AponienteFirstCourse

Sweet, creamy plankton piped into nori: one of the starters of our multi-course dining adventure.

“Do you know what course we’re on?”

“I think this is 14. The first five dishes counted as one.”

“And how many courses are there total?”

“Twenty-two, I think.”

“Oh, look. Plankton.”

So went the conversation at our table that afternoon in Cadiz. Ten of us, including Sebastian, were lunching at Aponiente, a beautifully modern, two-star restaurant in a rustic, converted tide mill. We had arrived in the industrial area of Cadiz at 2:30pm and settled in for a four-hour, 22-course seafood meal with sherry pairings.

Our group of 10, too large for one table, was seated separately: Zandra, James, Kati, and Sebastian at one table; Bob, Dorothy, Kyle, Roxanne, Jeff, and I at another.

“You know,” Dorothy said when the waiters were out of earshot, “Kati isn’t the biggest fan of seafood. I wonder how she’s doing.” We mused, sipped our sherry, and readied ourselves for the next bold creation from the kitchen.

FinoSherry

A crisp glass of Fernando de Castillo’s fino.

***

That morning, Sebastian met us at our hotel in Sevilla and we drove south toward Jerez, the epicenter of global sherry production. After the memorable Flamenco night, Sebastian was eager to show off his home turf and introduce us to the diverse world of sherry. “Most people think of it as the sweet stuff that their grandmother drank after dinner. But here, people drink sherry like the rest of the world drinks wine,” said Sebastian.

Our driver deposited us in chilly but sun-drenched Jerez de la Frontera under an azure sky near a shop-lined corner. A clutch of local gentlemen sipped coffee (or perhaps sherry) and regarded us with the familiar countenance of locals, curious but wary.

F&CSherryTasting

Sebastian (left) and Jan Pettersen prepare for our tasting.

We trailed Sebastian down a curved alleyway flanked by hulking bodegas and entered through the open iron gates of  Fernando de Castillo, our destination. Jan Pettersen, the tall, dapper Norwegian proprietor, greeted us in the tasting room. Sturdy wooden chairs clustered around low tables set with glasses and bottles of sherry promised good things to come. Before we commenced with tasting, our charming host led us across the road to visit the production area. Here the sherry is aged in dark casks and bottled for distribution.

In the cool, damp aging cave amid the familiar smell of earthy oak casks and wine vapor, Jan told the story of the Fernando de Castillo winery: Opened in 1837, it was run by the same family until 1999, when he took over. “I’m a sherry romantic,” he confessed. Romantic: a term echoed from last night’s gypsy performance. Passion and romanticism were recurring themes on this trip, and Jan’s devotion to his work was apparent in the pride with which he spoke. 

JanandBob

Sherry’s classroom.

He described the sherry-making process: The Palomino grape, grown in Jerez de Frontera, is pressed in early September and made into base wine, which is fermented in steel tanks. By February, the wine is fortified with 40% to 80% alcohol and put in American oak barrels to age.

“Sherry is radically different from other kinds of wine, and goes well with various foods,” Jan explained: Grilled vegetables, oysters, and hard-to-pair foods like artichokes, match well with fresh, young manzanilla. Earthy flavors like mushrooms go with darker amontillado; and richer foods like fois gras are lovely with oloroso.

BobandDorothySherry

Cheers, Bob and Dorothy!

After our tour of the caves and the bottling facility, we arrived back in the tasting room and sat around the low tables. Jan slipped foil off plates of salty snacks and pulled corks from bottles. As we nibbled cheese, crackers, and jamón Ibérico,  we sipped the wines our host had described, and noted their differences in color and flavor: crisp, saline fino, reminiscent of a dry white Bordeaux; palo cortado with its slightly richer color and nutty, caramel flavors; and finally Pedro Jimenez, the throat-coating sweet brandy whose grapes are sun-dried for four to six days, concentrating the sugars.

“In Spain, sherry has always been a regular food wine,” Jan said.

AponienteFish

A very kissable fish graces the entry hallway of Aponiente.

That afternoon, at Aponiente, we had the chance to experience sherry’s capacity to pair with food, although Aponiente’s menu is anything but “regular.” Chef Angel Leon’s innovative seafood-driven concept makes generous use of bycatch and underused sea organisms like plankton.

If you’ve never considered plankton a human food source or flavoring agent, you’re not alone. We hadn’t either, and two among us were marine scientists. Of course, the nonmotile sea organisms are a critical source of nutrition for many aquatic creatures, and you’ll occasionally see boxes of dried plankton in well-stocked health-food stores. But this meal portended to be a wholly different beast.

AponienteEntranceGarden

Sun-drenched courtyard.

We arrived at Aponiente in midafternoon — lunchtime in Spain. Located next to the train tracks near the Guadalete River, in an industrial part of town, Anponiente is an oasis in a severe landscape. We passed through the minimalist, desert-inspired courtyard and through the grand doors. Inside, sun flooded through windows embedded in the original stone walls, providing views to the surrounding river marsh. A hole in the floor covered with thick glass revealed the retired mill, which once harnessed the power of the tide to process grains. The long entry and hallway leading to the dining room had whimsical under-the-sea touches such as a giant bronze fish sculpture and overlapping metallic fish scales on the some of the walls.

AponienteChefs

The Aponiente kitchen staff at work.

Tall glass barriers separated the hallway to the dining room from the kitchen, where a team of chefs in crisp toques tweezed, piped, and frothed. In the dining room, well-spaced, linen-topped tables were encircled by high-backed upholstered chairs shaped like blue fish tails. We arranged ourselves at our two tables and settled in for an adventure.

Our decorous servers, dressed in dark suits and matching wooden bow ties, offered greetings. Their English was limited, but we were grateful for the effort, given that there was no printed menu. They uncorked the first bottle and the sherry started to flow, starting with a crisp, slightly saline Fino César from Bodegas César Floridio, located in Chipiona on the Atlantic coast of Cadiz.

