Archive for November, 2006

Thanksgiving Turkey 2006

I hope everyone who celebrated had a happy Thanksgiving!

I was recently reading a food blog by an American who lives in Paris (who shall remain nameless bc the last thing I need is to publicly flame a much-more-visited blog than I have!), and the guy went off on how Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated with “mediocre” food. Au contraire!

Jon and I celebrated with dinner for eleven last Thursday night. We didn’t get the day off from work, but we spent Tuesday and Wednesday evenings shopping and prepping up a storm. Our menu: butternut squash soup, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, cornbread stuffing, string beans in a vinegar sauce, and, of course, the turkey. Throw in the magnificent flaky-crust pecan pie and pumpkin pie that our friend Liz baked, and I think it’s fair to say the food was anything but mediocre, if I do say so myself. We stuck with recipes from the Joy of Cooking (fancified 1997 ed.), because on Thanksgiving, what you really want are tried-and-true, well-tested (practically foolproof) recipes.

Just like last year, our turkey came from the butcher down the street, E. Wood. I don’t know if the two owners are brothers, but they certainly look it, all white haired and twinkly eyed.

Jon picked up our special-ordered 5 kg bird (which cost a not-so-humble $80) around 4 pm on Thanksgiving. While waiting for his turkey, he chatted with a British woman who asked “what religion” celebrated Thanksgiving. And the question reminds us of exactly why we love Thanksgiving – it’s a holiday for everyone! Who doesn’t believe in taking time to give thanks? [The answer, if you believe everything in the NYT, is the French.]

The turkey, by the way, while quite juicy and fresh, still had bits of feathers intact when Jon brought it home. I gotta tell you that as much as I love cooking, I want some serious credit for pulling out feather bits from the skin before washing and salting that sucker.

It was kind of a mad juggle for the first hour of our dinner party – finishing up the turkey and letting it cool down, popping the mac’n’cheese and stuffing in the oven, making room for all the serving plates and bowls . . . ladling out soup while chatting with guests who drifted into the kitchen to talk and say hi.

We managed to get everyone to start drinking and complete a “Thanksgiving Day quiz,” which was not only a decent ice breaker, but also not a bad stall tactic while we got our act together. I figured nothing gets a type-A crowd going better than a quiz! Our friend Jon Hlafter is forever immortalized as the man who got the most quiz answers correct. If only he’d remembered that it wasn’t just Squanto who helped out the Pilgrims, but also oft-overlooked Samoset, he would have had bragging rights to a 100% score. (I had, by the way, added a high-point-value question about the Detroit Lions thinking it would be a really tough one, but apparently “everyone” knows the Detroit Lions always play on Tgiving Day. Oops).

We all toasted and gave thanks for friends and family, which I love doing, and then Table at the beginning of the eveningon a much more superficial level, I was pleased our table looked nice. I really enjoy using so much of our table linens, china, silver, glasses, tapers, etc. Seeing it all in the glow of candlelight and listening to the clink and chatter of dinner guests makes me feel so Edith Wharton (except without the army of servants – where are my servants!?!).

If I had to sum up our Thanksgiving in one sentence, I’d say it was really busy and fun to share the meal with a mix of new and old friends.

On Thursday, I’m off to India, so keep reading! I’ll try to post as I make my way around the “Golden (Tourist) Triangle” of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

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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 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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Lapel PoppyThis past Saturday was the 11th day of the 11th month, and at the 11th hour, the UK observed a two-minute moment of silence in honor of Remembrance Day.

While living in the U.S., I am pretty sure I have made my share of Veteran’s Day jokes (usually along the lines of its stature as a holiday for which you don’t get the day off from work, and therefore, it follows that it’s unimportant). But one of the big differences between living in Europe and in the U.S. is how real and recent the world wars are in the UK.

For example, judging from its interior, the Victoria & Albert museum is a fully-modernized, attractive museum, but the building’s exterior has been purposely left sooty and riddled with big and small holes – reminders of bombings and gunfire during the Blitz.

In general, people in the UK seem to truly remember (and want to remember) the world wars, probably because being attacked by the Germans was a harsh reality for so long.  I’m very impressed by how the simple act of donating money to veterans (and in exchange receiving a cheap lapel poppy pin), forces everyone to remember the human cost and sacrifice of war.  Everywhere I look – on the sidewalks, on the tube – I see people wearing these red poppies on their lapels. It’s nice to think that despite everyday preoccupations, people take time to remember.

