Archive | July, 2012

Palau de la Musica and some other faves of Barcelona

28 Jul

Thursday night, my mom and I went to the Palau de la Musica to listen to and watch a lovely guitarist named Ekaterina Zaytseva. By her name alone, you can tell she’s of Russian descent, but she studied Spanish guitar for years in Barcelona. She played mostly Catalan composers and threw in one French piece called “Fuego” (Fire) at the end of her second encore that was more like Flamenco guitar. She was fabulous.

If you’re interested in her music, go to her website at . As my mom said about her performance, “There’s a little something for everyone, from 10 year old boys to professional musicians.” If you see the pictures of Ms. Zaytseva, you’ll know why. She’s a knockout and she wore this lovely dress that was perfectly revealing when she bent over 15 times to take her bows. ¬†My mom’s hilarious.

What was also a knockout was the inside of the Palau. At top is one view of the ceiling over the audience. Below is another ceiling, this one over the stage.

More pictures follow.

The ceiling and steps of the entrance:

A picture of the cafe, which also serves as the back entrance:

The stage, the organ pipes, and ceiling above the stage:

From these just okay pics, you can get a good idea of just how gorgeous the place is. There’s not a bad seat in the house, so if you’re in Barcelona or planning to visit, this venue is a must. You can buy tickets online. They have special discounts for people 65+, people with disabilities, and the young, as with many of the sights in Barcelona.

So, the Palau de la Musica building has now become one of my new favorite “things” in Barcelona. Here’s a quick list of 5 other, new favorites in no particular order (I have a ton of favorites, and you can go back through my blogs to see what things I love in Barcelona):

1) Milk, which is heralded as a great hang-over restaurant. I would describe it as a great brunch spot a la American style. It has lovely french toast with a creme fraiche-vanilla greek yogurt sauce, excellent eggs benedict, and a mean hamburger with some tasty onion relish on an artisan bun with good potatoes and ketchup. Milk can be found at Career d’en Gignas, 21, at the corner of Carrer d’en Groc.

2) A lovely little dress shop called Suno on Career dels Cotoners just off Carrer de la Princesa. The maker/tailor of the dresses is in the shop and she’s happy to make you one if she doesn’t have the style you like in your size, and you’ll be in Barcelona for a few weeks.

3) Cosmo scooter, which rents electric scooters and wheelchairs for people with disabilities. See . The owners are a husband and wife team and they are so very nice. I tried out the scooters and wheelchairs and told them what I was thinking my mom would use them for. They had great recommendations and they delivered at the time I requested. See a pic of my darling mother on her electric scooter. The thing is fabulous.

4) The best, natural gelato in Barcelona can be found at Maracuya. See a pic below. The passion fruit is one of the best gelatos I’ve eaten, period. Their coconut rivals the best I’ve eaten. I highly recommend them. You won’t find the electric blue and other neon colored gelatos served at so many other places in Barcelona.

5) La Botifarreria at Carrer de Santa Maria, 4, in El Born district. Essentially, it’s a charcuterie house. It’s right across from the Santa Maria Cathedral. In addition to some great llonganissa, they have beautiful looking sausages that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. They had vegetable curry stuffed sausages, escalivada sausages, goat cheese and sundried tomato sausages, and 5-7 other very creative ones. This is the place to go if you are a sausage fan.

Mom on a cosmo scooter:

Lovely gelato store:

Of course, La Sacrada Familia is always on the top of my list of favorites, and I went there again today with my mom. Although there are some great pics online, here are a few for those who have not visited. Gaudi was amazing.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the Matrix when I look up in La Sacrada Familia. See what I mean:

The stained glass windows are mesmerizing.

A view from inside the top of one of the two finished facades:

Wow, wow, wow. I’ve been there 3 times (once was 20 years ago) and each time is more amazing, as I see a bit more I missed the time before. Pure genius.

Okay, off to bed to read my trashy novel which shall remain unnamed, but suffice it to say it’s an HBO mini-series and I know some of you are reading it, too ūüėČ

Buen Provecho!

3 days in Basque Country, Part III

24 Jul

Day 3: We started out for Bilbao at about 10 a.m. First stop – an old cafe where they had cool jazz art on the ceilings. Then, we walked through different quarters of the city and Ana, also having lived in Bilbao for years, narrated what we were seeing.

We meandered to the Guggenheim where there was lots of cool outdoor art. See pics below.

The first piece of art was a dog made of all flowers. It was darling.

Then, as we made our way to the back of the museum, we saw a large art piece of giant, shiny metal balls. Ana made Borja get in a picture with me.

Finally, as you walked away from the museum and along the Bilbao estuary, there was a giant spider underneath 1 of 2 cool bridges we saw that day.

We walked for about an hour more and then hopped in the car to drive along the coast. We stopped for lunch in a very cute beach town called Getxo. We decided on a restaurant on the beach in a hotel called Hotel Igeretxe and the restaurant name was Igeretxe Brasserie. They had a nice outdoor grill and specialized in seafood. I’m not sure why we opted for the meat instead, but it was very good. We got to grill it ourselves on a grill they brought to our table, so that was fun. And, they did a very nice tempura of vegetables. The desserts were “throw away” desserts and any 12 year old European could have made them better, so that was a disappointment. But, the conversation and company were awesome, as were the vistas.

After lunch, we took a walk along the beach and walked to the old part of town where the fishermen houses were. Here’s a pic of Ana and Borja on our way up to the “old town”.

After hearing about how the industry across the ocean ruined the water (if you look really closely in the background of the pic above you can see industrial machines on the other land side of the ocean) and weighing that against the how it brought greater wealth to Bilbao and greater GDP to Basque Country, we got back in the car and drove back over by the Bilbao estuary to where the Vizcaya Bridge was.

Here’s a pic of the Vizcaya Bridge from afar, which was completed in 1893 and declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 2006.

Ana asked if I wanted to walk across it and of course I did. It was late afternoon and Borja was getting tired or maybe just tired of touring. He gave me the greatest, pissed off face which I managed to capture on camera. I love this pic as it pretty much sums up the day: Me taking pictures, Ana looking around at sights and thinking about what she knows to tell us, and Borja trying to be patient.

