Wednesday, December 7, 2011


This is not a restaurant in Paris. Nor is it in France. It's a restaurant in Madrid that just so happened to receive its second Michelin star the night I ate dinner there. I figured since it was just awarded its second star I should give it its due as close to the date as possible (Thanksgiving 2011, 11/24/11).

I'll admit that I first heard about Diverxo on Bourdain's No Reservations, contrary to the show's title one needs a reservation to Diverxo at least 30 days in advance. The restaurant is located in a residential neighborhood, right next to what is basically a bodega one would find on the corner of any New York City block. Unassuming from the outside (simple black windows), the inside is incredibly sophisticated looking. Shades of grey, white, and black are what greet you, do not expect bright colors or any colors really except for the dishes. This lack of color in the room serves to highlight each and every plate brought out.

We were greeted with a glass of cava (the Spanish are very quick to point out that this is much different than the French champagne) and a very odd looking center piece that looked like a metal atom model. There were cards with different words on them (I don't remember what they were) that were attached to the center piece and on one of them sat a curry flavored meringue. A single bite that was sweet and had the perfect curry essence. 

After the meringue was inhaled, the metal atom was whisked away and in its place our server placed a tall cup of edamame with two small cups of Peruvian cheese sauce. Basically a sophisticated cheese wiz with a strong presence of sesame and a little kick of heat at the end. It was simple, yet it showed us what was to come: a seamless blend between Asian and Spanish cuisine.

There is no a la carte menu at Diverxo. Instead there are choices of five, nine and eleven course tasting menus. With only a 20EURO difference between the nine and eleven-course, we opted for the eleven. When in doubt turn it up to eleven.

Our first real course was a sweet and sour soup made from oxtail. There were bits of smoked eel, angulas (baby eels), very tiny baitfish and tomato caviar. It was served with a piece of fried eel skin. The soup itself was gelatinous much like the hot and sour soup you get at bad Chinese restaurants, but this was natural (I'm guessing the oxtail lent the gelatinous quality to the dish). The smoked eel added a smokey note (clearly) and the tomato caviar lent a sweetness and acidity that balanced the dish nicely. Let me go on record by saying that fried eel skin, akin to pork rinds, will be the next big thing.

Eel skin top right
In conjunction with the soup we were presented with a "sandwich" of sorts. In between two thin crackers was braised and shredded ox tail and on top were more angulas. Quite tasty and an interesting take on a surf-and-turf (although they would never call it that). It was a nice soup and sandwich combo although we declined to dunk the sandwich.

Small bite, but worth it

The next course brought the Diverxo version of a traditional Spanish tapa mejillones tigre, or tiger mussels. Usually it is a large mussel stuffed and topped with toasty bread crumbs. The Diverxo take was a dish shaped more or less like a mussel and layered, like a parfait. On top were the breadcrumbs followed by a layer of kafir lime cream, which surprisingly was not overpowering. Underneath the cream was flying fish roe and a big mussel. The whole thing worked perfectly together, brininess of the mussel pairing well with the kafir lime, with the fish roe providing nice pop and texture.

Mussel parfait?

If you've ever heard of cod chin, I commend you. If you've ever eaten it, I commend you even more. This as far as I can tell was a piece of fish jello. Normally that would be a horrifying thing, but this was delicious. Cod chin with fried duck tongue and avocado. The crisp, grease-less tongue was the perfect thing to counter the gelatinous fishy cod chin. There were Szechuan pepper corns on the cod that we realized when our tongues began to tingle slightly. Duck tongues and fried eel skin, I'm telling you, next big thing.

Just put it on his bill...or his tongue
Our next course was one of the best things I have ever eaten. A smoked bonito belly with shavings of bottarga, an egg yolk wonton, black garlic aioli, and a sweet kimchi sauce. The belly was smokey without being overly (and also perfectly cooked, slightly above rare) so and was complimented by the smokey black garlic aioli. The richness of the dish was provided by the runny egg yolk wonton which burst into ooey, gooey, egg yolk goodness. Bottarga was salty, fishy goodness, while the kimchi sauce just pushed the whole thing into heaven territory.

