Paella hunting, Valencia

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

I think I was prophesying things to come when I wrote a post on a Valenciana paella (Pie-yay-ah!) I tried out at Portobello Markets, London. That one was very good so I was pretty chuffed to be in the birthplace of Paella itself. Valencia, classically known for it's namesake orange is also where the humble paella has its origins. Never before has any rice dish had so much appeal!

La Pepica
This oldy worldy restaurant that specializes in paella (that's what I like to hear!) has been churning out these puppies since 1898. La Pepica sits pretty on the beach side, lining a boardwalk with dozens of other restaurants vying for your attention. Not only does La Pepica win in the longevity stakes, it is also the most famous Paella Restaurante in Valencia thanks to a Mr Ernest Hemingway who recommends La Pepica in his memoir The Dangerous Summer.

This place is a real riot. We arrived past 3:30 in the afternoon on New Year's Day and the place was still bumbling and chaotic in the most endearing way. Local families, sometimes up 14 people sat elbow to elbow with several generations at long tables. Glorious. Steeped in history, the walls are crammed with memories captured in black and white photographs and the waiters are dressed in bow tie & vests. It really couldn't be any other way. The floor and walls are a profusion of tile mosaics and the whole time I was thinking, 'museum'.

Paella marinara: prawns, scallops and squid. Sad to say this one was cumulatively very salty. The lemon was a tiny saving grace here. Because they were 'freshly' made i.e. in 20 minutes, they didn't have the valuable time needed to develop a socorrat, the elusive dark crust that signifies a good no, great paella. I was so willing it to be perfect but it was simply a matter of quantity not quality

Despite speaking next to none Spanish, there was a wonderful communal feel to this great hall of Spaniards (plus us). Amongst literally hundreds of diners the noise level was through the roof the entire time, waiters were dodging each with two paella pans apiece, there was a certain flourish and pride with which we were served. It put a smile on my dial ;)

Paella Valenciana: chicken with snow peas. This version was a lot better than the marinara in terms of salt levels. The chicken was lovely and tender. I was expecting a bit of rabbit in this one, thinking the Valenciana was a combination of the two meats. I was sorely mistaken!  Again, no socorrat in sight (what a shame)

Half a paella (each) later, did we still have room for dessert? Hell yes!

Degustación de Semifríos: everything about this dessert is screaming old school to me, the way the caramel is first swirled on the plate. This dish just oozes character for me.

Tortas Capuchina: a sponge soaked in sugar syrup and coffee. Despite appearances, it was lovely and light. I definitely had the need for a walk after this carb bonanza!

In Hemingway's words, "Dinner at Pepica's was wonderful". I tend to agree, in terms of atmosphere this place ticks all the right boxes. I mean, it's a century old restaurant still doing what it has always done. I think that deserves plenty of brownie points. On the other hand, if you're a stickler for perfection (like I am a lot of the time), you may be sorely disappointed by this paella because of the sheer volumes this kitchen pumps out. The good 75 minutes a paella should be cooked for is shorn in half. 

Frank Camorra, of MoVida (fame) puts in his 2c on the paella question. He recommends La Pepica but rates it second to L'Alter (15km SW out of Valencia) describing this one as "the best paella I've ever had". Bold words (pun intended). The name of the game here is a pre-ordered paella that has been rested and is ready when you arrive. This sounds a bit more like it. As they say, you can't rush the process. Unfortunately we didn't have time to explore this venue but it's surely staying on my list!

La Pepica Paseo de Neptuno 6 y 8, 46011 Valencia
L'Alter Ca Juliet 3, 46220 Piccasent (near Valencia)

Thanks for reading! xGourmand

Atea, Bilbao

Monday, 18 February 2013

Next stop on the Spanish whistle-stop tour was Bilbao. Home to Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, a single building that has completely revitalised the tourism industry to the town. It's quite a sight. It's a shame about the collections inside which stand alone in such cavernous exhibition spaces. I kept thinking back to my visit to the Louvre, a gallery where artworks are displayed in rows 3 high on their walls....The real star of the show in Bilbao is the museum's architecture! 

Let there be light: only B&W can save the Guggenheim on an overcast day as this!

For lunch we had a 2pm booking at Restaurante Atea, an eatery run by chef owner Daniel García. Lo and behold, we were the first table to arrive, such keen beans (quite hungry at this point)! The restaurant was an absolute nightmare to find, thanks to the help of some locals who directed us to the riverside we were put on the right track. The inside had a nice breezy, smart feel with a mix of modern bar seating and lounges.

