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Day 1 in Galicia: A Coruña

23 Aug

I just arrived back in Barcelona this afternoon after 5 nights on the road in Galicia. I didn’t have internet connection much of the time, so I’ll be posting 4 different blog entries, one for each city I visited, over the next several days. Here’s post 1 (with a picture of the harbor in A Coruña, at top).

My journey was suppose to begin on Thursday, August 16 in the morning. However, Wednesday night, I ate a bad mushroom (no, not the psychedelic kind, although that might have been preferable to what I went through) and ended up in bed for 24 hours. I had some horrendous intoxicación alimenticia = food poisoning. After 6 hours of rapidly expelling the contents of my system and then moving into the “I can’t walk because all my muscles are severely cramping in my legs” phase, I decided to call a doctor. This was a great idea as the hand and arm cramps started shortly thereafter.

So, some folks in the U.S. tend to hem and haw over socialized medicine, but I’m here to tell you I think that was some of the best medical care I’ve ever received. It surely beats the care from most of the yahoo doctors I’ve seen in Hawaii (save 1 or 2).

I Called. Doctor arrived within 30 minutes. We talked. He decided the offending food was likely the mushrooms and he gave me 4 ccs of something potent in the butt. Whatever the contents of the shot, it stopped the barfing within 30 minutes and took away some of the stabbing pain in the stomach. The next few days were still rough as I would have random spasms, bathroom runs, and long lasting cramps in my legs, but I decided the best thing to do was to “just get over it”, as my mother says and always has done.

So, Friday, I boarded a train to Madrid. About halfway through the 3 hour journey I was thinking I had made a mistake, but then I just kept thinking of my mom and how tough she is and I decided to stick with the day’s journey. I got off in Madrid as planned, transferred to the other Madrid train station, and I was off on another 6 hour train ride to A Coruña. From the A Coruña train station, I taxi’d straight to my hotel and went to bed that night, to awake to a fabulous day and me feeling a bit better.

Here’s a map of Galicia for a reference point:

A Coruña is in the north of Galicia on the Atlantic Ocean. And, the region of Galicia is just north of Portugal, so it’s on the opposite side of the country from Barcelona.

My hotel in A Coruña was fabulous and the best deal ever. For 38 Euros, which included a bad looking breakfast which I passed on, I had a beautifully clean, modern and very large room. It had a mini bar, fabulously quiet and efficient A/C system, modern t.v. and great wifi. The bonus: super quiet. The hotel is called Attica 21. It’s a bit outside of the ciudad vieja (old town), but for the accommodations and the peaceful sleep, I would have expected to pay double, at least.

Here’s a pic of the room:

I checked out early and asked the front desk if they could hold my luggage so I could explore the town. The woman at the front desk motioned for me to just put my luggage behind the front desk. No tags, no nothing. It took all I had to not ask for a receipt, but I didn’t want to seem rude. I definitely could’ve been more cautious considering I left my computer and peripherals in my suitcase, but I decided to trust the hotel staff as I wasn’t really up for carrying any extra weight that day.

So, I caught a taxi to Plaza de Santa Maria Pita. It was 10:00 a.m. and I was the first and only one there. Huh. Guess people sleep late in A Coruña.

Here’s a pic Plaza de Santa Maria Pita:

And here’s a picture of the lady herself:

She’s simultaneously beautiful and a bad as_, too right?

After snapping some photos, I went to the tourist office in the plaza to get a map and ask: if I have 5 hours only, what should I do? I was directed to tour the old town, walk to the lighthouse, and eat some pulpo gallega, the last part of which I had already planned. So, I toured the old town. It was a gorgeous little town, and again pretty deserted for the hour, I thought. Here are some pics:

Here’s a pic of a convent:

Here’s a picture of the front of a closed cafe. I just thought it was cute:

Then, I started to walk along the pier to get to the lighthouse. Bless the good Spanish people who always try to estimate distances and always underestimate them. A woman told me it was a 30 minute walk from old town. Well, I walk extremely fast (got that from my dad) and at 30 minutes, the lighthouse was nowhere in sight. I was predicting it was at least another 30 minutes from where I was, and my legs were not quite back to my normal running/walking shape. Plus, I was getting hungry and everyone who knows me knows what that means… if I don’t get food in me quick, I’m going to ruin someone’s day.

