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Sunday, May 30, 2010

THE FOOD’S BETTER HERE

ASTURIAS, Spain—Three steps before I get to the restaurant that’s been recommended to me, I walk in front of the place where I’ll end up. I do my ‘hesitate, peek inside at a place that has really good potential, look at them menu and salivate’ thing.

Without prompting, a customer in front of La Botella looks me over, sees what’s up and says “the food’s better here.”

Does anyone need more prodding than that?

Inside, there are all the right signs: a bunch of ruddy-faced white-bonneted women in the kitchen, a table of five grandmothers on a Sunday out, sawdust on the floor that a 10 year old uses to spell out the name of her crush with the tip of her shoe and the staff you want to adopt as your host family.

Cider - in this case sidra Peñon (currently celebrating their 100th birthday) - is poured by guys who look like they’ve been doing it for 100 years - eyes fixed not on the glass four feet below where they’re pouring, but on some fixed point on the horizon…until they fix your gaze as they hand you your glass.

This isn’t expensive stuff - 2,30€ for a 75 cl bottle - but it’s the kind of stuff where you take a sip and truly wonder how we can bother spending so much time drinking second-rate drinks.

I watch dishes go out - plump bits of octopus, tiny scallops in their shells and have a bit of buyer’s remorse. Galician-style hake? What was I thinking?

Good things, apparently.

I will note the size of my cut of fish: every bit as large as my fist. My word, a Parisian chef would cut this in three pieces and sell it for more!

I will also note that my worries about having a fish with a sauce are unfounded. The hake would be a marvel on its own - bite-sized discs breaking off with just the right amount of fork pressure. The sauce - laden with paprika (but not too much) - is there if you want it, smoky and even slightly sweet goodness.

I’m sure it’s fantastic, but did I miss the place next door? Not one bit.

Count on about 20€ per person.

Restaurante La Botella - MAP
C/ Emilie Robin 15
Aviles, Spain
+34 98 556 48 08

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.



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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

THREE-STAR BEER IN BARCELONA

BARCELONA - It happens to every host. Your and your guest are well fed*, you don’t need more caffeine, you’ve been walking for a couple hours and going home now would torpedo the afternoon.

There we were, sore of foot and in front of La Cerveteca - the beer place. Not the toss ‘em back and drunk by five style, though. In Barcelona, like in Paris, coffee and beer are always good, but seldom better. La Cerveteca is one of the few wonders that falls into the ‘better’ category - the kind where you walk in and stare in wonder, saying ‘Holy cow - what’s this doing here?’

Case in point, I spy Nøgne Ø beers from Norway - something I recognize from Anders Kissmeyer’s wonderful Norrebro Bryghus brewery in Copenhagen - along with American IPAs, treats from Belgium and Germany and even Anchor Steam from San Francisco!

(Seeing the latter, I instantly pine for my San Francisco days, roaming Potrero Hill when the smell of the hops streaming out of the brewery takes over the neighborhood, with a scent that, inexplicably, will always remind me of Spaghetti-O’s.)

Guillaume and I order an IPA and a Liberty Ale, grab a few papers, find a back table and take a load off for an hour.

Perfect.

La Cerveteca MAP
Gignàs 25
Barcelona
+34 93 315 04 07

*Pinotxo, of course. A Joe Ray three-star
.



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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

BACALAO’S AHA! MOMENT

Bacalao - salt cod - has never been my favorite. Catalans do backflips for it, but to me, there are so few aha! moments, I never quite understand the bother or the price.

To set me straight, my ever-helpful Barcelona tipster, food writer Carme Gasull, took pity on me and sent me to the Masclans kiosk in the Galvany market on the far side of Avinguida Diagonal. The only tourists up this way are lost.

First, the negotiations: three of us would like to try Esteve Masclans’ bacalao and there are no tables at his kiosk. The man behind the counter works out a deal where we’ll eat the fish at the tables of a nearby bar/food stall whose beer we will happily drink.

Our meal begins with a dive in the deep end.

“Start with this,” the waiter says. “It’s chick peas and bacalao spine.”

Technically, it’s the tissue inside the spine and my friends look at each other like they’re wondering what they’re in for, but it disappears in a flash. It’s possible I ate the whole thing. I don’t remember.

