Monday, October 19, 2009

Taller de Tapas, Barcelona

September 3rd, 2009. 9 PM.

Almost a week in Spain and no tapas crawl? I honestly wasn't that broken up about it. If I understand correctly, the point of tapas is to eat small plates of fresh, simple, tasty food while drinking in a convivial setting. In Japan that's available in a thousand places every night of the week. Still, it's inexcusable not to take in that local color, so we headed to El Born and the few streets with the most tapas places. This is actually a two-part review, but the second place was so crappy that it put us off going on to a third place. Bastards.

Taller de Tapas is well known, large, clean and professional. This may or may not be a good thing - a place like the nearby El Xampanyet is smaller, less clean and much more charming. But the food is supposed to be good at TdT, and I like the fact that they have tables. I know standing to eat and drink is part of the culture, but I can't get into rearing up on my hind legs, even if it means consuming chunks of roasted flesh with sweet peppers. The staff at TdT were dressed well and standing outside to welcome us in.

The menu seemed a bit like an embarassment of riches; we tried not to overorder. As always, I wanted to drink cava but tried to avoid seeming overly bossy about food by letting the group go for sangria again. Meh. TdT is dark, atmospheric in a recently-renovated way (probably newly-constructued, actually, but still with lots of old-seeming stonework), not that crowded but still noisy. The staff rushes around without seeming to see much, but it's not hard to corral one of them and order more food.

Croquettes are a normal tapas item. These were normal.

Big plate of grilled mackerel, bones and carcasses removed. Being Asian (kinda), we're happy to eat this stuff, maybe more than American tourists. It seems different from Japanese mackerel. Not better, just different.

Pread smeared with a thin layer of tomato is also a standard thing at tapas, and in fact in Spain. This was probably the best version we had anywhere, but it was far from being exciting.

Chorizos were pretty good.

The little green peppers that get roasted and served up in big plates taste just like Japanese shishito to me. Are they related? In any case, it's funny to eat something in Spain that you can't get in America, but can buy in 20-packs in any Japanese supermarket.

With all that food ordered in one rush, we took a little breather...just long enough to stick the camera out to the side of the table and get a picture. And start thinking about when we should cut things off so that we could try another place...

And then we received some 'main' dishes - country sausage with beans, one of the best things we had. I love a good sausage, in large part because I have them so rarely.

And again a piece of steak with pepper. This steak wasn't as good as the ones at Cervesaria Catalana. You should just go there. In fact, while I liked Taller de Tapas, and strolling around El Born at night, my basic review of the tapas scene is "Just go to Cervesaria Catalana". That said, we didn't get in to Cal Pep or El Xampanyet, and didn't try to go to Paco Meralga or Quimet & Quimet. But based on my own judgement of my own judgement in judging places from the exterior and menu, I'd say there's no place in El Born that matches CC.

We stopped the food at that point and headed out. With streets as interesting as this, who needs good food? Well, I for one still do, but it's a neat area. This street was deserted except for a stylish loungey restaurant place, but the streets next to it and intersecting it were some of the most busy around. We walked some more before picking another place.

Badly. This seemed to have a rougher, more casual aspect than TdT, but that roughness extended to the food preparation.

Meatballs. Can't go wrong with meatballs.

Fried squid. Bready, a bit soggy.

Spanish menu difficulties; probably wouldn't have gotten these deep-fried dough balls if we had known they were deep-fried dough balls. Not good.

Some in the party were still agitating for paella; I was still agitating for black rice, cooked with squid ink. We satisfied both dimensions with this dish. Unfortunately it wasn't much to write about.

And here we accidentally ordered a tripe soup. Again we didn't know it was tripe, and in the relative confusion of ordering a bunch of things we didn't know exactly how much we had gotten. When this came we tried to protest that we hadn't ordered it, and the waiter, bless him, pointed at one of our party and said "SHE ordered it." Which was true. In any case, we didn't eat much of it.

Ah well. A sad and uninspiring end to the evening. Things did get a lot better the next day when we visited some more tourist attractions and had The Best Ham In the World.

Taller de Tapas (via Laietana)
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Mimolet, Girona

September 3rd, 2009. 1:30 PM

Girona has a lot going for it - the medieval walled section aside, there are plenty of interesting-looking restaurants and shops! I decided this made sense after I learned one critical fact: Girona is actually the 'budget' airport of Barcelona, meaning if you take a RyanAir flight from London to Barcelona, you could well end up in Girona. There must be plenty of tourists saying "Well, let's 'ave a look, as long as we're here." The preserved sections, including the lovely views of buildings along the river, can't hurt either.

Mimolet was...across from our hotel. And we liked the cut of its jib. Kinda minimal, kinda brown.

Kinda contorted.

Seriously, finding a restaurant like this in the medieval quarter of a smallish Spanish city? Seemed like a find.