But, along the way I was temporarily distracted from my hunger by the darling art on the lamp posts that are about every 100 yards along the walkway. They were each hand-painted, all with an ocean theme. Here are a few of my favorites:

And, a picture of the lampposts along the ocean walk:

I loved them! We should do that in the U.S.!

After several minutes of picture taking, I turn back because I want to be sure I can make it back to my eatery of choice before I have a meltdown. I go to the famed “street of wines”, which is a narrow alley, lined with restaurants, in front of the Plaza de Santa Maria. I took a clue from my hit or miss Lonely Planet guide book and stopped in at a pulperia (a restaurant specializing in octopus), called Meson de Pulpo.

Okay, so here’s the part about good food. I ate the best octopus of my trip and of my life at this restaurant! The octopus was done in the traditional Galician fashion, which is sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with hot paprika and a touch of maldon sea salt. It was incredibly tender and fresh. It was a perfect dish. It didn’t seem fussy, but I’m here to tell you after having worked with octopus that either you have to be a bit fussy with it to get it that tender or there’s some secret I’m missing.

Here’s the pic of the dish:

My waiter was awesome and served me a great glass of Albariño wine because I asked for one since I was in Albariño country. Albariño is the grape and it’s used to make a dry, white wine that can either be fairly complex or really simple and something close to a Portuguese vinho verde. I guess this makes sense, since Galicia is just north of Portugal.

Also, requisite with the pulpo is crusty bread to dip in the olive oil. Me encanta! I loved this meal, so far. I should have stopped there, as I was pretty full after the ½ racion (1/2 portion) of pulpo, but another popular dish in Galicia is the fried calamari. I thought if the octopus is this fresh and this tender, I should definitely try the calamari.

Well, the calamari had perfect breading on it. It was super delicate and light and the seasoning and salt was subtle and proper if you want to taste the fresh calamari. But, it was tough! Darnit! I don’t like tough, unless it’s a quality in my friends and family 😉

I told the waiter I was a cook from the U.S. and asked him what was the secret to their perfect pulpo? He told me to go ask the chef. So, I did. She – yes, she (awesome, since I don’t see very many if any female chefs in restaurant kitchens in Spain) – looked at me weird. What do you mean, she asks? My reply: How is it not tough? Her answer: We get it in fresh, we massage it a bit. Then we drop it in hot water for a bit and then we fry it in hot olive oil. Then we put paprika and salt on top. Me: ummm, okay. Can you be more specific? Her: no. That’s what we do. Me: Vale, gracias. (okay, thanks).

Well, by this time, I’m a bit drunk off of ½ of my glass of Albarino, as I have 0 tolerance for alcohol right now and I’m thinking my liver is still a bit in shock from the toxic mushroom. So, I go to sit down in a plaza for a bit before I catch a cab back to my hotel to grab my luggage and take another train to Santiago.

While I’m smiling and thinking that I have the alcohol tolerance of a 10 year old, I’m also remembering the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and a quick snapshot of one of his apprentices massaging octopus in a white liquid. I’m wondering if it is cornstarch, although I’m not sure that’s used in Japanese cooking. It didn’t look like daikon, as it was a smooth white liquid and I tried massaging my octopus with daikon which I don’t think did a thing to tenderize it as some chefs have suggested. Hmmmm, I’ll have to do more research on that.

I don’t know why I’m so stuck on making the perfect octopus dish right now. But, I have been ever since I came to Barcelona. Someone told me it was cruel to eat octopus because they’re intelligent. Really? Is it more cruel than eating pigs? Isn’t their DNA very similar to that of humans? How about what we do to baby cows in the name of eating veal, or how about force feeding birds so we can eat foie? These are all moral choices and those of us who have the choice probably should contemplate these things more often, as that means we’re lucky and wealthy enough to be eating them.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want to limit what I eat right now in the name of culinary research, but my current thought is everything in moderation. Cop out? Maybe. But, I do make choices along the way, such as eating vegetarian some days (or for 8 years, at one point in my life). It’s mostly for health reasons, but I also want to believe that what we eat – en masse as people who have choices of what we want to eat – affects what commercial farmers choose to grow, which in turn affects mother nature’s ability to restore depleting clean water supplies and to rejuvenate abused terra.