As proof of how quickly a person moves on from thoughtful moments, though, Jon and I went with Cathy and Bobby to Noel Coward Theatresee Avenue Q on Saturday, which just opened in London at the Noel Coward Theatre.  The show was just over two hours long, and the theatre was cozy and ornate, which seemed an odd setting for a somewhat-edgy, dirty musical about 20-something college grads (including one earnest young fellow named Princeton) moving to the boonies of Brooklyn and going through the painful transition into “real life.”

At first, it took me a while to catch on to the fact that the humans directing the puppets were not characters themselves, but rather were extensions of the puppet characters. But the lyrics, singing and acting were so clever and funny that at some point, I stopped focusing on the human actors and instead I transferred the facial expressions of the human puppeteers onto the puppets.

I especially enjoyed how creative and ironic the show was. For example, songs about serious “adult” topics were accompanied by Sesame-Street-cheery melodies.

However much I enjoyed the show, I did wonder if many of the jokes were too American-specific for anyone else to enjoy. For example, one character, who is Japanese, sings about how offensive she thinks the word “oriental” is (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), and here in the UK, oriental is the mainstream, accepted word for what we call “Asian” in the US. (In the UK, “Asian” means someone from the Indian subcontinent).

Then there’s Gary Coleman as a character in the show – a pretty funny touch, but I doubt Diff’rent Strokes was a big thing here in the UK.  I guess I’m just curious how much the UK audience enjoys Avenue Q’s very American sense of humor. Luckily, everyone laughs at puppets performing sex acts. I was glad we went.

After the show, we had dinner at the Japan Centre, which has a Japanese restaurant on the ground floor, a Japanese bookstore on the top floor, and a Japanese grocery store on the basement floor. The shrimp tempura futo maki was fresh, but otherwise, it was just shrimp tempura and lettuce (of all things). So the maki satisfied my craving for tempura maki, but otherwise I’ve had much better elsewhere (such as at the Japan Centre-affiliated Yoshino).

The agedashi tofu, which we’d never had before, gets a shout out for being lightly fried with a crisp texture, and Cathy’s spicy ramen could have been good had it not been so salty. The ramen was fresh and al dente, though, so we’ll have to go back and try a different fresh ramen.

Jon’s udon soup was a little paltry, but he seemed satisfied. Our total tab came to £60 for three people, which is a lot for eating at a cafeteria-style restaurant, but hey, London is pricey. We will cope.

After dinner, we walked towards Green Park and had drinks at Fakhreldine (85 Piccadilly, W1J 7NB). It’s a Lebanese restaurant with a dimly-lit, attractively-sleek interior filled with lots of cozy banquettes and tables for gathering your friends together and chatting. We didn’t stay long, but I liked that it was a pretty place to sit and hang out.

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Hakkasan interior

Jon and I ate at Alan Yau’s Hakkasan yesterday night. I tried to come up with some kind of American restauranteur analogy (“Alan Yau is the Danny Meyer of London”), but no analogy is quite right. The guy started the big London noodle soup chain, Wagamama, where you sit at long, sleek communal tables and slurp up big bowls of Japanese udon noodle soup on the cheap. And then, building on the success of Wagamama (whose soups are so-so, if you ask me, but whose Tower of London location is definitely the most scenic of the bunch), he launched Hakkasan, which serves high-quality Chinese food in a beautiful, glam dining room.

Hakkasan, by the way, has a Michelin star, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but when the Frenchies give a star to a non-French restaurant, it’s worth checking out, no? That’s what we figured, anyway, and we were craving Chinese food.

The restaurant is just off busy Tottenham Court Road, in a scary-looking alley called Hanway Place. Despite the dingy darkness (the rain didn’t help, either) and the sense that this alley couldn’t possibly be where Hakkasan is, the big guys in black guarding a small doorway (or maybe the lone silver Mercedes that squeezed its way into the alley) marked the spot. Finding Hakkasan is like finding a cool club. Alan Yau is a marketing genius, for sure. The bouncer-looking guy at the door even asks you if you have a reservation, and then he checks a list to “make sure” you have one. I assume he’s just for show because given how gorgeous the restaurant bar is, there must be tons of people who come by for drinks only.