After spending 3 straight, 11 hour days together, the three of us had become comfortable enough to give each other these faces and I also started waiving my arms and hands around and talking at a much more rapid pace in Spanish. I told them I thought I was becoming Basque – ha! (Kidding for those of you who are Basque and would take offense at that).

At the very top of this post is a picture I took through the red metal while we were walking across the bridge. If you look at the land on the right side of the picture, that is a town called Portugalete. There’s a gondola attached by cables on the under side of the bridge and it carries both cars and passengers to Porgulalete. Since 1893, approximately 650 million people have crossed the estuary on the gondola. That distance is equivalent to 31 trips around the world. I sound like a tourist pamphlet, I know.

Here’s a view of Bilbao from the bridge:

And, here’s another view of the bride so you can see the construction (and Ana and me):

By the end of day 3, I was in love with Ana and Basque country. She and I are kindred spirits; she’s a free spirit, wants to see everything, and uses “me encanta” just as much as I do ūüėČ I am indeed enchanted with just about everything in Basque Country, including Borja’s family.

That night, Borja, his mom, Ana, and I met up with his older sister and her boyfriend in a placa in Vitoria for drinks. His sister gave me a box of chocolates from a famous chocolatier in Vitoria. Luckily, I remembered my manners and I had brought with me from Barcelona 3 bottles of wine: one for Ana, one for Borja’s mom, and one for his sister, along with some chocolates. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the wine I gave to his sister is going to live up to the expectations of her boyfriend, as he’s a wine importer. I’ll just have to cross my fingers that the guy who helped select the wines for me from the Ribera del Duero region did a good enough job.

Here’s a pic of my “haul” from Basque country:

Day 4: I headed for the train station to hop a train back to Barcelona. Tickets in hand, I decided to fuel up on some more pintxos before my 7 hour journey back (the direct, fast train was full, so instead of 5 hours, it took 7 and a connection in a seedy little town with seemingly more bars than people). After a few pintxos I strolled out to see what last minute jazz acts I could see before my train left. I walked by an Irish pub and watched/listened to a Spanish jazz ensemble playing there. Love it – at an Irish pub! Then, I walked a few more blocks to try to find this beautiful voice I heard belting out a sultry song. I finally spied a woman who I think was from the U.S. with a crazy ‘do belting out Peggy Lee’s famous song, “Fever”.

For those of you who don’t know who Peggy Lee is, and by rights I shouldn’t know as I’m way too young but I grew up in a music-loving family, she was a sexy singer from the 1940s and 50s. This song, I believe, is from 1948. Check out the clip of Peggy Lee rippin’ it up. Sexy lady, even by today’s standards!

If what a random poster on the web says is true, her credits include the voice of the Siamese cats in Disney’s production of Lady and the Tramp. It was so much fun to listen to and watch jazz musicians playing and singing jazz of all eras, while in Spain!

3 days in Basque Country, Part II

23 Jul

I realized I’m being remiss since I didn’t include any facts about Basque Country in yesterday’s post. So, before I continue on with day 2 and more great food we ate, I’m going to give a very brief history of Basque country. The Basque Country, also known as ‚ÄúEuskadi‚ÄĚ in Basque and ‚ÄúPa√≠s Vasco‚ÄĚ in Spanish, has a population of a little over 2 million people. Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital. Vitoria is in Spanish, Gasteiz is in Basque. Both are official languages. Here are roughly the populations of the 3 major cities we visited: Bilbao: 354,145; Vitoria-Gasteiz: 226,490; and San Sebasti√°n: 183,308.

History of Industry: Traditionally, industrial activities were centered on steel and shipbuilding, mainly due to the rich iron ore resources found during the 19th century around Bilbao. The Estuary of Bilbao was the center of the Basque Country’s industrial revolution during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. These activities decayed during the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, giving ground for the development of the services sector and new technologies. Today, the strongest industrial sectors of the Basque Country’s economy are machine tool, present in the valleys of Biscay and Gipuzkoa; aeronautics in Vitoria-Gasteiz; and energy in Bilbao.

Okay, onto day 2. Ana picked us up at 9:30 a.m. and we were off on another gorgeous, sunny day, which Borja said is atypical because it’s usually overcast due to it’s proximity to the ocean. We set out north through towns called Ongi Etorri and Ma√Īaria. Our first destination: a 1 year old winery called Hiruzta in the town of Hondarribia. See Ana’s daughter’s friend, Maya, is the chef at the winery.

After getting lost four times due to bad directions, we finally made it. We got the grand tour and some pintxos to go along with our txacoli – the young white wine that is famous in Basque Country. The picture of the pintxos and txacoli is at top. My most favorite tapa/pintxo since I’ve been in Spain is the one in the glasses on the palillos (sticks). Simply: high quality marinated anchovies wrapped around very good green olives and a pickled pepper called Ibarrako Piparrak¬†found only in Basque country. Here’s a picture of the peppers:

Outstanding! ¬†I could eat those every day! ¬†The winery was very modern, but the grape picking is still done all by hand. ¬†Here’s a picture of a cloud system that moved in swiftly as we were there. ¬†One of the owners called in to tell us to go outside and look, as that’s not unusual there, but we probably wouldn’t see it again. ¬†Cool:

Ana is so sweet. It’s not enough that she drove me around 3 days in a row, showing me the sights for 11 hours each day. She had to buy me gifts, as well. She bought me a cookbook of the Hondabrribia region and a bottle of Txacoli from the winery.

Next, it was on to lunch at a 1 Michelin starred restaurant in Hondarribia, called Alameda. We sat outside on the deck of this very large, old restaurant. Ana had been there a long, long time ago and she had read that they had a new chef, who won the best chef in Basque country award in 2010, I believe. It was another fine meal.

We started out with a lovely little shooter of tomato gazpacho (there are many kinds of gazpacho served in Spain from tomato to almond to red pepper) with some honey-parsley oil on top. The sweetness of the honey was a brilliant addition to the gazpacho. Sometimes I think tomato-based gazpachos can be too acidic, but this one was perfect.