No Asian meal is completely without a dumpling and that's exactly what we got. It was described as a Shanghai dumpling with red shrimp. It came attached to a very thin wafer and also had a broth in the bottom of the dish. It was not too dissimilar to a soup dumpling, but with the soup on the outside. There were shitakes that added an earthy note to the dish and went well with the sweetness of the shrimp.

Not your average dim sum
My second favorite dish of the night manifested itself in a pillowy soft bun. One of my favorite things to eat is a roast pork bun. This was that but with an intense mushroom inside and a sweet outside. It was sitting on top of a tomato salad. The immediate taste and smell was that of black truffles, but it soon turned into a mushroom bonanza, tempered by the brightness of the tomato salad. To push it over the top was a piece of jamon made from ox, to be eaten separately. Sort of a clash between roast pork bun and the classic jamon con pan y tomate (ham with bread smeared with tomato).

Mushroom bomb
As part of a duo of sorts, we were next served "cochinillo" that is to say suckling pig. However Diverxo got it right and served the best part of the suckling pig: the skin. It was a rectangle of perfectly crisped skin with a black sesame sponge on top with cucumber spheres and salmon roe. The whole thing was a textural explosion, quite literally with the pop of the roe. I would have liked a little more sesame, but it was quite a nice combination of flavors: acidic, salty, sweet.

With a piece of suckling pig skin, how could you go wrong?

The partner to this dish was served in a styrofoam hamburger container. It was not a Big Mac, but a small summer roll. It was Iberian pork that was served rarer than any pork product I have ever eaten, but it was fatty and rich. I wouldn't call it unctuous, but I feel an obligation to use that word in tandem with the word "pork". It was served with basil, mint, an iceberg leaf (could they have used a different lettuce leaf?) and a glass of dipping sauce that was basically a vinegar with different dried herbs. I tasted thyme, oregano, and basil. It was a perfect foil to balance the fattiness of the pork.

Nice to throw us off with the box, but rare pork? Talk about a curveball
Dipping sauce, chopsticks on left (never used them)

Our first "main" course was a piece of monkfish with grilled white asparagus, purple potato "chips", yuzu cream, pea shoots, black sesame powder, and Chinese barbeque sauce. This was what I thought to be a play on a fish and chips, although elevated beyond the point of recognition. The chips were incredibly thin, and translucent purple. They looked like a fragile fruit roll up. The fish itself was tender and delicious, while the yuzu cream added a nice acidic zing to the whole thing.

Fish and translucent purple potato chips just doesn't sound quite right...

Another fish course followed. We were presented with a plate covered in edible flowers, thin shavings of black truffle, and pea shoots. Underneath all the garnishes was a perfect piece of red mullet, which was sitting on top of a puree of tomato and tabasco pepper (not the hot sauce). A cart emerged which our plates were taken to and one of the chefs poured hot oil on top of the dish. This served two purposes, one was to cook the fish a little longer, and the second purpose was to release all the fantastic flavors and smells of the garnishes. The truffle hit me along with the pea shoots however neither were overpowering when eaten. The fish was flaky yet pink on the inside, and the oil mixed with the puree to form a sauce that was a little spicy, but didn't flame out my palate.

Oil spread with the utmost expertise

Aromatics galore

Finally our first real piece of meat during the meal, but it was well worth the wait. The dish was described to us as slow cooked ox with fat but without the fat. The meat itself had been cooked for 24-hours at 80 degrees, meaning all the fat within the meat had broken down leaving the meat tender and succulent. The "fat" draped on top was simply a textural component to the dish as I believe it was made from rice. There were barely cooked pieces of bok choy (nice and fresh) and a tamarind foam that, while powerful on its own, got a little lost among the rest of the dish. It tasted amazing and was distinctly Asian, the bok choy really brought a lightness to the dish where it would have been fairly one note and heavy had it not been there.

If only I could get my fat without fat...

With our savory portion of the meal over we were left to dessert. The first dessert brought out was a galangal sponge with coconut cream, fried nori, and blood orange sorbet. It was really a mix between sponge and foam since it disappeared in our mouths. The galangal packed quite a punch, but it was tempered by the coconut cream and the blood orange sorbet. The nori was there for texture and didn't add much flavor wise. It was a nice palate cleanser after all of our savory dishes.

