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.  

Santceloni Part II

This is the continuation of the post above, it covers the rest of the meal.

I had just seen a video shot at Next (a restaurant in Chicago, everyone should look it up on youtube, it’s the same people who did Alinea, which you should also look up) that showed an antique duck press (see picture above) being used to create a sauce for the duck dish they were doing. Needless to say I was incredibly excited to see a duck press sitting on a table in the entrance of the restaurant. I knew as soon as I saw the press I would be ordering the duck. They brought the duck out whole and carved it on a table next to us. The breast, legs and wings were carved off and the carcass hacked into manageable pieces to fit into the time machine-esque press. The press was used to extract the blood and other juices from the duck and those juices were then mixed with a reduction sauce to make a wonderfully rich and intense sauce. The duck itself was cooked very rare, but the meat was so flavorful that I think it would have lost a little bit if it had been cooked longer. It was a little tricky to eat since it wasn’t cut for you, but I wrestled through it and had some amazing duck. 
Whole duck pre-pressing

The duck was presented in two servings, the breast and leg served with the pressed duck sauce and caramelized pears, the wings served with a simple salad. The pears worked perfectly with the saltiness of the duck sauce and the gaminess of the duck, providing a touch of burnt sweetness that lingered  after you had swallowed a perfect bite. After the first serving I was pretty full, but who am I to turn down a second helping of something delicious? Fried chicken wings meet duck wings. If some place served duck wings instead of chicken wings, I would be there every day. Such a different taste and with the layer of crispy fat that rendered duck has, it was succulent, fatty and yummy all in one. The salad was there.
Look at the sheen on the sauce, yummy bloody, fatty goodness.

Words of wisdom: anything slow braised will be good. The white veal knuckle came out as a huge piece of meat-on-bone, Flintstone sized. This was no exception to my words of wisdom, except for the fact that it was not good, but excellent. The meat was set upon a velvety potato puree (yes, a glorified mashed potato, but luscious and amazing). There was a crisp layer of skin that encased the outer layer of meat and provided a nice textural contrast. It was heavy, delicious, rich and there was so much that our table couldn’t finish everything, although we certainly tried. 
Served on a silver platter

When we first walked into the restaurant the first thing we were greeted with was a huge table packed full of cheese. It was a rectangular wooden table with at least 40 different types of cheese on it. Instead of dessert we opted for a tasting of cheeses. When we ordered the cheese, two waiters picked the table up and brought it over to serve us tableside. It was an astounding array of cheeses, but one that I was more than happy to attack. Our waiter recommended that we try a selection of cheese exclusively from Spain. He deftly picked out seven cheeses ranging from a soft cheese to manchego to a strong bleu. I alas cannot remember each and every cheese, but aside from the soft cheese and the bleu, they were fairly sharp in taste and quite similar in texture. Our favorite was the soft cheese, delicious with the quince paste (cut the saltiness of it). It was slightly sharp yet had a mild finish. The manchego was good, but I've never really been a fan of it so I wasn't as thrilled as I was with the first cheese. Now bleu cheese and I have never gotten along well. Its been harsh, overbearing and all around unpleasant to eat in anything, but I tried to put all that in the past and mend the broken fence. It was surprisingly good, and by all accounts it was quite bleu-y. Make no mistake, it tasted like a bleu cheese, but it had a fruity undertone that made it quite enjoyable and the taste dissipated quite quickly. An excellent selection, I was quite happy to have tried entirely Spanish cheeses.

Bleu cheese at 9 o'clock

At the end of the cheese course we were all ready to waddle out, but the meal wasn’t finished yet. They brought out an absurd dessert tower that had little sweet delicacies scattered all over it. They were actually quite light, and despite the fact that I was stuffed beyond stuffed, I sampled one of each. Honestly I couldn’t tell you what each thing was since there about eight different options, but they were tasty.  

Final Grade: A+, service, atmosphere, food, all were amazing. The waiters were coordinated in their movements while placing new plates, silverware and food, something I have never seen before. The food was delicious, one of the best meals of my life. Everything was refined and yet there was a certain playfulness to the whole meal that I enjoyed immensely. I was lucky enough to be part of this meal and I will forever savor the evening. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Parque Casa de Campo

Some friends and I took a trip to Casa del Campo, a large park in the very west of Madrid. When we go to the park I was underwhelmed. We may have been in a desert: dust everywhere, dust covered trees, dusty paths, dust clouds. The point I'm making is that it wasn't green and luscious like one expects when hearing the word "park." 