Next up: a crab and apple salad. Good, but I’ve made better. See my recipe in my Nov. 8 blog post entitled, “Days 87-92: Menu project…”

Second course: The infamous 63 degree egg. This one was in a lovely mushroom broth and done just perfectly! The setas (mushrooms) on top were a great textural contrast to the rest of the dish. Yummmmmmm, and my favorite of the meal.

Third course: Hake with a parsley foam. The parsley foam was really boring. It needed a kick of acid and salt to be anything other than a nice decoration. But, the fish was cooked perfectly and all around it was a very successful dish. Here’s a pic:

Meat course: Lamb with oozy mashed potatoes. They were so rich in butter and cream.

Dessert: I opted for the chocolate ganache over the apple tart. Good choice by me.

And, another bottle of txacoli because when in Basque Country….

The owner of Alameda was there and she was this darling 70-something, 4 foot maybe 8 inches tall, petite little thing that looked like she was dressed in Balenciaga from the 60s. She was SUPER adorable. She was witty and charming and super chatty. I think we stayed at the restaurant 1 hour longer after we had finished dessert just to chat with her.

And, of course I liked her because she called me young. I smiled and thanked her and told her my real age and she said something else I didn’t understand, but that I decided to take as a compliment as I was a little tipsy. My new motto: if someone says something about you you don’t understand, you should probably just smile and take it as a compliment. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just think I’m dumb and probably forgive me for it. No harm there.

Anyway, Borja loved her so much that later when we were talking about how much fun we had that day and how darling this woman was, Borja declared, “I’ll take two.” I laughed. She is so cute, most of us would take her another one just like her.

So, after stuffing ourselves on yet another fine meal, we walked through the town. Here are a few pics:

Ana and me overlooking France on the other side of the water behind us:

The inside ceiling of a castle that Maya got married in:

Ana and I were chatting away in Spanish and getting along so fabulously that Borja proclaimed, “I don’t even know why I need to come tomorrow.” He was kidding, but I think maybe half serious as I was really into playing tourist and Ana was really into playing tour guide. Ana and I were snapping pictures left and right. I’m not sure Borja was having as much fun as we were. But, he did say that he’d never had a chance to spend so much time with his aunt and it had been since he was very little that he had visited many of the places she took us. The lesson in there: don’t let it take a visitor to your hometown to make time to see your family and places in your home turf that you’ve either never been or not been in 20 years.

It was around 6:30 by the time we left and headed back to Vitoria. We went straight to the jazz festival as I had pre-purchased tickets to one of my favorite jazz artists – Joshua Redman. He’s a saxophonist and if you’ve never heard him, go ahead and download some of his music. If you’re a jazz fan, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The man can jam.

Here’s a pic of our ticket:

Joshua Redman played with a 3 man band called The Bad Plus. The drummer of this band was one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s also worth checking these guys out if you’re a percussionist or a fan of percussion. I also appreciated that the bassist spoke in his best California-Spanish (not perfect, but great attempt!), instead of just in English like all of the other English-speaking bands we’d seen.

Another fantastic day in Basque Country. I want to go back to the jazz festival again next year!

Because this was another rather long post, I’ll continue with Day 3 (Part III) of Basque Country tomorrow.

Buen Provecho!

3 days in Basque country – I loved it!

22 Jul

Wow, there is so much to tell. First, let me say that the way to see Basque country is by way of 2 charming Basque hosts: Borja and his aunt, Ana. I would not have seen or known about 1/10th of the towns we visited and history without my wonderful hosts and tour guides. At top is a shot of Bilbao, but let me start by posting a map so you see where Basque country is in comparison to Barcelona:

If you look the right on the map, you’ll see “Balearic Sea” and above that on the eastern coast of Spain is Barcelona. Then, if you look into the upper left of the map near the red line dividing France and Spain, you’ll see the “Bay of Biscay”. Below that you’ll see San Sebastian, then below that is Bilbao and then below that is Vitoria.

Ana and Borja picked me up from the train station in San Sebastian. I tried to take the train to Vitoria, which is where they live and 1 hour closer, but it was “completo” (full) for 3 days since the Vitoria Jazz Festival was happening. Ana found parking near downtown, and they showed me one famous surfing beach and we walked through a market where we saw all kinds of amazing produce and cheese from Basque country.

Then, it was onto pintxos! Essentially, pintxos are the Basque word for tapas. But, in Basque country, you don’t sit down at a table and eat a ton of them all at once. You go to pintxo bars and take 1 or 2, along with a glass of hard cider (“sagadora” in Basque) poured from on high, and then move onto the 2nd bar where you take one or two more pintxos and a glass of sagadora, and then you move onto the 3rd bar…. So fun! I love eating this way. The only issue is that the sagadora sneaks up on you. So, after 2 bars and 2 glasses of sagadora, I needed a bit more walking before lunch. Yes, lunch comes after the pintxos.

So, we walked through more of the town and Ana explained the history (she lived there for 15 years). We saw the traditional plazas where people gather and kids play. We saw more ports:

Then, we hopped in the car and drove to a small town called Getaria for lunch. We dined at a restaurant called Elkano, which has 1 Michelin star. See for pictures of the restaurant and some food. But, I’ll go through our lunch menu, below.

We started out with one bite of beautiful pink bonito (tuna) with a shallot vinaigrette that tasted much like a traditional mignonette for oysters:

I also had my first taste of txacoli, which is a very young, white wine that is served throughout the region. I love it! That will definitely be on my list of imports, along with sagadora. It’s meant to be had young and very cold, which is perfect on a hot day. Here’s what our bottle looked like:

Since Elkano is famous for seafood, being that it’s right on the sea, we ordered all seafood and what they were famous for, which is the cocochas. Cocochas are the collar/jowl area of a fish. We ordered cocochas of hake. Wow, knocked my socks off. We ordered them 3 ways: 1) breaded, 2) grilled, and 3) with the traditional fish fumet and garlic. The grilled ones – just grilled with olive oil and nothing else – were my favorites. Here’s a pic:

Then, we ate another traditional dish which was squid stuffed with caramelized onions. Again, simple and so delicious because all of the seafood was incredibly fresh. Here’s a pic:

Then, we moved onto a very traditional crab dish. The meat of the crab is pulled apart and mixed with tomatoes, then put back in the shell and baked in the shell on the grill. It was my least favorite dish because I thought the tomatoes overwhelmed the crab. If it’s fresh crab, I think it’s best to leave it alone or with a little butter and/or lemon, as the beautiful flavors should be the predominant thing you taste. Anyway, it was still good. Here’s a pic:

Onto my second favorite dish: fresh turbot. They showed us the fresh, whole fish and then cleaned it, put it in a metal grilling contraption and then put it directly on the open flame on the grill out back. I wished I would have snapped a picture of the outdoor grill and the grilling contraption behind the restaurant. Amazing. Simple. Never going to be allowed in the U.S. due to the potential liability – darn it!