Masclans are masters of sous-vide, slow-cooking much of their bacalao in a vac-pac bag and we try a few variations - one with tomatoes, one with truffle another with a type of mirepoix. Sweet and silky, the tomato preparation is the landslide winner.

The best dish, however, is carpaccio-style translucent bacalao rounds, each disc with a pea-sized dot of olive paste, the whole drizzled in healthy quantities olive oil, accompanied by a scattering of sofregit-esque fresh tomato sauce. The fish is the star, of course, but it gracefully shares the stage with its friends.

Aha!!!

Count on 15€ for lunch, including beer from the neighbors.

Masclans - MAP
Mercat de Galvany
Santaló, 65
+34 93 200 99 27



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Sunday, May 23, 2010

ANCHOVIES IN THE CAVE

BARCELONA - Similar to the way he divulges his kitchen secrets, Toni’s stingy when it comes to sharing his favorite places to eat in Poble Sec - my favorite Barcelona barrio.

We were out picking up supplies for a soup he was making and as we walked down the street from La Cova, he casually mentioned how their anchovies were the neighborhood’s best.

I did not fail to take note.

Ari and Diego (my hot-stuff Web designers), Meri, the queen of all wine, and I went up to check it out a few weeks back. Truthfully, I dragged them along, but nobody complained.

You’d walk past La Cova 1,000 times, but once you’re in, you never want to leave. Anchovies are served up six to a plate and there’s a fantastic bit of skin on the underside adding extra flavor and silky texture. Twice, my notes read “fleshy goodness” and they’re bathing in a tiny pool of house-blend olive oil, vinegar and secret spices - if you ask, the owner might divulge his secrets.

Ari will later refer to La Cova as “The place with the amazing anchovies.” Toni would turn red.

Four beers, two plates of anchovies and pa amb tomaquet (tomato bread) came to about 12 euros.

Hard to beat.

La Cova MAP
Margarit, 52
Barcelona
+34 934 411 063

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.



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Friday, May 21, 2010

SNACKS: TONI ROSSINI

BARCELONA - While we’re prepping the calcot sauce in Toni’s kitchen, we get talking about our favorite artery-cloggers and I mention steak Rossini - a big steak with a slab of foie gras, preferably seared, melting over the top - at Le Tambour.

Or, well, anywhere.

He grins and walks toward the fridge which, is a Pandora’s box of high-cal goodness and pulls out two steaks and a slab of foie gras.

Lunch is served.

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.



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Sunday, May 16, 2010

CUATRO - NEW FOUR YOU

Hot off the press? Hot off the griddle? Who cares?

Located at the bottom of the culinary wasteland of Las Ramblas, Cuatro is new, very good and a solid value.

Reserve now - they may be working out the kinks, but it’s going to be full to the gills very soon.

Kinks? There’s a bit of a split personality - the sign on the door says “Bar Cuatro” giving the hurried and hungry every reason to walk past. There are noble G&Ts, good value wines, but it’s not a destination bar - it’s a destination restaurant.

The dining room is spread out, spacious and relaxed, making me wonder why they didn’t give themselves a little more room in the kitchen or if they’re planning on squeezing in a few more tables once they’ve hit stride.

Order à la carte if you will, but there’s a six-course degustation menu for two at 25€ a head and you get to choose which courses to try.

Our foursome, including my tipster, Barcelona food writer Carme Gasull, Edu and Meri, start with a duck crepe with red fruit chutney, which is like hot duck rillettes, minus some of the fat, rolled into a crepe, with a nice acidic bite from what’s really a drizzle of fruit reduction. It sets a nice tone for what’s to come. ‘Calamari strips with wasabi mayo’ are fried in a tempura-like batter, which would normally make me whine about needless poaching from other cultures if it wasn’t so good.

My favorite main - which elicited bipolar responses from our group - is a poached egg over a cauliflower cream with a wiggle of truffle oil and a tiny slab of wonderfully fatty bacon, everything bathing in a spoonful of olive oil and (I think) meat jus. I’m also almost forgetting the side of vanilla-scented mashed potatoes that came with a braised veal cheek. Giving the spuds gentle sweet, savory and honey-like flavors, none of us could figure out the mystery ingredient, likely the fruit a clever collaboration between chef Aitor Bergaretxe and lauded pastry chef Vicente Carvalho.