Okay, back to the travels. I picked up my suitcase and backpack and boarded another train for Santiago de Compostela in the late afternoon. I checked into a hotel converted from a darling 18th century home on the outskirts of old town called Virxe de Cerca. It oozed charm. Here are a few pics:

My room:

The garden:

The tables in the cute bar nook:

Instead of going out that night, I decided I was satiated from the terrific pulpo I had eaten earlier (plus my system still was a bit wrecked from the offending mushrooms) and all I needed was a few pieces of fruit to restore some vitamins, some water and a comfortable bed. Since I had no wifi connection, I decided to watch a campy, cult classic on the tube: Stripes. It’s basically Bill Murray, John Candy and Harold Ramis being goofballs. Just what I needed.

Night 1, and full day 1 in Galicia were a huge success!

Stay tuned for more excellent food reviews and pictures of Santiago de Compostela in the next post!

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On Tour: Galicia by way of Sitges

21 Aug

Whew! I have had such a fantastic last few weeks. It’s almost a blur I’ve been traveling so much (and getting food poisoning a few times – bummer). So, after another week in Quim’s kitchen and the Buddhist meditation workshop (kidding about the last part; read below to see what I mean), I decided I needed to go learn food other than Catalan cuisine and that I really needed to see the different regions of Spain before I left. With that, I decided to take 3 weeks and journey west, south and middle.

But, before that, Diana invited me to visit her cousin with her who has a house in Sitges, per my last post. So, I’ll talk about that fab weekend in this blog post. Then, the next several blog posts will be about my time this past week (and today) in Galicia, and more specifically the towns of A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Cambados, and O Grove.

Vicenc (Vincent, in English), Diana’s cousin, picked me up in his BMW convertible and off we went to fetch Diana. Such fun on a hot day to be in a convertible! Vicenc is such a sweet man. He had extra hats and hair bands in the car for the ladies. We went to his house and then straight to a darling cove of a beach that you walk around a point in the ocean to go to. Later, we met one of Diana’s friends at the train station and back to the beach we went. Then, before dinner, we walked around the town. Here are a few pics of the town and our cast of characters.

This is Diana and Miriam in a narrow alley. Lovely ladies, aren’t they?

This is Diana and me in a typical street in the old part of town. Look at the marvelous stone houses and ground. Love it!

This is sweet Vicenc and the pic below that is his cool staircase that leads to the second story of his place:

At the very top is a picture of our table at the chiringuito we ate at on the beach. It was a gorgeous evening and there were 14 of us. The food was pretty bad but it was about the company. The company was great.

The next day, Miriam, Vicenc, Diana and I headed to the Buddhist temple for some meditation and a tour. The meditation was hilarious. One guy fell asleep and snored loudly the entire time. Doors were slamming. I couldn’t stop giggling. Sorry, Miriam.

The guy who led the meditation played show-and-tell, as I called it, for the first 20 minutes and wanted everyone to say what their practice of meditation was like (mine = nonexistent, unless you call thinking a lot about food a sort of meditation) and where we were from. I kept my mouth shut mainly because I wanted him to get on with it so I could lay down. I think I meditated for a good 2 minutes. But, those 2 minutes were very lovely.

After the meditation, we took a tour of the temple. It was a clash of cultures and religions/beliefs, for sure. There was a jesus room, which I found interesting. They served nice tea, but I thought, “how odd.” Why does there need to be a jesus room in a Buddhist temple? If people want to worship jesus or their Christian god, let them go to their own Christian church. In Buddhism, you don’t achieve enlightenment by worshiping god or jesus or by listening to a priest or some other intermediary or by asking someone to forgive your sins. You do good deeds and you work out your own salvation with diligence. You get what you give. Nice lesson, no matter what religion or non-religion you are. Anyway, I digress. Here are the pics:

This is one of several of the prayer wheels you spin, while walking clockwise around the stupa 3 times and then standing in its shadow. Although I’m not Buddhist, I did this in honor of Busaba, her family, and C.

Finally, a picture of the lovely hillside we went flying down as we left the temple. We stopped to overlook Sitges.

So, where’s the buena comida in all of this? I have to say my favorite food of the weekend were the buñols that Diana introduced me to at my favorite croissant bakery, Forn de Sant Jaume. They are lovely, little doughy donut like things with coarse sugar on top. Yummmmmm.