Past the gatekeeper, you walk down three flights of dimly-lit, slate stairs, and then voila – double doors open onto a view of a so-dramatic-it’s-almost- like-Epcot-Center (a really chic Epcot Center) dining room with a heavy Chinese influence. The room is dark so that the pinpoint lighting can work its magic. Carved floor-to-ceiling dark-wood screens separate the otherwise enormous dining room into smaller dining areas. The restaurant has the noise and energy of a major social scene, but it also turned out to be surprisingly easy to have a conversation.

Hakkasan martinis

Jon and I were a little nonplussed that the maitre d’ couldn’t find our reservation in her book, but we hung out at the bar for just half an hour before a hostess actually pushed her way through the crowds to find us and tell us our table was ready. And the bar was definitely worth a stop – drinks were strong, creative and not-too-sweet. Jon especially liked his “zesty martini” (which used coriander syrup as the mixer), and I never say no to anything with star fruit in it (see photo).

Now to the chow: We ordered three appetizers (scallops, soft shell crab and duck) and three mains (sea bass, pork belly and snow pea shoots). (It was 10:30 pm before we started eating, so we were hungry.)Scallop in black bean sauce

Technically, the scallops counted as two orders, because each order came with one lone scallop. Allowed to customise the sauce, we asked for a black bean sauce, and looking back, the scallop was bound to disappoint given how much it was hyped up. At £7 per scallop, I wouldn’t order it again. Although the scallop was sweet, and I did enjoy the salty je ne sais quoi that only black bean sauce imparts, it was slightly overcooked, making it not worth the money.

Fried Soft Shell Crab

The fried soft-shell crab didn’t look like much (see above), but it was so well prepared, we devoured it seconds after I took my photo. [Brief aside – not only do I look incredibly lame whipping out my camera to take these photos, but also it turned out the restaurant has a strict no-photo policy. So I hope you all appreciate my heroic covert efforts here, despite my crap macro lens setting and poor photography skills, generally.] But back to the soft-shell crab – crispy, light breading and deliciously juicy, hot crab. A dish this good needs no dipping sauce. Perfect.

Roasted mango duck in lemon sauce

The roasted mango duck in lemon sauce was entirely forgettable. The irony is that it looked the prettiest of our three appetizers, what with the uniform slicing and alternating colors and all. The duck didn’t taste like much, possibly because it was overwhelmed by the sour crunchiness of slightly-unripe mango and lemon sauce.

Roasted sea bass in Chinese Honey

We did much better with our main courses. I’d say we hit three out of three. Jon’s favorite was the “roasted seabass in Chinese Honey,” which arrived at our table steaming hot with a beautiful red-colored char sao crust. The flaky smoothness of the sea bass was infused with the sweet smokiness of the “Chinese honey,” and overall, it reminded me of that ever-present miso cod at Nobu. The fish was served with batter-fried mushrooms, which were extraneous and not particularly flavorful. But this plate was unarguably good stuff and worth the splash-out of £36. (New Yorkers, I don’t want to hear any more complaining about the rise of the$40 main course, please).

Snow pea shoots in garlic

Snow pea shoots sauteed in garlic had been so carefully chopped up (well, the stems, I mean) that the dish was even smoother and more tender than it normally is. I can’t get enough of that vegetal sweetness you get from snow pea shoots, and while you can get similarly-tender snow pea shoots at most divey Chinese restaurants, Hakkasan took some care with what could have been a throwaway dish. And at £9, the dish didn’t cost more than what you pay at a dive (in London) anyway.

Duke of Berkshire pork belly, salted fish, dry chilis, szechuan peppers and baby leek in clay pot

My favorite, hands down, was the “Duke of Berkshire pork belly with salted fish, dry chilis, szechuan peppers and baby leek” cooked and served in a clay pot casserole. A humble dish, normally, but raised to new heights here. (By the way, what goes through the Duke of Berkshire’s mind when he sees his name attached to the pigs his estate raises?) The pork belly was tender and not overly-fatty, but just fatty enough to have absorbed the sweet-and-salty goodness of the brown sauce (presumably the salty part of the sauce comes from the salted fish, of which you do not see any sign in the casserole).