Galangal almost knocked me out

The next dessert really could have been a savory. We were told it was black olives and celery. Clearly something was not as it seemed. The olives were actually chocolate balls surrounding a liquid white chocolate with a little black olive salt sprinkled on top. The celery took the form of foam, gel, and sorbet. There was spun sugar with micro cilantro that only further enforced the vegetal center of the dish. It was almost like an entirely separate vegetable course gone awry, but it was incredibly refreshing and made us laugh at the thought of pairing celery with dessert.

One of the stranger things I have eaten

We thought that the meal ended there, but we were brought a plate that looked like it was straight out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. It was covered by a clear glass cover that was removed upon being set on the table. On the plate was a lavender marshmallow with sesame ice cream (I think...) and a big gob of lavender cotton candy. The whole thing was quite stunning to look at, but it was a little too perfumey for my taste and I wish we had ended on either of the other two desserts.
Cotton candy, delicious
Sparse yet quite powerful

My only complaint for the night (and it seems petty I know) was that there were no, for lack of a better word "freebies." Aside from the edamame there weren't any extra dishes, even though it was their second star night. They did send out an extra glass of cava, but even just some petite fours at the end would have been a nice way to end it. Again minor complaint and really, who am I to complain about something like that?

Final Grade: A, Overall the meal was one of the best I've ever eaten. Nothing was too salty or too...well...gross. We might have put the dishwasher out of a job since we cleaned our plates quite thoroughly. The night was made even more special by the fact that Diverxo was awarded their second Michelin star. While also churning out amazing food the staff got to have some fun as well, made evident by the flour coated chefs that came out of the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to travel to Madrid, and have time for one amazing meal, this is the place to go. 

Sorry for the long post, just couldn't break it up.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Paris Part I - L'Epi Dupin

I am extremely behind on posts, but this next series of reviews consists of a short trip to Paris, not nearly enough time, but so be it. 

Our first lunch in Paris found us at a small restaurant called L'Epi Dupin. It's a small restaurant that is shielded by heavy curtains at the entrance to prevent the biting winds from entering every time someone enters. The menu can be found on several blackboards scattered throughout the restaurant (keep in mind it's only about twelve tables and a long tables for parties.)

Everything was in French of course so deciphering things was a little tricky, but our waiter spoke enough English to tell us that we had just ordered veal kidneys, we revised that mistake. I ordered the veloute de potimarron with a foi gras poêle and the cuise de canette fondante with fondue de blettes au condiment carotte, which when put into a translator is: Cream of pumpkin, faith gras, leg of duck melted, melted Swiss chard with carrot condiment. In short, pumpkin soup with fois gras and duck confit with Swiss chard. My girlfriend ordered the tartin d’endives caramélisee' au chèvre, sauce mielleuse à la coriandre and the porcelet marine "soja citron vert" with pommes paysannes: caramelized endive tart with a honey-coriander sauce to start and then pork and potatoes. 

After we had ordered we were greeted with an amuse of some sort of root vegetable soup with a root vegetable sorbet. The flavors were bright and vibrant, highlighted by the extreme change in temperatures between the ice cold sorbet and the hot soup. 

Hot potato, hot potato, who's got the cold sorbet?

My soup was quite rich, almost to the point that I couldn't finish it (I did though). There was a sizable lobe of fois in it that had been seared, but it had an odd texture almost like eating a quiche...still made for quite a heavy soup. The bits of toasted slivered almonds added good crunch to each bite, otherwise would have been a very one-note dish.

Big ole' hunk of fois

The tart was by far the best thing that we ordered. While the other dishes were good, they had some flaws here and there, but the tart was fantastic. The bitter endive was tempered by the sweet caramelization, but at the same time it was enhanced by where the caramel had been cooked just a little too long. The sauce that I had originally thought was some sort of reduction of vinegar was in fact a honey sauce, however it had a distinct bite to it so there must have been something else in it. In addition, the flaky pastry dough provided a nice base and sponge to sop up the delicious sauce.

Little dots are coriander seeds, which had a nice burst of flavor

The duck confit was perfect. The leg was crispy on the outside, yet it fell apart when I touched it with my fork. This would have been the best dish had it not been for some ghastly Swiss chard concoction underneath. As far as I could tell there was mustard, Swiss chard, and some sort of cheese. It had an unpleasant taste that I can only describe as a sweet cheesy mustard. 

