazo, we had to book it at the time we made our reservation. So we made do with some so-so choices – hare stew that would’ve been great if not for the stringiness of the meat. Lamb chops were small but tasty enough that I wondered what the roast suckling lamb would’ve tasted like. And the hake grilled a la plancha was juicy and moist and really the sleeper hit of or lunch.

Our tab came to 45 euros per person, including a bottle of tasty Hacienda Monasterios crianza. Lunch was good, not great, but the true beauties of Penafiel were still to come:

views of Penafiel from the Penafiel castle

views of Penafiel from the Penafiel castle

For 6 euros, you have the privilege of going on a Spanish-language tour of the Castle (mandatory if you want to see it), and admission to the region’s wine museum. The castle, though, is so dramatic that I didn’t mind not following anything the guide was saying. Penafiel Castle felt very lonely and windy, and so it was surely a warrior’s fortress, rather than an entertainment/living center.

El Rastrillo wine (and antiques!?!) shop in Penafiel, Spain

El Rastrillo wine (and antiques!?!) shop in Penafiel, Spain

The other treat in Penafiel was an antiques shop, Rastrillo, that, surprisingly, also had a charming and well-edited wine shop in the basement.

Rastrillo’s owner insisted we try glasses of Bodegas Mauro wine, as well as sample his local pecorino-style cheese and gorgeous, sweet, crunchy marcona almonds. The Mauro was so good that we bought a bottle despite already having exceeded our luggage allowance for the return trip to London.

Rastrillo sold everything from the Vega Sicilia Unico to less-expensive (but quality) wines like those by Pingus, Emilio Moro and other winemakers in the area. Looking back, we really should have started our explorations of the Ribera del Duero at a shop like Rastrillo. It would have given us a clearer idea of which vineyards were worth visiting. But I’m glad we found the place.

marcona almonds

marcona almonds with your wine at Rastrillo

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Barrel room at bodegas Cepa 21 in Castrillo de Duero, Spain

Barrel room at bodegas Cepa 21 in Castrillo de Duero, Spain

Rioja is everywhere. But where-oh-where can you buy or drink Ribera del Duero wines?

After spending a few days exploring the vineyards around the towns of Castrillo de Duero, Pesquera de Duero, Quintanilla de Onesimo and Penafiel, I think it’s a both a shame and a benefit that the Ribera hasn’t made the same maketing push that Rioja has: the shame is that a region making such powerful, full-bodied (read: super good) reds isn’t getting a lot more publicity and fame than it does. The benefit, though, is that I got a steal on some fantastic wines that I Jon was happy to schlepp back to London.

Before you go, though, I’d recommend reading Gerry Dawes’s detailed blog post about Ribera wines and restaurants, which was invaluable for a non-Spanish-speaker like me. The smattering of Chowhound posts I found were about the bigger towns in the region (like Valladolid), and otherwise, the Internet turned up surprisingly-few English-language results beyond this August 2007 LA Times article. (Think about how *long* it’s been since google failed to turn up a gazillion results for a particular search). Also helpful were a couple of wine shops (including the Sampler) we emailed for vineyard recs.

Wine tasting of joven, crianza and reserva wines at Bodegas Emilio Moro

Wine tasting of joven, crianza and reserva wines at Bodegas Emilio Moro (Pesquera de Duero, Spain)

Rather than detail every wine we tried (there were many), I’ll list a few pros and cons of visiting the Ribera, geneally. Overall, the Ribera was so easy to reach (i.e., a 90-minutes drive northwest of Madrid) that it’s lame Jon and I hadn’t been there before now.

First, my least favorite parts of our trip to the Ribera del Duero:

  1. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post (and which Gourmet Chick immediately picked up on as a bummer), the vineyards in the Ribera required us to schedule an appointment to visit. It could be that this sort of thing is an off-season practice (right now, the vineyards are busy pruning vines, and not many tourists – Spanish or otherwise – are around), but it was annoying. Give me Napa-style “drop by anytime during opening hours” any day of the week, and huge kudos to my friend Colleen for handling all the back-and-forth and jigsaw-style planning to create a wine-tasting itinerary.
  2. The Ribera vineyards also required us to take a tour before tasting anything. Prices for the “tour and tasting” generally fell in the range of 10-15 euros per person, so not only did we have to plan on visiting a vineyard for at least an hour (because the tours can really take a while), but also, over time, we shelled out a substantial amount of money for tours we didn’t necessarily want (how many wine presses and bottling machines can a person see?). Now, I definitely understand that the vineyard should be able to cover the cost of wines that people are tasting (though sampling/marketing strikes me as a legit cost of doing business), but I think it’s much fairer if vineyards credit you the tasting/tour charge if you end up buying a certain number of bottles. Or at least just charge for the tasting and let me skip the hour-long tour beforehand.
  3. Don’t expect a huge variety of food in restaurants. While the roast suckling pig (cochinillo) and suckling lamb (lechazo) are outstanding, I have to confess that baby-animal-meat-lover that I am, even I hit my limit of rustic roasts and stews after a few days. The minute I got back to London, I practically ran to the Vietnamese place down the street to get some light, delicate flavors back in my system.
  4. As in the rest of Spain, be prepared to eat at later hours. Only losers and tourists (no, they’re not the same thing) eat lunch at 12 or dinner at 8. Even a 1:30 lunch is a bit Early Bird Special, so aim for 2:00 and be part of the cool crowd.

And now my favorite parts of our trip to the Ribera del Duero:

  1. The wines. Just outstanding stuff. I’m no wine writer, but I know what kinds of reds I like – rich, dark, nutty-chocolate-cherry-ruby-red wines that look *thick* running down the sides of your glass. And that’s the kind of wine we found everywhere we visited, particularly at Vina Mayor (which abuts the famed Vega Sicilia) and at Emilio Moro. (The exception to this enthusiastic rule was Cepa 21, which looks better than it tastes and didn’t justify the 10 euros-a-person tasting fee of a single wine. We did, however, greatly enjoy the photos on the wall at Cepa 21 of Tom Cruise and David Beckham mugging with a bottle from parent vineyard Emilio Moro).
  2. The bread truck guy who arrived in front of our house every morning at 9:30 am and used his special bread-truck-horn to announce his arrival. It was like the ice cream man, but with bread. Too bad his bread was rather dry, especially the round loaves of pan. But you can’t beat daily home delivery.
  3. The night we went to the “bodega tradicionale” owned by the family who rented us the house where we stayed. It was an underground cellar that was three parts garden shed (full of discarded old lawn furniture) and one part wine=making facility (with barrels of aging homemade wine). What started as a friendly-but-polite exchange with the son of the family soon turned into a town-wide social event featuring lots of homemade plonk, pickled snacks, and a giant pot of liebre con arroz (hare and rice stew). A memorable and heart-warming example of how people can get along fabulously despite not sharing a common tongue.
  4. Roast suckling pig (cochinillo). While I did (just above) list the region’s lack of menu variety in restaurants as a disappointment of the trip, the roast suckling pig was so consistently delish that I did, happily, eat a good amount of it. On a related note, if you do want some cochinillo or lechazo, some of the smaller restaurants in the area require you to mention that desire when making the booking. (I guess so the restaurant can pop one in the oven for you ahead of time).