AponienteTinSeaUrchin

A tin of beautifully mild sea urchin garnished with caviar.

The first course comprised five dishes that set the tone for the meal: yellow meringues resembling Twinkies were filled with a creamy, savory hake filling; beautiful half-moon sardine ravioli were single bites of salty ambrosia; small tims of silky sea urchin pate arrived garnished with caviar. The fino’s hint of salinity complemented the briny flavors and our seafood extravagance was off to a promising start.

The second course featured martini glasses with “seafood cocktail”: a saffron-laced prawn tartare resembling pink ice cream, topped in airy foam that disappeared on the tongue. This dish, like many of those to come, had a deceptively strong seafood flavor despite its flirtatious appearance. We realized this was not going to be an easy meal for the seafood novice. 

AponienteMackerel

Mackerel, sea asparagus, pickled radish, and dehydrated photoplankton dust.

Dry manzanillas dominated the first several courses, allowing the forceful flavors of the food to shine and resetting the palate with every sip. Dishes manifested in inventive and unusual presentations. Course six was a colorful, minimalist composition, with a morsel of mackerel framed by sea asparagus, bright pink pickled radish and fine lines of dehydrated photoplankton dust. Even the ceramic tableware commanded attention, with unexpectedly chunky shapes and textures. One bowl resembled the sea floor, with a pitted surface and jutting barnacles.

Many plates were completed by our tag-teaming waiters pouring broth or sauce at the table. Course 11 required diner participation. Our waiter instructed to us make a fist, on the back of which he placed small clear gelatinous disks. He piped a bit of plankton accented with wasabi and lemon on to the disc and instructed us to slurp the bite all at once.

“Algearific!” exclaimed Kyle.

AponienteInnovativeBowls

Cockles and clam cutlets in creamy tomato-water gazpacho.

Some dishes hinted at seafood flavor, like the cuttlefish ravioli served with bright lemongrass-coconut broth. Others were bracingly pungent like the creamy bycatch liver mousse topped with ground coffee, which was offset by sips of complex amontillado. We remarked on the flavors and techniques Chef Leon used to transform and elevate the food, which ranged from humble plankton to sweet crab. We didn’t have the chance to meet him, but we imagined he might describe himself as a romantic as well, lured by the endless complexities of the sea. Innovation was central to his mission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood components sneaked into the dessert courses as well. A small, crisped meringue cylinder was dusted with plankton powder. When cracked, the meringue revealed tangy green apple ice cream. Creamy, mellow pear ice cream was served atop sea algae, olive-oil soaked bread, and ginger. Though we were too stuffed to fully enjoy them, we were grateful that the chocolate petit fours that capped the meal excluded any hint of plankton. 

OutsideAponienteAfterDinner

Twilight in front of Aponiente’s iron gates.

Our 22-course marathon complete, the late-autumn sun slipping over the horizon, we strolled out into the twilight and snapped some photos in front of the restaurant’s iron gates. Back in the bus, we recounted the day and the meal. Kati survived, and even confessed to liking a few dishes. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t eat seafood again for a while. We applauded her for having put on a brave face.

We also agreed that the meal would go into the annals as one of our most memorable. If there’s one thing we’ve learned traveling with the Weises, it’s that experiences are priceless, especially when dusted with plankton. 

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Dancers

Flamenco dancers onstage at the theater inside Sevilla’s Mercado de Triana.

The young dancer stood statuesque, in a white dress with ruffled red trim that matched her crimson lips. Her gaze penetrated the darkness. Lean and intense, her hair drawn tightly away from her face and secured with a red flamenco flower at the crown of her head, she glowed in the stage light.

With two swift stamps of her foot and writhing wrists, she started to move. Her red block-heel shoes rapped the stage floor with a force that vibrated through our seats. She clutched her skirt and swirled it, her expression a mix of pain and nostalgia, her focus within, on something we were not privy to.

With her onstage were a guitarist and a singer. They watched her closely, taking cues from her movement, accompanying the dance with swift hard strumming and impassioned, melodic lamentation. The singer counterpointed the dancer’s footwork with sharp claps, slapping the first three fingers of one hand into the palm of the other. Shouts of “Gitana!” came from behind us, encouragement to the dancer, whose expression and movement had become a story of pride and defiance.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco.

***

Teatro

The diminutive theater lives in the heart of the market.

Earlier, deep in the halls of the Mercado de Triana, blue tiled lettering above the stalls advertised the vendor’s products: frutas y verduras, charcuteria, pescados y mariscos. But on this Monday evening, the stalls were gated and the indoor market was vacant. Only the signage and vegetal aroma betrayed the building’s day-to-day function.

We were not here to shop or eat. We were here for a demonstration of flamenco from a band of Spanish gitanos (gypsies).

In front of a stall converted into a Teatro, we met our hosts, Manuel (Manu) Santiago and MarÍa Hernández. A husband-and-wife team, by day they are social workers who represent the gypsy community in Sevilla. They are also artists, teachers, and flamenco evangelists who dress the part: he wore a luxe cherry-red velveteen jacket and she a short, fringed dress and stilettos. At a makeshift ticket stand outside the theater, a young man stapled small squares of paper into cones and filled them with gummy candies, which he handed to us with a shy smile. Manu said of the man, “He is a romantic.”

Manu spoke of the gypsy culture in Spain and the role of flamenco in their community. Gypsies have been persecuted for centuries, he said. The music reflects their struggles. “Flamenco was how they stayed connected with one another.”

He invited us to pass through the heavy velvet curtain into the intimate theater, where about 25 upholstered theater seats rose in tiers from the front of the room to the back. We took seats in the first three rows, a flower’s toss from the stage, where four crimson lacquered chairs faced us.

Manu introduced the first performer as a proud member of the gypsy community and a flamenco guitarist. The same young man who was fashioning cones outside the theater sat on one of the chairs with his instrument. He began to play, chopping at his strings and filling the small theater with swift, staccato chord progressions.