The perfect setting for a casual lunch. I liked the blue tumblers and the brown paper bags filled with bread on each table (something to get you started)

As if we weren't struggling enough with the Spanish language or Catalan, we were met with another obstacle in the form of the Basque dialect (the street signs are indecipherable, to me anyway)! On the recommendations of the wait staff we ordered a few of the specials and a salad on the side. You know, the usual. Lunch went a little something like this...

Tenderrr! If anyone says "veal cheeks" around me, I am instantly reminded of how fabulous this dish was. The very epitome of 'slow-cooked' and 'melt in the mouth', everything was so right: the gravy the perfect complement, the meat falling apart with the slightest pull of your fork... WIN-NER.

Fish of the Day: a delicious fish stuffed with vegetables. Everything about this one screamed fresh :)

Like a little detox mid meal, an Autumn Salad with witlof, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and bacon bits. Refreshing + healthy.

Probably my least favourite part of the meal, the dessert was a bit underwhelming, probably because the savoury dishes were so good. Lemon mousseline with red fruits (left) and fruit soup with yogurt ice cream (right).

All in all García has delivered a refreshing take on Spanish cuisine. Too often we see restaurants and bars sticking with traditions and serving what they have done for hundreds of years. There is of course, nothing wrong with this but you can get a bit weary of the same thing day in day out. These modern interpretations of Basque food provide a nice change and show much promise for the future.

Paseo de Uribitarte 4, 48001 Bilbao

Thanks for reading! 

Arzak (Seeing Stars)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Alto de Miracruz 21, 20015 Donostia/San Sebastián

Now this is what I call hitting my mid-20s on the ground running. Here I have found myself in San Sebastián in the Basque region for a spectacular meal at one of the world's top restaurants. The real challenge was deciding where to go, in an area where there are more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere...what pressure! Having decided that Mugaritz (#3 in the world after Noma & El Celler de Can Roca - umm, who?!) was a bit too far afield, I was quite chuffed to be heading to Arzak regardless! 

"Do you deliver?": Father, daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak at the front of their baby, a rather unassuming location a short drive from downtown San Sebastián Source: The Guardian

Arzak has held 3 Michelin stars since 1989 which is quite unbelievable. It has also received a tonne of accolades including No 8 on San Pellegrino's List of Top 50 restaurants (2012). It's a bit of a family affair where Juan Mari Arzak is at the helm and his daughter Elena Arzak executive head chef. Continuing a tradition of gastronomic excellence (the restaurant has been owned by the Arzak family for over a century), Elena was named Veuve Cliquot Best Female Chef of 2012. Totally psyched - bring it on!

The dining room was surprisingly modern and cosy. With only 10 tables on the main floor, there was also a private dining room upstairs if you're so inclined. They had undergone a recent renovation, including the decorative touch of imprinting cutlery into the concrete walls Source: VIP Gourmet

At risk of photo bombing you all (you have no idea...), I've condensed the marathon meal (the only kind of marathon I'll ever be involved in mind you) into a neat pictorial summary:

Feeling peckish: (clockwise from top left) Kabrarroka pudding with kataifi, Gooseberry with coconut, Chorizo with tonic & Sunflower seeds with arraitxiki. We had gotten away with a touch of drama - the pouring dry ice effect never gets old. The Kabrarroka contained a delicious fish mousee and the slithers of mango served with a chorizo paste (or should I say chor-ee-tho?) were served atop a squashed drink can

Hemp, mustard and lobster and tapioca salad: sauteed lobster with crispy hemp bread and mustard vinaigrette. This was definitely one of my favourites (even so early on) what with it's beautiful plating, Japanese styling. The drops of egg yolk were a beautiful accompaniment to the lobster. This dish spoke volumes.

It would seem that we were in good company. On the table next to us was an American man dining solo. I had strong suspicions that he was a food critic by the way he would ask lots of questions and look ponderously with each mouthful. He was happy as larry, what with his matched wines and course after course of unimaginable goodness/greatness (I'll note that he ordered almost exactly the same as me). He snapped a few cheeky photos on his iPhone as a little memento. And no DSLR in sight! 