Notice toxic yellow below duck...

My dining companion's pork was good, not great, but solid. It was reminiscent of Chinese barbeque pork. Perhaps they used five spice (not something I would generally associate with the normally tame French cooking), but whatever they used it definitely hinted towards Asia. The potatoes were nicely done and the sauce that coated both the pork and potatoes was quite good. I would have liked that sauce to be on the duck. 

Pork could have been cut a little better as some pieces were still connected to each other
Final Grade: B+, for €25,00 per person for two quite good courses, it was fairly priced. The food was good, clean, French cooking, but while each dish retained a certain rusticity it was certainly quite refined. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sudestada - Asian in Madrid? It can't be!

Living in Madrid has been great, however it lacks one big thing, something that has been true and dear to my heart for my entire life: Asian food. Really at this point I will settle for the General Tso’s Chicken at Ollies. However there is one place that, while a tad expensive, has been one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Madrid, and bonus, it’s Asian.

While a restaurant billed as fusion Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese might scare some off, the thought of any of those three made me salivate. True it gave me reason to pause, but there was enough literature on Sudestada (roughly translated to South-East) telling me that it was the best place to get real Asian food that there was no reason not to try it. We walked in to a well-lit room, more on the modern side of things with a bar on our right and the dining room on our left. It was pretty empty and while we didn’t have reservations, we were seated immediately.

The menu was presented to us and it had a huge range of food. It was clear that when they said Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese fusion, they meant it, but they weren’t horrific Frankenstinian dishes: ingredients combined that have no business being together, all combined by a gluey, corn syrup-rich brown sauce. They brought a cold soup in a Chinese teacup. I tasted rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, cilantro and cucumbers. It was a tasty soup and it set the tone for the rest of the meal. To start we opted for the nem (Vietnamese fried spring rolls). For our main courses we got the braised beef cheek in red curry and the stir-fried rice noodles with lobster, iberico pork, squid and chanterelles.

Actually tasted quite similar to a sauce I make at home.

Now I’ve been looking for authentic Vietnamese food since I moved to the States many, many years ago, and I have yet to find it (despite living in New York), but the nem I had at Sudestada were some of the best I’ve had. They were fried to perfection. The filling was the right combination of meat (rabbit and shrimp I think) and mushroom, giving it a very specific taste that I can only describe as the essence of nem. The best part however was what it came with: a lettuce leaf to wrap, fresh mint, cilantro, and basil, bean sprouts, pickled vegetables, and the best part of all, nuoc cham (delicious, delicious fish sauce). These things are essential to creating the perfect nem, wrap all ingredients in lettuce leaf with the nem and dip in the fish sauce. I was in pure bliss. All the flavors of Vietnam came rushing back.

This is what heaven looks like, wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a big bite taken out of it.

With Vietnam now out of the way, we turned to our respective Thai and Chinese influenced dishes. My noodles were fairly bland, but the lobster was nice and the chanterelles were earthy and delicious. The noodles could have used some more kick, some chili peppers or something to just boost all the flavors. The whole thing ate heavy, but the finish was light and I didn’t feel overly stuffed.  

Good, but needed more overall flavor.

My girlfriend got the beef cheek, taking us from Madrid to Thai in a hurry. The flavors were absolutely explosive. The heat from the strips of chilies burned in a lovely way (since Spain seems to be allergic to spiciness). The dish was rich from the coconut milk and the lemongrass and galangal (slightly spicier, more ferocious version of ginger) lent brightness and very Thai flavors to the curry. The cheek itself was braised perfectly, fork tender and done in such a way that the fat was deliciously sticky and flavorful. It was all we could do to not dive into the bowl and lick up every last drop of the amazing curry.

One of the best things I've had since being here.

Final Grade: A, €63,00, while not cheap it was completely worth the price. The noodles fell a little flat, but the nem and curry were absolute knockouts. Next visit: the chef’s tasting menu.

Monday, November 7, 2011


About three weeks after I first got to Spain, I watched an episode of one of my all time favorite shows, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, where he goes to Spain. There I saw Zimmern travel through a very touristy neighborhood in Madrid called Sol and devour various bizarre and not so bizarre foods. As the camera panned around one tapas bar, it looked rather familiar. When they showed the shoes nailed to the wall I knew exactly where it was.