Okay, my wifi is terrible, so this post has taken me 3 hours – gasp! I think I’ll wait to post more when I get back to Barcelona in a few days. Then, I’ll go day by day through Galicia. Galicia is the region on the Atlantic coast just north of Portugal. I’ll talk more about the great and awful food I had, as well as my bike ride today after a half bottle of Albariño – ha!

Buen Provecho!

Another few days at El Quim de la Boqueria

11 Aug

Ahhh, back where I started this journey – en el Mercado de la Boqueria con my jefe, Quim. It has been fun to be back in the kitchen at El Quim’s with the guys, and super busy! Summer is their busy time, of course, as it’s tourist season. Many people in Barcelona take off for the month of August, so other restaurants are closed. Quim’s smart and he stays open. So, I think he gets even more traffic because of it.

I introduced 2 new dishes to them this week, for which I’ll write the recipes below. They are not my inventions as I took components from other recipes I’ve read, but they are California-esque which Quim and clan wanted to learn, and they are great for hot summer days. There are really fresh, citrus components to each. Today, it was in the upper 80s/lower 90s fahrenheit. In the market, which is open air, it was even hotter.

Thursday, I made a monkfish, which is a very common fish from the Mediterranean, surrounded by 2 salsas. On the bottom was a cooked tomato fondue and on the top was a fresh summer squash salsa. For this recipe at home, I would choose a firm, white fish, but just about any white fish – fresh or salt water – will work great. If it’s really fresh, get a fish that you can leave just a bit raw/crudo in the center. For friends/family in Hawaii, I do not think tuna would be a good pairing for this. Instead try opah or one of the other local, white fishes. Halibut would be nice, as well.

Here’s the recipe for monkfish with 2 salsas (serves 4):

Ingredients:
1 kilo/2 pounds white fish that you can cut into four, 2 x 3 x 2 inch thick pieces
1 small green zucchini
2 cloves garlic
6 roma tomatoes
1 small shallot
1 lemon
1/2 of a handful of blanched, no skin almonds. This means they are the white-ish kind, without skin, and they are not roasted or salted. You can substitute Marcona almonds here, but if they are salted, you’ll want to omit or reduce the salt in the salsa. Always taste, taste, taste, before salting.
fresh thyme
fresh basil

Directions:
Start the tomato fondue first. Here’s how it goes:
1) Score the bottom of your tomatoes with a small “x”, remove just the top part of the stem and then put the whole tomatoes into boiling water for 1 minute. The object here is to get the skin just loose enough to peel away from the rest of the tomato. A traditional French tomato fondue has a silky mouth texture so you don’t want the skin. But, if you like the skin or you’re lazy, just skip this step.
**While you’re bringing your water up to a boil, clean your fish if your fishmonger has not done it for you. Then, put it in the refrigerator for later.
2) Throw the tomatoes in ice water for another 2 minutes and then peel away the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds, so you have just the outer layer of the tomato without the fine skin or the seeds.
3) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan. Mince 1 clove garlic and the small shallot. If your shallot is big, cut it in half and mince only half of the shallot. Throw the garlic and shallot in the hot oil for 30 seconds to one minute.
4) Dice tomatoes. Throw diced tomatoes in the pan and stir up with garlic and shallots. Turn to low and let simmer until the liquid is almost gone and the tomatoes start to turn a deeper red. Add a pinch of salt and 1 sprig of fresh thyme leaves toward the end of the process. The taste should be sweet and it should be almost like a thin jam. Be sure to watch it so you don’t burn it. This should take no more than 20 or so minutes.
5) Also, while the fondue is cooking, make the salsa. Grate 1/2/-3/4 of the zucchini. Then, mince 1/2 of the other clove of garlic and put some salt on it to sweat it a bit.
6) To the zucchini, add the zest of your 1 lemon and thyme leaves from one sprig of thyme. Then, add the salted garlic. Mix. Add lemon juice to taste.
7) Heat up your pan our grill. While it is heating, make sure the fish is already out of the refrigerator. You should let it sit on the counter for 5 minutes or so before you put it on hot heat. As with most proteins, you don’t want it to seize up because it’s too cold when it hit the heat. That’s why people say put meat on the counter before grilling or searing.
8) Sear or grill your fish until slightly underdone. While fish is cooking, finish salsa. Mince the almonds. Chiffonade or mince fresh basil and add both to the zucchini mix. Add salt and adjust seasoning if necessary. This should be a lemony-crunchy-basil-thyme salsa. If you add the almonds too soon, they will get soggy. If you add the basil too soon, it will turn black. So, make sure those are the last ingredients you add.
9) To assemble: Put the a round of tomato fondue onto the middle of each plate. Then, top with the fish. Finally, top with 1-2 tablespoons of zucchini salsa. Drizzle very good extra virgin olive oil on top, if you have it. It’s going to kind of look like the Italian flag, with red, white and green layers, but it will be lovely.

