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Here are our comments about our relatively recent (October 2011) dining experiences in Spain. I have said before, but it is worth repeating, that we are not professional critics; however, we do eat well and think we know what is good. Of course, as always, my comments reflect our experience on that day and someone else’s experience certainly may have been different than ours. Thus, please feel free to take the comments below with a grain of Cadiz sea salt.
Madrid – Dinner at Casa Patas on Calle Cañizares – Well-known place with a show of Flamenco music, singing, and dance and pretty good Sangria in a dark back room, followed by our first genuine tapas experience (albondigas, pork shoulder, bellota jamon [wow, now we understand all the fuss, that stuff is delicious!], grilled octopus, and oxtails) at the crowded, boisterous, and friendly bar: what’s not to love? A fine start to the journey, and we would return if we desired more Flamenco.
Madrid – Lunch at Casa Salvador on Calle Barbieri – As Anthony Bourdain indicated, this place is pure, old school, traditional perfection with ancient, smiling professional waiters happily and enthusiastically serving large gin & tonics (note: there seems to be an obsession in Spain with this drink) and hearty, delicious classics in small rooms crammed with bullfighting and movie memorabilia. Great olives and jamon to start, followed by shrimp with garlic, oxtails in dark, rich mushroom and potato stew (my order confirmed by our laughing waiter pointing to the tail on one of the bull statues in the room), perfect flan, and a great dish of arroz con leche. We would return and I’d love to try dinner there.
Madrid – Dinner at Restaurante Esteban on Cava Baja – Chosen by whim and perhaps a dash of instinct on the crowded, crazy boulevard of tapas, this was a warm, friendly, delicious evening. We stayed in the bar area up front, but watched many folks head for the dining room. Traditional tapas galore: pimientos rojos, those amazing light green olives, jamon, albondigas, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and substantial servings of slices of suckling pig and a leg of roast baby lamb my wife saw, smiled, and pointed at while exploring the room. The house Rioja flowed and it was a wonderful meal. Before we could leave, one of the very friendly waiters insisted we wait so he could go to the freezer, pull out a mysterious bottle, and pour us short glasses of a terrific digestif, perhaps a Pacharán? We would return.
Madrid – Dinner at La Giralda on Calle Claudio Coello – One of a small local chain renowned for seafood. Our first slightly upscale dinner, meaning we actually sat down in a lovely dining room, where I believe we were the only tourists among noisy family-filled tables. Very good gazpacho; tuna, tomato and onion salad; a fine paella; and tasty but rather small lamb chops, all served by a spectacularly forgetful waiter (if we did not remind him what we had ordered, we might still be sitting there waiting). It was a good meal, with lackluster service, and not one that would call us back.
Toledo – Lunch at La Tarasca on Hombre de Palo – a Marshall and Diana recommendation. On our day trip to Toledo, we wandered around looking for this tiny place, which we found to be warm and inviting and filled with happy, noisy eaters who seemed to be locals. Not much atmosphere, but the delicious dishes (including very good peppers with tuna in squid ink, terrific Manchego, and a [slightly dry] breast of partridge) and numerous small glasses of beer served by very friendly folks, made for a fine lunch.
Madrid – Dinner at La Barraca on Calle de la Reina – This place is famous for paella and, based on my limited knowledge of the dish, rightfully so as it certainly was a delicious meal. Reservations needed and it was packed late into the night. Excellent starters, including sautéed “wild” mushrooms, Buñuelos de Bacalao (codfish fritters), and “Madrid-style” tripe (even I enjoyed this dish and our chef traveling companion Anders opined it may have been the best tripe he ever tasted). We ordered two different paellas – the “Valencian” with rabbit and chicken, and the “Reina de Mariscos,” which arrived covered with numerous, beautiful shellfish. This really was a very fine dinner, and we would return.