Manu Taking Questions

Manu (right) describes the gypsy culture and answers questions.

After a couple of solo arrangements, a second man entered the stage and sat on a chair next to the guitarist. Dressed in black, with a shock of black hair, his dark form framed by the bright red chair, he closed his eyes and began a mournful song. His deep voice, at times raised in a wail, resonated through the theater. The lament he expressed was palpable, the emotion raw and visceral.

Between performances, Manu expanded on the gypsy art form, emphasizing the multidimensional nature of flamenco. A range of themes convey different moods, from pain and loneliness to joy and celebration. “Music was passed down from one generation to the next through the community,” he said. To demonstrate the style differences, he and MarÍa took the stage. Manu and the other guitarist played while MarÍa belted out a gutsy song, her voice filled with bravado and pride, a clear contrast to the man’s moody performance.

On Stage

The gypsy ensemble.

Next to appear was the fierce young dancer in the white dress, who performed a couple of solo numbers before being joined onstage by a young man. The mood then changed to one of pursuit and competition, as the pair stomped and charged toward and away from each other like a bullfighter and his adversary. Ultimately, the feeling was celebratory.

To cap off the performances, we were invited to join in a flamenco-ized version of “I Did It My Way,” a fun way to wrap up the evening. We thanked our hosts and the performers, and filed out of the market.

Back in the street, we couldn’t help but stomp our own feet in a lame attempt to replicate what we had witnessed. And we were reminded of the talent and years of work it takes to make art look so effortless and beautiful.

The young dancer appeared, now in skinny jeans, trailing a roller bag. She had looked older onstage, in the lights, channeling an emotional, centuries-old cultural heritage. Now here she was, a smiling teen-ager, thrilled to have her picture taken with MarÍa.

Bob and Sebastian

Sebastian and Bob discuss important matters under the watchful gaze of a disembodied dinner guest.

Manu and MarÍa joined us for tapas at Taberna Miami, a nearby restaurant and shrine to bullfighting. We squeezed into a private side room, La Sala del Toro, and arranged ourselves around the table. Above the wainscoting of Spanish tiles, with their intricate blue and green floral designs, hung pictures of famous bullfighters and their bovine conquests. Sebastian sat at the head of the table beneath the vacant gaze of an unfortunate bull whose head was mounted on the wall.

Waiters poured glasses of inky Alcorta tempranillo while Sebastian ordered food. We started with the familiar salty-savory trio of paper-thin jamón Ibérico, salami, and sharp cheese. Next, two varieties of crispy golden croquetas with gooey interiors: mild, creamy hake that oozed in the mouth; and luscious savory oxtail, rich with lip-coating collagen.

After the finger snacks came shallow pans of shrimp confit in a garlicky olive oil laced with fiery dry Thai bird chiles — delicious with a slice of warm baguette to soak up the juices.

Croquetas

Creamy hake croquetas disappeared quickly.

Finally, crumbled blood sausage served in small, shallow paella pans of rice. Rich, savory, earthy and crispy around the edges, it was one of the most delicious plates of the whole trip.

After a lovely meal and lively conversation about flamenco, the food, and MarÍa and Manu’s twin children, we said goodbye to our hosts and stepped out into the cool November night. Bob, Dorothy, and Kati grabbed a cab while the rest of us walked back to the hotel across the canal. We stopped at Casa Morales, one of Sevilla’s oldest bars, for a nightcap.

Amid the tall earthenware jugs that lined the walls, Sebastian previewed our next adventure. In the morning we would drive to Jerez, an area known for sherry production and dancing Andalusian horses. There we would learn about – and drink! – sherry. We would also enjoy a multicourse meal by one of Spain’s most innovative chefs, paired exclusively with sherry.

CasaMorlesNEEDSEDIT

Jeff, Roxanne, and Kyle among the earthenware jugs at Casa Morales.

We sipped and chatted about our memorable evening, again humbled by the warmth of the Spanish and their eagerness to share their culture. With the evening’s flamenco memories still vibrating, and tomorrow’s agenda set, we drained our glasses and strolled back to the hotel.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco. Is there a better place to be?

 

 

Casa Roman Table

Lunch at Casa Roman on a pleasantly sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky.

 

The first leg of our adventure behind us, we left Madrid on a brisk, sunny morning via high-speed train, southbound for Sevilla.

After a 2 1/2-hour journey through a tawny landscape stippled with olive trees, we detrained, collected our bags and met Sebastian, who along with Dorothy had orchestrated our trip. He led us out of the cavernous station into glaring sunlight, where we boarded Sevilla’s version of the Weismobile and headed to the hotel. The stunning Corral del Rey occupies a restored 17th-century casa palacio in the city’s old quarter. After checking in, we tried to orient ourselves. Sebastian’s advice: Drop a pin on your phone’s map to find your way through the city’s ancient labyrinthine passageways. Modern-day breadcrumbs.

Jamon hanging

Jamon Iberico curing over the bar inside Casa Roman.

After a short respite, we strolled to la Plaza Venerables for lunch. At Casa Roman, waiters arranged a long table on the square in the shadow of the imposing Hospital de los Venerables. Once a home to priests, today the building houses a research center devoted to the work of famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

Pitchers of ruby-red Sangria appeared, along with a couple of bottles of fresh, fruity Albariño. Soon the table was laden with salty cheese, fried cuttlefish, crispy dogfish croquetas, earthy artichoke hearts, tangy Salmorejo and, of course, thin slices of jamón Ibérico with its distinctive ribboning of rich fat.

Inside the restaurant, sweating lobes of Ibérico hung curing above the bar, a familiar scene in our travels. In Toledo, we had asked Gerry why jamón was so ubiquitous. He explained that in medieval times, pork was plentiful and easy to preserve, but it also served an important cultural function. If a Christian found himself needing to prove his religious affiliation, he would eat pork, which is forbidden to pious Muslims and Jews. “See? I am a ham eater!”