Gooseberry, spelt and monkfish: roasted monkfish garnished with gooseberry and spelt served with dried gooseberry wrapped in Iberian bacon confit. Another artwork of a dish (this would be a recurring theme, no prizes for that one) with its delicacy of taste and flavour. The gooseberries wrapped in bacon added a salty-sweet punch

Fish steak with potatoes (left) and Sole, sea and mountain (right): seabass marinated in gin with different flavoured potato paper-thin wafers. Sole and tongue combined with cubes of dehydrated wine and sheep's milk. I'm just imagining the work alone. It's frightening

As if things weren't chaotic enough during service, Juan Mari and Elena do their 'rounds' of the restaurant to greet everyone and check everything is perfect (no need but okay). They kept a very calm front but I am sure it was all systems go behind the scenes. Mother dearest did the embarrassing thing of insisting we take a photo together - a nice keepsake I suppose!

Longan, deer and roe deer: two different cuts with different flavours and textures accompanies by fired grapes and longan. The idea was to put the meat that was resting in its juices onto the larger plate, that looked like an art canvas. A fruit traditionally found in Asia, the longan was a rather exotic flavour which added another dimension with its sweetness. The venison was an absolute triumph. Cooked rare so as not to spoil the top quality meat, it was so perfect I took an age to savour every mouthful. AI YA.

Eating at Arzak was an entirely different experience from anywhere I've eaten before. At times I found it difficult to wrap my head around some of the flavours, things I hadn't tried before. New is good though. I think I can handle it ;) It was an almost surreal feeling, I was thinking "I am eating at a 3-starred Michelin restaurant on the other side of the world". I felt like there was some kind of aura around the place, maybe it's just me being food-crazy (as usual).

Duck with soy (left) and beef with vegetable screens (right): it's almost sacrilege to disassemble these dishes. The duck was roasted mallard with several types of soy, the beef - grilled rib eye with caramelised vegetable glasses and couscous

Roots, fruits and seeds (left) and black apple (right). The green centrepiece was a thin layer of parsley flavoured white chocolate containing dark chocolate emulsified with kuzu and lime (what a mouthful). Served with frangelico and aperol spheres - molecular gastronomy strikes again! Oozy, chocolatey, delicious - the metallic rice crispies were a crunchy textural touch. The black apples were sautéed with truffle and apricot. Each dessert was served with a different sorbet, my raspberry one was lurv-ely.

Money matters - it may come as a rude shock that this meal costed less than some of the degustation's we get back at home. Mind you, if Michelin ever made it Down Under I'm sure we're plenty worthy of stars. Challenge accepted. Meanwhile, it seems like a good enough reason to set up camp here in Europe and 'schlep' between top restaurants haha. Food critic is officially my Plan B. Granted, we had four 'half' courses and not the full tasting menu. But it's all about quality, not quantity - particularly as we were there for lunch service! Talk about gorging.

Golden footprint with ladybird (left) and Petit-Fours (right): we were a bit flummoxed when on of the wait staff placed what looked like a mouse pad onto the table. The ladybirds of pepper and liquorice were filled with yoghurt and olive oil 'crystal' (no idea there, folks). As we weren't full enough, the chocolates came as all sorts: nuts, nails, keys, star anise. Of course I had to try each of them...delcioso. 

Anthony Bourdain came for a meal at Arzak on his food-travel show, No Reservations. Bourdain himself said that he would happily eat at Arzak as his last meal, "The love at the table is real. I was very, very happy to be there". I completely echo his sentiments. Certainly worth the 23 hours flight time (yeesh)! I was absolutely spoilt rotten on my birthday. There's no other way of putting it. 

Here's a little clip from No Reservations, Spain :)

<3 <3 Happy V Day <3 <3 
& thanks for reading! xGourmand

Barcelona: the Round-Up II

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Here's the next instalment on Barcelona, only my favourite city in Spain! A town that is so vibrant and rich in culture, you can't help but notice their complete obsession with what they eat. Definitely my kind of place! Judging by all the butts on seats (wherever we went), you wouldn't even know Spain was suffering from an economic downturn. I guess a 'man's gotta eat'! Today I'm sharing with you 2 more places in my little black Barcelona book ;)

La Cuina d'en Garriga

Carrer Consell de Cent 308, 08007 Barcelona

After a heady day of seeing Gaudi's architecture (I've dubbed Barcelona "Gaudi's City") and starved for some tucker, we dropped into La Cuina d'en Garriga. This dinky place is situated very close to Casa Batlló on the gigantic avenue Passeig de Gràcia. Top tip: one of my favourite shops is also on Gràcia, Vinçon - perfect if you're looking for some quirky designer homewares/pressies (beware of an Ikea-like effect, you won't walk out empty handed!).