Cepa 21, Nac. 122, Km. 297, 47318 Castrillo de Duero (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 484 084

Bodegas Emilio Moro, Ctra Penafiel- Valoria, s/n, 47315, Pesquera de Duero (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 878 400

Bodegas Vina Mayor, Ctra. de Soria Km 325, 47350 Quintanilla de Onesimo (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 680 461

Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Ctra. N. 122 Aranda-Valladolid, Km 325, 47350 Quintanilla de Onesimo (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 681 146

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Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain

The Titan of Titanium strikes again: Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain

So generally, I’m a planner kind of person. Especially for holidays abroad. Yet somehow I overlooked how much a “daytrip” from the Ribera del Duero to Rioja was – how shall we say – ambitious. I mean, a simple google map search (now) reveals it’s a 227 km (140-mile) drive between Penafiel and Laguardia.

Apparently, neither Jon nor I (nor our friends) are ones to abandon a plan once it’s set, so to take a break from all the wine tasting we did in the Ribera del Duero, we set off one day for some wine tasting in the Rioja.

Three hours after leaving our rental house near Penafiel (note: if you get stuck on a local highway behind, say, a long flatbed truck carrying a giant windmill blade, you’re screwed), we pulled into Laguardia. And let me first say that the town of Laguardia, Spain shares nothing in common with the New York City airport of the same name. Laguardia, the town, is picture-perfect, with cobblestones, winding alleys, mysterious doorways, tunnels, and warm, ochre-hued stone.

The airport is, as you probably know, not picture perfect.

Because 99.9% of vineyards we contacted prior to arriving in Spain required us to make an appointment for a tour and tasting (and no, you apparently can’t just drop by for a tasting without the tour), we reached Laguardia with three hours to kill before our scheduled time at the Marques de Riscal (aka “the Frank Gehry place”).

walking the medieval streets of Laguardia, Spain

walking the medieval streets of Laguardia, Spain

So we walked a bit. And the town was lovely. But it was siesta time (i.e., between 2 and 4 pm), and we needed something to eat. We found a place, Biazteri (Calle de Mayor, near the TI office) that had a positive description in this April 2007 Guardian article on this part of Rioja, but it was a bust, offering just a Spanish soap blaring on the TV and a few sitting-there-too-long bocadillos. At least the glasses of house wine were hilariously cheap (1.50 euros each).

So we kept on walking until we saw Mayor de Migueloa, which was both open and had a wall lined with wine bottles.

Mayor de Migeloa bodega in Laguardia, Spain

Mayor de Migueloa bodega in Laguardia, Spain

So we walked in, and it was just what the doctor ordered. I liked the old wine press converted into a table – just enough yuppie decor to be appealing to me, while those fast-food-style napkin dispensers kept things down-to-earth.

jamon Iberico, lomo Iberico and chorizo

jamon Iberico, lomo Iberico and chorizo

First up – Iberico everything! Ham, cured pork loin, and chorizo with kick! Nobody wants for cured meats in Spain, and the platter served at Mayor de Migeloa was excellent. It seems that everywhere in you go in Spain, there exist melt-in-your-mouth pork goodies waiting to be eaten.

patatas Riojanas

patatas Riojanas

We felt obligated to order the Rioja-style potatoes by virtue of being in Rioja, but you know, they were potatoes. with some pepper. and not enough chorizo. A bit eh.

croquetas at Mayor de Migeloa

croquetas at Mayor de Migueloa

But luckily, every meal is a success when there are croquetas involved: crispy crust; creamy interior; and a little bit of ham inside if you’re lucky. I especially liked how, at Mayor de Migeloa, they didn’t come in that suspiciously pre-manufactured fish-stick shape you see in the more touristy bits of Spain.

All these snacks with glasses of house wine all around totaled 35 euros.

Fueled up for our 4 pm appointment at the Marques de Riscal, we spent 5 minutes driving over to neighboring Elciego, parked, paid our 10 euros each for the tour and tasting, and got on our way.

Despite having gone on many wine tours before and after our visit, I thought the Marques de Riscal tour was super-comprehensive and worth taking, and our guide, Patricia, was knowledgeable and funny, earning extra points for taking us into the vineyard’s “treasury,” where all the *really* old wines are kept.

the "treasury" at the Marques de Riscal vineyard

the "treasury" at the Marques de Riscal vineyard

Having walked the quiet, dusty depths of the Marques de Riscal treasury, we now have something in common with Gywneth. (Obviously this shared experience is bound to make us BFF before too long).

The 2004 Marques de Riscal reserva we tasted was fine for the money (12.50 euros a bottle), but it wasn’t super memorable.

By the end of our tour, it became clear to us that the Marques de Riscal owners are incredibly good at marketing and promotion (how else do you get Frank Gehry to design you a tiny 14-room hotel?), and while it’s a pleasant place to visit, I wouldn’t make it a destination for the wines.

Slightly annoying is that the relationship between the vineyard and hotel seems a bit strained, so our vineyard guide insisted she had to call for reservations at the hotel bar/lounge if we wanted to have drinks there.

Service at the hotel lounge, once we were allowed in, was friendly and helpful, and we downed lots more cheese, chorizo and wine there. Prices were what you’d expect at a Starwood-operated hotel, costing 65 euros before tip for four glasses of the vineyard’s wine, and a bit of chorizo and cheese.

I’d go back to Marques de Riscal if I were vacationing exclusively in the Rioja, but it’s not worth the drive as a daytrip from the Ribera del Duero. So skip the long drive and just enjoy the powerful reds and sleek tasting rooms that abound in the Ribera.

Marques de Riscal vineyard and hotel, Calle Torrea, 1 · Elciego 01340 · Spain, (+34) 945 18 08 88.

Mayor de Migueloa, Mayor de Migueloa Nº 20, 01300 Laguardia, Spain, +34 945 62 11 75 / 76.

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the pig's the thing at Restaurant Jose y Maria in Segovia

the pig's the thing at Restaurante Jose Maria in Segovia

Our one wine-free day during our Ribera del Duero trip last week was when we flew into Madrid and hopped on the AVE train to meet our friends Colleen and Mike in Segovia. We spent a day there to eat a long lunch and do a little sightseeing before driving to Castrillo de Duero, our home for the remainder of our trip.

I was glad to pick restaurants for our trip, but being a non-Spanish speaker left me feeling skeptical about my research. For Segovia, I relied largely on this December 2007 chowhound thread giving Restaurante Jose Maria a slight edge over its rival Meson Candido. The fact that Restaurante Jose Maria’s website lacked an English translation function was reassuring (and it was also an indicator of how little spoken English we’d encounter as we headed further north into the Ribera del Duero).

Lest there be any confusion about Restaurante Jose Maria’s specialty, the facade features a bronze cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig). Definitely my kind of place.

With some help from a Spanish-speaking friend, I’d made our reservations for the somewhat-early hour of 1:30 pm because the restaurant’s next seating wasn’t until 3:30 pm, and while I’m generally a late eater, waiting until 3:30 for lunch was pushing it.

chorizo crumbles at Jose y Maria

chorizo crumbles at Jose Maria

As soon as we sat down, a server brought a basket of bread and a shallow bowl of chorizo crumbles. There was paprika and pepper kick in there, and the pork was tender and meaty. So much better than mere bread and butter, and a fab way to start lunch. And actually, it was tastier than the starters we ordered – a forgettable 14-euro saludable de verdures (you know it’s bad news when 1/4 of your grilled vegetable platter is comprised of onion and carrot) and an overly-breaded Castilian garlic soup.