Zapateria. The shoe store. I had been there my second weekend in Madrid and had loved how small and intimate the place was as well as how everyone was incredibly friendly. I had wanted to go back since the last time I was there and this video gave me some suggestions of what to eat.

I decided to follow Zimmern's selection: crispy pig's ears, snails and bull tail. Unfortunately the bull tail was not available when I went so I was fortunate enough to have a dinner consisting of cartilage and gastropods (new name for blog?)

The ears came first and were plopped in front of us on a silver platter, literally. They were cut into small manageable pieces and were cooked with some sort of red sauce. The ears were cooked on the grill and pressed down for a while, thus formed a crispy exterior to some of the bits. The texture was definitely a bit funky. I likened it to the crunch of the pickled carrot one finds in banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), but it was definitely in its own class as far as bizarre textures. The gelatinous coating in my mouth spoke for the cartilage, which had clearly broken down a little bit when cooked. Flavor wise it was porky and slightly reminiscent of bacon, albeit not as smokey. The real kicker were the pieces of ear that still had small hairs on them, threw me off a little bit, but with those pieces kicked aside, I plunged right back in.

Bad picture I know, but trust me, it was a hairy situation

The snails were cooked in a spicy sauce, a nice change from the normally tame Spanish cooking. However the sauce completely overpowered any chance at tasting the snails. The snails themselves were soft, but gritty. With every snail I ate I hoped for a clean snail, but every bite I was met with the crunch of grit. The sauce was worth sopping up with bread although it could have used a little more salt.

Clearly a slow cooked dish...sorry for the bad puns...

Final Grade: B-, I'm definitely going back to get the bull tail, but overall the food was so-so. Everything was gone by the end of the meal, but I wouldn't order either of theses dishes again.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Porto Part II: La Mesa Restaurante

Our big dinner for the week, ranked in the top five of restaurants in Porto on tripadvisor, proved to have its highs and lows. The location was a bit tricky to get to, and we were late by nearly half an hour since we were counting on a cab being right near our hostel, but of course there weren't any. We ended up taking the subway to a more populated area and then hopping a cab from there. Already in bad moods the restaurant was tucked away in an apartment building. Literally an apartment building. Did not bode well in our minds....

However when we got out of the elevator we were greeted with an amazing room. Perfectly lit, aged wooden tables, intimate. It was just one of those rooms that instantly puts you in a good mood. Our hopes restored we apologized for our tardiness and proceeded into the dining room.

The menu was large, but we cut through it pretty easily and decided what we wanted fairly quickly. I ordered the foie gras stuffed with a plum compote and then the "traditional" Portuguese stew with monkfish and shrimp and fresh cilantro. I bold that because the cilantro was the first cilantro I had had since leaving the States. My girlfriend got a salad with grilled goat cheese, bacon and sun dried tomatoes and then ordered the braised veal cheek with turnip tops and potatoes.

We were sent an amuse bouche of a puffed pastry stuffed with goat cheese and honey. It was quite good, but would have liked the whole thing to be warm, somehow eating cold goat cheese was just not what I wanted to start with. Our first courses came out and they looked stunning. Another good sign for the night. The foie was creamy and delicious, but was set on some sort of sponge cake, which seemed like an odd choice. The plum compote provided the acid for an otherwise sweet and rich dish. The salad looked good, although the "bacon" tasted like was gone quickly so I assume that was a good thing.

What should darken our door but a goat cheese puff (literally, the picture is dark...)

Salt was a nice addition also, aged balsamic was of course delicious

A little broken, but it came in a huge cracker bowl, caught it just in time

Our main courses were next and again they were quite pretty to look at. My stew was quite good, although it was more or less a curry. Nice to have some really strong and bold flavors. The monkfish was tender and meaty while the shrimp were perfectly cooked. The cilantro brought a freshness to the dish that would have sorely missed it had it not been there. The only problem: my shrimp were not cleaned. I’m all for eating everything, but eating a poop vein is not my idea of a good time. It was gritty and there’s nothing worse than eating something delicious and then crunching down on some grit. 

More complete than I wanted them to be...