Mirror mirror on the wall: I like the effect of the white marker for the menu. If I could read Catalan that would be even better!!

Garriga is a Catalan municipality in Barcelona, so we would be eating local cuisine today. Inside, you are met with a wall to wall of gourmet foods, and of course the requisite leg of jamon displayed proudly on its stand. There's a nice selection for the epicurious (olive oils and the like) which would make perfect foodie souvenirs. The homewares displayed in the back are all for sale too! 

The back half of the space has been fitted out like a French styled bistro with an extra homely feel. With it's red chequered napkin squares and spacious wooden tables, you feel like you've been momentarily transported into an old fashioned country house 

Being accustomed to the international hoards (i.e. us) we were offered menus in English on little clipboards. This is just a sampler of what we ordered:

Selection of 3 tapas: sobrassada with honey, potato with black sausage and foie gras mi-cuit on toast. The tapas were decidedly meaty but super tasty. The foie gras was sooo rich (i.e. fatty), as you'd expect! The sobrassada (some sort of sausage I presume) had a great flavour in the marinade/sauce. A great way to get you started

La Hamburguesa Ibérica: with a blended patty of sirloin beef and Iberian pork. Looks can be deceiving actually. Under all those layers of fat (from the extra ham) and cheese the patty was undercooked, rare. Not a good look!

Catch of the Day: oven roasted fish with ribbons of vegetables, pesto and egg plant purée. This dish was certainly tasty although having the whopping big backbone left in the fish detracted a little from it. Read on for a much better version!

My requisite interiors shot: I love the atmosphere in this place, perfectly cosy. You can see the attention for detail, even in the Xmas decos!

Resturante DHUB

Carrer de Montcada 12, 08003 Barcelona

I don't know about you but I'm a big fan of museum/gallery cafés. The MCA in Sydney has just opened a rooftop café which has a lovely terrace lending views of Sydney Harbour in all its splendour. If you want cheap and cheerful, this is a great place to start ;) This one in Barça is part of Disseny Hub Barcelona, something of a cultural museum like the V&A in ye olde London. The restaurant/café was kind of eerily deserted when we arrived, granted it was very late in the afternoon (even by Spanish standards) and we had to wait a while before one of the 2 staff noticed us. Of course our lack of Catalan was a kicker here. Totally lost in translation but we bluffed our way through and I ended up with a delicious hot meal :D 

The plain minimalist interior is completely overshadowed by the stone walled courtyard, on which it opens out to. I can imagine enjoying a few cold ones here in the summer haha Photo:

My fabuloso grilled fish with aioli, grilled veggies (zucchini and capsicum) with a balsamic reduction. This dish was definitely a pleasant surprise. I was a bit apprehensive after ordering 'fish' I had no idea what the dish actually was. But hey we got through! The fish was delicious and succulent and the balsamic + aioli struck a perfect balance in the dish. What a win!

And there we are, one city in Spain down, many more to go! Hope you'll stay tuned :) Thanks for reading! xGourmand

Barcelona: the Round-Up I

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Welcome to the City Gourmand v2! It was probably about time (it's only been a year and a half haha). With a little help I have rejigged the design of my little blog. Hope you like it! Today I thought I'd share with you just a few of the eateries I managed to try out during my fleeting time in Barcelona. I already miss it so! I have well and truly been bitten by the travel/foodie bug and there is only one cure...

As we progressed through the trip, I came to the (rather awful) realisation that I could only manage 2 'largish' meals a day instead of my usual 3 (or 5 if you count grazing). Even with all the walking we were doing I could only do 2 servings of shaved Iberíco ham per day. Shock horror (but still so good)! Ready? Here goes...

Cuines Santa Caterina

Mercado Santa Caterina, Avda. Francesc Cambó 16 08003 Barcelona

If you ask me, this is a most ingenious idea. The premise (during day trade) is that you buy whatever fresh produce you like from the market; meats, seafood, veg (whatever floats your boat really), bring it over to the Cuines and they will cook it for you right there and then! It's just like having a personal chef except you have the pleasure of doing your own food shop ;) I have no idea why more places don't do this! At night, the Cuines turns into a more civilized à la carte affair (with an expansive menu) with attached bar displaying the most fabulous looking tapas to drool over whilst you sip your cava. Tough life!