Castilian soup Castilian garlic soup at Restaurant Jose Maria

cochinillo (roast suckling pig) at Restaurant Jose y Maria

cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) at Restaurant Jose Maria

We did, however, really love our main courses, ordering two portions of cochinillo asado and two of lechazo. Ignoring the obvious piglet ear and hoof, I devoured the light, moist meat and beautiful thin crackling. I loved how, just under the crisp and thin skin, there was a thin, flavorful layer of fat. The star attraction had, thankfully, lived up to the hype. At 21 euros a portion, it wasn’t rustic pricing, but it was worth the money. Another table near us ordered a whole cochinillo, and the servers made a big show of portioning out the piglet by eschewing a knife and using a plate edge instead (“it’s just that tender!”).

lechazo (roast suckling lamb)

lechazo (roast suckling lamb)

Our lechazo, also 21 euros a portion, wasn’t quite as good as the little piggie, but in a lamb-and-piglet face off, I’ll always choose the piglet, meaning I’m generally pre-biased towards pig. That, and the broth for the lechazo plate was unbelievably salty. Nobody at Restaurante Jose Maria could be accused of holding back on the salt.

I didn’t think we could find room for dessert, but what’s a holiday without dessert? The tarta helada al whisky was a surprisingly-yummy nut-covered ice cream cake.

The best value at lunch was, hands down, the house wine, which was a very young, plummy ribera del duero wine. At 13 euros a bottle, we happily made our way through two bottles before getting our bill at around 4 pm.

If you go, skip the starters and lamb and just go straight for the pig, the wine, and the ice cream cake.

Segovia Cathedral and Plaza Mayor

Segovia Cathedral and Plaza Mayor

Just a block away from Restaurante Jose Maria is Segovia’s main town square (Plaza Mayor) and the just-another-reminder-of- how-rich-the-Catholic-church-was Segovia Cathedral. The 450-year-old cathedral was worth a tour, but mostly for the pretty cloisters and the people-watching. The interior was otherwise really huge and bare.

The alcazar (castle) in Segovia

The alcazar (castle) in Segovia

Walking ten minutes downhill from the Cathedral, we paid 6 euros a person to see the inside of the Segovia Alcazar (where Isabella married Ferdinand, luckily for Christopher Columbus and unluckily for all the indigenous people of the Americas), and similar to that of the Cathedral, the Alcazar’s interior was pretty bare and grim. I like my castles to include lots of crystal, gold and mirrors. This one was much more a fortress than a royal crib.

old Roman aqueduct in Segovia

old Roman aqueduct in Segovia

On our walk back to our car, we took one last look at the old Roman aqueduct, briefly considered all the far-flung parts of the world where you can find these aqueducts, and then headed north to Castrillo de Duero.

Segovia was a pretty and relaxing place to spend a day, and because it’s just a 30-minute high-speed train ride from Madrid, I think it’d make a lovely day trip if you’re visiting that city. And while you’re there, get yourself some of that cochinillo at Meson Jose Maria.

Restaurante Jose Maria, just off the Plaza Mayor (Cronista Lecea 11, Segovia +34 92 146 11 11

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//blog.mook.com.tw/agogovicki/239/20071208/1151

Ribera del Duero official logo (from http://blog.mook.com.tw)

Three weeks from now, Jon and I (along with our friends at Philatraveler) are going to spend a week in the Ribera del Duero, the part of Spain that’s home to wines like Pingus and Vega Sicilia.

We’ve rented a house near Penafiel/Valladolid (for cheap because it’s low season), and we’re in the process of making appointments to visit different vineyards (bc the area’s not quite like Napa, where everyone and their mother has a tasting room that’s open every day).

So here’s the Key Question: Where should we eat?

I’m doing the usual browsing of Chowhound, Slow Trav, and on-line fora of various guidebooks, and yes, there’s always good ol’ googling. But if you’ve got fave restaurants in the Ribera del Duero, I’d love it if you shared! You can either leave a comment below or email me directly at AmericanLondon1 [at] gmail [dot] com.

We’ll have a car, and we’ve got nothing planned except to cook, eat out and drink. So bring it on.

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Map of Andalucia

map of Andalucia from Cycling Country

In April 2006, Jon and I spent three days in Granada, one day in Cordoba, and two days in Seville during semana santa, which is the week that ends with Easter Sunday. Below are a few notes from our trip, starting with Granada and ending with Seville.

Casa de los Migueletes, Calle Benalua 11 (Plaza Nueva), Granada, +34 958 210 700

Attractive, small boutique hotel in a renovated mansion dating to the 1600s. Just a two-minute walk into Plaza Nueva. The front desk is extremely helpful and spoke good English. Because it was semana santa (holy week), I assume it was the most expensive (but fun) time of year to visit Granada, and eCasa de los Migueletes courtyardven then, the hotel was 129 € a night for a regular room, and 179 € a night for a big room with a view of the Alhambra.

The hotel breakfast at Migueletes isn’t bad for a continental deal. It’s served in a vaulted downstairs dining room across from the hotel bodega. There’s classical music playing in the background, juice and water, tortilla Espanola, various meats and cheeses, and the usual bread, jams, yogurt and fruits. On the whole, a good breakfast for 9.50 €, but I’m too cheap to pay for it every day. It was a useful option the morning we woke up early to go to the Alhambra (for which you should definitely order tickets beforehand on the Alhambra website to avoid long lines or the very real possibility that they sell out).

Eating in Granada – Just a general comment that a lot of tapas dishes we had in Andalucia were fried, which was, for me, a dream come true at first. But it got old. At the end of our six days in Andalucia, I was crying for a salad. Bacalao, the salted cod, is served everywhere and worth a try. Same with the manzanilla (dry sherry). Tapas in Granada is still served the old-fashioned way (i.e., you get free tapas when you order drinks at the bar, and the tapas become more elaborate as you order more drinks). In Seville, which isn’t frozen in time quite as much as Granada is, you pay for all your tapas, which come in two sizes – media racion (small snack size) and racion (sharing size).

Bar R. Sibari (Plaza Nueva, 3, 18010 Granada)

Slow service, but good for late breakfast or coffee/snack in the afternoon while people-watching in the big square in Granada. The place has what seems to be just one waiter serving all 20+ tables out on the plaza. The tortilla espanola is pretty good. Otherwise, the churros were good but didn’t come with the thick gooey chocolate. Still, all those churros for just 1.50 euros = no complaints, right? The café cortado (aka strong coffee cut with milk) is the real winner here.

Ajo Blanco, Palacios 17, near the Santo Domingo Church

GREAT for a light lunch or late-afternoon snack/loafing. Four of us shared the most delicious plate of hams and salamis, along with a plate of cheeses (10 € a plate) along with some wonderful “free” tapas (slice of orange, pickled red onion, bits of cheese on rounds of bread) and some tasty cavas and chardonnays. And while we nibbled these goodies outside in the sunshine, we saw a semana santa procession leaving from the S. Domingo. Would not sit at the small tables inside. The place welcomes people spilling out and sitting outdoors on the walls/ledges.

Avoid all the restaurants on Calle Navas, which is packed, but it’s definitely tourist hell in Granada (though to be fair, it was mostly Spanish tourists when we were there). We waited forever for a table, and then the food we ordered got progressively worse. It was called Café Jose or something generic like that.