Jamón Ibérico appears on nearly every menu as a standalone snack or appetizer. At Casa Roman, it’s incorporated into practically every other dish, too. It was clear: In Spain, jamón is royalty. And during our lunch at Casa Roman, the refrain never rang truer: “We are ham eaters!”  

La Masia Lunch

Lunch at La Masia

Gathered around an enormous table at a cervecería in Toledo with the Weis family and Kati’s Spanish host madre, it was easy to feel the love. Platters of simple, homey food appeared, wine poured freely, laughter erupted from every sector. It was a genuinely happy moment.

That morning, we had been driven from Madrid to Toledo, where Kati had spent a college semester a few years prior. We spent the morning with Gerry, hiking the cobblestone mazes of the hilly medieval city, exploring churches, mosques and synagogues, learning about the art, architecture and history of the area.

It was here, an hour southwest of Madrid, that Kati fell in love with Spain. Upon meeting Tomy, her host mother during her semester abroad, we understood why her experience had been so profound.

 A couple of weeks before we left the States, we heard that Tomy’s husband had passed away. We thought this sad event would alter our Toledo itinerary. But after talking with Tomy, Kati assured us that her madre wanted to meet for lunch as scheduled. The only change: Rather than having Tomy cook for us, we would go out.

Tomy

A lovely portrait of Tomy.

So around 12:30, after our morning tour, we dropped Gerry at the train station where we bid adieu (or rather, adios) to our affable Madrid guide. From there we drove to a modern apartment complex in the Toledo suburb of Polígono, where Tomy lives. When we arrived, she met us in the foyer. A beautifully petite woman with a warm smile and an air of fortitude, she greeted each of us with besos.

“Ah, it smells the same!” Kati declared as we filed into the tidy apartment, despite the fact that it was not the same home she occupied during her studies here.

Kati and Tomy prepared nibbles and caught up in the kitchen while the rest of us sipped wine and made ourselves comfortable in the living room. A tiny yellow bird chattered in its cage next to the front window. The TV was tuned to a cooking show featuring a hunky Spaniard preparing a delicious-looking tripe stew. Though I had just met her, I realized Tomy was a kindred spirit.    

She speaks no English, but it was, in the words of Dr. Bob Weis, “no problem.” Kati confidently translated as we snacked on crackers, salami, and Spanish cheese. Sipping a second bottle of Rioja, we talked about Kati’s semester in Toledo and how much we had enjoyed spending the morning there.

With typical enthusiasm, Gerry had revealed the layers of history behind the ancient plaster walls. The region’s multireligious tradition meant Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted for centuries, at times literally building on top of one another. “When you renovate anything in this region, especially churches,” he said, “you end up with an archeological site on your hands.”

We recalled seeing a pair of young newlyweds posing for pictures earlier that day on the medieval Puente de San Martín spanning the Tagus river, which prompted Tomy to bring out her own wedding album. We oohed and ahhed over pictures taken more than 50 years ago. There were smiles among us; suddenly there were tears, too. The absence of Tomy’s husband weighed heavily in the room.

Lunch at La Masia

A table filled with delicious, homey dishes.

Soon it was time for lunch, so we clambered into the bus, which was captained by our smiling, taciturn guardian and driver, Bea, and headed to La Masía.

The cervecería was buzzing at 2pm on Sunday afternoon as the 10 of us squeezed past local families through the wood-paneled bar, down a wide curved wooden staircase to an area that better accommodated a group of our size. 

The sprightly waitress brought us menús del dia, en Español, and Tomy took the lead in ordering several bottles of young tempranillo. She may not understand a word of English, but she clearly speaks our language.

We spent several minutes quizzing each other on unfamiliar vocabulary. “Do we know what guiso is?”

“I think it’s stew.” 

“And what’s buey?”

Tomy sensed our struggle. She and the waitress conferred with an amiable fellow we took to be the manager, or maybe the chef. He and Tomy commenced a spirited discussion about what and how to feed our linguistically-challenged crew. Their rapid-fire exchange might have been mistaken for an argument had it not been punctuated by laughter and, ultimately, a verdict: We would order everything on the menu and share, tapas-style. 

The rustic fare was precisely what the day called for: fork-tender pork cheek luxuriating messily in a succulent red-wine reduction; filet of beef bathed in a white sauce that practically begged to be eaten by the spoonful; creamy scalloped potatoes, dusted with paprika, alongside sautéed shishito peppers; seared tuna steak served with a piquant sesame mustard; a simple salad of tomatoes, onion, and flaked tuna; and small loaves of bread, for tearing and sopping, placed directly on the tablecloth. Unfussy and  satisfying, it was an ideal family-style meal.

Liquor de Tomillo

Chupitas de Liquor de Tomillo and gummy candies.

At the end of the feast, Tomy ordered chupitos (shots) of an electric-yellow beverage called Liquor de Tomillo (thyme), a digestif typical of Toledo. A row of glasses arrived on an oblong platter amid a scattering of gummy candies. We were dubious. The syrupy liquid had the day-glo quality of a medicinal — the kind of drink most of us politely refused after experiencing our first real hangover, decades ago. But a sip or two revealed a smooth, herbaceous tonic, semi-bitter and not too sweet. Roxanne aptly described it as limoncello without the limon.

Having gorged ourselves, no one was hungry for dessert. Tomy wouldn’t have it. Eyes narrowed, finger jabbing, she scolded us in Spanish: “When you see my dessert, you all will be so jealous!” Though stuffed, we were swayed. The ice-cream cake and custard appeared, and then disappeared as if by magic.

The day faded to twilight as we left the restaurant and returned Tomy to her apartment. Grateful for her hospitality, we shared tearful farewells aboard the bus. Then Kati walked her to the door where, no doubt, a few more tears were shed.