Here’s just my portion (so imagine how big the fish was, as 3 of us had portions that big and we couldn’t finish the fish):

Onto dessert. Since most everything was grilled, Ana and I decided to keep with the grilling theme and go with the grilled cherries over burnt caramel topped with a caramel crunch ice cream. The grilled cherries were really nice atop the burnt caramel and the rich ice cream brought it altogether as we finished our txacoli.

After lunch, Ana wanted to visit the Balenciaga museum. For you non-fashion buffs out there (like me), Cristobal Balenciaga was the one of the world’s foremost fashion designers of the mid-late 20th century. His high fashion dresses lined the runways of Paris and draped some of the world’s most famous and rich women from the 1930s-1960s. He was born in 1895 in Getaria and died in 1972. Nonetheless, his influences can still be seen in much of fashion the socialites wear today.

Here’s a pic of the brochure with a picture of one of his dresses on the front:

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as the dresses we saw were more than mesmerizing. I couldn’t take any pictures, as they weren’t allowed and the lights were so dimly lit as to not ruin the fabric. But, the museum building was fabulous! Part of the building was home to a person called the marquis of Casa Torres, and the building itself called Palacio Aldamar was constructed in 19th century. This is the facade of the house-turned-museum as it was in the 1800s:

Behind the facade is a very post-modern building made of glass and metals. Here’s one shot from the 3rd floor, looking at a wall:

After an hour of walking through 4 floors of gorgeous dresses, I fell in love with Balenciaga. Me encanta! Borja was a VERY good sport as Ana and I chatted away about the designs as if I were an expert on fashion. I’m so glad I at least had the good sense to wear a skirt and heals that day!

After the Balenciaga exhibit, we did a bit more light walking to the water before we got in the car and drove to another small town called Zarautz. Borja lived there for a bit and he helped a friend start a gastropub. Borja created the dishes on the menu, which was fun to see.

The gastropub is called Anima Gastroteka. The owner is apparently phenomenally gifted in making microbrews and liquor, and in his wine palette. He enters Spain’s wine tasting competition and usually beats some of the best sommeliers and master sommeliers out there. He was really sweet and gave us each a bottle of his latest home liquor creation.

The “Patxaran” creation contains anise, chamomile, cinnamon, and something called “endrinas” which is a purple fruit from Basque Country that looks like a black grape. Interesting combination. Here’s a shot of the liquor (note to self – it freezes, so it might have been a bad idea to put in the freezer. We’ll see).

I took a sip of it in coffee and it’s delicious, but I’m a bit afraid to take more than a sip. I’m going to wait until C returns and test it on him – ha!

After some light walking through the town, we rolled up to some chairs on the boardwalk overlooking a long stretch of beach for some late afternoon coffee. We watched the sunset and then got back into the car and drove to Vitoria. Ana drove us right downtown for a night tour of the city. Vitoria is the capital of all of Basque country, so it’s a very clean, quaint, quiet town that is pretty sleepy Borja tells me, other than when the jazz festival is in town. Even then, it seemed VERY quiet to me. Below are some pics of Vitoria at night. It’s also known as the “green capital” of Europe. The streets were indeed very clean and there were recycling bins everywhere. Honolulu, take a lesson!

Here’s one plaza where we sat and listened to a swing band from New Orleans while a group of fun swing dancers showed off their stuff under the stars:

Here’s another plaza we walked through to get the plaza above:

And, finally, a cool statue in a plaza:

At midnight, Ana dropped Borja and I off at his mom’s place, where she waited up to greet me. That was the end of day 1. 1:00 p.m. to midnight. We covered some serious ground!

As this post is getting really long and I have to clean in anticipation of my mom’s arrival tomorrow, I am going to conclude it here and say stay tuned for 3 days in Basque Country, Part II, tomorrow!

Restaurant Reviews, Part 3, and some sightseeing

16 Jul

I know I have said I’ve had favorite dishes over the past 2 weeks, and the pulpo (octopus) in garlic, olive oil and parsley at Can Juli (a restaurant in Port Lligat), above, is definitely one of them. Diana, Al, Maren and I spent 2.5 days roaming Cadaques, Port Lligat, Cap de Creus (and the St. Pere de Rodes monastery in the national park), Port de la Selva, Peralada, and Figueres. We covered a lot of ground thanks to Diana and her trusted navigating and tour-guiding.

Can Juli is an open-air restaurant on a dusty road in Port Lligat, which is home to the Dali house and a darling cove down the way from Cadaques. Here’s the outside of the restaurant.

Can Juli made the rank of 5 of out 6 on my list of restaurants, but the pulpo dish rivaled any dish I have eaten in the last two weeks. The rice dish, below, was also good, but not in the “excellent” category, in my book.

Here’s a quick view of Port Lligat as we walked from Cadaques over to the restaurant:

And, a fun pick from the Dali home. This is a pick of his work space. He sat in a chair when he painted and his easel was an electric easel on a wall that moved up and down.

Before I write just a quick review of restaurant #4 in Barcelona, I’ll post a few more of my favorite pics from Cadaques journey #2.