We ended up getting extremely hungry while walking around this dust bowl and when we arrived at a small lago (lake) there were a bunch of restaurants surrounding the outside of it. We stopped in at one and when we asked for a menu the waiter shot us a dirty look and came back about 10 minutes later with one menu for the three of us. Apparently we were supposed to have memorized the menu. I looked at the menu and the decision for me was simple: chorizo frito. That's right, fried chorizo. 

I have not met anyone who does not like crispy, spicy, greasy, chorizo. If you don't like it, don't tell me. But seriously, seeing fried chorizo on the menu nearly made me start salivating right there. The waiter delivered a decently sized shallow bowl piled high with delicious, hot, crunchy, and damn near perfect nuggets of chorizo. Spicy, salty, hints of a slight smokiness, it was heaven. My mouth is watering right now while writing this, as sick as that sounds.
Ah...prettier than Monet

My friend ordered a tortilla espanola. A favorite among the Spaniards it is simply a large mass of potato and egg. Generally boring, this one lived up to the expectation. HOWEVER! Guess who was there to rescue it? Chorizo grease!! Not even the actual sausage, the grease. Sopping up some of the yummy grease drippings with the mundane egg-potato mixture transformed it into, well...a sponge and vessel for the worth-its-weight-in-gold-grease. 
Note the red stains of chorizo grease

Ignore the butchering, it is not indicative of how I actually cut food

Final Grade: A. Yes, an A. Some small, mediocre restaurant next to a cheesy little lake can serve me a simple bowl of fried chorizo and I will go crazy. The tortilla can be damned, but it did serve a purpose. We split the check and for €6,00 I got the best meal I've had in Madrid thus far (except for the big review coming up, I'm just building the hype now). Definitely worth the long Metro ride and the dusty trails. 


Sunday, September 18, 2011

El Rincòn de Goya

I'm reviewing mostly smaller places right now, but I do have a long review coming up of a restaurant I had the privilege of going to. However that takes time to write, so here is one of three smaller food joints I have gone to.

A small tapas restaurant set downstairs, I found this place with a couple other people while we were just walking around. The exterior looked friendly enough and the inside looked small and intimate. Just the place I've been looking, for aesthetically at least.

The menu was huge, which either boded well or was an ominous sign (too many items could mean less attention to each dish.) Turns out it was somewhere in between. I ordered the fois gras with asparagus, bacalao with aioli, and to be a little adventurous I ordered the blood sausage with egg.  Everything came on a very nice piece of rustic toast, which made it convenient to eat.

The fois with asparagus came with a deep pink sauce on top. Needless to say I was a little skeptical of it, but I tried it and discovered it was not a reduction of bubblicious, but rather a raspberry sauce. Interesting. The sweetness of the sauce actually worked quite well with the fois, cutting through the richness of the liver. The asparagus was fine, but a little overcooked.

Next came the bacalao with aioli. If it was salt cod, I couldn't tell. It seemed like they had taken a frozen fish, cut some slices off of it and reheated it in a microwave. This was the least successful for me, made much worse by the guest appearance of some raisins. Yes, probably Sun-Maid. 

My favorite dish was definitely the blood sausage. Something about the irony of it (pun intended), the almost tinny quality that you get when eating anything that has cooked blood, is actually quite appealing. This blood sausage was earthy, rich, deep in flavor that was boosted by the presence of a nice wave of cumin whenever you swallowed a bite. The quail yolk provided a sauce to the dish and the red peppers added a sweetness that was bright and fresh.

Top clockwise: blood sausage w/red peppers and quail egg, bacalao w/aioli, raisins and pinenuts, fois w/asparagus and asparagus

Final Grade: B-, the meal cost €12,50 for those three dishes and a glass of beer, so it wasn't the cheapest. Nor was it the greatest, but it was definitely not the worst (that of course goes to Tapas 44, which I realize now I've plugged more than any other eatery on here). 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tapas y Cañas

Apologies for the lack of updates here. I know you all hang on every word I write, so before everyone deserts me, here are a couple of posts. 

