Friday, December 23, 2011

¡Viva Espana!

¡patatas bravas! 

It's been a busy month(s) and I have been severely slacking on the Food Baby posts. For that, I apologize. I do, however, have some great restaurants, recipes and reviews in the backlog.  My resolution for 2012 is to post on a more regular basis - hopefully twice a week in a Tuesday/Thursday schedule - and I will do my very best to keep to that promise.

Part of the reason for the absence from the blogosphere was our trip in November to Spain. We had a few days each in the dizzying metropolises of Barcelona & Madrid and then a few more in the lazy and beautiful town of Sevilla in the south. Barcelona is organic & futuristic Gaudi architecture, with wide tree lined avenues and hidden alleys in the ancient feeling gothic quarter. Madrid is the New York of Spain - people moving everywhere, something always happening and great food to be found on nearly every corner. Sevilla is the antithesis to all of this. It is Moorish buildings and orange trees, flamenco dancing and lazy strolls thru the city squares. Everywhere in Spain is incredible food though. From the open markets, to street vendors, to restaurants there is something good to be had everywhere you look. 

Even the smallest corner bars offer their small selection of tapas that rivals anything you would get in the United States. Smokey olives, warm ciabatta bread, beautiful sardines, spicy peppers and the jamon - my goodness the jamon. Served at nearly every meal, it is quite simply the best ham in the world. Sliced paper thin by little old men wielding razor sharp knives right from an entire ham hock, it nearly dissolves on your tongue, slowly unlocks it's labyrinth flavors of nutty, smokey, earthy and leaves you smiling knowing that life is good.  

Our first day in Spain was in Barcelona. We checked into the hotel around 4 and needed snacks. Off to Las Ramblas to get a feel for the city and find sustenance. We happened upon this cool open air market, the Mercado de San Jose, and right at the entrance was a stall selling that beautiful iberian jamon, spicy chorizo and all sorts of other piggy goodness.  Took us all of 10 minutes to find this place...I should be living in Spain full time.

this is my "i'm going to eat really well tonight" happy face

dried peppers in every color imaginable

 the spanish love their candy.  check out the little tennis balls in the middle.

Our next stop was a little tapas bar on Las Ramblas.  Glass of vino tinto (red wine) and three pinchos (medium tapas) for 5. Deal.

ham & fried pepper, potato croquette, brie & bacon pinchos

Taller de Tapas
After wandering the streets a bit, we made our way to Taller de Tapas for dinner. This place was recommedned to us by two different friends that had recently been in Spain, and it did not disappoint. A great bottle of spanish red, and then an assortment of small plates - jamon, cheese plate, patatas bravas, fried whole padron peppers (these were amazing!), some spicy chorizo sausage, spinach with chick peas and garlic, potatoes with egg & ham, etc. etc.  Needless to say, we were well fed and would pass along the recommendation to anyone visiting Barcelona.  


cheese plate with apple jelly
the wifey with her patata bravas

fried green peppers (top) and chorizo sausage

spinach with garlic and chickpeas - one of the best things we ate

Ham anyone? 
All over Spain are these shops selling nothing but ham. You can even buy it in the duty free shop at the airport. This place had the whole legs (hoof and all) displayed in these special holders that keep it steady for carving.  When you walk in the aroma is intoxicating - I imagine that it is similar to what angel farts would smell like.

Cava y Pinchos 
Another night out in Barcelona and we started with some very good local cava and a few pinchos.  Cava is the Spanish/Catalan version of champagne, with a much rounder flavor profile and I think superior to champagne and even prosecco. I also don't seem to get nearly the hangover from cava as the other stuff.  I'm sold. 

a few pinchos - fried peppers & ham, goat cheese and olive, mushroom and cheese

Cava - Spain's answer to champagne

Endless Tapas
We found this restaurant (the name escapes me) at the end of Carrer dels Boters. A nearly endless selection of tapas to choose from, and all self serve. You simply grab a plate and start choosing from either the cold or hot section. When you're finished, they count your sticks and charge you appropriately. Wine was cheap - only 1.50 a glass, and beers were just a €1. We came back again the next night to start a little tapas tour of Barcelona. 

tapas as far as the eye can see...

vino tinto

mascarpone with nuts, brie with apple jelly, goat cheese pine nuts (clockwise from top left)

jamon, potato & octopus with paprika skewer, empanadas

anchovie & mushrooms, eel & egg

Vi Cool - Madrid
Our best meal in Spain was at Vi Cool - a restaurant opened by Chef Sergi Arola who used to work at the famed El Bulli. We had a local friend lead us here, and even he was impressed. Every dish was incredible; the next better than the last. It's on a cool section of Calle de las Huertas, with excellent service, expertly mixed drinks, and a great vibe. 