Here’s a pick of the gorgeous 10th century monastery called Sant Pere de Rodes in the Cap de Creus national park:

Sunset at the Cap de Creus lighthouse:

And, a picture of some crab or lobster nets (we weren’t sure) in Port Lligat:

Onto my quick review of Raco D’en Cesc. This is a VERY typical Catalan restaurant. Everything had a French influence to it, so there was cream in several of the dishes, but they weren’t too rich or overpowering. I liked that the menu was 5 small courses for 24 Euros. We started out with a light salad with lobster on top. Then, we moved onto a delicious ravioli – only 2 on the plate – but not more was needed. Then, monkfish and clams in a seafood/cream/mushroom broth – yummmm! Then, a perfectly cooked, small piece of beef with a 2 biter of mashed potatoes neatly plated beside it. Finally, a gorgeous watermelon soup with a citrus-lemon sorbet in the middle. This is a place you can honestly eat all courses and say, “That was just the right amount of food.” I wasn’t overly full and I appreciated the small bites on each plate, with the dessert being the largest (but, that was great because it was mostly watermelon soup).

Here’s a pic of dessert:

Finally, onto the by-far-and-away the worst restaurant I’ve eaten at in a long time: Hisop ( I just don’t get it. How do some of these places get their stars? This one has one Michelin star. I was so mad by the end of dinner, I even ended up writing a scathing review on trip advisor, mostly because there were tons of glowing reviews out there that led me to want to dine at Hisop.

The first four courses that came out were white. Not just the plates, but the actual food. So, it really isn’t worthy of picture posting. Not only was the food white, but the tastes were all pretty bland, until the monkfish course. The monkfish was undercooked, which you don’t want if you know something about monkfish (it tends to have worms, as it’s a bottom-feeder), and it was WAY too salty. Neither C nor I could take more than 1 bite. When the waitress asked what was wrong, I said there was too much salt. She brought both dishes back into the kitchen and returned 5 minutes later to promptly correct us and tell us that the dish wasn’t too salty because the chef tasted it. Hmmmm, really? You’re going to correct the customer when I didn’t complain about the other preceding 4 courses? Those were not too salty.

It was completely poor form, a) for the chef to want to tell us it was not too salty in his opinion, and b) to send the server out to tell us his opinion, instead of coming out himself. The arrogance and the weasel qualities combined made me laugh until he came out later to talk to the table right next to us and he didn’t even bother to stop to talk to us.

It got worse. The first sorbet course tasted like fish. Someone used the fish spoon or fish sauce spoon on the sorbet. Or, he (there were no women cooks in the kitchen when I peaked in) didn’t wash his fishy fingers and used his fingers to plate my sorbet. The reality is that all cooks and chefs use their fingers. It’s just how it goes in the kitchen. But make sure you wash them a lot and certainly between courses! I tasted my husband’s sorbet and it was perfectly fine. To make sure I wasn’t dreaming, he tasted mine and grimaced. He said there was definitely fish on the sorbet somehow. I didn’t say anything at that point as I thought that the chef and I might go to blows if I sent it back and he, in turn, sent out the server to tell me it did not taste like fish.

Overall, it was a maddening experience. So, for those in Barcelona, stay clear of Hisop. Run to Alkimia and Cinc Sentits for way better food, service, and atmosphere, albeit pricey food. They most definitely deserve their stars. Run to Raco D’en Cesc for a homey, 24 Euro, 5 course meal.

I’ll be offline for a few days as I’m heading to San Sebastian tomorrow to visit a chef friend and his family. They’re going to show me Basque country food at its finest. I can’t wait!

Before I sign off, a few last pics of the great medieval town of Peralada:

Buen Provecho!

Restaurant Reviews, Part 2

15 Jul

Today, I’ll be reviewing Cinc Sentits and Compartir.

Al, Maren, C and I decided to do lunch up right one day and head to Cinc Sentits. A picture of the 4 of us looking very happy we did is below:

They only have a tasting menu, no ala carte options. Their tasting menu is comprised of 1 tapa, 2 starters, 1 fish, 1 meat, cheeses, and 2 desserts. It’s not as elaborate as the menu at Alkimia, but for the most part, each dish is perfectly executed. I also rated it 2nd out of the 6 over the last 2 weeks because of the service and the environment.

First, the welcome note on the table is a nice touch. When I made the reservation, they asked what language we spoke.

I loved the interior of the place – very modern. The ceiling was really cool. Here’s a pic of the ceiling:

Onto the food….First, I loved the different olive oil tastings and bread. I really enjoy that about several restaurants here, including Osmosis. There is so much great olive oil here. To be able to compare by dipping a little bread in it is something I think of as luxurious, but is pretty common.

Before the first course – the tapa – we were served an “opener”. This is what hooked me. It was a “shooter” of sorts, with 4 layers: 1) maldon sea salt on the bottom, 2) Canadian maple syrup next, 3) whipped cream in the middle, and 4) a cava sabayon on top. Wow! That was delicious. Perfect sweet, salty, creamy to get the palette going.

I also loved the presentation in a wooden box of different hues of grey to match the interior walls of the restaurant.

Our tapa was a small almond-milk based soup with a scallop and asparagus on top. It was excellent. Nice and light, bright flavors.

The first starter was a foie dish. Although I have become quite the good foie eater lately, this one was just too rich. I think it was the thickness of the foie and the sweetness of the caramelization. I could only take a few bites. The rest of the group managed to finish theirs, so it was indeed very good.

The second starter was a dish C loved. It was a cold soup of sorts. The components were just beautiful. It was pickled mackerel, olive oil balls (spherification), herbs, fresh plums, a crouton and sorbet. ¬†All of the components eaten together were marvelous. By itself, the fish was way too briny for me. ¬†I have a conflict. I think each item should be “perfect” on its own and then when combined, divine. ¬†But, I suppose if something is meant to be eaten as a whole, I shouldn’t discredit it for one part not being perfect on its own. I’ll have to contemplate that more when doing my own menus.

The fish dish, along with the meat dish and the maple shooter, were my favorites. This trout was expertly seared with crispy skin on the outside and barely done on the inside. The cucumber-melon sauce it was over made this a great summer dish. The crouton added a nice buttery crunch to the whole thing. It looked pretty simple, but the devil in always in the execution.

