Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

Going home

November 19, 2007

You know that there is something not quite healthy about your life when you find yourself thinking, “I just cannot eat another bite of foie gras.” Or when you eat 14 delicious razor clams by yourself and still don’t really feel happy. I had some additional fabulous pintxos in San Sebastián before I left, including a pistachio croqueta with a buttery-smooth interior and an excellent crunchy exterior at Bar Garbola and an unbelievable special foie dish at Hidalgo 56, as well as their award-winning “volcan de morcilla” with crumbled blood sausage, a just warmed but still runny egg yolk and a smooth sauce made of apples. (Todo Pintxos is an amazing site, no? You can find an English version by clicking on the top right-hand corner.) But my very last day, instead of going to the famed Aloña Berri, I went to a classmate’s apartment where she and her roommates served spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce. It tasted great, too.

So I think all this means it’s time for me to go home, which is appropriate as I am going home today. In less than 12 hours, I will be in New York. I’m not really going back to real-life yet, as I will be in Seoul, Korea for most of December visiting my parents, and I hope to rectify the dearth of posts about Korean food on this blog while I’m there, but I doubt I’ll be blogging with the fervor I’ve been for the past 6 months. This blog didn’t start as a travel-food blog and so will continue life as it started even when I get back from Korea, but I can’t imagine I’ll be nearly so prolific.

So dear family, friends, friends’ mothers, and a few random people who don’t know me but have kindly read my blog, thank you for helping me feel like I have someone to talk to while traveling alone for so long.


Oh, the French (in Spain)

November 17, 2007

Like many people, I can only keep one foreign language in my head at once. At one point in my life, I knew quite a bit of French. I never did speak it gracefully or even well, and I never really could hear it properly with all those mushy syllables, but I understood it well enough to pass out of Yale’s undergraduate foreign language requirement. Now it has been completely crowded out by Spanish. (Korean, thankfully, is in a separate part of my brain.) This became particularly apparent when the nice young French family next to me at Zurriola Marítimo noticed I was taking pictures of my food and started to talk to me, asking if I spoke French. Although it literally took me a whole minute to remember how to say “trés bon,” the “un peu” French I do have enabled me to understand the husband’s very French assessment of food in Spain: “La cuisine française est la meilleure de Europe!” (French cuisine is the best in Europe!) So modest of him not to proclaim, “de tout le monde,” n’est-ce pas?

I also did not love the food at Zurriola Marítimo, although it was much better than it should be, given its spectacular view of the surf at Playa de Zurriola. Most restaurants with astonishing views tend to have terrible food, and it’s a testament to San Sebastian’s gastronomic standards that the food was good and reasonably priced, if not great. But I doubt the French homme thought what I did while eating my roasted oxtails: “It would be so much better in a hot Korean soup!”

The first course I ordered, a vichysoisse of leeks with a poached egg and poached bacalao was tasty, if not quite hot enough. (Is it because I’m Korean that I want my soup to be piping hot?) The soup was very smooth and clean-tasting, despite its rich creaminess, and the salt cod was as soft as butter, almost melting in my mouth. They need to be a little careful with the sea salt on the poached egg, though; I almost choked on a small pile of salty granules.

The second course was not as good, though there was nothing really wrong with it. The oxtails had been browned until they glistened, almost caramelized, and the meat still fell easily from the bone. They sat on a surprisingly light bed of soft, long-cooked potatoes and carrots, perhaps celery as well, and there were interesting tasty blobs of orange sauce that I couldn’t identify. The fried strips of green pepper were wonderful, so much sweeter than any green pepper I’ve ever had in the U.S. So perhaps it was me, not the oxtails. I couldn’t help but yearn for oxtails just simmered straight in a very hot beef broth, perhaps a handful of glass noodles, scads of chopped scallions, and a big pinch of sea salt…Korean oxtail soup! I also sat there pitying cultures that didn’t enjoy spicy, picante food, thinking how just a little bit of a spicy condiment, like Korean red pepper paste, would have enlivened the stew. So who am I to think the French are snobby about food?