Segovia – Lunch at Jose Maria on Cronista Lecea - Our travelling companions and Spain guides Anders and Maria talked this place up big time, really increasing our expectations of what Anders promised would be the best dish of pork we ever tasted. All I can say is, verdad! We knew we were in good hands when our starter dishes arrived: great morcilla; my new favorite legumes – “judiones” (gargantuan white beans, perfectly cooked and served in a fantastic sauce loaded with pork bits); and a mixed jamon platter including some of the best chorizo any of us have ever enjoyed. Then, the main attraction arrived, an entire roast piglet, which they do not slice, mind you; rather, they cut it, somewhat jarringly, with the side of a heavy plate. This is “cochinillo asado” (roast suckling pig) country, and Jose Maria is justly famed for its truly amazing rendition, with perfectly crackling, crispy skin; a thin layer of milky fat; and succulent, moist, tender, white meat. It really was an amazing dish. If we return to Segovia, which is likely because it is a really cool town, we will return to Jose Maria.
Aranda de Duero – Dinner at Meson El Pastor on Plaza Vigencilla – This place just looked and smelled great, as it was crowded, noisy, and fronted by a very large and impressive wood burning brick oven (asador) from whose mouth beckoned the sight and smoky aroma of the regional specialty, “lechazo asado” (roast baby lamb, fed only on milk), a dish I had been craving since we began to plan the trip. Nothing formal here, large wooden tables, lots of locals as well as tourists, bottles of wine (Aranda is, after all, the heart of Ribera de Duero) and, if I recall correctly, no English and no menu. We started with a thick and delicious bready soup with lots of garlic. Then very simple, but quite tasty green salads, and then, sigh, a huge platter-bowl of wonderful, apparently very slowly roasted baby lamb, seasoned as simply as everything else that night, with nothing more than garlic, salt, and pepper, and drizzled with olive oil. Let’s just say my introduction to lechazo was heavenly. There was a ton of roast lamb there, and we devoured it all. Bottles of ‘06 Prado Rey and ‘08 Cillar de Silos were emptied. We would return for the sheer, rustic joy of perfectly prepared roasted lamb.
Aranda de Duero – Lunch at Aitana on Calle de San Gregorio – Recommended by our hotel and our friend at Cillar de Silos, this relatively modern looking restaurant provided a very pleasant, delicious lunch. We enjoyed lamb sweetbreads (even I enjoyed them), “wild” asparagus, a fantastic egg dish, and for me, some more lechazo, which was very good. Our friend Anders, who knows of such things, declared his veal dish the best veal ever. The wait staff was very welcoming, friendly, and enthusiastic, and the chef really knows how to use that beautiful oven. If in Aranda, we would return.
Aranda de Duero – Dinner at Restaurante La Raspa on Calle de San Gregorio. Another local recommendation, it was easy to find because of its fish skeleton logo. My review is short: Avoid at all costs! Why? Food poisoning! - most likely from its highly regarded (not by at least two of us) seafood rice dish known as Arroz Melosa con Bogavante (a sort of lobster). We already had eaten too much of the dish when Anders picked up some of the bogavante and smelled spoilage’s calling card – ammonia. For two of us, that night and most of the next day were highly unpleasant. If you find yourself on Aranda’s Calle de San Gregorio, or any street nearby, do yourself a huge favor and eat at Aitana instead.
Haro – Lunch at Terete on Lucrecia Arana. For reasons mentioned above, this was our first restaurant meal after a day and half break from eating. We chose it because it was a very nice looking and crowded asador restaurant that claimed 135 years’ local dining history, and because it had some “mild” dishes on its menu for those of us that wanted to be careful with our recovering stomachs (especially keeping in mind the dinner we had scheduled for that evening). A quite fine chicken soup and very good roast chicken (the place is famous – surprise - for its roast lamb, but I was taking it easy), tortilla, peppers, and morcilla. My kind-hearted wife, who certainly must not have been thinking of the visual impact of her choice upon at least two of us, ordered and happily devoured the special - lamb’s head in all its roasted glory. All in all, it was a very pleasant lunch. I wish I had been feeling better so that I could have tried more dishes (and the wine list was very good). I think if we return to Haro, we likely would eat here again; however, there were several other restaurants that also looked pretty interesting.