If I had to pick just one thing I loved on this menu, it would indeed be the suckling pig, with a layer of blood sausage. It might sound scary, but it was so ridiculously good. The suckling pig melted in your mouth, the crispy skin layer on the outside was so crispy that I wondered if they fried it separately and then meat glued it to the rest? Under the crispy skin was the thin layer of blood sausage, which is a very typical Catalan food. I don’t really love it on its own, but when done right and incorporated into another dish, it elevates the richness of that dish. The little, sweet apples around the dish were the perfect touch, as of course pigs and apples always go together.

If you’re a consistent reader of this blog, I think you probably have a good idea of what is “typical Catalan” fare, and what it’s like at its best. Some of the restaurants have “similar” (and I say that loosely) dishes, but as Miles says, it’s about endless reinvention. But, some do seem very similar to me, especially because I gravitate toward the restaurants that say they use local, seasonal ingredients, which honestly is what most of them do here, anyway. So, for instance, artichokes are out of season, so you won’t find them on any menus now. Chanquetes were the baby fried fish that was on several menus 2 months back, but now it’s another kind of baby fried fish. Melon is in season, so that will be the star of many sauces and soups.

Okay, onto the last parts of lunch. The cheese plate. It’s a very popular course in Catalonia. The pairings were a goat cheese with an apple compote, a cow’s milk cheese with a carrot compote, and sheep’s cheese with a bite-sized, sweet hazelnut “pie”. Mmmmmm. The carrot compote was such a different and good idea. The typical pairings are with quince paste or with a llimona (lemon) compote. Here’s the plate:

Finally, dessert. The first dessert was my favorite, after such a rich meal. It was a 2-3 biter of 2 different granites and red fruit underneath. It was slightly sweet, very tart, slightly herbal and refreshingly cold.

Finally, the chocolate course. It seems like most restaurants here have a chocolate course. ¬†I learned from my friend Diana that there used to be a very big chocolate factory located right on La Rambla. ¬†And, nowadays there are few excellent chocolatiers who sell in Barcelona, although the larger factories are not in Barcelona proper. ¬† Having tasted hundreds of different types of chocolate, I declare myself an “expert” on chocolate – haha.

Cinc Sentits’ (“5 senses”) chocolate course was decadent and very good. ¬†My personal preference these days is to pair something lighter with deep, rich chocolate, so this dish didn’t come close to the chocolate ganache and mango course at Alkimia. Having said that, I still very much enjoyed it and scarfed it all down.

To me, service is part of the dinner and it’s always a treat to speak to the chef. Jordi, the co-owner and chef came out to talk with us at the end. ¬†He was very personable and interested in our thoughts. He asked what restaurants we’ve been to and liked. I mentioned I liked some of his plates and designs. He brought out a small booklet for me explaining who makes their plates. ¬†His sister and co-owner who runs the front of the house also stopped by for a brief chat. ¬†Very fun!

Next review:  Compartir in Cadaques.  It was opened by a former cook at El Bulli. His name is Mateo.

Unlike some of the other places we’ve been, Compartir doesn’t offer a tasting menu, which in a way is refreshing. So, we just chose a bunch of things we wanted to try. I would put them either in the “excellent” or “very good” category. Nothing was less than very good, except for the service, which I’ll get to later.

Here’s my ranking in the excellent category:

1) The endive and burrata salad with passionfruit dressing. It was endive 2 ways (1 braised, which was superb), over melt-in-your-mouth burrata with a very light passionfruit dressing. It was a knockout!

2) The smoked ham over mashed potatoes. The smoked ham was unlike any other ham I’ve ever eaten. The smoke was perfect and the ham also melted in your mouth. Is there magic in these dishes? This dish wasn’t all that pretty, but it was stunning to the taste buds.

And, 2) There’s a tie for 2nd place here, between the truffled, poached egg in cream and the smoked ham. The luxurious mouthfeel of this dish was the star. I think the poached egg was a 63 degree egg (cooked in an immersion circulator), with just the right amount of real, shaved truffles. My only complaint is that it should have been a bit hotter, as a hot dish.

3) The tuna tartare. Although I am so very used to many different raw tuna preparations, the use of olive oil and citrus in this made it a perfect tartare. Thanks to my friend, Diana, as she’s the one who got us this “off menu” dish. She heard our first very bad waitress offer it to another table and so she asked the sommelier why we weren’t offered it. He said the people next to us were special friends of the chef, but then Diana said I was a chef, so he told us he’d bring us a plate. I love that she pulled that card out! It was kind of embarrassing, but Diana, C and Shannon have no hesitation throwing that out there, and it does get us better service and often-times some things not on the menu ūüôā I can’t quite do it, as I don’t think of myself as a chef yet. I know I’m a good cook, but until I open a business of my own, I don’t consider myself a chef. Anyway, here’s the beautiful tuna:

Here’s my ranking of the “very good”:

1) The lobster and fennel dish:

2) The sea bass with mushrooms in a yuzu-citrusy sauce.

3) The desserts: I had the “pina colada”, Diana had the espuma (foam) of crema catalana, and Maren had the tasting of white chocolates (they were hidden in milk chocolate ball coverings):

My dessert and the espuma probably tied with the sea bass in my mind. They were creative and delicious!

4) The navajas (razor clams)

5) And, finally, the monkfish (keep in mind, it was still very good, but I had to rank something last):

Overall, the food in the “excellent” category rivaled any dish at Cenc Sentits, although the styles of food were very different. But, the service definitely made Compartir 3rd in my overall list. It started out horrendous and, at the end when we told the chef that we loved his food but that the service was a bit rough, he defended the poor service instead of taking the critique and using it to make his restaurant better.

He said, “We wanted to hire local servers from Cadaques.” Well, that’s great, but then train them because when they don’t know the term sommelier – in any of the 3 languages our table spoke – that’s a bad sign. When the second young server didn’t know what cut of meat was on the menu and said, “I don’t know,” that’s a bad sign. How about, “I’ll go find out right away.” Instead, we had to ask her to go find out. What saved the service was the young sommelier. In fact, he ended up being our server because I think he knew we were irritated at the first 2 young women who didn’t know anything. With some coaching, he suggested a great bottle of white which we all very much enjoyed. Here it is:

I liked it to so much, we went in search of it in Cadaques the next day, as it’s from that region in Emporda. We found it at great little food and wine store in Cadaques for 6 Euros! That’s one to remember.