I was somewhat dragged to this place since I was in a larger group (8 people) and one of the votes was to go to a cheesy (no pun intended) looking pizza place or the lesser of two evils landed me at a place called Tapas y Ca ñas. I had thought it sounded like a familiar name and I realized it's because there are about a hundred of them all over Madrid, aka a chain. Yes, another chain. I really need to stop traveling with large groups since it always gets me in trouble (food wise). 

The decor was perfect for a chain restaurant: three huge beer barrels on the ceiling, painted on bricks, marble tables, the whole nine yards. The menu at least had items like morcilla (blood sausage) and grilled octopus, but I should have known better. I ordered the grilled octopus with garlic oil and then I split an order of potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. The octopus was decent enough. It was tender, it was edible, it was extremely greasy. Greasy is not a word one would associate with octopus. It was thin slices of octopus basically soaked in the garlic oil. Too much garlic oil, too little flavor in the octopus. Quite disappointing, but I guess I was expecting too much from the chain. 
No witty comment for this one. Just not worth it.

The potatoes were fried well, but the sauce they were swimming in tasted like a spicy tomato sauce straight from a Chef Boyardee can. I'm sure if you strained out the contents of one of  Chef's tomato-based products and added some heat and extra ketchup, you would end up with what I ate. 
Doesn't that just look toxic?

Can I recommend this to anyone? Well I could, but I will not under any circumstances subject people to this place. At €12,50 it was an extremely expensive meal for lower than mediocrity. 

Final Grade: D, perfectly edible if you enjoy sub-par food for mucho dinero (I'll do the translation for you: a lot of money). Moral of the story? Don't travel in big groups or go to chain restaurants.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finally, a decent meal.

Two days into the trip and I'm already complaining about the lack of good food. Well happily that has changed and inspired me with new hope.

After a rather dull series of lectures and finally getting into our rooms, a group of us set out to find some lunch. A few of the American guys saw a McDonalds and said jokingly, "there's lunch!" Not funny. Not even as a joke. It amazes me why people eat that when there are plenty of other good things around. Right next to the McDonalds was an all you can eat salad bar for €8,45. They had found their goldmine. Unfortunately it was fools gold to me and one other person and I decided we would be better off driving to el Bulli and eating whatever was growing mold in the trash cans outside. Just kidding. But we did decline the invitation to a salad bar and instead found ourselves walking the streets trying to find a place to eat. We found a small restaurant/bar just a few minutes away.

The menu was €10,00 for three items. Not designated into courses, but rather picked from a small piece of paper with two sections and only a handful of choices. I started with the gazpacho Andaluza and then had the bacalaoditos. The gazpacho was creamy and had chunks of vegetables in it ( cucumber, green and red pepper, tomato, onion.) It was a gazpacho that would appeal to both those who like a smoother gazpacho and those who enjoy a more salsa-like consistency. It was quite a good gapzacho, nothing to complain about. It could have used a little spiciness, but the crunch of the vegetables was quite nice. 

The second course I thought would be something made with salt cod. Instead they brought out a plate that had three small fried fish  on it. They were about the size of larger smelts, possibly anchovies. These were accompanied by a side of potatoes and a salad. The fish was delicious. They were fried to perfection and the meat was tender and flaky. The potatoes were good except they were soaked in too much grease (probably olive oil.) The salad was nice only because the balsamic they used was clearly a good balsamic since the consistency was thick and syrupy and it was fairly sweet. 
They lost their heads!

After the fish came dessert. We got the apple tart which we were told was completely natural and fresh. The apple arrived and the first thing I noticed was that there was a stem from the apple baked into the pie: a sign that real people had touched this dish. The crust was flaky as well (although not as good as the pie crust my mom makes), but tt was a little too sweet for my taste. I managed to choke down the whole thing though.

You can see the stem to the left on the pie

Following the dessert course the owner/manager offered us dessert drinks. These are called chupitos. They are poured in a shot glass and you sip them. We got an anise flavored one called patxaram and some sweet coffee-ish drink called crema de arojo. I tried both and didn't particularly like either, just too much sweet in a row, from the tart and then the chupitos.
Patxaram on the left, cream de arojo on the right
Final Grade: B+, definitely the best meal I’ve had in Spain thus far. It was homey and had a certain rusticity that was quite appealing. They even didn't charge us for the chupitos!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breakfast Buffet at Hotel Princesa

For our last meal at the wonderful Hotel Princesa we were treated to a breakfast buffet. It was essentially your typical, hotel, breakfast selection: sausages, eggs, fruit, baked goods, coffee, tea etc. There was nothing that exciting.