The potato chips by the left foot were stale.

Without video, you can't tell that this wall changed color slowly. But you can see the clean internal style and also another of those artist's models on the other table.

I'd like to say this was pea soup; it certainly included cockles and a drizzle of oil on the top. I'd also like to say I tried it, but I have no memory of the taste. Ah well.

This was sold as a typical dish; certainly I think it looks like fried eggs with chorizo. Come to think of it, the chorizo may actually have been blood sausage. I remember this somewhat fondly because of the skillet.

But I remember this most fondly because it was my starter...sweet corn, soft cheese and pieces of cherry...

In cherry soup! I saw this on the a ala carte menu and managed to get it included in the quite reasonable prix fixe lunch (EUR 26, I think, with a bunch of options per course). While it was in no way the equal of the previous night's cherries with smoked eel at Can Roca, it was in many ways a refreshing and tasty treat for a hot summer day. I would eat this all summer long if I could get cherries in quantity at price.

My fish. I really wasn't that happy with him. Two whole fillets that were a bit strong to my tastes, competently cooked but not fully boned, astride a fortress of vegetables that were in many respects raw. And not in an agreeable way (onion, heated through but still aggressively sharp in smell and taste).

Duck confit was much better. On apples, I think.

Getting fresh cheese with berries is always a nice idea, don't you agree? You see it so rarely in Japan or America, but it's a very light and pleasant way to enjoy the synergy of several sour things. And I love berries.

However I ordered this cylinder, which I remember as being frozen coconut mousse with pineapple compote. And it was good. An odd sort of dry texture to the mousse that I quite liked.

Were you to be in Girona you could be much worse than this place. But you might also enjoy freestyling some of the places tucked under dark arcades; there were a few Basque family-style places that looked quite interesting, whereas this food would be competently offered in many cities. In truth it seemed a little pale in comparison to the previous two nights (El Bulli and Can Roca), which is hardly fair.

++972 20 21 24

Thursday, October 15, 2009

La Vienesa, Girona

September 3rd, 2009. 10 AM.

On our morning in Girona, we had a few more hours to walk around and feel medieval. The old areas are really nice - cleaner than those in Barcelona and targeting a more sedate tourist (no Irish bars, for example). Breakfast in Europe is a challenge to me, and usually comes down to bread and maybe a coffee...

As it did on this day, but fortunately from this very pretty shop. It must have been one of the nicest facades in the town, so don't get the idea that it's all this way.

There are a curious number of bakeries in Spain; more, it seems to me, than Paris. Based on what we ate, I don't get the sense that they have the same focus on quality or variety. I'd certainly like to do a more detailed study...

As mentioned a few days ago, Estrella's low-cal beer-like product is called FREE. Damm! It's still hard for me not to chuckle over this. Maybe by the time I'm 40 I'll be able to stop laughing at things like this.

Anyway, this was a pastry stop, followed by more walking, after we which we came upon the shop we really should have gone to in the first place.

Situated on a larger square in the old section, La Vienesa has a big, modern Italianate doorway that's out of keeping with the surroundings. Quite grand and luxurious feeling, when combined with the window displays it seemed like a place where I really wanted to eat and regretted already having had some pastry. I have a feeling the name is a Catalan version of 'Viennoiserie', or pastries, but I'm not going to check. What do they call Viennoiserie in Vienna? Heck, they don't even call Vienna Vienna in Vienna.

Look how nice! The window display is pastry presented like high-end chocolate. Looking at the poster for Xuixos, we realized we hadn't eaten anything of the genus 'fried dough' yet (e.g., churros), but this remained a small fail for the whole trip. Xuixos actually look more like elongated filled donuts, and as with all sugar-coated, cream-filled, deep fried products that I didn't eat, I'm sorry that I didn't eat some.

Also in the window was a small animatronic diorama relating the parable of Jesus with the wood and chocolate - see how the chocolate bits look like curls of wood falling from the bench, just like Jesus done it? This is cool in its own way but much less amusing than the shop down the street which had in its window a long line of figurines that looked for all the world like a miniature Klan rally, although with more purple, blue and black and robes than you ordinarily get (those being generally reserved for officers like the Klaliff and Klutz).

Inside there were all sorts of treats; I remain unsure what these jelly fruits were (and have failed at using the interwebz to locate info). They seem like candied fruit, but are too regular in shape and color. You'd think marzipan, but they're a bit clear...I'd like to be enlightened on this one. And I sorta regret not trying them, but we had had some breakfast and were already staring down a lunch reservation.