San Sebastian – Dinner at Mugaritz, Otazulueta Baserria, Aludura Aldea, Errenteria, technically outside San Sebastian. The first of our highly-anticipated “dining experiences” at a highly-hyped restaurant. From the moment they escort you from your table to meet with the kitchen staff in the amazing kitchen - where they explain their philosophy and tell you that your mood, your attitude, your openness, is going to be responsible for 50% of the experience - to the menu listing the 20 or so dishes to be served, you know the night will be very interesting. There is a sense of whimsy and fun, silliness even, with no stuffiness in the atmosphere. They promise to replace any dish you do not enjoy, but you may have to “work a little” at the replacement dish. And then it begins, a procession of small, cleverly named and arranged, photogenic plates: “Toasted legume beer,” “crunchy sauce with peppers,” “edible stones” (potatoes dusted with a grey, ashen powder), “frozen fruit in a paper wrap,” “shrimps in a wheat crust,” “frozen radish with a cheese broth,” “Bloody Mary tomato soup,” squid, “threads of steamed sea anemone,” “carrot petals over langoustine tail,” “cat got your tongue,” “silky bread stew infused with pink geranium leaves covered with crabmeat,” “portion of hake and milky reduction of stewed turnip sprouts,” “textures of coastal fish,” “piece of beef with grilled steak emulsion,” artichoke and sweetbread ragout,” “cup of chamomile dressed with a cocoa nectar,” “creamy pasty of brioche,” “sweet grain biscuit with anis and flowers,” and a few more desserts. Get the picture? Fun? Yes. Interesting? Yes. Delicious? Some dishes. Worth it? Nope. In my opinion, an exercise in technical excess, with few if any actually notable dishes. I am afraid we all were disappointed, and we would not return.
San Sebastian – One morning, several afternoons, and an evening of Pinxtos (the Basque term for tapas) in San Sebastian’s old town, Parte Vieja. This crowded, tiny, easily walkable area probably contains more great food per square foot than anywhere its size, with so many tapas bars and small restaurants that it is almost overwhelming. I have never seen or experienced or eaten anywhere that can rival it. As you walk down the narrow streets, your senses are taken by, one after another, the open doors and windows behind which you can see and smell the plates and plates (almost completely covering the bar tops) of small, inviting bite sized dishes. How to choose: You look in, you look at your friends, you all smile, and you enter. You are handed a clean empty plate which you then try hard not to overfill as you move along the bar looking at each display of miniature culinary wonders. You can take individual pieces of already prepared dishes, or order “raciones” – generally dishes that need to be cooked, with enough to share on a plate. Beer and Txakoli (apparently pronounced something like chac-o-lee - a fairly dry but crisp white wine that is somewhat fizzy) are the drinks of choice and they each go perfectly with the endless, constantly restocked variety of pinxtos. That is not to say a fine gin and tonic is not also available! The idea is to enjoy a small bunch of bites, a small glass of beer (a caña) or Txakoli or cava, and then leave and head for the next bar. With so much good stuff right in front of you, it takes optimism and strength of character to leave a delicious place; however, one must be strong and one will be rewarded. Some of our favorite places were Bar Haizea, Fuego Negro, Café Irubi, and Bar Zeruko. We definitely plan to return to San Sebastian, not only for its friendliness, natural beauty, and world-class high-end dining scene but also so we can just wander among its streets and alleys and eat pinxtos and drink.