Also, while we’re on the topic of not worth the money: Restaurante Las Tinajas, (Martinez Campos, 17) which is supposed to be one of the big-name fancy places to eat in Granada, was so disappointing. It was highly recommended by our hotel and we’d read about it someplace else, too, but I would avoid it if I were you. The decor was dark woods and yellow lighting with china that looked last updated in the 60s. My appetizer of artichoke hearts with ham, pickled onion and raisins was, to be frank, totally gross – the worst part being the clear, gloppy mucus-like sauce that drowned the ingredients. On the other hand, my friend C’s almond soup was wonderfully savory and creamy, and J’s stuffed aubergines was good, too. So I had high hopes for my monkfish entrée, which ended up also being disgusting because of yet another gloppy sauce coating the fish and pine nuts. The wine was the only good thing we ordered, and our total tab for four was about 200 €. Money poorly spent.

Things to Do in Granada (with eats thrown in):

Albaicin in GranadaThe Albaicin (traditional wealthy nbhd) – fun to browse the touristy shops stocked with Moroccan knicknacks and to enjoy the views of the Alhambra. There’s even a street that’s all bright colors and crowds, and it’s supposed to be a dead ringer for a Moroccan bazaar, but since we haven’t been to Morocco (yet), I can’t confirm or deny.

Café Bar Panero (Plaza Aliatar, 18) close to the top of the hill in the Albaicin. Kind of a run-down-looking square, but full of locals and the food is uneven, but overall, good. There’s Alhambra cerveza on tap at 1.50 € a glass, a slightly creamy but still savory and cool gazpacho at 3.70 € a bowl, and all kinds of other tapas for between 7 and 12 € a plate. The ubiquitous gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic and butter) was so heavy on the butter such that the garlic flavor was diluted. Still, the shrimp was tender and flavourful, so no big complaints as we sopped up the butter and garlic with our bread. Croquettes were definitely my favourite, but I do have a weakness for the fried goodies, especially if potato and bechamel are involved. The mixed fried treats (fritura pequena) included pretty good fried fish, but only so-so calamari. Why must fried calamari so often come out rubbery? Why?

The pimientos de padron were good once you added salt, which of course we had to ask off the table next to ours. Our server was this huge surfer-looking guy who definitely didn’t dispel any stereotypes when he painstakingly took our order down on his notepad and then spaced out the rest of our meal. C suggested we spell out our orders for him, letter by letter.

The sangria, by the way, was very tasty – good mix of fruit and wine. The octopus pulpo we ordered was extremely nasty – rubbery and dry. Our total tab for four was 53 €, so despite the hits and misses, overall worth returning.

Alhambra viewed from Albaicin

Alhambra & Generalife:

Getting to the Alhambra is just a quick walk up a steep hill from Plaza Nueva. Took us just 20 minutes to reach the ticket booth at the top/far end of the Alhambra. It was a steep walk, but nothing bad. We had to arrive by 8 a.m., though I can’t remember why. Some rule about picking up your tix two hours early or forfeiting them?Patio de los Leones

Tickets were 10 € per person (and a 5 € reservation fee on-line), and we’d reserved a 10 a.m. spot, so that was good given the enormous lines that were forming there.

You don’t want to miss the Alhambra – it’s stunning. Definitely spend at least 3-4 hours there. The rooms are dreamy. Everything is soothing and a perfect balance of ornate carvings and simple perspectives.Patio of the MyrtlesHall of the Ambassadors, AlhambraHall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra

Cordoba:

We took a metered taxi from Plaza Nueva to Granada Stacio de Autobus, and 7 € later, we were at the bus station and had bought one-way bus tix on the Alsina Graells line to Cordoba for 11.50 € each, which is not bad for a 2.5-hour ride. The bus was so comfy and clean that I even managed to read during most of the trip w/o getting carsick. Considering how easily I get carsick, this tells you something about how nice the bus was.

The Cordoba bus station was pretty dumpy – not nearly as snazzy and modern as the one in Granada. However, the Cordoba train station across the street is gleaming – mostly white marble and glass. We went through a whole rigamarole to leave our suitcases in lockers – the suitcases had to go through the screening machines, and then we had to cough up enough coins for the lockers.

We hopped in a taxi and a 6 € fare later, we reached the Mezquita, where we met up with our friend Jane. Definitely our logistical achievement of the week. The Mezquita (which means mosque in Spanish) is a grand, imposing space. Like a lot of religious buildings in Andalucia, it’s been used by many religions. In this case, when the Catholics took over, they built a cathedral inside the mosque, and it’s Mezquita in Cordoba definitely unreal seeing the mix of styles and religious symbols. For example, you’re admiring all these ornate Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches and then your eye catches a crucifix tucked into the curve of an arch. Mezquita tix were 8 € each.

We ate lunch nearby at El Faro, (Calle Blanco Belmonte, 6) which at 3 p.m. wasn’t very crowded except for a large Spanish family and an older Spanish couple. We ordered (as usual) tons of food – glasses of wine, a pitcher of sangria, and I appreciated the croquettes again. The tortilla de camarones was OK –a crispy fried disk with vaguely seafood flavor. We ordered it bc the Spanish family sitting near us ordered one and it looked good when the waiter passed by us carrying the dish. But it was kind of dry. Must have been for the kids! Fried calamari was good. The fish in orange sauce got my attention, though it could have used salt.

For more on things to do in Cordoba (along with a nice photo of the Mezquita), check out this 12 November 2006 article in the NYT travel section.

The high-speed AVE train from Cordoba to Seville cost 21.50 € per person, and it got us into Seville Santa Justa train station in just over 30 minutes. Very snazzy. We took a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Puerta de Sevilla on Santa Maria La Blanca, which is on a corner with busy cafes and restaurants, so the buzz/noise from our balcony, while loud, is very cheery. The rooms are clean and very bright, but overall, not worth the money (200 € a night). Priced too high for what it is, bc of Semana Santa.

Semana Santa processions in Seville are pretty grand, though. We were already impressed by the pomp and seriousness of the processions in Granada, but the Sevillan ones were a whole different level.Nazarenos in Seville

We set out to find dinner at El Toison, highly recommended in our Time Out guide, but it seems to have been replaced with some cheesy Mediterranean-themed yuppie bar.

So we checked out Jane’s recommendation (bc she had just spent three days in Seville) and ate at Meson de la Infanta, Dos de Mayo, 26. 954 22 19 09, which was really lively when we arrived around 10:30 p.m. We stood at a converted barrel (now used as a table, of course) and ordered beers and fried bacalao, spinach and chickpeas that were pretty good, though a little bitter tasting, and some more good ham.

Then we walked past the Cathedral of Seville and the Alcazar lit up prettily at night, watching all the workers put away thousands of folding chairs from semana santa and sweeping the streets.

As tempting as the churros place near the Hotel de la Puerta is, we were in search of eggs one morning. So we walked a few blocks further to Café Caceres, Calle Los Olivos, 9, which was kind of a diner-style place. We took seats at the bar/counter, and I’ve never been more pleased with scrambled eggs in my life. The great fresh OJ and café cortado was just icing on the cake.

We sat in theMurillo Gardens near the hotel for half an hour, killing time until our 12 noon appointment at the Arab baths, calle Aire. For 20€ a person, you get the hammam experience, and for a mere additional 4€, you got a 15-minute massage. (J, of course, opted for the massage , which turned out to be not very good). But back to the baths – you start in the large warm pool, move to a really hot pool, and then spend time in a really cold (16 C/60 F) bath. And then after freezing your butt off, you jump back into the large warm pool, and you know what? You end up feeling surprisingly good. Tingly and relaxed. These baths are large indoor pools that are pretty dark except for the small rays of light coming in through the delicate Moorish carvings high up in the walls.