Especially since the family was very nice. The maman directed her little boy to give me a bisou, or a kiss on the cheek, before they left. Qué cariñoso!

More txangurro, please

November 15, 2007

I remember the first time I saw a crumb-catcher. You know, one of those thin, metal implements waiters use in fine restaurants to sweep away the crumbs at the end of the entrees and before the desserts and coffee are served. I was so wowed that someone would think of that detail and even invent an instrument for that purpose and that purpose alone. It made me feel special, because I was a person who shouldn’t have crumbs on her table as she ate her dessert.

In a way, I’m much more cynical and jaded now. I only consider one or two meals as having been absolutely perfect, from the perfectly cooked food to the perfect service, where everything was like magic. I’ve been around the crumb-catcher block. But I am proud to say that I am a woman who can still enjoy an imperfect meal and with gusto.

After my gluttonous meal almost killed me on Monday, I set Tuesday aside for the three-course menu del día at the Restaurante Kursaal, housed in the modern, glassy building of the same name on Playa de Zurriola. The restaurant is owned and managed by Martín Berasategui, one of the giants of Spanish nueva cocina, though it’s clearly not his crown jewel. But for 18 Euros or so, we mere peons get to choose from a broad menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

I was excited when my first course arrived, the “arroz cremoso con mejillones” or risotto with mussels. Sadly, it was inedible. The rice was cooked to just the right consistency, maintaining integrity in each grain while being creamy, but, oh and such a big but, there was too much salt. And I like salt. A lot. I was pretty sad, actually. I don’t like to get disappointed by legends.

And then my second course arrived, “txangurro a la donostia,” or spider crab in the style of San Sebastian. There was the requisite foam, which I actually quite enjoyed because it was interesting to taste the unique flavor of parsley in a different form. But more impressively, the txangurro! It had been shredded and then cooked in a tomato sauce that was both interesting and comforting, a difficult balance to be sure. I loved it. Honestly, just to have someone pick out the meat for you is worth a small fortune. According to Mark’s Kurlansky, “A Basque History of the World,” the Basques are the only ones to eat this tiny crab with its sweet but challenging meat, and I thank them for having discovered how delicious it is.

The dessert was another surprise, a cross between a bread-pudding and a tres leches cake, super soft and sweet in the middle, the sweetness saved only by the very distinct and sure flavor of burned sugar. It was full-on burned sugar, too, not the caramely top of crème brulee or crema catalana. I was impressed how the two flavors worked together, not just balancing each other out but almost aggressively pushing against each other. Yummy. The lemon ice cream was wonderful too, so creamy it was more like crème fraiche than lemon.

All in all, I was quite happy. It wasn’t a perfect meal, but neither am I.

(A tip: if you want to have every culinary choice available to you in San Sebastian, do not visit in November. It seems like half the restaurants and tapas bars here have gone on vacation and in the European-style, for three weeks to a whole month. I am anxiously awaiting the reopening of Aloña Berri tomorrow, but I’ve had to tell myself, “próxima vez” to La Cuchara de San Telmo, El Fuego Negro, and other celebrated dining establishments.)

Death by the tasting menu

November 14, 2007

I’ve never had a tasting menu before. I’ve always understood it to mean a menu designed by the chef to show off his skills, providing a range of flavors in one meal. I never knew it meant death by gluttony, albeit a slow and pleasurable one.

I’ve finally woken up to the fact that I only have a few days left in Spain and even fewer left in San Sebastian. I’ve spent less money than I expected, and so it is time to spend my surplus! But the cheapo cynic in me still isn’t interested in spending 100+ Euros at Arzak, or even 55 Euros at Kokotxo. Another student at Lacunza, a retiree with enough money to spend at more expensive places, said one of his favorite meals was the 36-Euro menú de degustación at Casa Urbano. And so off I went.