I also really liked the atmosphere in Compartir. They kept the original design of the old house that was converted into a restaurant and you can see some of the original tile in places. It was homey and beautiful.

Here’s Maren and dad looking very happy to be there.

Overall, it was very successful food and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back there if I ever go to Cadaques again.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Restaurant Reviews….

6 Catalonia restaurant reviews (2 in Cadaques and 4 in Barcelona)

14 Jul

I apologize to my foodie followers for not having blogged in 10 days. I’ve had company in Barcelona (first, my friend Katie, then C, and now my dad and Maren) and we’ve been on an eating, drinking and sight-seeing tear. But, I hope to make up for the lack of communication in this and my next 2 blog posts. So much to tell!

First, I thought it was appropriate to post 4 of us in an egg. One of my favorite dishes of the last 2 weeks was the egg dish at Compartir in Cadaques, where Maren, Al, Diana and I dined this week. I love this pic as I think it looks like we’re on an amusement park ride. Really, it might be a metaphor for my life since February. I have loved this food ride!

So, onto the food from the past 2 weeks! I’ll go in order of my favorite restaurants to the one train wreck of a dinner: 1) Alkimia, 2) Cenc Sentits, 3) Compartir, 4) Raco D’en cesc, 5) Can Juli, and 6) Hisop (the train wreck). I will review only Alkimia in today’s blog, then the next 2 in tomorrow’s blog, and the final 3 in Monday’s blog. There are so many pictures of the beautiful food to include in 1 blog post. Additionally, we had so much fun touring that I want to include some of the best pics of the sight-seeing, as well.

Last night’s dinner at Alkimia was fantastic. I went to Alkimia my first week in Barcelona and was completely impressed. I was equally impressed last night, with an entirely different menu. I have now eaten at 5, one-star Michelin restaurants in Barcelona and this one is far and away so much better than the others except for one – Cinc Sentits – which I’ll review tomorrow.

Here’s this week’s Alkimia menu:

First course: Zuchinni spagetini with barnacles, algae, lemon supremes, razor clams, the smallest caviar i’ve ever seen, all in a very punchy, citrus dressing – yummmm! This was a perfect starter.

Second course: Almond brandade over a pickled tomato juice. The cod was incredibly rich, but the citrus elements from the tomato and the crunch of the blanched almonds were great compliments.

Third course: Pickled oyster with pork cheek over spinach. I loved, loved this dish. The star was the pork cheek. You didn’t even need a fork, let alone a knife to cut it, it was so tender. The spinach was perfectly cooked and the pickled oyster was a great pairing with the rich pork cheek.

Fourth course: Cuttlefish with ink and pickled ginger. This was my favorite presentation because I think it’s very moody and modern. But, overall the dish was a bit too fishy for me. I think I’m just not a fan of cuttlefish, as dad and Maren really liked it. The sauce was delicious, however.

A bonus course (not on the 10 course tasting menu): shrimp in shrimp consommé with sea beans and a lemon oil, mustard whipped cream. I loved the service on this one. They plated just the shrimp and sea beans first in a bowl they smeared with what appeared to be a sort of dried tomato-shrimp paste, and then they added the consommé on top of it at the table. Then, we were instructed to taste just one spoon full of the consommé prior to the server adding the dollop of heavenly, lemon-scented whipped cream.

Below are the first 2 steps in the process. Apparently, I didn’t snap a pic of the final one with the cream on top, but just imagine a dollop of lemony-herby whipped cream on top.

Fifth course: Smoked gambas (large, red shrimp from the Med Sea) with cocoa nibs over hot rock salt containing charred bay leaves, crushed cloves and sliced lemon rinds. They smoked the shrimp over these and the plate and the salt came hot, so it was a gorgeous aromatic presentation. The gambas were still a bit crudo and you could really taste the clove and lemon on them. In my opinion, this was a perfect dish.

Sixth course: Mackerel with vermouth and roasted padron with a sardine inside. The skin on the mackerel was perfectly crispy and the accompanying side pepper was a great, salty/briny combo to go with it. Again, it was a 2 step presentation. They plated the main components and served the plate to us. Then, they poured the hot vermouth in the plate at the table. The vermouth broth was fabulous.

Seventh course: Pescado del dia. This dish was grouper with dried black olive tapenade, over a beet sauce, with a smear of sweet onion sauce around it. The presentation was stunning due to the beet sauce, but I thought the grouper was a bad choice of fish. Maren, Al and I were thinking of adjectives to describe it and here’s our list: spongy, rubbery and chewy. None of us liked the texture at all and the skin was certainly not meant to be eaten. However, the rest of the plate was awesome. Both sauces and the olive tapenade blew me away. Had they used a halibut or a lake trout it would have knocked my socks off!

Eighth course: Beef and crispy gizzards with pickles, tempura onion rings, tangy mustard seeds, and some crudo vegetables. This was my other favorite dish of the night. Again, everything was perfectly executed. The beef was ridiculously good, the tempura onion rings were crunchy and light, and the whole seed mustard sauce over the baby crudo veggies was the citrusy element it needed for balance alongside a rich beef sauce.

The onion ring:

2 desserts: First, a fabulous tea infused ice cream over a very delicate whipped cream over fresh strawberries. I asked what was in the ice cream and the server said orange, cinnamon, and early grey tea. Second, a chocolate ganache “bar” next to the best mango ice cream EVER! (over some crispy sweet cookie-like crumbs).

Until this past week, I have not been too impressed with the desserts at a lot of fine restaurants in Catalonia (including the ones I made at Dos Palillos, with the exception of the ningyo yaki de chocolate, the yuzu ice cream, and the green tea ice cream – those were “wow”.) Having said that, the desserts at Alkimia were the best ones I’ve had to date. I’m a harsh critic of chocolate and the chocolate ganache was stunning. The pairing of that with mango ice cream that tasted like you just took a bite of a fresh, ripe mango, was a killer combo. Maren and Al agreed.

Equally as exceptional were the petit fours at the end of the meal. It was a trio: 1) bizcocho (sponge cake) topped with lime zest and coffee, 2) white chocolate “lollipops” with liquid passion fruit inside – quite possibly my favorite item of the evening!, and 3) milk chocolate “mini-cups” with an olive oil float on top and an almond biscuit as the vehicle for the chocolate cup.