San Sebastian – Dinner at Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Elosegui. Our second, long-scheduled big time, big name dinner. This time, we enjoyed an amazing experience, with truly wondrous food. I must note that, while the service was not as elegant and “fine” as one might expect from a three star restaurant, it was for the most part polished and attentive and, at the same time, friendly; which is not, in my experience, easy to accomplish. Forgive me if I wax perhaps overly poetic, but Elena Arzak Espina's creations that night (and I know that on another night it might not be so) truly were fascinating and visually beautiful, worthy of inspection and examination before tasting; some dishes yielded tastes that were perfectly pure and simple, others exploded with complex flavors and textures. Here, we encountered a mastery of cutting edge, innovative technique, wielded by a Chef to showcase flavor, without pretension, without need to impress, without molecular gastronomy’s occasionally overt preciousness, and without technical wizardry and excess for their own sake. All of us were amazed at how rusticity and regional tradition could meld so seamlessly with the most modern and creative technique. As you can tell, I was one very happy diner! The mind-blowing procession of courses and dishes: “Ham and tomato smoke,” “Corn, figs, and black pudding,” “Kabroaka pudding with kataifi,” “Marinated tuna and melon,” “cloud with pepper”; “Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea,” “Lobster Corailline,” “Tapioca salad with citrus,” “Dusted egg and mussel,” Crab with anise waves”; “Low tide monkfish,” Red seaweed,” “Smoked cinnamon and tuna,” “Peach curd with seaweed”; “Pigeon with orange and corn,” “Leg confit,” “Beef with vegetable screens,” “Aromatic verbena, chard, and lamb,” “Crispy milk and vegetables”; “Soup and chocolate ‘between vineyards,’” “Playing marbles with chocolate,” “Mead and fractal fluid,” “Pistachio and beetroot stone,” and “Ice cream selection” and, of course, mignardises. Yes, cleverness and whimsy were present, but it seemed natural and unforced. We drank a 2005 Jacques Girardin Morgeot and a 1995 La Rioja Alta’s Gran Reserva 890. After our meal, Elena (yes, she was so friendly that I feel I can call her by her first name) invited our own chef Anders and the rest of us to visit the kitchen, smiled for group photos, invited Anders back any time to cook with her, signed books and menus, and just flat out charmed us with her warmth and sincerity. Xiaopei and I have dined at many famous and favored restaurants; this was one of the few times where the expense undoubtedly was worth it, the experience was truly wonderful, maybe one of our best meals ever, and the desire to return is genuine. I sincerely suggest you do not miss the opportunity to dine here.
Axtondo-Bizkaia – Lunch at Asador Etxebarri, Plaza San Juan 1. We were excited to reach this way out of town, “culinary workshop,” home of perhaps the world’s most famous blacksmith/chef/grill-master, Victor Arguinzoniz. He was kind enough to let Anders (with me tagging along) into his workspace before the lunch crowd would cause it to become too quick-paced, smoky, and likely dangerous to spectators. He has handcrafted his grills and they look sturdy and functional, able to raise and lower whatever is being grilled (and this guy will grills almost anything) to control timing and temperatures. The meal was terrific; this is not charred cooking, this is a series of amazingly, skillfully prepared and delicious vegetables, fish, seafood, meats, and even desserts. One of the best things I have ever tasted was my spoonful of the reduced milk ice cream, where the reduction obviously had taken place over the same wood fire as everything else. Creamy, delicious ice cream tasting of wood smoke, wow, that was great! Believe the hype, drive from San Sebastian through beautiful countryside, get yourself lost a few times, and get to this place. We would return.
Barcelona – Dinner at Taberna Maitea at Casanova, 157. Our first night in Barcelona and this place was recommended by our concierge. A long and narrow, somewhat modernistic pinxtos bar, with bar stools and glass cases along the bar so that you can open and remove and eat whatever looks good and, to me, virtually everything looked good. A large variety of already made dishes, many on top of bread, sort of like ingenious open-faced sandwiches. Then, every so often, someone behind the bar will offer you something just out of the oven or pan. We spent a very enjoyable evening in this friendly place with delicious food, an intriguing wine and drink list, and a quirky sense of humor. There also is a restaurant in back. While Barcelona probably has hundreds of tapas bars we have not yet encountered, I would not hesitate to return here.