On a Monday afternoon, Casa Urbano was quiet, just a few pairs dining in the calm, cream-colored restaurant. There was abstract art involving wood branches and cream-colored squares on the walls, nothing very interesting, but nothing very offensive either, and the waiters were very kind. Even if it isn’t a Michelin-starred restaurant, it declared itself still to be some place special, with white tablecloths, strong napkins, and even buckets of ice for white wine at each table. After all the inner strength I’ve mustered to enter bustling and noisy tapas bars solo, it was a breeze to sit down in that quiet restaurant by myself. I didn’t feel like everyone was having so much more fun than me. The middle-aged couple in front of me barely said a word to each other throughout their entire meal.

The menu was more intricate than I’d understood from reading it outside—you got to try all three appetizers listed, with the option of switching one out for the daily special; your choice of an entrée or two half-portions of two entrees; and then your choice of a dessert or two half-portions of two desserts, plus wine, bread, and bottled water. Of course I maximized my options, which meant I had seven plates set in front of me. So be warned, the following is very long.

But I’ll start with the wine, which was a choice between house white, house red, and txakoli, the very drinkable, slightly fizzy young Basque white wine. When I chose the txakoli, I was presented with the entire bottle, so it sat dangerously in front of me throughout the meal.

First came the pastel de esparragos y langostinos, a little soft mousse-like cake of pureed asparagus and shrimp, with a delicate little shrimp on top. It sat in a little sauce that was so good, I sopped it all up with my bread, little understanding what I had ahead of me. I loved that it was nouveau but still soft and comforting, though my first bite indicated that there was one big problem with the restaurant—prepped food isn’t properly being allowed to come to room temperature.

Then came the ensalada temporada de chipiron, a warm baby squid salad. I loved the crispy grilled legs and the olive oil generously dressing the squid in its own ink. But again, sadly, the potatoes were cold, though the olive on top was fantastic.

I swapped the third appetizer for the daily special, pimiento relleno con queso y anchoa, and was glad I did because it was my favorite of the three. The roasted red pepper encased a perfect cylinder of a firm, white cheese, but what made it special was something that I couldn’t quite place, that nagged and nagged me until I realized they had somehow caramelized an anchovy! It was the perfect combination of sweet and salty. I’m not clever enough to figure out what the white sauce underneath was, some sort of emulsion, but it was also good enough for me to eat the rest of my rather large roll. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end.

Ha! The “Gilda” de bonito fresco con refrito al vinagre de sidra, or a tapa of fresh tuna with delicious fried bits of garlic, little green peppers, and dried red peppers, in olive oil and Basque cider vinaigrette was not a “tapa” as described on the English menu. The “Gilda” refers to a famous San Sebastian pintxo of olives, pickled peppers and an anchovy, all skewered together and created in homage to the Rita Hayworth movie, “Gilda.” It’s supposed to be as surprisingly sexy. It was delicious, and the tuna was fantastic also, just seared so that the inside stayed a warm red. It sat in a literal bath of olive oil, but it didn’t overwhelm the simple, fresh flavor of the fish.

By the time my second entrée arrived, I was starting to feel ill. But I couldn’t stop; it was like I was in a trance. Besides, it was magret de pato al agridulce de frambuesa, or duck, one of my favorite meats in the world, in a raspberry sauce. I normally hate the words “raspberry sauce,” but the sauce here was delicate and tart, as well as sweet, and my aching stomach didn’t stop me from eating all of the butternut squash puree, too, which had a strong, tart apple flavor. I did leave one chunk of potato.

When the waiter came to take my dessert order, some part of me knew I had to stop, but the rest of me didn’t want to listen. At this point, I couldn’t plead ignorance of what this restaurant considered a “half-portion,” but I still ordered two desserts. The pantxineta crujiente “Gorrotxategi” was a flaky, crispy almond tart layered with a lovely rich cream. As if that weren’t enough, it was served with a scoop of nutty ice cream that I think was also almond-flavored.

Given how truly ill I was feeling at this point, I thought I should have some fruit: fruta asada de temporada con su subayon, or roasted seasonal fruit of pineapple, peach, and strawberries in subayon. Again, the fruit was a little too cold, but the “subayon” turned out to be a frothy, almost foamy (Spanish foam again!) tart sauce that must have had some milk or cream in it, because caramelizing the top had created a little skin. I wanted to die and I was drunk.