After the baths, we went to some sort of jacuzzi-like room, which was OK, but despite the powerfully loud jets, it was hard to get the full massage effect. I actually enjoyed the sauna more than I expected – there the strong smell of mint everywhere. You could feel the mint seep into your pores and you couldn’t help but relax. Then we took a break in the waiting room and had some cold tea and sat on the heated stone benches.

We finished off the hammam by going downstairs into the basement to hang out in a tepid salt water pool. The goal seemed to be floating around, which was entertaining, but I would’ve been happy ending with the mint sauna.

Seville Cathedral on Easter SundayAfter the baths, J and I walked to the Seville Cathedral, which opened at 2:30 p.m. to the general public. The place is definitely huge, but there’s very little to see or do inside – at least, the historical significance of the place isn’t clear to me.

We walked up the Giralda tower, which had some cool views over Seville, and I enjoyed that the entire walk was up a series of ramps. Apparently horses used to carry the rider to the top. I thought about all the people who had seen the same views I was seeing, but 1300 years ago. How crazy. I know that’s not an original thought, but sometimes the feeling strikes you at the most unexpected moments, and then it feels original to you.

J and I then sought out some lunch around 3:30, and we ended up at La Bodeguita Santa Justa (Calle Hernando Colon 1-3), only to find out the restaurant was about to close and had only ham and cheese available. So that’s what we had – an excellent half-portion of ham for 8 euros and some aged cheese for 6. In total, we paid 18 € there for our “snack” and then moved on to El Rincon Gallego (Calle Harinas 21), which was packed with spanish speakers (unlike La Bodeguita). We ordered pulpo del feria, which was the way grilled octopus should be – thin and flavourful. The empanada aton was not what I expected, but so tasty. Instead of a thick pastry shell, it was more like puff pastry with tuna in the middle. Very buttery and moist. J then ordered some type of “house roll” that tasted like a giant pork meatball with cheese or cream inside, but we’re not sure exactly what it was. Along with a glass of rioja, we paid about 18 € again for what amounted to Phase 2 of lunch.

J and I then paid our 7 € each to tour the Alcazar, which was lovely, but not as quiet and calm as the Alhambra.Alcazar entrance Alcazar is definitely grander, possibly because of the Italian renaissance influence obvious everywhere, especially in the formal gardens out back. But the Alhambra is more romantic and serene. When we were entering the Alcazar at 4:30, all the guards at the ticket sales counter told us we “only” had an hour. An hour turned out to be plenty of time. But given how tempting it is to linger in the beautiful gardens, I can see why the guards are annoyed with having more people to kick out at closing.

After Alcazar, we came back to the hotel, rested a little, and then at around 7 p.m. headed back out to go running. We checked out Plaza de Espagna, which looked prettier from far away, I thought. When you got close, you noticed a lot of trash and dust everywhere, plus all the sand from the nearby park blew into your eyes and mouth and made me cough. So we didn’t stay there long, especially bc the area is undergoing restoration and there is hideous construction netting everywhere.

J and I continued our run through the Maria Luisa park and then down to the Guadalquivir river. We followed the river until we reached the bullfight ring, which you’d think would be noisy given that it’s opening day for the bullfight season, but we heard nothing when we were walking around the ring.

We ate dinner at the early-bird hour of 9:30 p.m. at the really outstanding Cava de Europa, just three doors down from the hotel on S. Maria La Blanca. J had seen three reviews from Spanish newspapers hanging up, so we gave it a try even though we couldn’t read the reviews at all. This had to be our favourite meal in Spain during this trip, slightly edging out El Rincon Gallego. We had really creative and delicious tapas overall, and the wines were also great – not surprising given that it’s more of a wine bar.

Our favorite dish there was pork served with an “argentinian sauce.” The won-ton specialty was definitely disappointing (sitting under a heat lamp somewhere), while the beef and the smoked salmon we ordered were also very good. Our tab was around 35 €, which was a good deal, and then we went to watch a cool flamenco show at the nearby cultural center. Our tix were just 12 € each, and I wondered if the performers (a male and female dancer, a guitarist, and a singer) were able to make a decent living off these shows. The emotion and skill that goes into every gesture and head-turn were so impressive.

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San Sebastian BoardwalkOne of the best things about San Sebastian (in fact the thing that sets it apart from the perhaps-better-known shore town in Basque country, Biarritz) is its beach and boardwalk.

Jon and I loved our runs along the boardwalk, past the Playa de Ondarreta and down to the Paseo del Peine del Viento.

The boardwalk is beautifully tiled and edged with a confectionary wrought-iron fence, and the Paseo del Peine del Viento takes you to the northwesternmost tip of the Conchas Bay where there are huge rocks on which the Altantic waves crash.Strangely enough, there are iron artworks bolted into the rocks. The installation, Escultura Peine del Viento, is by an artist named Eduardo Chillida, whose descendants happen to own the Hotel Niza, where we stayed. I don’t really understand the art, but I like that San Sebastian is a place where people bother putting up art even though it’s exposed to ocean salt and waves.Jon had read in the NYT about a restaurant sitting atop Monte Igueldo, which you reach via funicular. The funicular is this really solid-looking Funicular in San Sebastiantrain car painted over with a CocaCola design and pulled up a hill by a series of pulleys and motors. (I’m no marketing expert, but it’s totally unclear to me what Coca Cola gains from sponsoring a dinky little funicular in San Sebastian. On the other hand, I did just bother to write about it here, which I’m sure makes the spend worthwhile).

I was a little doubtful that this heavy wood thing was going to pull us up what looked to me like a 70-degree incline, but it was quite the little engine that could. There are two funicular cars in operation simultaneously – one going up and one coming down – and they share the same track except for one bit in the middle where the track butterflies out, and the upward-bound funicular moves to the right wing of the butterfly, and the downward-bound one moves to its right. If the funicular cars were moving any faster, it might be a hair-rasing maneuver, but instead it’s just mildly alarming and interesting.

At the top of Monte Igueldo, we found an eerie closed-down carnival ground. The View of Concha Bay from Monte Igueldorestaurant that the NYT raved about last year was closed, too, so we took in some gorgeous views of Concha Bay and then made our way back down the funicular.

At this point, it was already 2:30, and I was hungry and getting frustrated that we had managed to waste a good part of the day on not much. In search of a fast, moderate-priced lunch, we ate lunch at La Pasta Gansa in our hotel. The place is all cheery blonde wood and has a warm wood-fired oven, from which emerge bubbly-topped pizzas. Lots of Spanish speakers had crowded in, adding a nice buzz in the room. It was exactly what we wanted and needed. A quick, not-bad lunch. The pizza was better than it had to be for a beach-side hotel restaurant. Jon’s pizza romana (with anchovies) was seriously salty, but I fared better with my pizza campagana (mushrooms). There was that ever-annoying bread charge and the crust of the pizzas were a little too thick, but otherwise, service was friendly and the pizza was fresh.

We spent the afternoon in the Parte Vieja neighborhood doing some shopping, and then after a lot of leisurely walking around, we swung by the Solbes gourmet deli/wine store to pick up a few wines and ended the shopping portion of the trip.That evening, we checked out the Gros neighborhood on the other side of the Urumea River to try some “award-winning” tapas (that’s pintxos to you Basque speakers) that our guidebook raved about.First, we tried Alona Berri, Calle Bermingham, 24, where the servers were friendly and pointed proudly to plaques on the walls honouring Alona Berri tapas on displaytheir tapas in “tapas competition.”