It was a gift to have had a glimpse of everyday life in Spain. With such warmth and support, it was no wonder Kati fell in love with Toledo, with the culture, with her Spanish familia. Bea turned the bus around and set course for Madrid. As we looked back, Tomy was still waving goodbye.

Smoked eel

Smoked eel, red rocoto, white-coconut ice, and creamy coconut broth

El Club Allard was the first Michelin-star restaurant on our itinerary, and we were brimming with anticipation.

If only we could get in.

Blame it on jet lag, but it took us longer than necessary to enter the building. A sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate on the corner said, “Use other door.” The other door appeared to be locked. It was dark. Our cabs had departed. The street was not deserted or decrepit, but at the moment there was no one around to ask for help.

We checked our phones. A couple of us set off on an expedition toward the other end of the block – perhaps there was another door? Wrong night? Wrong time? We shrugged. One of us was dialing the restaurant when an amiable couple waiting inside the foyer apparently lost patience with our Keystone Cops routine and let us in. Saved!

Then, not a moment before 9pm, the ornate door at the top of the foyer’s marble staircase opened and the staff welcomed us inside.

El Club Allard exuded classic elegance. Comfy-looking upholstered chairs surrounded well-spaced, linen-topped tables. Glowing chandeliers reflected to infinity in mirrors on opposing muted gray walls trimmed in creamy white.

Amuse-bouche

Amuse-bouche at El Club Allard: an edible card with flavorful aioli.

We were seated in a room of our own, with a view through French doors into the general dining area. As we settled around the large, square table for eight, waiters drizzled bubbling Cava into flutes. Propped before us were place cards embossed with the restaurant’s logo.

A waiter placed small bowls of creamy spread on the table and explained: “Tonight you will find that our chef likes to have a little fun, and this amuse-bouche reflects that. The cards in front of you are edible. You are invited dip your card in the seasoned aioli and eat it. Enjoy.”

Well, why not? The potato-starch cards themselves were unremarkable, but they were made delicious by the aioli. We were undeniably amused.

After the Cava the waiters poured Naia Verdejo. Throughout the evening they ensured we rarely saw the bottoms of our glasses.

Servers glided in and out as the plates of our 10-course meal began to arrive. The first was a shallow bowl arranged with three triangular bites of smoked eel, crowned by red flower petals and accented with red rocoto peppers and tiny balls of coconut ice. Servers finished the dish with a creamy coconut broth, making a beautifully cool, composed soup.

Butterfish ale

Butterfish “ale” with Japanese salmon-egg crostini

Course two brought liquid comfort – a shot glass of “amber ale” alongside a crostini jeweled with Japanese salmon eggs. The ale was actually a warm butterfish broth beneath a white asparagus foam — a warming umami treat, craveable on a chilly, windy night. The staff promised without hesitation to package an order of the broth for Bob, who was under the weather and resting in the hotel. We couldn’t imagine anything more therapeutic.

Next came heavy stone bowls containing a single tiny pea ravioli and a light broth of Iberian dewlap, also poured at the table. (Dewlap, we found out later, is part of the pig’s neck. Who knew?)

Quail egg and truffle mushroom

Quail egg and truffle mushroom: the cupcake that made everyone cry

Everything was delicious, but the fourth course generated an unexpected reaction. Servers brought in chunky porcelain pedestals shaped like cross-cut logs standing on end. Atop each stood a mini-cupcake frosted electric green and studded with small crisps resembling Lucky Charms cereal.The scent of truffle engulfed the table. It was campy, a little gaudy, and slightly psychedelic.

“Here you have a quail egg and truffle mushroom, best eaten in one bite,” our waiter said.

We popped the morsels into our mouths and the table fell silent. Then came a chorus: “Mmmm,” “ahhh,” “ohmygod.” The cupcake, made of yucca, featured a moist canelé-like texture that transitioned to a soft interior, where the quail egg resided. The frosting was airy truffled custard. A bite of heaven. Sniffles came from the head of the table.

“Mom, are you crying!?” Kati said.

Her eyes brimming, Dorothy laughed and said, “I really needed that.” One charming bite had justified the effort of trip preparation, and perhaps released some of the stress she felt for her ailing husband. Soon nearly everyone teared up. Roxanne, sniffling and laughing, said, “This will be remembered as The Dinner With the Cupcake That Made Everyone Cry!”

Calamar "risotto"

Calamar “risotto”

Next, another gastronomical slight of hand: What appeared to be herbed risotto was really calamar cut to resemble rice. Alongside were green seashells that glistened like jellies, but were actually crisped rice. The flavors and textures were the definition of balance.

Orube Rioja began to flow as we moved to heartier flavors. The next dish was a beautiful plate of flaky black cod resting in a blue-tomato-infused broth, garnished with tiny scallions and a single purple flower.

Black cod

Black cod with blue-tomato infused broth

Following that: collagen-rich confit of suckling pig that melted on the tongue, accompanied by sweet-savory onion compote. Would it be bad form to lick our plates?

Desserts began with a refreshing, palate-restoring pisco-sour ice in a hibiscus flower cup – a nod to the chef’s Latin American roots.  The second dessert, understatedly billed as “chocolate clusters,” was a playful presentation of color and flavor: chocolate “rocks,” green minty “sponges,” olive toast, and pepper ice cream. Finally, a whimsical slate of petit fours – marzipan shaped like chalk, erasers, and refrigerator magnets.

Kati, Chef Marte, Dorothy

Kati, Chef Maria Marte, and Dorothy

Our meal complete, we asked if we could meet the artist behind the flavors. Chef Maria Marte obliged with a stop at our table, where she humbly accepted our praise. Dominican Chef Marte’s story is remarkable. Ten years ago, she was a dishwasher at El Club Allard, piecing together a living, working mad hours, trying to get ahead. Today she is the head chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain’s capital, a testament to her drive, determination, and talent.