Barcelona - Late breakfast and lunch inside the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, in Las Ramblas. Anyone who has been to La Boqueria knows it is a gigantic, genuine riotous feast for the senses, almost an overwhelming display of the finest, freshest foodstuffs anywhere. I had never seen anything quite like it. Scattered throughout the market are more than a few places to sit down on a stool and eat, and we chose two during our visit: Pinotxo and Kiosko Universal. Both were just terrific, with fresh cooked small dishes (including some wonderful lamb skewers, gambas, and clams suggested by the wonderfully friendly owner/host/head waiter Juanito Bayen in a vest and bow tie, at the former; and razor clams, wild mushrooms, and a great grilled sole at the latter) and good cava! We would return!
Later that day, we enjoyed some very good coffee at a little shop called Lilipop not far from the Museu Picasso.
Barcelona – Dinner at Cal Pep, Placa de les Olles. We patiently waited for this extremely popular tiny place to open, making acquaintances with the other tourists waiting on the line behind us. They opened the door and in we all went, with Señor Pep himself welcoming us and counting as we entered to make sure only the exact number of diners for the available stools entered. And then, it began: a friendly, noisy, frenzied yet somewhat organized procession of dish after dish of amazing, yet simple deliciousness – great food made fast: pan con tomate (called “pa amb tomàquet” in Barcelona), clams, fried assorted seafood (calamari, shrimp, etc.), razor clams, mussels, potato tortilla, sausage and beans, gambas, squid, beef and potatoes, artichokes, etc., etc. A great experience where uncountable bottles of cava disappeared and we and everyone around us happily kept eating until we thought we might burst. When we finally were sated, we noticed that more people had been let into the small space and were standing behind us lucky early birds. So, we paid and left, muy contento. Of course we would return.
We then wandered over to Bubó, an absolutely amazing small dessert shop, where the most beautiful small cakes were waiting to be admired and devoured. Do not miss a chance to have dessert there. What a delicious evening!
Barcelona – Lunch at Tapas 24, Diputació, 269. After a few days, the amazing is almost expected in Barcelona, so we were ready for another fantastic tapas experience, one where, in a crowded, noisy, casual, completely unassuming little place, you eat “fast” food prepared by an Ell Bulli alum (Chef Carles Abellan). Very friendly and helpful staff suggest and quickly bring dishes that make you smile: avocado tempura(!), some of the best lentils ever, tripe in a spicy sauce, broken eggs with bacon, and some spicy lamb skewers. We would return.
Barcelona - Dinner at Osmosis, Aribou, 100. A rather highly-regarded and -recommended place for which we had high expectations that proved instead to be our one disappointing meal in Barcelona. After attempting to puzzle out the weakness of the meal, especially given its glowing reviews, we concluded that they set too high a bar for themselves with very reasonably priced, multi-course dinners that sounded wonderful; however, they simply lack the kitchen and service skills to pull it off. Long waits for attention, awkward and irregular pacing, too many different waiters showing up looking surprised to see us, and inexcusably under-cooked and/or overly-sauced food. My notes say “just plain disappointing.” In a city with such fantastic food, we would not consider returning.
Barcelona - Lunch at Casa Delfin, Paseo del Born, 36. We enjoyed very good, no-frills, rustic Catalan cooking in this pleasant, “bistro-ish” restaurant that respects the “classics.” Wonderful paella with langoustine, a terrific lamb stew, beans and sausage, tripe with beans, all well-prepared, delicious, and comforting, and served by quite friendly staff. We would return. After our meal, we spoke with the English owner, Kate (she moved to Spain long ago for love) about the evening’s plans for our final Barcelona meal. She was charming and amusing, coyly avoiding pushing one of the handful of other Barcelona restaurants she and her husband (her Spanish love) own and operate, including the popular tapas restaurant, Taller de Tapas. When I asked, “Where would you and your husband go for a truly special meal?” her answer was definite and quick: Restaurante Botafumeiro. At our request, she called and made a reservation for that evening for us to sit at the bar.
