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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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