The whole process should not take longer than 1 to 1.5 hours to prepare. Sorry, I don’t have pictures. I was a dunce and forgot to take them.

The second dish I introduced was a pintxo or tapa. It’s super simple. It’s a great appetizer to do at a bbq, as you can prepare everything ahead of time except for cooking the shrimp which can be done on a grill or in a hot pan in 2 minutes right before service.

It’s essentially shrimp, guacamole and grapefruit on a crostini. But, the key here is that you must use fresh prawns and you must use fresh avocados, since those are the stars of the dish. If you use store-bought guacamole, it probably won’t be the end of the world, but it’s neither going to look as nice, nor will it be as fresh, which is what you’re going for with this dish (unless you buy the very expense, made-daily guacamole at Whole Foods – it is delicious and fresh).

This recipe, with a few of my adjustments, is courtesy of Tasting Table, which is a great foodie blog. The idea here is to build on top of a crostini or piece of fresh baguette, whichever you prefer. It should be like 2 bites.

Ingredients:
Fresh large/jump shrimp with shells on – buy enough for 2 per person. do NOT get the cooked, frozen ones. they will be too soggy for this recipe.
1 ripe avocado – this will be enough for 8-10 shrimp
1 fresh baguette
dried chili flakes
1 ripe, red grapefruit – this will be enough for 8-10 shrimps
fresh cilantro
lime
olive oil for cooking shrimp

Directions:
1) Peel and clean the prawns. Set aside until ready to grill or sear.
2) Make guacamole: half and score the insides of both the avocado(s). Scoop out with a spoon into a bowl. Mince some cilantro, and add in some fresh lime juice and salt to taste. If you like some heat, I would mince some serrano pepper or use red chili flakes and add them in, as well. Also, if you like garlic, you could put a small amount in, but remember, you’re having fruit with this and I don’t really think garlic works here.
3) Supreme a grapefruit. The idea is to have lovely segments of grapefruit to put on top, that does not have the pith or any white stuff on it.
4) Shell some pistachios and coursely chop them.
5) Heat the grill or stove. While it is heating, cut your baguette into thin rounds. If you like your bread toasted, turn on the broiler at this point. If you’re grilling, you can simply throw the bread on the grill whiel you do the shrimp, which is the next step.
5) Throw shrimp on a hot, oiled bbq and flip after 30 seconds. If you’re grilling the shrimp, toss the shrimp in a bit of olive oil before they go on the grill. Or, if you’re doing stovetop, heat some olive oil in a pan and throw the shrimp in when the oil’s hot. Turn after 30 seconds. Cook maybe 20-30 seconds more and remove while still a bit crudo in the middle. Remember, it will continue to cook and you don’t want overdone or rubbery shrimp. If it’s really, really fresh, you can eat it crudo anyway. The cooking time will depend on your heat and the size of your shrimp, so you’ll just have to watch it. Right before the shrimp is done, sprinkle on some maldon sea salt and chili flakes.
6) Assembly: lay out toasted baguette pieces on a plate. Spread a teaspoon or so of guacamole on the bread, then top with 1 large prawn per toast. Then, put a grapefruit segment on top of each shrimp. If you like more salt, add just a few flakes of maldon sea salt on top of each grapefruit segment. I really like the combo of just a bit of salt with grapefruit. Finally, top with crushed pistachios. Serve.

Time: This shouldn’t take you more than 30-40 minutes to prepare.

Okay, off to meet friends to go to Sitges today and then to a meditation workshop at a Buddhist temple tomorrow. Some people think I need to meditate and/or do yoga. We’ll see how this hyper woman does in meditation – ha!

Buen Provecho!

2 days in Emporda, Part II

8 Aug

So, onto more castle pics! The one above is a view from our castle room. Unbelievable. Below are more views.

This is a day view from the top of the tower where Rapunzel was (kidding about Rapunzel – it was me):

And another view from the roof of the tower:

It was a gorgeous day and the views were spectacular.