Barcelona – Dinner at Restaurante Botafumeiro, Gran de Grácia, 81. Recommended by a restaurateur in Barcelona, this place clearly is an old school classic, and the parade of beautiful people in and out and the photographs on some of the walls evidenced to us that it is beloved by the affluent and the famous. We sat at the bar at the front, but we could hear the friendly, boisterous sounds of large tables of well-heeled diners enjoying themselves. We were slightly concerned that it might be a tad pretentious, but we were served by some of the nicest, most professional servers I have encountered, including a gentleman behind the bar who has been there for over forty years. From where we sat, sipping our glasses of cava (we drank some very fine cava that night, Gramona Tres Lustros and Imperial Gramona – I can’t recall the vintages), we were able to watch the preparation of giant platters of truly beautiful shellfish, and we were excited to begin. After some friendly discussion with the staff behind the bar, we began to order, and a procession commenced of Catalan seafood dishes that we agreed very well may have been the finest and freshest seafood any of us ever had: canelones de marisco, gambas de palamos, oysters, cigalas, baby squid, lobster, etc., etc. Plus some terrific pasta and, of course, desserts. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and while it was not an inexpensive evening, it was a perfect Barcelona dinner to cap off our journey in Spain. To us, this was the best seafood we ate in a city that many consider the seafood capitol of the western world. We definitely would return.
I hope you found this useful.
(Edited to correct a typo.)
Last edited by Andrew Gelb on March 3rd 2012, 10:33am, edited 1 time in total.
Great report; thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the extensive report. I agree with you about Botafumeiro and, of course, Cal Pep. One additional thing to note about Botafumeiro is that they are open on Sundays, when most (all?) other excellent Barcelona restaurants are closed. And I could happily spend the rest of my life eating through the Boqueria.
Andrew, I always appreciate all the time and effort you put into your excellent and helpful travel reports.
We loved Tapas 24 and Osmosis.
Thanks for the memories. We were in BCN last March.
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Steve, thank you. Looking forward to seeing you, maybe in May?
Mark and T, Thanks for your kind words.
Dan, I know you liked it, you were one of those whose Osmosis comments causes us such confusion when we were there. Different nights, chefs, strokes, who knows?
Wow! Thanks for posting such a detailed report Andrew. I've bookmarked this thread for future reference.
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Heading to Barcelona and San Sebastian in 2 months. Great notes. Very helpful.
Great info! I'll be in Madrid, San Sebastian, and Rioja in May and the insight should prove very helpful - we were planning on several of the spots on your list.
Mattt, Thank you.
Phil and Brian, Glad to help. I am sure you will have great trips!
you will hear from me when danielle and i finally head to spain...hopefully sometime next year. we'll talk about it over dinner perhaps?
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Of course, that would be great!
Great post on your experiences here Andrew. When you come back, try to set an agenda for the South of Spain too.
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You are correct and we will do so! And I will try to make sure we see you when we are there!
I'm very sorry you had a bad experience at Osmosis, Andrew. Very much agree with you about Tapac 24 (I didn't realize an El Bulli alum was cooking there). I know there's another tapas joint in Barcelona where Adrian's brother (?) is the chef, but can't recall the name right now -- it was good, but not as good as Tapac 24, imo. Again, sorry 'bout Osmosis -- I assume my positive comments about my experience there helped convince you to go, so I feel especially bad that it didn't deliver.
“All these characters spend their time explaining themselves, and happily recognizing that they hold the same opinions … how important they consider it to think the same things all together.” --- A.R.
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No problemo! We saw lots of positive reviews, not only yours, and you don't own the place, manage it, cook there, or wait tables there. Our review apparently is unusual, as most folks seem to have enjoyed it as you did. Who knows what went wrong that evening?
One of the things I have learned since I started posting my trip reports -- not to expect everyone who dines at a place we really enjoyed to agree with us.
And, I'll still try places you enjoy!
Andrew, great reviews. The Spanish travel industry should thank you because I could not read your post without wanting to be there.
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I appreciate the sentiment, Andrew. Thank you.
“All these characters spend their time explaining themselves, and happily recognizing that they hold the same opinions … how important they consider it to think the same things all together.” --- A.R.
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Andrew, thanks. We will be in Spain in late May/early June, so these reccos will be helpful.
Anthony, that is some praise, thank you very much!
Jim, I am sure you will have a great time!
20 posts • Page 1 of 1