The waiter was surprised when I ordered my espresso before the second dessert arrived, saying, “But you’re still missing one dessert!” But I needed it immediately, some injection of caffeine and energy that would allow me to carry my bloated body back home and into my bed.

The really scary thing is that four hours later, I thought, hmm, I should buy some bread to eat for dinner with the duck pate in the fridge.

(If you’re wondering if you should subject yourself to this particular slow death the next time you’re in San Sebastian, I thought the coldness of the food really was a problem, with the insides of all the seared meats and even the roasted fruits being just too cold. I don’t want to sound like a restaurant critic, but a fine restaurant should not let that happen. That said, it was a lot of excruciating fun at a very good price, and if you don’t want to die eating seven courses, the a la carte menu is quite reasonably priced as well.)

More ruminations on pintxos

November 13, 2007

I confess, I am one of those Americans who like to complain about their country while traveling. The bread is better here, the family is more important here, oh life is more beautiful here in _________. I know that I tend to exaggerate, and I get mad if other people bash America, but one thing is definitely true about life here in Spain—drinks are so much cheaper here! And more importantly, the culture of pintxos bars in San Sebsatian is lovelier than anything I have experienced before.

I had feared before I arrived that pintxos might not really be my thing. I thought they might be too precious, too expensive, and more arty than tasty. San Sebastian, after all, boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world, other than the center of Paris, but none of them were on my to-do list. The rest of the Basque country likes to say that San Sebastian cuisine is very French, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

But even if they are right, pintxos in San Sebastian are the most democratic form of haute cuisine I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing precious about them. More likely, you’ll end up with sauce on your face and olive oil on your fingers trying to eat one in the requisite two bites. In Bar Goizargi this past Saturday, everyone, young and old, was eating the brocheta de gambas, or grilled shrimp skewered with bits of bacon and served with a vinagrette sauce of red and green peppers, onions, and carrots. They’re award-winning and even included in the sixth edition of “Los Mejores Pintxos de Donostia,” but at 2 Euros, they cost the same as the Sunday issue of El Pais, a major national newspaper.

Sure, there are places that are more haute than others. Sure, a couple of pintxos don’t make a meal and can add up quickly. But I had two pintxos at the award-winning Goizargi, the shrimp and a tiny bowl of succulent squid in ink sauce, plus a glass of rosé for 5 Euros. Even at the obscene U.S. dollar-Euro exchange rate, that’s only $7.50 at most. I can’t get a freakin’ glass of wine in Manhattan for less than $8. And I couldn’t tell you if the crowd is young and hip or old and rich, since it was crammed with a group of students, older couples, and families with young kids. Okay, it definitely wasn’t an angry young pro-ETA bar, but the food hadn’t drawn a certain self-selecting crowd, the way it often feels in NY. There was no statement being made by the people eating there, that they support organic local food or that they are hip enough to eat meat by the pound on a picnic table in Williamsburg. They only wanted to stand with their friends with a drink in one hand and an empty toothpick in the other on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

I can’t even wish that someone would open a true pintxos or tapas bar in New York. It wouldn’t be enough for there to be one such bar, as there would always be a line out the door and the easy joy of it that I love would just disappear. So I have three days left here. Ready, set, go!

My wandering eye

November 12, 2007

Everyone who knows me knows I love Sahadi’s with a passion. Sahadi’s is my favorite place in New York, and even though I’ve said this so many times, I’ll say it again. I feel about Sahadi’s the way Holly Golightly feels about Tiffany’s. Whenever I’m blue, I go to Sahadi’s because nothing bad could ever happen at Sahadi’s.

But I must confess that the other day, I walked into a gourmet food store in San Sebastian that made me feel a little bit like, well, like I’d had a brief but meaningful affair with a beautiful Spaniard. If Sahadi’s is my faithful lover waiting for me back home, Don Serapio is my Iberian fling (though sadly, the closest I’ll get to an Iberian fling, sigh).