Of all of our meals in Spain, this one would stand out for the elegance and gracious service; Chef Marte’s whimsy, creativity and humble kindness; the colors, flavors, and balance; and, of course, the cupcake that made everyone cry.

 

 

Spain 2015: Del Corazón

February 29, 2016

SoupJamon

Jamon Iberico is central to Spanish cuisine and was at the heart of nearly every meal we enjoyed.

Paris was a disappointment.

We’ve spent many happy days in the French capital, most of them unforgettable in fact. But this day was a letdown. Why? Because this day we expected to be not in Paris but in Madrid. This day we hoped to be touring the Prado, awakening our travel-weary senses to the delights of Velázquez and Goya, lunching on olives and croquetas, enjoying our first day in Spain with our friends the Weises. Not slumped on a bench in Charles De Gaulle Terminal 2F, unable to sleep.

Six of us had departed from Portland. But a faulty aircraft component had delayed our flight to Amsterdam, where we missed our connection to Madrid. Hence, the rebooking of four of our party through Paris and two through Barcelona. And a five-hour wait.

***

In 2012, Jeff and I were fortunate to have been invited along on a Weis family vacation to France. Dorothy engaged Trufflepig Travel to help organize that tour, which went down in family history as The Trip of a Lifetime.

Three years later, she re-enlisted Trufflepig to plan a 10-day adventure in Iberia over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sebastian Lapostol, an American living in Jerez whose interest in Flamenco guitar brought him to Spain, is Trufflepig’s expert. He helped craft an itinerary that would include Madrid and Toledo, Sevilla and Jerez, Barcelona and the Costa Brava.

LaFamiliaWeis

On the plaza in front of the Royal Palace

We were a cast of nine, comprising Weis family members primarily: Bob, Dorothy and their daughter, Kati; Zandra and James; Kyle and Roxanne; Jeff and I.

Our 120-page Piglet guide outlined our itinerary in detail. Much of the focus would be food and wine, but there also would be splendid hotels, opulent palaces, breathtaking vistas and knowledgeable people — aficionados — to guide our way.

Reflecting now, the cuisine features prominently, of course. But the greatest impression I carry is of the people we met and the passion they exuded — for their culture, tradition, food, music, art, architecture. For their country. It was clearly del corazón — from the heart.

We arrive, finally

StaircaseDay1Hotel

AC Palacio del Retiro’s enchanting spiral staircase

Bob, Dorothy and Kati landed on schedule and enjoyed the first day’s activities, which included the Prado and lunch. Those of us coming from Portland, not so much. But by evening we and our belongings had arrived — most of them, anyway. Kyle and Roxanne’s luggage was a no-show.

We late-comers checked in at our hotel, the AC Palacio del Retiro, formerly part of the Spanish Royalty’s secondary palace complex. Then we all met at the foot of the building’s elegant winding staircase for dinner.

The travel delay had blown our restaurant booking. Complicating a last-minute reservation for nine was the horde of soccer fans who had flocked to the city for a weekend match between rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Though reluctant to recommend it, the hotel concierge directed us to a nearby Italian restaurant. “You won’t have trouble getting a table,” he said.

True enough. Fortunately, Trattoria Sant Arcangelo served precisely what was needed after a too-long travel day: translucent beef carpaccio, rich tagliatelle Bolognese, risotto fragrant with truffle, pizza al prosciutto e funghi, and silky gnocchi Gorgonzola. It wasn’t Spanish, but no one complained. That long-ago trip to France was a memory and our recent detour through Paris was over, thankfully. After several bottles of wine and a brisk stroll back to the hotel, we were ready for sleep, ready to recharge.

Our current Trip of a Lifetime was under way.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The next morning we assembled in the lobby and met our guide, Gerardo (“Please call me Gerry”) Rappazzo. We shook hands all around, filed into our minibus and
departed for the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MeetingGerryDay1

“Please call me Gerry.”

Gerry switched on the mic and went into tour mode, his voice booming. “The road we are on, it’s called the Ronda,” he said. “Ronda means circle in Spanish, and this Ronda follows the footprint of Madrid’s ancient wall.” Looking north, we saw the narrow, ancient streets of old Madrid. To the south, wider, newer streets radiated into the distance. “Maybe you noticed the arch near your hotel; it’s called Puerta de Alcala, and was one of the original gates to the city.” He was clearly enjoying himself, but, as we would learn, he was just getting warmed up.

At the Royal Palace, Gerry ushered us past lines of tourists awaiting entry, over the vast parade ground and into the 3,000-room palace, whose design was inspired by drawings made for construction of the Louvre. Inside, we marveled at the grand staircase and gilded moldings, the painted vault ceilings and intricate, symbol-rich wall coverings, the assemblage of clocks.

Gerry was in his element, an unstanchable font of history, art appreciation, commentary, and trivia.

Did we know that in the 18th Century the king was dressed and undressed in public? That an audience watched him eat? That a royal marriage was consummated in view of the court? But of course, according to Gerry, it had to be so.

BigNoseDay1

King Charles III  (AKA Big Nose)

“You might ask me,” he said, one of his signature phrases, “Gerry, why is each room in the palace smaller than the previous?” And he would answer his own question: “Because the audiences witnessing the royal activities were smaller as the activities became more and more personal.”

Onward: The priceless Stradivarius collection; the Golden Fleece, symbol of the Monarchy; the magnificent velvet-walled throne room with its fresco ceiling; the near-ubiquitous presence, in stone, on canvas and in spirit, of 18th Century reformer King Charles III, known as Big Nose. All of which Gerry described in loving detail. Would we like to glimpse the king’s commode?

Bystanders would hear Gerry’s discourse and attach themselves to our group. Some asked questions. Gerry would gently disinvite them.

We learned much that day, but lesson No. 1 was this: A self-directed tour is generally a feeble substitute for one led by a knowledgeable guide who loves his or her subject.

Guernica

Case in point: Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s renowned anti-war statement housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, to which we paid a short visit after the palace tour.