The veal cheek was fork tender, and the sauce it was in was delicious. Really you can't screw up anything slow braised. The turnip tops and potatoes melded beautifully together, the bitterness of the turnip greens paired with the creaminess of the potatoes. The dish was quite good, but was a little salty. 

Was the cherry (tomato) on top, almost

This is where the good part of the night ended. We declined desserts (too stuffed), as well as coffee/tea. We instead asked for the check. We waited for it. And waited. And waited. I flagged down our waitress and asked again. Again we waited, and waited. I caught her eye again and she nodded at me, indicating it would be right there. More waiting, more looks. Finally forty-five minutes later she came with the check, apologizing and saying that the machine had been broken so they had to write everything by hand. Five items (bottle of water too) took 45 minutes to write down? 

Final Grade: B, the food was pretty good, certainly for the quality of restaurant it was fairly cheap, however the 45 minute wait for our check proved to be fatal for this reviewer. Unfortunate for Mesa, and unfortunate for us, but hopefully they've hired a couple good writers.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Porto Part I: Presuntisco

I recently (ok, now about two weeks ago) went to Porto, Portugal for the weekend. It was a beautiful town that was heavy on tourists, which was fine since I was there as one and had no intention of posing as a Porto local. Our first dinner was at a place called Presuntisco. It was right along the river, meaning the atmosphere and setting was absolutely perfect for a couple embarking on their first ever trip together.

Apparently the custom in Portugal is for the servers to set a plate of starters down in front of you and if you want to eat it you can, but if you do, you pay for it. We had a plate of three things set in front of us: cheese (akin to feta) in olive oil, some sort of mashed tuna salad, and some olives. We chose to eat only the cheese, which was actually not bad. The chili flakes sprinkled in the oil gave the cheese a nice subtle kick that paired well with the saltiness.

Complete with an aperitif of a local Port wine 

We then ordered the dates wrapped in ham, fried sardines, grilled octopus and grilled cod. We figured since we were in a place that is known for its seafood we should just go for it. The ham wrapped dates were delicious. The smokiness and saltiness from the ham cut the sweetness of the dates perfectly. My only complaint is that I would have liked the dates to be a little softer in texture since they were somewhat toothsome (best word I could use to describe it).

Nothing ham doesn't make better

The fried sardines were nice even if there was a crunch of grit from the parts that had not been cleaned properly. They could have been a little crispier since they were simply dredged in flour then fried in a pan. Tempura style or something similar definitely would have been the way to go.

Wish they had left the heads on...

The best thing we had was the grilled octopus. It was amazingly tender and tasted like...well...octopus, but really good octopus. It wasn't in the slightest bit fishy. It had the perfect amount of char to it and the crunchy little suckers on the tentacle itself were fantastic.

Big meaty tentacles of octopus, delish.

Easily the worst dish of the night and trip. The cod. Perhaps it was bacalao (salt cod) that had simply not been re-hydrated properly, or maybe it was just overdone (and I mean WAY overdone) on the grill. Regardless it was bad. It was dry, not flakey and tender as good bacalao or regular cod should be. I was pulling strings of the dry cod out of my teeth for the rest of the trip. Only saving grace were the silky smooth roasted red peppers and the deliciously bitter broccoli rabe.

Everything was sprinkled with paprika, but even that couldn't save this dish

Final Grade: B+, 69,00 for two, not cheap, but not overly expensive especially considering where we were eating (tourist central, right on river). Besides the disastrous cod dish, everything was quite tasty.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ruffle Chips

I deviate from regular posts about restaurants and real food and instead divert my attention to the wonders of the Spanish vending machine. In it I discovered a bag of chips, standard. But it was flavored with....jamon!! I had to try them since this blog does have ham in the title and this bag of chips seemed to walk the line between fake (spam) and real (ham). 

Not Spam, But Jamon....flavored chips

The first bite I took was crunchy as Ruffles should be. I then got hit with the unmistakeable flavor of jamon, not great jamon, but it captured the most basic essence. However it dissolved into a fake bacon flavor, which then lead to a combination bacon/fake barbeque taste that was somewhat bizarre. It was smokey, yet tasted a little meaty. 