Cuines Santa Caterina has a somewhat 'designer mess hall' feel to it. Large communal tables dot the large space. The Christmas decorations lent it a special vibe, including a model train that does laps of the restaurant.

Taking refuge from the chill after visiting Fira de Santa Llúcia (Christmas markets), Cuines Santa Caterina is a hop, skip and a jump away. The menu placemat has a huge array of dishes, laid out in tabular form. Feel like a dish from the charcoal oven? Check. Or maybe 'Mediterranean' is more to your taste? The health freak in me was thrilled to see that they offer freshly squeezed juices. I chose a papaya, grapefruit, raspberries and lime juice for myself, though they were a bit on the pricey side (6,30). Eep! 

Assorted seasonal tomatoes and loin of tuna (left) and Artichokes with ham and clams (right). The ingredients were treated very simply as to massive their flavour. I can't fault them for that. The heirloom tomatoes were beautiful and fresh, smeared with some black olive tapenade. The clam and artichoke hot pot was nicely flavoured. A very generous helping to share with your fellow diners (or not)!

The KISS principle: Catalan sausage with baby beans and foie. You really don't have to mess about, it speaks for itself.

Golden oldies: tira misù and tarte tatin. The tira misu looks beautiful and pretty much hit the (sweet) spot. Though I could always do with a more intense coffee hit in there. The apples on the tarte tatin had great caramelization but I found the pastry a bit dense (by this point I was also bursting).

The Cuines is a great little spot, especially with such a big menu and friendly staff. I felt very welcome here, I think Christmas was in the air! The food here was simple, tasty and no-nonsense. You might even have time to pay more than one visit!


Rambla Catalunya 13, 08007 Barcelona

The problem with eating out on Xmas eve is that you're hard pressed to find anywhere that's open! I have bad memories wandering the streets of Roma trying to find a place to eat (tourist trap central)! Luckily, our helpful concierge at Hotal Praktik Rambla (a great hotel btw) recommended Matamala to us, to sample 'cuina catalana'. So, onward! ;)

How con-weenient: the restaurant happened to be on the same street our hotel was. Perfect! The super high wattage of the light display was very pretty but probably unnecessary!

Surprisingly, the restaurant was rather busy! We were lucky to get a table as walk-ins. Local Barcelonians sat with several generations of family to share a meal together. In Spanish custom, Christmas Eve is when families gather to exchange presents, decorate the tree and eat (read: feast) together. My ears pricked to other twangs of English (American, maybe?) emanating from nearby tables  which made me smile. The restaurant has a modern bistro design with lots of white leather booths and bar seating. It may not look it, but the Matamala family has been proudly promoting Catalan cuisine for 3 generations. They have a commitment to serve seasonal produce, sourced locally whenever possible. Their philosophy also translates to the foodstuffs they have available for sale on their walls.

Rabbit from Baldomar, vermouth, olives from Aragón. Am I massive nerd to be reminded of the LOTR character? Anyway! Rabbit legs nestled on a bed of boiled potatoes and the biggest olives I've ever seen. The dish was very tasty, the rabbit nice and tender without a hint of gameyness. Rabbit done right. It's all I ask for ;)

Continuing on the 'unusual' we have the boneless pig's trotters with dried fruit and apple from Girona. The trotters, cooked for hours were gelatinous and delicious. The apple and pork like ying and yang. On the side (right) we had the  spinach salad, crunchy bacon, toasted almonds and mustard vinaigrette. The perfect accompaniment to out meaty mains and dressed well

Dolce (but of course)!

Catalan custard 'traditional and renewed'. Two little rammekins with a twist on the traditional crème Catalan. The custard (left) was quite tart, I'm actually not sure if it was supposed to be like that and a bit too thick. The new styley (right) was a foam, I preferred this version much more. The biscotti were a nice dipping implement but slightly superfluous

Matamala has expanded my 'Catalan' food vocabulary no end (from non-existent anyway). Here in Barcelona, amongst hundreds of really top notch tapas bars, they've figured out a winning formula. Good food served in casual modern surrounds = full house! 

Thanks for reading! xGourmand


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