The inside of the castle was also pretty interesting. I loved all of the dragons everywhere. Here are a few shots.

This one is at night as I’m descending the windy staircase of the tower:

The is one that is hanging above the second story of the main castle building, which now serves as the reception and entry point:

The owner is apparently a Waterloo fan, as he has the largest, miniature collection of the Waterloo battle in the world. Here’s a pic:

And, a close up of one of the battle scenes:

Weird? Cool? Both?

Okay, onto Day 2. We started out the morning with an excellent breakfast that is included in the room price. Of course, everything was homemade. There were 4 different types of jams, 6 different types of bread (I ate 4 slices), charcuterie, fresh squeezed juices, cava (yep, they even bottle their own cava), granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, and then they asked you what type of eggs you wanted and they made them, as well as the coffee, to order. Wow, wow, wow. It’s not a wonder that I’ve gained nearly 6 kilos since I’ve been here (2.2 kilos = 1 pound).

After I stuffed my belly and other parts, we were ready for a little pool time. Oh yeah, the castle has a heated pool, 8 large (for 2 people) padded lounge beds (they were beds not chairs), 3 sitting/sunroof decks, 2 bars and a bartender who tends the pool goers. Inside, it has a dvd/library collection, a piano room, a lounge/reading room with a t.v. and several different nooks and crannies in which there are lovely pillow seats usually underneath a magnificent window with a gorgeous view, if you just want to chill for a moment. Yep, fit for a princess.

After breakfast we set out to drive through some more small towns. Diana may need to correct me on this, as all medieval towns look alike (kidding!), but I think the two we hit on day 2 were Cruilles and Monells.

If I’m not mistaken, Cruilles was the town in which Diana tried to drive down some steps. Here’s how it went… Diana: “I’m not sure if we can drive through these narrow streets, but let’s try.” We drive down a few very narrow streets and then take a hairpin turn right with no more than 1 inch on each side of Diana’s van. It turns out we’re in a lovely courtyard with no way out. I get out and take some photos while Diana does a 10 point turn to get us out of there. Here’s pic of Diana and mom as we exit the courtyard.

Instead of being deterred, Diana pushed on through another narrow street that looked rather like a large walking path. Halfway down the street mom says,
“Ummm, I think those are steps going down ahead of you.”
Diana: “Nah.”
The car: thunk.

Yep, we launched off the first big step. Me: laughing. Then, me: incredibly impressed, again, with Diana’s driving. I was pretty sure we bottomed out the mini-van, but all she did was burn rubber and much of the clutch in reverse to get us back over the steps. I was secretly hoping we’d keep going down the steps to see where we landed. Ha!

Did I mention Diana is the greatest tour guide ever? She’s fearless in her van.

Here are a few views of very cute Cruilles and Monells.

This is the picture of the tiny courtyard Diana drove in, which we’re all now pretty sure was for pedestrians only:

I think this was also Cruilles:

And Monells…

I loved the streets in this town a whole lot.

A door in Monells:

Another street:

There was also a very cool bridge in a town we passed on our way back to Bisbal to buy some pottery. Here it is:

The last thing we did on Friday was visit Gala’s castle in Pubol. Gala was Dali’s wife. Now, I think I’ve done just about every outing and seen just about everything I can see memorializing Dali. For you Dali lovers, here are two pics of a table he made. The first pic is of the table. If you study it closely, you’ll notice that, in addition to the bird leg/foot, you can also seem to see through the table to the floor below.

Now, if you look at this second pic, you see that you indeed see through to the floor below and you also see a large, white stuffed horse that indeed was alive and real at one time. In addition to some other weird fetishes, Dali loved stuffing large animals. I mean, I loved stuffed animals, too, when I was a kid but this….

is clever, I’ll give him that. I know, I know, for someone who doesn’t appreciate Dali, I’ve seen everything there is to see about him in Catalonia. But, like Gaudi, Picasso and Miro, he is/was one of the world’s revered artists, so when in Catalonia…

Back to BCN on Friday around 8 p.m. Perfect!