The problem is that the award-winning tapas don’t seem very original anymore – they just seem fussy and expensive.

For example, for four euros, we tried a (single) grilled squid on a skewer that’s intended to be eaten with a sliver of spun sugar and chased with some squid broth. It tasted fine, but just seemed like a lot of effort for effort’s sake. And then there was a (again, single) shrimp-and-vegetable dumpling that also tasted good, but at the end of the day, it was a really seafoody won ton for yet another four euros. I guess I’m saying if you drop by, the food is fine, but you’re not going to be wowed and the décor is nothing so elegant that you’ll feel the premium price was justified. There were also a lot of tourists there when we arrived at 9 pm.

Because it’s the San Sebastian way to progress through tapas bars, after trying four different tapas at Alona Berri, we moved just around Bergara Bar in San Sebastianthe corner to try Bar Bergara, Calle General Arteche, 8, which I’d recommend over Alona Barri. The place also has award-winning specialties, of which we tried only one: the txalupa (aka langoustine gratineed with mild mushrooms). Creamy and seafood-y, like a lobster roll, except so chopped up that you can’t identify what the seafood component is. I liked the vibe at Bar Bergara – the long communal tables and the mixed crowd of young and old, tourists and locals.After having sufficiently appetized ourselves on tapas, we drove out to Elkano in GetariaGetaria again to have dinner at Elkano (Herrerieta, 2, Ph: 943 14 06 14). The décor of the restaurant was familiar now that we’d spent a few days in Basque country – a rustic, timbered, yellow-lighted interior. The dining room was large and bustling, though not full. There was a long table seating almost 20 people. It looked like quite a celebration.We were seated up on a lofted area with a few other couples – thankfully it wasn’t some sort of English-speaking ghetto. We have this perverse need to struggle through our order when we don’t speak the local language. In this case, Jon had to run back to the car to get our guidebook in order for us to decipher half the seafood on the menu – hake, mackerel, turbot . . . these are words that we sometimes have trouble matching up with the right fish in English, much less in Spanish.We had hoped to order a grilled turbot, just as Chez Pim had raved about, but unfortunately, the only turbot left at the restaurant was 2kg, and while we are hearty eaters, we weren’t about to polish off 4.4 pounds of fish on our own. Our waiter brought the turbot out on a platter just so we could witness how enormous it was (as if we doubted that he was left with only a 2 kg fish), and we ended up with a 1.3 kg sea bass that still tested the limits of our appetites, but given that it came perfectly grilled, salted and doused in lemon juice and olive oil, we were up to the challenge. I was glad I hadn’t ordered anything else, though Jon’s fish soup was a rich starter that was mildly tempting.We ordered a bottle of 2003 Finca Valpiedra for 21 euros that was kind of sour – or more accurately, it lacked the bold berry flavours of the one we’d had at the Fuego Negra, so I’d be curious to know what the vintage was at Fuego Negra.Here’s my big gripe about our meal – I actually don’t mind (too much) that we paid 97 euros, before tip, comprised mostly of our wine, Jon’s soup (11 euros) and our grilled sea bass (52 euros). What angers me like nobody’s business is the insistence on a bread charge. It’s a practice that we haven’t run into except in Rome, to be honest, and I just don’t get it. The bread in question at Elkano was stale and inedible, and I am ranting about it because two portions of said gross bread cost 3.20 euros. Could the restaurants in the area please just get rid of this annoying custom? Go ahead and charge me another 3 euros for the main course, but stop it with this bread charge. I don’t understand what it’s intended to accomplish except to piss off diners.By the way, our guidebook categorizes Elkano as “inexpensive,” which it certainly is not. If you ordered carefully, maybe you could call it “moderate,” but it’s a well-known seafood restaurant serving very high-quality seafood. Unless you’re in a third-world country, this kind of food doesn’t come cheap. So if anyone from the Cadogan Bilbao-Basque Country guide is reading this post, take note.Overall, the restaurant certainly knows how to grill fish. Stop by if you’re in the area or on your way from San Sebastian to Bilbao, but it’s not a destination.

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Bilbao Guggenheim

With our trusty rented Peugeot, we were able to make a day trip to Bilbao, stopping in Getaria for lunch.

Getaria is a small fishing town just 15 minutes west of San Sebastian along the A-8, and we passed some gorgeous seaside scenery on the way. Like seaside towns the world over, Getaria is perched on a hill overlooking a harbor crowded with fishing boats. The streets were pretty empty when we arrived around 1:30, and we followed our noses to the delicious-smelling Elkano, but unfortunately the restaurant was closed until the next day (of course we went back the next day for dinner).

So instead of going to Elkano, we walked down to the town harbor to see if we could Asador in Getariafind some asador (seafood grilled outside on a charcoal grill), but sadly nothing looked good by the harbor. Instead of joining the crowds of locals in grungy-looking tapas bars, we were so obsessed with finding asador that we ate at a deadly-silent restaurant called Iribar, Calle Nagusia 34 that our guidebook had recommended.

We’d seen the grill all hot and fiery in front of the restaurant, so we thought the place would be OK, but when we walked in, there was just one other couple in the restaurant. Though they spoke Spanish, they were clearly tourists, too.

The menu came laminated and in three languages (a sign the restaurant never changes its menu), but we figured that at a seafood place, nothing on the menu depends too much on creativity. Rather, it’s all about freshness.The grilled cuttlefish came grilled, breaded and pan fried, which was not at all what I expected, but at least it seemed freshly prepared. My portion size was certainly generous – there must have been six or seven whole cuttlefish on my plate. For 15 euros, this seemed a good deal, except that the whole reason we’d come to the restaurant was to enjoy the smoky charcoal flavor you get only with an outdoor grill.

Jon’s hake came grilled, but kind of flavourless. What happened to all that sea salt and lemon juice we’d seen by the grill? At another 16 euros, his dish wasn’t worthwhile.

Our total tab was about 60 euros with a half bottle of 2003 Muga rioja, and I wouldn’t go back unless it were crowded with locals or someone you trust assured you that they’re capable of grilling some quality fish (because I have my doubts)

.After finishing lunch around 3, we continued west for forty minutes on the A-8 to reach Bilbao. When we pulled into Bilbao, we were a little concerned that we lacked a city map, but it turned out to be no problem. Signs every 50 feet point you in the direction of the Guggenheim.

The building is even more beautiful in person than in photos – it really shimmers in the sun. At an exhibition I once saw about Frank Gehry, I remember reading that the metallic skin of the museum shifts like the waves of the sea. I can’t confirm if the walls physically shift or not, but the sunlight dances enough that the effect of waving and shifting is there.Bilbao Guggenheim - ship’s view

Viewed from across the Bilbao river, the museum has the lines of a graceful ship, and I suppose the jumble at the end could be seen as waves.

We walked in, paid our 10.50 euro admission fee (which comes with an indispensable audiotour), and started to wander through.

It turns out the building is beautiful on the inside, too, with many tall, curvy spaces. Photos aren’t allowed inside, or else I would have gone crazy trying to capture the interior beauty. Glass, titanium, steel, white walls and marble combine and show off one another.There’s an LED zipper installation in one of the first galleries, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the zipper light’s reflection move along the curved, shiny surfaces of that particular gallery.

I also enjoyed the main gallery where these’s a large steel installation by Richard Serra called A Matter of Time.