The first thing that drew me was the faint but sure scent of the Italian moscatel grapes sitting on the sidewalk. Pale green fading to gold, they tasted like sweetness and flowers. I grabbed a big bunch and went inside, only to find myself feeling weak in the knees.

I looked at the house-made jams, with tantalizing flavors like peras rioja, pears poached in Rioja wine, and ciruela con menta, plum with mint. I ate a tiny cube of 17 Euro/kg cheddar and almost bought a hunk immediately. I gazed at various unknown Spanish cheese with cute little goat and cow faces on the labels, at bright red strips of chorizo and panceta, in shiny foil packets. I bought a tiny little bottle of olive oil because I was seduced by the simple, luxurious packaging. Of course, there were giant legs of jamon iberico and fascinating sausages.

I don’t know why Don Serapio affected me so much, more than the other little Spanish stores I’ve been in so far. It may have been that the store has done a fantastic job of labeling everything, so that I understood just enough to know what I was looking at and yet had never tasted. In other words, the store is very attractive, tantalizingly so. I bought a few things to eat at my shared apartment but I knew that I could never try enough in the 5 days or so I have left in San Sebastian.

I would never give up Sahadi’s and the happiness I know I can find there. For one thing, Sahadi’s is amazingly affordable, and Don Serapio is not, not to mention one can’t eat foie gras every week. But I did ask myself for the first time, “What if I just didn’t go home?”

I get it now

November 9, 2007

What a wonderful world we live in, that I can see Rufus Wainwright in concert singing Gershwin while wearing the knee socks and breeches of a Basque folk costume in San Sebastian. And how appropriately strange and alluring to eat pintxos before the concert in a city that values tradition but also loves surprises.

I walked into Bar Bergara with all the panache of an experienced solo tapas eater. I smoothly ordered a “copa de txakoli,” knowing I still wasn’t pronouncing it quite right but that I was getting closer. Then I looked at the jewel-like bites laid out in large platters, completely covering the counter. The counter, being plastered with pintxos, cleverly had a little shelf under the counter on which you could place your little plate of pintxos. That’s where I quickly took a stealth photo, and how lucky I am that it came out fairly focused because these were the best, most intensely flavored and most mind-blowing pintxos I have had so far.

The one on the left is revuelto, or scrambled eggs with roasted red peppers, with a little cross-hatch of roasted green pepper strips. An awesome combination of flavors and textures, the smoothness of the eggs, the sweetness of the peppers, the appropriate bright saltiness of the entire ensemble.

The one right behind is half a deviled egg on top of an anchovy on which is piled, believe it or not, shredded boiled egg white, topped with a dollop of aioli and a curled shrimp. I would never, never have thought of serving egg white like that, but it wasn’t just a showy trick, it was excellent. Again, so perfectly salty!

The third one is diced tomatoes and browned garlic tossed in fantastic olive oil, and then topped with golden fried onion bits and more green pepper. Like eating a bite of late summer.

The best one, I couldn’t even take a picture of it. Sorry, I already stick out enough, I can’t bring myself to wave my camera around. It was “foie gras con uva de oporto,” which I think translates as foie gras drizzled with grape-port wine sauce. So rich, so smooth, just sweet and tangy enough to make vow immediately to return.

To be honest, I’d enjoyed my pintxos and tapas up to this point, but I hadn’t really seen them as something worthy of extreme hype, just something lovely about Spanish culture. I get it now.

Jamón, jamón

November 9, 2007

Perhaps even more than potato chips, the advertising campaign of a Spanish bank speaks volumes about the country’s values.


Achieve a future full of advantages.

And a ham!!!!!!

Come in and find out.)

Meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes

November 8, 2007

My sister asked me the other day, “Have you had a bad meal yet?” Shockingly, I haven’t. That doesn’t mean every meal has been transcendent, but I haven’t been served anything that I really just couldn’t eat. I have, however, had some very ill-chosen meals, through my cultural blindness to the unspoken assumptions in the Spanish menu.