Final Grade: C+, for the price (€0,90) it was a better than average bag of chips, but let's face it the novelty factor made it taste a little better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Casa Lucio - Go here, but you might need a reservation

I've been lacking in posts recently and I apologize. I've stopped doing reviews of everywhere I'm eating since most of the meals have been average. Unless one of these small places has something extraordinary or is completely awful, I probably will not review it. However this is definitely a place worth reviewing.

Casa Lucio. My girlfriend and I were actually looking for another restaurant, Taberna Bilbao, but I had copied down the wrong address thanks to Google maps so we ended up nowhere close to it. Fortunately we went down Cava Alta, a street in the neighborhood called La Latina, and I felt myself pulled by the hand, barging through people left and right. My girlfriend recognized where we were and had been talking up one dish that was served at Casa Lucio for a good week and a half. We walked into the restaurant through a nondescript door (all the doors out front look the same, very confusing) and we emerged onto a tapas bar to our left and a few tables in front of us. We stood around for a few minutes until a waiter came up to us, I stumbled through my Spanish and he got the idea that we had no reservation. He told us to wait and he'd be right back.

He passed by us a couple times, not looking at us, but taking down the names of other patrons who were also arriving without a reservation on a long list. I was getting a little nervous since he hadn't written down our names, but a hug and some long looks at the leg of jamon reassured me. The waiter came up to us about 10 minutes later and told us to follow him. He led us into a crowded room and sat us down at a table. Well it was more like half a table. Our knees were touching and we were right next to the table where they served the food from (it was bigger than ours.) But we were among all the locals who come in and we had a table. It was clear that they had just thrown this table together in the ten minutes that I was waiting.

You can see the tray behind our table where they served food from

We got a menu and immediately knew two things we were getting: huevos estrellados and jamon iberico de bellota (the real stuff). We were undecided about a third dish, but settled on the suckling pig. The ham came out first and was exactly how I pictured it, thin pieces of ham, glistening with fat. It was a beautiful sight. The first bite was not actually the best bite of the ham plate, the taste seemed to evolve as the night went on. At first it tasted like an amazing piece of ham, don't get me wrong, it was delicious, but as I ate more of it the taste changed. After a few more bites the ham was sweet, not in an overpowering way, but in a way that made me want to eat more and more, and that I did. You could also really taste the nuttiness of the ham, made possible by those famous acorns that true jamon iberico (de bellota) pigs feed on their entire lives. It was truly spectacular.

Look at how shiny it is. Sign of a good ham.

The huevos estrellados was next. Talk about a dish that was delicious yet incredibly simple. Good eggs, perfectly fried potatoes, runny yolks. Sounds like paradise to me. It was. The yolks made the dish as the potatoes were bathed in a delicious sauce of golden egg yolk. Really, nothing is better than a runny egg. This was no exception. I can't say much more about it without ruining it.



Suckling pig was next up, and thank the lord I've finally had my suckling pig. After going on a program trip to Segovia which by the way is KNOWN FOR suckling pig, we got roast chicken for lunch. What? Roast chicken? Albeit a very good roast chicken, but still, we were in the home of the suckling pig and we were served the other, other, other white meat? I think not. But I got mine. It was fatty, crispy skin, tender meat, I even got to gnaw on the tiny little leg and got a deliciously sticky and gelatinous [tiny] pig tendon out of the deal. Even my girlfriend who says ixnay to the atfay, had a piece of the crispy, fatty skin and while she might not have explicitly said that it was one of the best things the world has ever created, the big grin on her face said it all. The sauce underneath it was a salty pig broth, a little too salty for me, which let's face it, is saying a lot, but had it been a little less salty I would have slurped it all up with a straw.

Why do the Spaniards serve everything with fries?

Final Grade: A. Ham and eggs with a side of bacon, that was essentially our meal, just deconstructed and a little more elegant. For 63,00 it was not a cheap meal, but it was worth every euro-penny.
Definitely worth a trip for anyone. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Santceloni Part I

This is the review I've been promising you all. It was so good that it deserves two separate posts. I cannot thank those who took me enough, it was truly a spectacular meal.

A couple weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to go to a two star Michelin restaurant called Santceloni. I've been to some good restaurants before, but this was taken to a whole other level. The food was excellent and we got many extra courses in addition to our starters and main courses. 