The peppers gave off a subtle kick, and the baby leek were similarly subtle in their onion-y-ness. In fact, it never occurred to me to use baby leeks as a sturdy stand-in for scallions, which is how I think they functioned in this dish. What can I say – a humble dish for a humble girl. I’m looking forward to going back and getting me some more pork belly.

Service was efficient and neither friendly nor unfriendly. Mostly you go for the decor and food, both of which were excellent last night.

Our meal was a pricey £190 with wine and a few other bells and whistles, but I’m pretty sure you could go back and eat for a a third the price (for example, if you limited yourself to a mere two appetizers and just ordered the snow pea shoots and pork belly). And going back is something we will surely do.

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Sadly, I have not been eating or cooking anything photogenic or worth describing over the past few days.

However, in my slow-but-sure quest to write up all our wanderings in the last 12 months, I finally created a page about our trip to Amsterdam this past May, so please have a look.

In other news (not food or travel related, but such an accomplishment it has to be mentioned – plus, New York was originally New Amsterdam – OK, am I grasping for a connection or what?), my brother-in-law Matt ran in the New York City marathon last Sunday. His time was an impressive 4:12:46, which is a pace of just over ten minutes a mile. I struggle to keep that pace running a measly 5K, so cheers to Matt! [If someone has a photo of Matt crossing the finish line, send it my way and I’ll post it here so he’ll be world-famous. : )]

And I know I said a few weeks ago that I’d try to cool it with the gym stories, but since I’m talking about running, I’m giving myself license to segue into the gym again. Tomorrow (Thursday), the gym will inaugurate the opening of two new studios for classes by hosting a special 1.5-hour class that you can attend only if (get this) you wear “fancy dress” (i.e., a costume). Not just any costume – you have to wear a superhero costume.

I am definitely going to have to take a photo. How anybody manages to exercise for 1.5 hours in a costume is impossible to imagine.

This costume extravaganza will be followed with (alcoholic) drinks in the gym cafe/lounge. As if you weren’t already dehydrated from exercising in your superhero costume. I love my gym – it adds so much color to my week.

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Guy FawkesToday is Guy Fawkes Night, which is a holiday that falls on the 5th of November every year. The holiday is a cross between July 4th (fireworks) and Halloween (mischief making, kids asking for pennies, and occult-like bonfires), as far as I can tell.

This past week, Jon and I have heard and watched fireworks launched by our neighbors, and tonight the fireworks have been non-stop all around us. Unlike in the U.S., there don’t appear to be highly-regulated, central locations to view “official” fireworks, and instead, it feels as if everyone in London has managed to buy and launch their own small-scale fireworks.

Not so many bonfires going on in central London, though I was reading that elsewhere in England, there are huges ones that get attended by tens of thousands of people.

So what’s being commemorated by Guy Fawkes Night?

Well, acording to the handy dandy Guy Fawkes Society website, everyone is celebrating the arrest of the man who plotted in 1605 to blow up King James I and his Protestant aristocracy by hiding away (and planning to detonate) barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords.

The short story is that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholics who were trying to fight back against a Protestant king who was attacking Catholics. Sometime after smuggling barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, their conspiracy was revealed and Guy Fawkes and his gang were tortured, hanged until almost dead, and then drawn and quartered. You know, the usual pleasantries.
And then England, allegedly so joyous the King’s life had been spared, celebrated by lighting bonfires and using them to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes.

I don’t know about you, but it seems an odd thing to celebrate the survival of a king who likely didn’t do much for anyone but himself (I take a dim view of kings, as you can see), and while I don’t advocate blowing up anything as a solution to a problem, I feel a little sad that, seen from one point of view, the plotters were just Catholics trying to protect their own in a hostile country.

Maybe the widespread celebration of this holiday has more to do with England not having an “Independence Day” to really celebrate the country than it does the English people’s love for the saving of the King and the arrest of the traitorous Guy Fawkes?