The wines, sourced by sommelier Jaume Martorell are smart, unique and good values - we have a 2009 Tempestad, a Galician beauty made with the godello grape - and the peculiarly-named 2006 Squared Three (bzah! - the number on the label is three squared), a grenache, tempranillo and merlot blend from the Rioja that leaves us every bit as happy as the godello.

There’s a salty chocolate mousse for dessert, presented in a way only a Catalan could appreciate, but the superstar is a play on french toast with a Parmesan ‘cake’ and pear sorbet. This alone is worth the visit.

Count on 25 euros, whether you order à la carte or the tasting menu, plus wine.

Cuatro
C/ Montserrat, 4 (a stone’s throw form the Drassanes Metro)
Barcelona
+34 93 301 43 24

Follow me on twitter: @joe_diner



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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

COVERING MY CALCOTS*

I met Toni (see above) this morning to learn salsa per calçots - the sauce for the celebrated spring onion that’s barbecued into a coma (see above) for the masses, dipped into the romesco-like sauce and eaten by the dozens in wonderfully-sloppy sword swallower style.

Trying to get an invite into his kitchen to help, he was reluctant to have me over. “You’re going to steal my secrets!” he bellowed.

When I got to his house, however, he asked if I was going to pull out my pen.

Around the kitchen, there are two hocks of jamón, at least three active bottles of wine, including one with the bottle neck cut off, a bag of bunyols - (seasonal Munchkin-like mini donut/fritters, often flavored with a bit of anise) and three different kinds of oranges.

For the sauce, he’s got separate trays of roasted tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion ready and once those are done, it’s pretty simple.

“[The nearby Catalan towns of] Sitges and Villanova fight to see who makes the best,” he claims.

For his entry, he throws the following into the blender in batches:

- the flesh of a rehydrated ñora pepper in the blender (substitute, if you must, a sweet, mild dried red pepper)
- a dangling handful of roasted red peppers
- one roasted onion, skinned and chopped into rough chunks
- 10 roasted tomatoes
- 5 cloves of roasted garlic
- 2 cloves raw, peeled garlic
- 1 cup almonds
- ⅓ cup hazelnuts
- ½ cup bread crumbs
- two shakes of pepper
- 1 cup olive oil
- 2 cups water
- ¾ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 ½ tbsp salt

Run the blender slow for 5-10 seconds then fast for about 20. The sauce should be thick and still slightly chunky.

Salsa per calçots is also fantastic for making xató (pronounced “chateau”) - a salad made with curly endive, black olives tuna belly and/or bacalao.

*Admittedly, this is running a bit late, but I’m playing catchup after a month in India. Besides, if you’re in a cool climate and have access to spring onions to grill, they’d be wonderful doused in this sauce…



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Saturday, May 01, 2010

HEN DON’T?

I did something with this place I don’t usually do: I recommended a restaurant to a friend without having been there to eat in a long time. A friend from London was coming into town for what the Brits call a ‘hen do’ (a.k.a. a bachelorette party) right around the time another friend who runs Slow Food Barcelona was talking about a favorite restaurant: Mam i Teca. There seemed to be a bit of serendipity involved, so I went with the flow. Now that I’ve gone, I can’t decide if it was a good idea.

At first, I thought the tiny restaurant lacked a bit of soul, but I figured out that it feels like that you’re eating in the semi-industrial living room of the guys who run it, right down to the Johnny Hallyday on the radio and the waiting for the waiter/barman to finish up his conversation with the client/friends at the end of the bar before you can ask for another napkin.

If you like that sort of stuff - it can have its charms - you’re in for a treat. I love that feeling that the two guys who run the joint are clearly doing exactly what they want to be doing, but I wonder how many other people come out of there feeling a little weirded out by the experience. The cuisine is Catalan and you can understand the Slow Food connection; product is excellent. Xató - a salad of escarole with salt cod and olives with romesco sauce wasn’t much to write home about, but it was counterbalanced by a sweet and salty rabbit stew with apricots and prunes. Mmm!  Our favorite dish, a mix of just-cooked mushrooms, asparagus and garlic drizzled in olive oil was so good, we ordered it twice.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Maybe it was a good idea to send the hens here.

Mam i Teca - MAP
Carrer de la Lluna 4
Barcelona
+93 441 33 35



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