Gerry, who has a background in art history, enlivened the painting with his interpretation. He described the political landscape that led to the German air bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica and its market, recounting how most of the village’s men were away at work or fighting the Nationalists when the attack occurred. Victims were predominantly women and children. He noted the symbolism of the bull, the aggressor (the Nazis or fascism in general), and that of the horse (the people of Guernica), screaming in pain; how the harsh angularity of the painting’s lines echoed the anguish of the human figures; the broken dove; the flower, a tiny emblem of hope. Though Jeff and I viewed the painting in 2011, we didn’t truly experience it until that day.

We wished for more time in the museum, but our mission was focused and we had a lunch reservation. So it was into the bus and off to Iroco.

Lunch

FoieIroco

Foie terrine with tangy mango chutney

Located in the posh Salamanca neighborhood, Iroco boasts a bright interior and crisp white tablecloths. The leafy terrace would have been first choice for seating, but the chill sealed our decision to eat inside. We took a large banquette table near the French doors to the terrace and ordered a couple of bottles of Albariño while we perused the Italianesque menu.

To start: sirloin carpaccio, sliced so thin it practically melted on your knife; chilled foie gras terrine, served with a mango chutney to cut the fatty richness; golden, crispy croquetas of Iberian ham and mushroom; and soft pillows of burrata alongside sweet tomato confit.

Entrées included cannelloni stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek, gratineed with a punch of Gorgonzola; lightly sautéed baby squid punctuated by tangy citrus dressing; cod confit, artfully arranged with creamy white garlic sauce and a dotted arc of black garlic sauce. Mindful that dinner would be upon us soon, most of us leaned toward the lighter side, like a special of layered pato (duck) and vegetable lasagna; cubes of corvina ceviche with sautéed vegetables and cauliflower puree; and a green salad topped with crispy fried chicken and pomegranate seeds. After a morning of touring, lunch was restorative.

We departed into the brisk afternoon, strolling to the hotel through the northern margin of sun-dappled Parque del Buen Retiro. Dorothy and Kati then went in search of gifts for our next-day visit to Toledo. Still awaiting luggage, Kyle and Roxanne shopped for clothes. James, Zandra, Jeff and I resisted the urge to nap and walked to Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel where, in the din of the crowded market, we enjoyed wine and a plate of jámon Ibérico.

We then set course for the hotel, keeping an eye out for a pub where we could stop in and watch the soccer match. Unfortunately, every establishment with a television was overflowing. As we heard later, it was not Real Madrid’s night. Barcelona won 4-0.

It was just as well that we couldn’t find seats. Watching the match would have involved more food and drink. We were just as happy to preserve our appetites for what would turn out to be a highlight of the trip: dinner that evening at El Club Allard.

Pan-baked, crusted goodness.

Pan-baked, crusted goodness.

I can’t stop gratinéeing things. I’m not sure when it started, or why, but covering food in grated cheese and breadcrumbs and baking until crisp has become a thing for me. I wouldn’t say it’s a serious problem. I can stop at any time. I’m pretty sure.

Over the summer, we came up with an interesting range of vegetables au gratin: thinly sliced tomatoes and zucchini; eggplant, tomato, and anchovy;  Italian sausage and wilted collard greens; creamy Swiss chard, all with gratin topping. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy vegetables without the gratin treatment almost daily. But there is something special and comforting about a crunchy-topped dish.

Last week, I revisited a favorite. It’s a concoction I found through experimentation when when I was craving mac and cheese, but didn’t want all the starch for a mid-week meal. I can’t say it is light — unlike most of the other recipes, it does have a cheese sauce. But it also contains a healthy dose of fiber and greens. Balance. Right?

One of several modest servings I ate in one sitting.

One of several modest servings I ate in one sitting.

The types of beans I apply to this dish depend on what’s in the house. Normally I use Great Northern, or some other white bean variety. Same goes for the greens, and the cheese for that matter. Nothing is sacred here. Once you have the béchamel down, the rest is easy to adapt to whatever you have on hand.

White Bean, Black-eyed Pea, and Chard Gratin

Olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 bunch Swiss chard, stems and leaves separated. Stems diced, leaves roughly chopped

1 leek, white and light green part only, quartered, chopped and cleaned (Optional. I had a leek I needed to use)

1 17-oz package frozen black-eye peas, thawed (You can skip the frozen black-eye peas and use two cans of white beans, butter beans, lima beans, etc. You can use cooked dry beans too.)

1 15-oz can white beans (See note above)

3 Tbs butter

3 Tbs all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cup milk, warmed

Grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs

7-8 oz grated cheese, or more, depending on what you have and your taste (I used a young Gruyere)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an small bowl, combine 1/2 of the grated cheese and the breadcrumbs. Drizzle with olive oil and mx with your hands to combine. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the 3 Tbs of flour and stir to blend making a roux. Lower the heat and cook for about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Slowly pour in the warmed milk and whisk to smooth any bumps. This is your very basic béchamel. Continue to cook over low heat, whisking occasionally to prevent scorching, about 10 to 15 minutes. The mixture will thicken.

Stir the remaining grated cheese into the béchamel. Whisk well until the cheese is melted and well incorporated. Season with a dash or two of nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

While the béchamel is thickening, coat the bottom of a large, oven-safe skillet with olive oil and heat over medium heat. (Use a skillet with high sides, or a dutch oven.) Add the onions, leeks, and chard stems and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the chard leaves, sprinkle them with a bit of salt, and cook until they are wilted. When the greens are wilted, add in the beans and/or peas and heat to warm.

Pour the cheese sauce over the greens and beans and stir to evenly distribute. Level the surface and sprinkle the breadcrumbs and cheese over the top. Bake uncovered until bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

IMG_5129

HaVL’s shrimpcake noodles in pork broth.