Onto drinks… we started out with our requisite “copas de cava”, and they were lovely, big pours. Next, we ordered a bottle of white to go along with our mostly fish meal. It was so different and delicious. I will definitely order it again, as it was fairly dry, mineral-y, pretty complex for a young white, and it was not expensive. Here’s the pic:

Then, our sommelier suggested a glass of red to go with the beef dish. I can’t remember the name (stupid me, but I was already 2 glasses into wine) but it was a mix of garnatxa (Catalan spelling for granache), merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a 4th local red grape.

Finally, I asked for an after dinner licor that would go with our petit fours but that wasn’t too sweet. The sommelier brought out the bottle of what translated into “herb liquor”. It was delicious and dangerous.

And, finally, the stiff pours of the licor de hierbas:

It’s 2 p.m. and dad and Maren are playing cards. I’m still drinking coffee and fizzy packets. We’re all vowing never to drain that bottle of liquor again, delicious as it was.

Buen Provecho!

My last 2 nights at Osmosis and eating at Tickets

3 Jul

My last day at Osmosis was Friday, June 29. Frederic cooked a beautiful family meal with some of the best beef I’ve tasted in Spain – perfectly marbled, seared on the outside, rare on the inside. I’m such a meat eater! My last week was a blast and my last night was the busiest of them all, with around 50 people seated within an hour. We had a table of 16, which means it’s a challenge to get hot plates to everyone all at the same time. But, we did it.

The last week’s menu was as follows (with the Lamb confit dish featured at top – yummmmm):

Following are the pictures of the plates, minus the fish dish (I can’t seem to find that pic).

The potato cream with crayfish and jamon iberico:

This is a very easy recipe:

Boil some waxy, not starchy potatoes, until they are fork-tender but not falling apart. Leave the skins on. Then, put them in a very hot pan with hot olive oil and roast until they are brown. Take all roasted potatoes and throw them in a thermomix (or good food processor) with some heavy cream, some chicken stock, a little butter, and a little salt and pepper until you get a thick soup consistency. Put all through a chinois or china cap. This step is important, as it you want the soup to be smooth and you’ll only get it this way by straining out the potato skins.

Then, either keep the soup warm for service or put in fridge until you’re ready to re-heat and serve. You might need to adjust/thin out the consistency with more stock. Just before service, get the grill hot and throw on some raw crayfish that are de-shelled. Cook until just under-done. They will continue to cook when you take them off the heat and also put them in the hot soup. So, don’t overcook.

Add 2 crayfish to the middle of each bowl of soup. Add some finely diced iberico ham or cured meat around the crayfish. Top with your favorite micro green or herb, more fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of your favorite, very good extra virgin olive oil (this is not the one you use for cooking).

Carnet notes that this is an extremely rich dish, which is true. So, it might benefit from some sort of acid in it.

The rice with foie gras, candied ginger, asparagus and baby squash:

The cheese plate with 3 different marmalades (delicious!):

Dessert #1 – the Pina colada, which is pineapple sorbet over pineapple-rum “soup”, served with baby coconut macaroons, fresh grated and dried coconut, and a spray of rum:

Finally, tres chocolates (but I forgot to take a pic before I ate the first bite, which was baileys ice cream over crushed mocha cookies):

Here’s the crew, including another stage and 3 servers, minus Nacho, who is the other owner of Osmosis:

Here’s Little John (sous chef) and Chef Frederic in the kitchen:

And, here’s Frederic, C and me, on Saturday night. I didn’t work that night, as C flew in, so Frederic treated us to dinner in our own private room, with scrumptious wine pairings which Nacho put together. Fantastic!

Muchas gracias, Frederic, Nacho y John, para todo. He aprendido mucho y fue muy divertido!

Going back a few days, Thursday night, I went to Tickets which is an Albert Adria restaurant. My friend Diana gathered 8 of us and it was a 5 hour dinner! The company was perfect. Everyone was so interesting, so different, and incredibly nice. The food was super fun, some even whimsical, and most of it was excellent (very few items were just “good”). People try to get into Tickets 6 months in advance, but Diana called Quim and asked for a favor, so we were all very lucky. And, it was nice that Albert came to speak to our table at the end of the meal.

I won’t post all of the pics from dinner, as there are too many. I’ll just post some highlights. First, the menu cover and what the restaurant looks like inside:

Next, the really fun “olives” made by spherification. They weren’t really olives, but rather a thin membrane over liquid that tasted like green olives.

Spherification is a process through which a liquid is mixed with sodium alginate, and dripped into a cold solution of calcium chloride or calcium carbonate. Reverse spherification, for use with substances which contain calcium, requires dripping the substance into an alginate bath. Both methods give the same result: a sphere of liquid held by a thin gel membrane, texturally similar to caviar. The modern adaptation of this technique to food was developed by Ferran and Albert Adria.

At Tickets, the spherification technique was also used for the olive oil and other liquid “caviars” and pearls that were served atop the oysters and other tapas. You’ll see more, below.

The oysters were good, but I thought were more visually stunning than they tasted, other than the pearl itself, which was filled with seawater. But, then again, I’m a picky oyster eater, and I’m remembering fondly the weekend earlier this year when Bob and Steph flew into SF and 4 of us (C,too) went oyster eating in Tomales Bay. Yummmm.

The aged beef was beautiful, as was the lobster, both in appearance and taste.

Yep, we eat the coral and roe and all in Spain.

The smoked sardines were great and again, I loved the presentation:

But, by far my two favorite dishes of the evening where the navajas (razor clams) and the “cheese puffs with olive oil caviar”. Wow, wow, wow. Both in appearance – the plates were perfect – and taste, these knocked my socks off. Here they are:

The desserts didn’t blow me away, but that’s hard to do these days ūüėČ

But, the company more than made up for that. Here’s the crew, with Mariane holding up the bonita chips.

And, Diana and me:

Yep, my life is grande!

Tonight, I’m off with dad, Maren and C to roam and see what food we can find…something a little more simple, I think.

Buen Provecho!