It’s ironic because my food vocabulary in Spanish is much fuller than any other area. I can’t seem to keep in my head the word for grass, but I can say razor clam, mussel, baby squid, regular squid, dogfish, hake, and octopus. I’ve even picked up a few food and wine words in Catalan and Basque. But knowing the words alone never makes you fluent. Knowing that “patatas” are potatoes, and even knowing that “rioja” is a kind of red wine, didn’t enable me to know that my appetizer of ¨patatas de rioja¨ was going to be a very rich and heavy stew of potatoes, sausage, chorizo, and beef.

It was delicious, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t also ordered “entrecote con garnis.” “Entrecote” is steak, “garnis” I assumed meant some sort of vegetables would come alongside. Good Lord, the “garnis” turned out to be French fries. The phrase “meat and potatoes” took on a whole new meaning for me that day.

You know you’re having a serious fruit and vegetable deficiency when your apple tart tastes incredibly fresh and nutritious to you. It´s too bad, because the Café Iruña in Bilbao was a warm and bustling restaurant, if somewhat brisk, with an ornate mudejar interior, and all the food was very good.

The worst thing is I did it all over again the next day! I was in Gernika/Guernica, I wandered into the Jatextea Julien (“jatextea” meaning restaurant in Basque) and ordered alubias, a very typically Baque dish of beans that also turned out to be stewed with assorted meats, which I hadn’t known when I had also ordered roasted pork with French fries for my second course. (Note the enormous bowl out of which I was to serve myself, as well as the entire bottle of house red wine.) Thank God the roast pork came with a green salad, nothing more than some fresh romaine lettuce with raw white onions, but it was like manna to me.

I always make fun of the American trend of listing every ingredient and its origin on a menu but I’m starting to see there are some advantages.

First meal in San Sebastian

November 7, 2007

I’ve decided to stop searching out restaurants. That is, I’ve decided that at least while traveling, I will not go around and around in circles looking for something specific cited in some guide written by someone I don’t even know. I’m just going to walk into whatever feels right.

Yesterday, I arrived in San Sebastian around four in the afternoon. The sky was gray but the city still gleamed. The bus station, really just a small parking lot, opened directly onto a path by the city’s ría, a shallow ocean inlet. By following the ría north, I quickly came to the sea, the beaches that line San Sebastian’s northern edge and make it astonishingly beautiful. I’m sharing an apartment with a single Spanish mother in the Gros district, literally blocks from Playa de la Zurriola. It’s too cold now to go in the water—not that it stops the surfers—but it’s still so emotional to be living by the ocean. I was so inspired, I went for a long run from the end of Playa Zurriola, around the northern crest of the Casco Viejo, and then along Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta. I wish I could live by the sea always. It makes me glad at least to live in New York and not, say, Cleveland, Ohio, though people always laugh when I say NY has beaches.

Being the end of a holiday weekend and a Sunday, many restaurants were closed. I wandered around, trying to figure out if any of the open bars were serving anything more substantial than pintxos. I’d had pintxos and a plate of fried calamari for lunch in Bilbao and I was starving for something a little hefty. Finally, I found a little slip of a bar that advertised “platos combinados” and a nice owner who exclaimed, “Claro!” when I asked if the kitchen was open.

So this is what I ate. It’s not very impressive, really, but it was filling and satisfying. I hadn’t known that a hamburguesa wouldn’t come with a bun, so the American hegemony isn’t as powerful as I’d thought, but there was plenty of good crusty bread. Even the iceberg lettuce and greenish tomatoes tasted good, being fresh. The fries were freshly fried, the meat had good flavor.

The best part, though, was when the owner caught me taking a photo of the food. I’d tried to wait until he went back into the kitchen, but he suddenly reappeared with the ketchup and mustard, noticed me, and asked, “Are you putting the photo on the internet?”

What a world we live in. Apparently, I am not the first American to be caught taking pictures of her food in his little Bar Diz.