You walk through these enormous, maze-like, concentric steel ellipses, and not only do you feel disoriented, but it does feel cool and echoey and closed-in, as if you were walking in medieval city streets (as Richard Serra says he intended).

Modern art is not my favorite, but I enjoyed the Bilbao Guggenheim, mostly because I think the building itself is such a work of art. My guess is that the building probably gets more interesting the more time you spend looking at it.

I felt a little guilty for not doing anything else in Bilbao except visit the museum (“guilt” because I like to do my part to support urban regeneration), but Bilbao seems to be doing just fine without my patronage of its tapas bars and shops. So I’ll let myself off the hook this time.

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Mugaritz Dining Room

On Friday night, we had a 10 pm reservation at Mugaritz, (Aldura aldea, 20, Errenteria). The instructions you follow from San Sebastian (from the restaurant’s website) to reach Mugaritz are laughable, but they’re dead accurate. Example: “You’ll go past the Al Campo hypermarket. Drive on for a further 3 or 4 km, going up a mountain pass. When you reach the top of the pass, 9-10km point, turn right at the signpost ‘Errenteria 3 km.’”

Maybe you can imagine the debate Jon and I had about what constitutes a “mountain pass.”

Geologic discussions aside, it took us just 30 minutes to reach the restaurant from San Sebastian, and we didn’t make a single wrong turn. Excellent. The restaurant is a lot bigger than I expected:  a low-lying building with a sturdy country look thanks to its stone exterior, and a warm-wooded interior.  It’s a dream farmhouse sitting in what feels like the middle of nowhere.

Two sides of the dining room are comprised of floor-to-ceiling windows, and the tables are so generously spaced apart that women have the use of rustic iron stools on which to place handbags.  (How thoughtful, especially when you’re a woman with plans to whip out her camera every ten minutes to take photos of the food).

When we sat down, we were confronted with two envelopes. One reads: “150 mins . . . submit!” and the other one reads “150 mins . . . rebel!” Of course I had to choose the envelope about rebelling, and inside was a black card that read: “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.” Jon, being the good guy, chose to submit, and he got a nice white card that read: 150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate.” So the correct choice is clear – here’s to submission.

We ordered the naturan tasting menu for 108 euros, and we were happy when the sommelier said she could offer us pairings for just 30 more euros each.

clay-covered potatoes

clay-covered potatoes

The amuse-bouche we started with were more interesting and delicious than the first few courses of our menu, and when the portions are this small, the line between what’s amuse and what’s a “course” is hard to spot.

The roasted baby squid amuse was creamy and sweet – no chance of something this delicate coming out rubbery. That it was cooked in its own ink marked it as a play on the traditional Basque specialty, so it was a nice introduction to our meal.

Next came a course that was so charming and fun that it bordered on gimmicky. Can you tell from the above photo what it was? It looks like a bowl of smooth stones, but the two whitish-gray stones standing out among the dark pebbles are potatoes that have somehow been cooked and encased in an edible white clay. When you bite into the potato, the clay crunches like the shell of an M&M, and the potato itself is sweet and steamy, as if it’d just come out of the oven. Of course we had to marvel at how this potato was cooked – was it boiled first and then caked in clay? But then how do you get the surface of the clay so smooth, as if it were a current-weathered river rock?

We didn’t have long to wonder more about this marvellous, funny little amuse, because there was yet another one to think about (and eat):

fried artichoke at Mugaritz

fried baby artichokes and grapefruit foam in mussel broth

battered-and-fried baby artichokes in a mussel broth draped in a grapefruit foam. I wasn’t a huge fan, despite my deep, undying love of fried foods. Maybe I should have eaten this one first, before playing with my potato, because the grapefruit foam and mussel broth had dampened an otherwise perfectly-crispy artichoke. I’m afraid whatever interesting combination of flavours that might have resulted was lost in my disappointment over the moistness of my fried goodie.

(re-hydrated) vegetable soup

(re-hydrated) vegetable soup

Our first course of the tasting menu now arrived: the “hot vegetable soup” made with dehydrated tubers. I can appreciate how dehydrating, say, a baby carrot, makes the carrot taste even more carrot-y when you put it back in a hot consommé, but it’s hard for me to get excited over a soup that I thought was a little bit lukewarm. Visually, the shrunken tubers were playfully small versions of their “regular” selves, but I was ready for the next course pretty fast.

sheep's milk curd, hay, and toasted fern served with dehydrated pumpkin

sheep's milk curd

The sheep’s milk curd seasoned with hay and toasted fern, served with dehydrated pumpkin glazed in a syrup was my least favorite course of the evening. First of all, Jon and I kept asking ourselves what hay tastes like – we couldn’t find any flavours in the cheese besides the crunch and slight pine-ness of the toasted fern, so it’s all about the texture, maybe.

Honestly, I love creamy mild cheeses, but this sheep’s milk curd made me feel like someone was this close to wheeling me into the retirement home. I suppose it’s pretty interesting that sheep’s cheese (usually so tangy) can be so mild, but this thought isn’t going to make me enjoy the course any more. Once I ran out of the sweet, chewy dehydrated pumpkin to mix with my cheese, I lost interest entirely.

warm chive soup

warm chive soup

Jon enjoyed the next course of warm chive soup, which came served in a rounded-bottom glass bowl tucked into a cardboard “stand.” When you removed the soup bowl from the stand, the secret herb ingredient was illustrated and described at the bottom of the cardboard: Glechoma hederacea. Good to know, right? I mentioned to one of our servers that the soup would’ve been more appealing if it had been hot, and she replied that the bowl is lukewarm so that you can remove it from the cardboard holder without injuring your hand. Perhaps the restaurant is a little over-concerned about a McDonald’s coffee-style lawsuit?

Now, in my opinion, here’s where the meal got super good. Our next course was a idiazabal cheese gnocchi in a pork broth.

idiazabal cheese gnocchi

idiazabal cheese gnocchi

The “gnocchi” were smooth and glassy-looking, like shiny white pebbles, each with a different herb on top to lend different flavours to the creamy, tangy cheesiness of the gnocchi. Without pasta flour, the gnocchi were 100% cheesy goodness and fluffy lightness. I loved the texture, the look and the flavor.

Next came the toasted rice cakes with crab meat and sea

toasted rice cakes, crab meat, sea urchin and saffron

toasted rice cakes, crab meat, sea urchin and saffron

urchins. The rice cakes were crispy and intensely seafood-tasting. I couldn’t identify what the foam was made of, but nothing detracted from the fishiness of the sweet crabmeat. I wasn’t sure what to do with the red chewy bits, which I assume is the “double toasted saffron dressing” described on our menu, but I didn’t think the dressing added much when I mixed up bits of it into each forkful of rice and crab.

The hake fillet with baby garlic, hazelnut praline and sour cream was a great combo. Hake fillet is everywhere in Basque country, but pairing it with

hake fillet with baby garlic, hazelnut praline, soured cream and bitter flowers

hake fillet with baby garlic, hazelnut praline, soured cream and bitter flowers

hazelnut was genius. The juicy hake mixed with the nutty sweetness of the praline, and then the creamy tang from the sour cream balanced out said nutty flavor.

The charcoal-grilled roast duck foie gras with “bomba

grilled roast duck foie gras with bomba rice and sea lettuce broth

grilled roast duck foie gras with bomba rice and sea lettuce broth

rice” was rich and meaty. The rice made its appearance sprinkled on top of the foie, adding saltiness and crunch and functioned a little bit like salty pop rocks, which was surprising and fun. Visually, the slice of foie looked like it was sailing through the sea lettuce broth – an image that made me laugh.