steak tartare, with soy sauce and egg yolk

scallop tartar with ginger and crunchy lettuce leaves  to wrap it up in

Pisco Sours!  Haven't had these since we were in Peru.  Our waiter was  actually Peruvian and we struck up a little conversation about hiking Machu Picchu. 

charred eggplant, pine nuts & balsamic vinegar

patatas bravas! the best we had in Spain - and we ate them just about every day. 

egg with potato and spanish ham

croquettes - assortment of blue cheese & ham


lamb meatballs with chimichurri and goat cheese fondue (in the little pot)

coca pizza with quail eggs, truffle oil & potato chips

coca pizza with iberian jamon, baby artichoke hearts and roasted padron peppers

ricotta mousse with honey and fresh berries

the "pantry" above the bar at Vi Cool

Mercado San Miguel - Madrid
Like a glowing beacon on a chilly, rainy night, this enclosed market is the Reading Terminal of Madrid if the Philly version served ridiculously good ham, and let you hop from stall to stall with your wine glass. It's such a cool setup here - you grab cheese from one vendor, then wine from another, some ham here, and some fried sardines from another. Eat wherever you choose, maybe at some common tables in the center.  All the vendors share the same glasses and plates, so the wait staff just collects everything on a common cart. 

Mercado San Miguel - come, eat! 

locals choosing a snack from the multitude of vendors

a ham being sliced by hand

our first snack - iberian jamon

our second - the cheese!

We only had two days in Sevilla and wish we could have spent a lot more time here. After the hustle and bustle of Madrid & Barcelona, the lazy atmosphere and warm temperatures were like a mini vacation. Beautiful ancient winding streets to get lost in, lots of good shopping (the wifey did well here) and traditional flamenco dancing  - even I thought it was good. The restaurants in the main square area cater mostly to tourists, but we found a couple good places with locals and some good eats.

a happy and ham at a corner bar

patatas bravas - not our favorite here, too much mayo. 

a beef and cheese kind of thing - reminiscent of chili 

roasted goat cheese rounds with honey and toast - this was incredible

roasted artichoke hearts

Breakfast - with extra sugar. 
The Spanish love their sugar, and load up on it especially at breakfast. Note the extra packets with everything we ordered - even the orange juice. The OJ was great and tasted like it was from oranges just picked off the trees outside the restaurant. The churros & hot chocolate were just the thing after a good night out. 
churros, hot chocolate & fresh orange juice

The most incredible hashbrown known to man...
Better than Butcher & Singer...if that's possible. We ordered this as an afternoon snack at a nondescript cafe on one of the squares in Sevilla. The table next to us was eating it, and we just pointed and said "uno mas". That was a good decision. It's a mixture of fried shredded potato, chunks of really good ham, egg, and cheese all formed in a ramekin and then baked. The bright red streak is spicy paprika. Incredible. Jesus should have had this at the last supper. 

Afternoon snack - Sevilla 
Around 3pm we needed a break from sight seeing and stopped into a little cafe for a coffee and a nibble. In the south of Spain they have the most incredible olives. They are smokey and rich, luscious and strong. A bowl of olives and an afternoon beer sets the world right. 

Las Columnas - Sevilla
We had heard and read in guide books about this place - a crowded and noisy locals only bar serving cheap drinks and tasty tapas in the middle of tourist central. Problem was we couldn't find it. We circled around the block where it should have been at least twice. In frustration we wandered into a place called Bodega Santa Cruz for a drink and to regroup. On the sign out front, in small letters read "Las Columnas" - we'd found it! And what we found was one of the most fun bars we'd been to in all of Spain. Tons of locals carrying on, people spilling out into the street, great tapas and drinks flowing freely. To keep track of your tab, they don't take your credit card, instead the write in chalk on the bar in front of you. Didn't get a picture, but I had the most incredible fried sardines ever here. Crispy, salty little guys simply dredged and deep fried. You just pull off the hunks of tender meat. So good with a cold cervesa. 

Las Columnas / Bodega Santa Cruz bar in Seville
drinks outside Las Columnas

Outside Las Columnas. Can't get a table inside?  No problem, use your vespa. 

Spain has the best food of any country in Europe that I've been to so far. The wine is amazing, and cheap. The culture of tapas and bar hopping is overly agreeable. You start your night at 10pm, and go till you can't stand any longer. Then the Spanish stay out for another 3 hours. The simple ingredients are prepared amazingly in even the most divey bars. You can't help but have great meals here. If I could live anywhere on the continent, it would be Spain. Here's to getting back as soon as possible.  


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