We were seated and they immediately brought over a drink cart to us and poured us some Cava (Spanish version of champagne.) After that we received menus and two plates of amuses. The first was a long rectangular plate with four little bites on it. The first was sea snail in its shell. The snail was meaty and almost had the texture of a tough lobster tail (in a good way), it mostly tasted of garlic, but there was the unmistakeable after taste of snail. Second was thinly sliced octopus on a round toast. The octopus was tender, but it didn't really taste like much. The crunch of the toast and the bounce of the octopus were nice contrasts though. Then there was a small cube of fried sweetbreads. This was probably the least successful one out of all of them since it tasted like a generic fried item: it could have been anything. The final amuse on the plate was a tiny quail yolk set in a very thin, crispy wrapper. It might have been raw, but regardless it was delicious. The yolk was creamy and exploded in your mouth when you ate the whole thing. There was also a nice kick of paprika at the end that was evidently in the bottom of the wrapper, hidden from sight, but not from the bite. The second amuse plate we had was a small cockle salad. There were razor thin onions in a citrus-y sauce that balanced the ocean flavor of the cockle. 

After the amuses had been downed (they were only a bite each) we were presented with what was described as the "first fish appetizer." This was a blini with a broccoli puree and golden fish roe. It was a textural fiesta. There were fish eggs popping in every bite contrasted by the silkiness of the puree and the airiness of the pancake. There was even an incredibly finely diced crunchy vegetable that I could not identify, but lent a different crunchiness to the dish. 

While there were no more fish appetizers, they did bring out another appetizer for us. Chickpeas with oxtail. The chickpeas were al dente which meant that instead of being mushy and chalky like some chickpeas are (canned for instance), these were perfectly cooked. It could have used more oxtail, but in retrospect, the chickpeas were the real star of the dish. The chickpeas and the bits of oxtail were nestled on top of what I believe was a celeriac puree. When everything was eaten in a bite it was like the most comforting, warming beef stew you've ever had. It was homey yet completely refined and appropriate for a two star restaurant. 

Crispy onions on top

Our appetizers came after a short break and everything looked stunning. Really. There was some very, very pretty food that came out to us. I ordered something simply called "Bivalve dish with fennel aroma." I was presented with a shallow dish that had three oysters, a half dozen cockles, four pieces of razor clams, and some braised baby fennel. They poured the cold fennel "aroma" table-side and to me it was reminiscent of the ocean coming up and swallowing everything at high tide. This is exactly what the dish was: ocean. Everything was very briny (found out later they actually use sea water in the dish) and tasted like the beach sans the sand. While it might not be perfect for some, the combination of fennel, fennel broth and shellfish was perfect. The anise flavor worked perfectly in countering the brininess of the bivalves. My favorite thing were the razor clams. They were sweet, chewy, and were absolutely delectable. 

Ocean in a bowl

The other three dishes ordered were lobster consomme, smoked ricotta ravioli with caviar and the vegetable stew with prawns. 

The consomme tasted like, well...think simultaneously inhaling the steam billowing out from a pot of freshly steamed lobsters while eating the tail floating in an intense lobster bisque. This is what it was. Honest to goodness lobster. Essence of lobster in a small perfect cup. 

Ah, must be in Maine no?

The ravioli was about as rich and over the top as you can get: a huge pile of caviar was generously spooned on top of each ravioli. The ravioli itself had been smoked, as opposed to smoking the ricotta and putting it inside the ravioli, and it was creamy and melt in your mouth. The saltiness of the caviar cut all that brilliantly, otherwise it would have been far too rich to eat more than two (ok, I could have choked it down sans the caviar, but still.)
Give me a whole bowl of these and I will be happy

I didn't actually try the vegetable stew, but it was an incredibly cool and playful interpretation. Instead of having prawns in the stew, I use the word stew lightly since they were just perfectly cooked vegetables, they were instead pounded out into an incredibly thin carpaccio and draped gently on top of the vegetables. It was beautiful, and was gone in about five minutes, so I can only assume it was delicious.    
Pre disappearing act
Everything up until this point in the meal was fantastic. Seriously. This was even down to the olive oil they served with the bread at the very beginning. Good, and I mean really good, olive oil is one of the best things in the entire world. My hunger and waistline would be challenged by the following food that came out...

 For the rest of the meal scroll down...if you dare.