Osso BucoAnyway, ambivalent British holidays aside, Jon and I had a good weekend. We had sunny skies and brisk temperatures, and the highlight was having dinner at Bobby and Cathy’s to celebrate Bobby’s recent promotion. And clearly, in order to celebrate, Bobby would slave over a stove and treat us to some great wines. He whipped up a deliciously tender osso bucco to accompany some really stellar wines, including a 2002 Tenuto dell’Ornellaia Masseto and a tasty Merlot from Cakebread in Napa. Usually Jon and I pick wines to go with our food, but with wines this sought after, it made sense that Bobby cooked to match the wines.

Great company, food, and wine – perfect.

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The Office

Canary Wharf view

Because I now carry around my camera (for the sole purpose of capturing moments of interest for my blog), I couldn’t resist taking photos at work today. The sun was setting (around 4 p.m., argh!) and casting a beautiful light on the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The photo above is the view from my desk. The tower with the pyramid top, next to the Citigroup tower, is where my friend Bobby works. It’s called One Canada Square and is the tallest building in the UK, in case you like to know these kinds of things.

My office plan is “open office,” which means there are no dividers or offices or cubes anywhere. It’s like working in a kindergarden classroom, without the snacks and naptime. The setup is supposed to facilitate openness, but actually, I think I talked and shared more with people when I had my own office, mostly because then I had privacy and felt more free to talk during the day. And I miss having room for all my papers and shoes, though I admit that I am not a tidy person at the office, so I could have the biggest office in the world and still not feel like I had enough room for things.

I’ve already complained to some of you about how ironic it is that I work at Canary Wharf. I mean, I moved to London with the expectation of exploring all the charms and history of the Old World, and I end up working at what you can only call a recreation of the good and bad about America. Everything in this urban regeneration project is shiny and new, built in the last ten years. Shopping malls everywhere. The only Chili’s restaurant in the United Kingdom (OK, fine, one of four). A stunning tube station built by Norman Foster and featured in The Constant Gardener. Convenience is the watchward when you’re at the Wharf, but you could really be anywhere in the world, couldn’t you?

At right you’ll see a photo of the Millennium Dome, which I also see from my desk if I swivel my Millennium Domechair around. It’s built on the Meridian line and is allegedly the world’s biggest dome, currently used for storage or something lame like that. I mean, that’s some really expensive storage space. Note the weird crane-looking things sticking out from the top. I can’t get over that it’s supposed to look like that. You’ll see more of this dome when the 2012 Olympics come to London. Then the whole world will see how ugly modern architecture can be!

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This year, unlike the past, oh, ten years, I decided to celebrate Halloween. Jon and I dressed up in costume and went to a Halloween party over the weekend (he went as a hippie, and I went as a mime – together we made up the combo “peace and quiet”). Celebrating Halloween this year felt a little like an act of American patriotism.

Halloween is not popular here. When I told some coworkers what Jon and I dressed up as for Halloween, they were confused and slightly disappointed that we had dressed up without the “Halloween theme” in mind. In other words, if you do dress up for Halloween in London, you’re supposed to be a witch, goblin, pumpkin, ghost, etc. The idea of dressing up as “just anything” is apparently not a Londoner’s idea of Halloween.

My friend Jane thinks that because Londoners have lots of other opportunities besides Halloween to dress in costume (i.e., attend what the Brits calle “fancy dress” parties, but what Americans would know as “costume parties”), the only thing distinguishing a Halloween party from any other fancy dress party is the “theme” of Halloween. It is true that there are a lot of stores open year-round in London devoted to renting costumes, and I do think it’s true that in the U.S., you dress up in costume pretty much one time a year on Halloween. So i think Jane is onto a good theory here.

Unlike what’s in today’s New York Times on the subject of Halloween in the UK (I swear I was going to post on this topic even before I saw that article – damn NYT, always stealing my thunder), I haven’t seen or heard anything anti-Halloween here. Definitely lots of Halloween indifference, though, which I guess I could relate to when I lived in the U.S., but now it’s a weird point of pride to talk about the “American” holiday of Halloween.

I will say that I’ve seen a lot weird Halloween promotions by stores, though, as if Halloween is solely a commercial holiday. For example, today, the London Underground advertised a Halloween special waiving the usual £5 deposit to get an Oyster Card, and two local gyms I passed displayed big signs encouraging members to bring guests for a free day-pass during “Halloween Open Weekend.”

And obviously when I think about Halloween, I think “gym memberships” or “debit Tube passes.”

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