Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

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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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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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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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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