I could have stopped eating somewhere around the rice cakes and crab meat, so when the roast Iberian pork in red curry paste showed up, I thought at best I would have a polite bite or two and lay down my fork for the night. Unfortunately and fortunately for me, this roast iberian pork, red curry paste and plump salad leavesslice of pork was irresistible. The mild red curry paste gave the pork a little bit of kick and sweetness. It was almost like eating the roast pork hanging from the windows in Chinatown, except the flavours were delicate. The pork itself was stellar. Someone needs to tell the Duke of Berkshire, stat. The moisture and meatiness of the pork reminded me of perfect duck.

The desserts were thankfully simple, and maybe it’s because I’m not a dessert fiend that I say the last three courses (all desserts) were good, but not nearly as superb as the courses going back to the cheese gnocchi.Violet ice cream and hot marzipan – violet ice cream was delicious, but hot marzipan was just too dry and crumbly, even with the ice cream. Milk and tapioca ice cream, hazelnut wings and chocolate sand was visually clever and Milk and tapioca ice cream with organic cane sugar.  Hazelnut wings and chocolate sand.perhaps inspired by the proximity of the San Sebastian beaches. But at the end of the day, it’s only really fresh ice cream (with the small twist of chewy tapioca peals thrown in) with crunchy bits of chocolate “sand.”

Last, but not least, the “interpretation of vanity,” was a huge edible-gold-gilted bowl of bubbly chocolate hiding a gem of a chocolate cake. It was good, but the bubbles were unappetizing-looking. It was like looking at a big space-age tent. The name of the dish is supposed to make you think of bursting one’s bubble, maybe?

Overall, Mugaritz is a great destination restaurant. The warm farmhouse dining room is welcoming; the staff are super charming, helpful and gracious (and did I mention they’re also young and good-looking?); and the food hits enough creative and delicious high notes that Jon and I will try to go back one day.

Our tab, with excellent wine pairings (largely featuring Spanish wines), was just over 300 euros. When I compare our meal at Mugaritz with our meal at the Fat Duck, Mugaritz gets the edge and for just half the price of our meal at the Fat Duck. Enough said.

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Jon and I are on a long-weekend trip to Basque country (aka the part of Spain that’s near the border with France). We landed in Biarritz (France) yesterday, where it was pouring rain and gray outside. Not ideal when you are planning your weekend on the coast.

At some point during our 40-minute drive from Biarritz to San Sebastien, we passed the French-Spanish border, but you’d never know it because I don’t remember stopping at any checkpoint. I think I’ll start keeping a list of porous international borders, in case a terrorist ever finds it handy.

At around 7:30 pm, we finally arrived at the Hotel Niza in the Spanish beach town of San Sebastian – a town which allegedly has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world – can you guess why we’re here? The hotel staff were neither friendly nor helpful. Three people lounged at the front desk while Jon and I struggled to move our luggage through two sets of manual doors in the rain. Jon almost got a 300 euro ticket for his illegal parking job (done in order to facilitate said struggle with the luggage). But luckily, Jon pleaded and the nice meter maid let him go.

Hotel Niza Elevator

lift at the Hotel Niza

From the tall ceilings and crown mouldings, you can tell the Hotel Niza used to be a stylish, bustling beach hotel a hundred years ago when it was built. The wrought-iron, wooden elevator is beautiful, but the common spaces have seen better days.

Our room is on fifth floor (it’s a six-floor building) and overlooks the Concha Bay. Because the hotel is on the beach, when you open the room’s balcony door, you hear the waves crash and you’re right on top of the fancy tiled boardwalk. It’s lovely – the view and location is the reason to be here.

View of Concha Bay from Hotel Niza

The room is large and clean, and the bathroom looks brand new. Throw in the free wifi, and thumbs up to the Hotel Niza, especially at the off-season rate of 110 euros per night. Just don’t expect anything from the Front Desk.

Gandarias

Gandarias Jatetxea

At around 9 p.m., we set out in the chilly rain to find some tapas before dinner (because only the truly lame-ass would eat before even 10 pm, and even 10 pm would be pushing it). We first tried a really traditional-looking place called Gandarias Jatetxea and although it was busy and packed with Spanish speakers, it was a really old-school crowd judging from the clothes and hair color. We each had a glass of rioja which was so-so, and the tapas ranged widely from stale and flavorless to pretty good. The pretty good ones included a roasted pepper and anchovy topping, as well as a tuna-and-potato-and-cheese in a puff pastry.

Given our lack of Spanish skills, we just pointed to whatever tapas we wanted to try (it’s all arrayed on plates displayed on the bar). Tapas were about 1.50 euro a piece.

Fuego Negro

A Fuego Nero

We moved on to the nearby A Fuego Negro, which was as modern-looking as the Gandarias was old-fashioned-looking. The problem (if it can be called that) with modern décor is that you could be anywhere in the world. But that sort of concern disappeared when we walked in and saw groups of young and old Spanish friends clustered around the bar with beers and wines. All items were listed on a blackboard, which helped Jon and me decipher and order tapas. We especially enjoyed a spinach-and-feta salad which surprised us when the sesame oil dressing really “worked” (espinaca acelga roja y quesa feta, vinegrata sesamo). Plus, it came served with bread, so if you want to, you’re able to make own tapas by smearing the feta and shredded red onion on the bread.

Our glasses of Finca Valpiedra were very good and astounding value at 2.80 euros a glass. We will definitely revisit Fuego Negro before leaving town.

To get to dinner, we walked through clean, tidy, stone-paved and store-lined streets that reminded me of Oaxaca, if Oaxaca hadn’t fallen into obscurity over the years. I guess a more accurate sentence, historically, is to say Oaxaca looks like San Sebastian, except that I went to Oaxaca first.

Dinner was a seafood restaurant that our guidebook and the New York Times recommended: Restaurant Asador Beti-Jai (Fermin Calbeton, 22). The place’s decor screams “high end in the 1970s,” and that is not a compliment. We went because it was rainy and Jon was craving fish soup as a result. But when we first walked down to the below-ground dining room, I felt sure we should run away. The room was painted salmon pink, fake plants everywhere, and all the cognac was displayed in specially-built glass cases in the walls. Still, the prospect of wandering around in the rain at 10 pm to find another restaurant was unappealing, so we stayed put.

The fish soup (sopa de pescado) was hot and tasted intensely seafoody (good broth), though we both wished there had been chunks of something in there (even a cheap fish meat) for texture, and it definitely needed salt. The bread was surprisingly good, so we happily dunked our bread in the soup, and that made it all better.gambas al ajillo

My gambas al ajillo was fresh, buttery and garlicky, but the otherwise quality shrimp had been overcooked to slight toughness. Not worth the 15 euros, especially when you consider this dish must be served in 90% of restaurants found in Spain for a lot less money.

Jon’s bacalao vizcaina (oh yes, welcome back to the world of salted cod) was good if you like bacalao, which I don’t, really.I’d say the highlights of the meal were the friendly waitresses dressed in diner-style uniforms (totally weird for a restaurant charging relatively fancy prices) and the really inexpensive wine list comprised of a lot of Spanish wines we’d never heard of.

Dinner was 60 euros before tip, which keeps me from complaining too much. We got what we wanted – fresh, hot fish soup. Done.

18 November 2007 Update: Exactly one year after our trip, the NYT publishes this 36 Hours in San Sebastian article.

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