Mom went back to CO on Sunday a.m. early, early, so I cleaned and rested that day. Then, I beached it on Monday. The beaches in Barcelona are not very nice compared to other beaches I’ve been to (and they pale in comparison to Hawaii beaches – by a long way) but I needed some BT, so I had to do it. So, if you’re ever in Barcelona and you just have to get your beach on, then I would suggest going to the beach next to the W Hotel. It’s generally cleaner down that way than the part of the beach just in front of the pier at Barceloneta and you can use the very nice W Hotel bathrooms. Their hand towels are awesome! If you’re shy, just be aware that there are some nudies and many topless folks. If you’re not shy and want to get a full tan, this is the place for you.

Note: For those of you who know me, you know I’m not shy. But, don’t worry mom and dad, I won’t end up on the internet in my full birthday suit.

Then, I went back to work at Quim’s on Tuesday. Here’s my first meal back, courtesy of Yuri:

Ummm, yes it was as delicious as it looks. Simple, fresh, quickly seared in garlic and olive oil. Sprinkled with parsley, maldon sea salt and pepper. The prawns had a splash of vinegar on them which was perfect. Yep, you need to suck the heads out of the crayfish to get the full flavor.

Then, it was dinner with Diana and Teresa. Here’s a warning for all the people living in Barcelona or those who plan to visit: stay away from Thai Garden on Valencia between Rambla Catalunya and Carrer de Balmes. It was hands down the worse food I’ve eaten here and the worst Thai food I’ve ever eaten. The restaurant has a darling interior and nice Buddhas everywhere, but the food was literally rotten, like spoiled. I had such a rough stomach today.

But, the company way fabulous. I was with two lovely ladies who showed me more places right around my apartment that I hadn’t seen. We went to a bar called Boca Chica. It has a restaurant attached to it called Boca Grande. The bathroom is the highlight of the place! It is the coolest bathroom I’ve ever been in and I want to steal the idea for my restaurant. Seriously.

It has a DJ and a DJ setup in the bathroom. I’m not lying. Here’s a pic:

The pictures I took are kind of bad because the bathroom was lit with only candles and I had only my iphone with me, not my good camera, but the bathroom was also covered with mirrors and funky art. If you look at the pics below, in the reflection of the mirrors, you can see other walls and the art on them.

The individual unisex stalls were also covered with mirrors, including the ceilings. Why I’d want to see myself going to bathroom I don’t know, but the mirrors themselves were very nice quality and the stalls were clean and elegantly appointed. I always say the mark of a good restaurant is how much thought goes into the restrooms and how clean they are kept. So, I applaud the restaurant for taking such care with theirs.

Well, I’m off to bed, as I’m up early to work at Quim’s again tomorrow. I’m going to teach the other cocineros a dish that’s easy to make for their “specials” of the day. It has a raw salsa component to it that I think they need more of on their menu. We’ll see if they like it!

2 days in Empordá, Part I

6 Aug

On August 2, Diana, mom and I headed out to see the countryside of Empordá and some coastal towns along the Costa Brava. The drive was really beautiful, as the Empordá countryside is dotted with farmland and well-preserved medieval towns. Our agenda for the day was to eat a restaurant Quim recommended called Toc Al Mar in Aiguablava, a very tiny beach town, and to stay overnight in a castle in Bisbal. We wanted to be princesses for a day, and that we were.

The pic at top is some countryside. Another pic is below:

Empordá is the region in which the Costa Brava is situated. Here’s a map to give you a better visual of where we were:

If you look to the right of the word “Girona”, you’ll see most of the towns we visited, started at La Bisbal, out to the coast to Aiguablava, back inland to Pals, Peratallada, Ullastret, Monells, and Puból. We also went through a small town called Cruilles, that’s on the map. If you look further up the coast to the Cap de Creus, you can see where I visited before – Cadaques, Port Lligat, Port de la Selva, Sant Pere de Rodes.  So, I have been so fortunate to cover quite a bit of the Costa Brava.

Back to our journey…our first destination was our castle to check in and drop off some bags. Here’s what it looks like upon entering the grounds:

You know you’re in for a treat when the countryside looks like the pics above and this is what you see before you.

Then, we were off to Aiguablava for a late lunch and a dip in the ocean. Here’s a pic of Aiguablava:

Here’s mom and me at lunch at Toc Al Mar:

If you look closely behind us, there’s the beach and the ocean. The town is so small that you walk down this hill and you have 3-4 restaurants, a few shops and the beach and that’s it. It’s darling.