A drizzly, cool Monday morning. After traveling for the past three weeks, Jeff was home, briefly, before heading on the road again. And I, having been laid off about 8 weeks ago, was starting to feel itchy and unsettled. Anxiety and self-doubt were creeping in, especially with my recent solitude.

Jeff took the day off — a day of rest and laundry before leaving again the next morning. I suggested checking a to-do off my unemployment bucket list: Have a late breakfast/early lunch at HaVL on SE 82nd.

HaVL made my to-do list after the noodles repeatedly appeared in the Instagram feed of a trusted foodie-friend. When I quizzed her about the must-try dish she said: “They only have 2 soups daily and usually sell out by 11 or noon. Get there early and go every day of the week until you’ve tried all 14! All of them are unbelievable. Secret tip: you can call early and reserve soup for later if you can’t make it early. They’ll just take your name and save them for you.” (Note: They’re closed on Tuesdays, so there are only 12 soups. “Only.”)

photo (2)

Crabflake noodles with straw mushrooms and quail eggs.

We arrived around 11am and the small space still had a few tables available. I expect it was an anomaly given that all the tables were full only shortly after we arrived. The vibrant green walls brightened the small space, even on a dark day, and the staff quietly hustled around taking orders and delivering wrapped bánh mì sandwiches, steaming bowls and smaller plates of add-ons: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lime.

On Monday, the soups were crabflake and shrimpcake. We got one of each, naturally. Shrimpcake soup had a lighter, but deeply flavored, pork broth and skinnier rice noodles. The crabflake soup had a velvety, thickened pork broth and fat, slippery rice noodles.

My friend was right — both were unbelievable. A couple extra spoonfuls of fiery chiles, and our bellies were warmed to greet the rest of the week. “Go to HaVL” was crossed off my unemployment bucket list, only to be replaced with, “Go again. Soon.”

Kotteri Ramen noodles.

Kotteri Ramen noodles.

The air in the narrow restaurant was close. It was a hot and humid mid-September day in Paris, so stepping into this tiny spot did not bring relief. But no matter. We were there for one thing, and no amount of discomfort undid our craving.

Was it a little odd that one of the first meals in the City of Light was going to be a piping hot bowl of ramen? Probably, but we didn’t care. We came to the heart of France to walk, explore, eat and enjoy all facets of the culture. So on this day, the promise of delicious, comforting soup fit our mission.

Kotteri Ramen is a hole-in-the wall in the old Opera House district. Unremarkable from the outside, it’s easy to miss, save for the line of people waiting outside. We arrived well after the lunch rush, and only waited a few minutes before snagging two stools at the counter looking into the kitchen.

Refreshment.

Refreshment.

The other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

The small kitchen is open with a tall barrier of Plexiglas providing separation. Next to the front window, stacks of large, flat wooden boxes held nests of fresh ramen noodles portioned for boiling in individual cylinders. The noodle man tended to large pots of water and a digital timer chirped sporadically. Behind the noodle man, the soup guy tended to three huge vats of broth, one with bobbing rolls of pork meat tethered with twine to the side for easy fishing. Beyond them, a gyoza station, where chefs were frying and steaming dumplings in rectangular metal boxes. Everyone in the kitchen was dressed in rubber waders and gum boots.

J and I placed our orders — pork ramen for him and ramen du beurre for me. (We were, after all, in France.) To drink, cold Kirin Ichiban beers in tall cans.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen assembly was pure theater: Order up, the noodle keeper would plunge ramen-filled cylinders into the boiling water, punching seconds into the digital timer. Meanwhile, the soup guy arranged bowls on the counter in front of us, on the other side of the Plexiglas. When the timer chirped, noodle guy removed dripping cylinders from the bath. Swinging his arms from shoulder height downward in swift motions toward the floor, he drained noodles, flinging water everywhere. Plop they went into the bowls where the soup guy took over, lading miso or pork broth soup over the heap. He then added thick slices of pork, chopped scallions and bean sprouts. A big square of butter was placed atop the ramen de beurre, melting into the hot noodles and broth, and the two bowls were handed over the Plexiglas divide to us, the recipients.

We slurped. Beautifully concentrated pork broth was long simmered for deep color and flavor. With the chewy fresh ramen noodles and the unctuous richness of the butter, this was some of the best ramen we’ve eaten. I made eye-contact with the noodle guy and expressed appreciation with a nod and smile. He gestured back with a happy thumbs up.

Full, hot and slightly uncomfortable, we ambled out into the Paris sunshine.

75% whole wheat boule with Camembert.

75% whole wheat boule with Camembert.

Few things make me happier than being covered in flour, hand mixing dough. Sometimes it’s for pasta or dumplings or pizza but, for the past couple of years, my head and heart have been devoted to bread-making. So it’s decided. I’m going to be an artisan baker. Someday I may even make it official.

The web has no shortage of talented artisan-bread bloggers and fermentation nerds out there, And I’m a relative newbie, so I hesitate to go into any details for fear of being exposed as a fraud. But since the beginning of the year, I’ve been baking once a week (sometimes twice) and I am gaining confidence. I’ll even go out a on a limb and say that I’m honing some bakerly instincts when it comes to timing and temperature, feel and smell. My wild-yeast starter is healthy and strong. She’s named Shirley.

I’m especially lucky to have willing guinea pigs in my bread experiment so J and I can share the proceeds of my practice. Neighbors take loaves off my hands and have been kind and encouraging in their feedback. My favorite so far was a note from the niece of my friend/next-door neighbor. She tried my bread — a basic loaf of pain de campagne —  at her aunt’s house and wrote me a note saying how much she enjoyed it. She even detailed why: the dark, hard crust and beautiful open crumb. (I’m paraphrasing.) The note lives above my desk, a bit of encouragement while I tap away at my day job.

There’s still so much to learn and improve upon. My baguettes are misshapen and my scoring technique needs help. But I am destined to be a fermentation nerd myself, and can’t wait for my next bake.

The nicest bit of encouragement.

The nicest bit of encouragement.