One thing that I will say about the breakfast was that the eggs were delicious. They were fried sunny-side up and they were clearly from a real chicken since the yolks were a deep golden yellow. I put it on top of some fried potatoes, grabbed some pineapple, a mini croissant (just can't stay away from croissants can I?) and a couple slices of chorizo and had a wonderful hotel breakfast.

Overall it was fine. Completely edible food and I would eat this over Tapas 44 any day (yes, it really was that bad.)

Final Grade: B

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tapas 44. Be Warned.

When I first saw Tapas 44 I knew it couldn't be good. It was too commercialized and too big to be a good tapas bar. I wish I could say I was wrong and that I had the best tapas of my life, but I can not. 

I ordered the "jamon iberico." For 4,90 a plate it was not cheap, but not hugely expensive: the first tip off. Jamon iberico, billed as the best ham in the world, should be expensive. Really expensive. Deep down I knew it wasn't going to be the real thing, but I was hoping. What emerged was something that looked akin to fake ham. It was just regular, mediocre ham. Nothing special, not fatty or deliciously greasy, and certainly not jamon iberico.

One of the people I was with accidentally ordered the baby eels and shrimp on toast. It was only 3,90, even though the baby eels are thought to be one of Spain's biggest delicacies. The plate came out and it was very clearly frozen baby eels, frozen shrimp, simply heated up with some garlic and butter and plopped on a piece of toast. The eels tasted like butter and garlic and had the texture of cooked ramen noodles.

Final Grade: F, do not go to this place unless you are desperate…ok, no, not even if you’re desperate. Go to the McDonalds across the street instead. This place sucked.

Lunch at Hotel Princesa

About an hour after the bagel, there was a lunch with all the other students on my abroad program. The lunch consisted of four courses. 

The 1st course was a little toast with an unidentifiable square of fish on it. It tasted surprisingly like a bowl (or cup) of fish chowder, but the texture was mushy, pasty and all around nothing one would ever want to eat. 

The second course was a platter of grilled vegetables, eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, artichoke, tomato and fried ham chips on top. The vegetables were the best things we were served, the ham tasted like bacon. However it was not the first ham I wanted to taste in Spain. 

Our third course was a pork chop in an unidentifiable brown sauce with sliced potatoes and mushrooms. The pork was a little pinker in the center than one might like and the potatoes were just boring. The mushrooms went untouched on my plate. Spongy and slimy, these mushrooms were about as appealing as the mystery fish block. 

For our fourth and final course we had raspberry sorbet in a cookie cup. The sorbet was good, maybe a little too sweet, but the cookie cup was stale and just bad.
Final grade: C-, mediocre, too much of it and I really just wanted a good piece of jamon and a piece of good bread

First food in Spain

After a long few hours of tossing and turning in a cramped airplane seat I awoke to breakfast. A long rectangular box sat on my tray table and in front of it a rather off-putting cloudy, yellow liquid filled a plastic cup. When I smelled the cup I couldn’t really tell if it was juice or stale urine. Being adventurous I took a sip and realized that it was canned pineapple juice. I gulped down half of it and was left with a cloyingly sweet flavor in my moisture-deprived mouth. 

Desperately needing something to wash the taste from my mouth I turned to the mysterious box. As I opened it my heart sunk. First item I saw? Dole fruit cup. Great, more sweet and more at-some-point-this-might-have-been-a-real-fruit. Hoping to find my saving grace in the box I saw a croissant. Hooray! A real breakfast item! Something I can eat without turning into a sugar cube. I turned the label so I could read it and read: chicken and cheese breakfast croissant. No. Having passed on the fruit cup and now passing on this “breakfast chicken and cheese croissant” my fate was left in the hands of a bran muffin. Innocuous enough, but like eating a dense rolled up piece of soggy cardboard, I said no thanks. 

Luckily the day before I had packed a good ole New York City bagel from the best bagel place I know (Absolute Bagel on 108th and Broadway), so as my stomach was grumbling I whipped out the bagel, shmeared some fresh cream cheese on it and took a delicious bite. 

Final Grade: B, a nice slice of home after a long trip.