Lunch was excellent. We started out with 2 salads, the avocado, crispy onion one being my favorite. The other was a tomato tartare and tuna one, which was also good, but I’m kind of over tuna at this point. The main course was a lovely whole fish in garlic oil. I’m an idiot and forgot the name of the fish, but it was another local fish that I had not seen before. Our bottle of white from the Empordá DO, was lovely. They are known for their whites and roses. This was one young and dry, which was perfect for fish and salads. Here it is, in a cute, plastic wine chiller which is perfect for the beach or a beach restaurant:

A quick dip in the ocean and we were off again to explore some other old towns. We headed back through Pals and then to Ullastret.

Here’s a pic of Pals, which is a pretty touristy town:

So, onto Ullastret we went. What a cute city! Here are a few pics below:

Here are some close-ups of the great tiles and figurines they made a part of the facades on their houses:

And, my favorite:

Another view of Ullastret:

And, finally, a picture of my mom in Ullastret. She is hilarious!

By this time, it’s turning toward nightfall and we decide to have a late dinner in La Bisbal at a cafe Diana has visited with her kids. The cafe’s name is L’esut, which means the shield. Yep, this town is all about the medieval. Here’s a look at the entrance:

We order a menu del dia, a fuet bocadillo, and a tortilla. The menu del dia was lovely. The first course was a roasted vegetable dish with olive oil – pretty standard fare for Catalonia- but still nice. But, the main course was fabulous! It was a fish I didn’t know called Molla. Here’s a pic:

The dessert was a panna cotta with a homemade red fruit sauce. The chef got carried away with the use of her/his gelatin, as it was too firm, but the sauce was incredible. It was the kind that makes you want to pick up the plate and lick off every remaining drop.

My other favorite was the bocadillo (sandwich). It contained thin slices of fuet, which is like llonganisa, which is like a very nice, thin salami. It was on a spectacularly crusty bread. Simple, excellent ingredients made a perfect sandwich.

Back to the castle for a shower, meandering the grounds and picture taking in my pajamas. Here’s a pic of the castle towers at night. I climbed the big tower in the foreground and went out onto the roof. Diana was a little nervous for me, but c’mon! When you’re in a castle, you have to climb to the top!

Since this post is getting very long, I’ll show more pics of the castle and surrounding landscape in my next blog post, which is Day 2 of Empordá. It was indeed magical.

On a different note, as much as I’m in love with Catalonia, I am missing home. I am missing excellent Asian food, namely sushi and Thai. So, last night I watched a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazing. It’s about Jiro, an 85 year old man, who still runs his own restaurant. The 9 seat restaurant is a sushi shop in the Ginza metro station in Tokyo. Jiro has 3 Michelin stars.

I loved some of his words of wisdom. “Once you decide on your occupation, immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Those words of wisdom are likely to fall on deaf ears in this day and age in the United States, especially the part about not complaining. But I hope some us newbies in the culinary world will still try to live by at least a few of them. There are great American chefs out there who already do e.g. Grant Achatz.

Here are a few words of wisdom by Jiro’s 50 year old son who will succeed him: “Always look ahead and above yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.”  These, I can live by.

In addition to sushi, I’m really missing Thai food and hot spices right now. I was talking with C last night and he said he was going to make a shrimp curry. He reminded me of one of my favorite blogs he introduced to me last year: shesimmers.com. It’s about authentic Thai cooking and the writer is amazing. She’s thoughtful, presents easy enough recipes, and her writing is impeccable. Her photos are lovely, as well. So, if you like Thai food, this is a great blog. Here’s an example of something that might be fun to try: Thai coconut sticky rice in sushi form. Check it out: http://www.shesimmers.com/2010/05/thai-sweet-coconut-sticky-rice-with.html

So, today I think I’ll get some ingredients for a curry dinner. I’ll also zip over to the Boqueria market to see what seafood is fresh for my star ingredient.

Then, tomorrow, it’s back to work at El Quim de la Boqueria. I hope my stomach is strong enough by now to eat all his raw seafood.

Buen Provecho!

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 http://www.ekaterinazaytseva.com . 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 cosmoscooter.com . 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 😉

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 😉 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! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4hXyALR9vI

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 “Euskadi” in Basque and “País Vasco” 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 Sebastián: 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 Mañaria. Our first destination: a 1 year old winery called Hiruzta in the town of Hondarribia. See www.hiruzta.com. 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 http://www.restauranteelkano.com 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 (www.hisop.com). 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!