Remember I only write about places where I ate something, and here the excuse was a cool glass of orxata. I've just learned that this is different from Mexican horchata, which is made from rice - this one's actually made from tigernuts. har har. In any case, it's a lot like drinking sweetened soy milk or rice milk, but without the soy flavor (not that it's a bad flavor). I just hung out at the counter for a couple minutes, pretending I wasn't already full and scared to eat lunch.
++972 486 046

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

El Celler de Can Roca, Girona (2/2: Desserts)

September 2, 2009. 11:30 PM

Seriously, I wasn't sure what to expect from desserts at Can Roca. They're known for having cute twists that are more conceptual and could be described as precious, and I wasn't sure how I'd feel about them in practice. But I was hooked immediately, and looking back feel like there's a great overarching intelligence to them, plus some excellent execution hidden in the apparently casual forms.

The first of the menu desserts, Green Chromatism, shows off, yes, the conceptual and precious 'color dessert' theme that Jordi Roca has expounded. But this was a straight-up awesome dessert. Partly sweet, partly palate-cleanser, it mixed sugar and mint in unexpected ways (for example the green 'peas' at the front are candied shells filled with menthol oil (or something), and combined the whole with weird elements - the tangle is shredded cucumber. Just great.

This must be technically precious in some way, but only because I don't know how they did it. It was just great. Double great. It's a big apricot (looks like a nectarine to me) that's somehow frozen and jellified inside while retaining the beautiful exterior.  The menu describes it as 'caramelized', but that word is so overused now (the whole food discourse is practically infused with it, doncha think?), that I'd rather not think of it that way.

A kooky angle because I loved it so much. The popcorn is actually 'vanilla puffs', which I guess is also derived from liquid nitrogen in some way. I can't remember how they tasted (it's now over a month).

I can certainly remember the taste and texture of this though. Awesome, like cold syrup with an intense fruit flavor. Those were the two 'course' desserts, and we moved on to the special orders (one each).

This is Orange Chromatism. Beyond orange and papaya flavors, I'm not at all sure what it was! I like the look though - it's sort of festive-but-precise.

The Lactic Dessert is also an old favorite. This was mainly goat cheese-themed, including whipped cream, cotton candy, more solid textures, and a bit of fruit for contrast (I'd like to say papaya again but can't remember). It's really a 'textural study', I think, with the milk flavor as a constant throughout (I did say the desserts were conceptually precious, didn't I?). Again, I think this is precise execution in a faux-chaotic form (he also made a dessert called Anarchy for a while that was 40+ different elements arranged separately on the plate).

A Trip to Havana might be the most famous dessert, looking as it does like a burning cigar and a mojito chaser. The mojito was very sour and fresh, which was a good thing since the cigar really does have a pile of ashes in front of it. The experience of eating a dessert that tasted like a cigar will stay with me for a long, long time (even though it wasn't my dessert). Interestingly, we tried the 'cigar' by itself and seemed to discover that the tobacco flavor was actually smoked into the ice cream!

Mojito, in loving off-angle close-up.

Finally the dessert that I actually ate - Tresor by Lancome. Finishing off our examples of the famous desert concepts, this is a dessert that 'adapts' a famous fragrance (past targets have included Calvin Klein's Eternity). The idea is to isolate the different scents of the perfume (vanilla, mango...) and then mix them together, but with some thought given to form. This there are fresh fruit bits, sorbet, cream, and gelatin all mixed together. I love how this is complex but not overly fussy - the ingredients are somewhat jumbled, and you don't have the option to carefully eat them one-by-one. To finish off the conceit, they bring you a bit of paper with the actual scent on it. To me, not much resemblance, but I still liked this a lot.

Mignardises are thankfully a bit less extravagant here than at El Bulli; just one each of 5 flavors. Passion fruit, lime, vanilla, palet d'or (choco ganache) and rose. Helpfully labeled! If you can read Catalan.

You can see again how they make some effort to differentiate the textures. You can also see that the vanilla treatment is a thin gummy, which is dangerously reminiscent of the 'vanilla sheets' treatment at El Bulli. In conjunction with the oyster leaves, it made me wonder.

This sure was good. Best meal ever? Maybe, maybe not. But definitely thought-provoking and fascinating while remaining just within the bounds (for me) of the normal dinner course form and the relative comfort it provides. We stood outside in the quiet courtyard for a couple minutes, not at all eager to go back to normal life, until our taxi roared around the corner and we gave in.

I've heard that Spanish restaurants are unforgiving about email (as in, they just don't answer your requests) but I should also point out that ECdCR just hit me back within a day confirming exactly what I asked for (and which of course I mildly messed up on the night). The service in the restaurant was a bit distant, but professional, and even friendly by the end (like when we ran into our waitress outside, in street clothes). I thought the segmentation of the place was weird - from where we sat, you really can't see other customers much, and our table was divided from others on all sides by at least some type of barrier. In retrospect, my memory feels like we had dinner at Can Roca all by ourselves, which just adds to the memory.

Back at the hotel there was a medieval party, and things were already way out of hand among the carvings...

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