Toledo’s sloping lunch

April 27, 2011

Tilted soup and sliding spaghetti.

Everything in Toledo is “up the hill,” the guidebook said, and that’s where we went: out of the Moorish-inspired train depot, across the winding Tajo river and up the hill toward the center of old Toledo and the Plaza Zocodover. Station to square involved a 20-minute hike up steep paths and stairways, and as we neared the summit we found there was an escalator cut into the slope that would have done most of the trudgery for us, but no matter. Lunch usually tastes better with a sprinkle of sweat.

Old Toledo is like a movie set. The city is only 60 miles from Madrid (30 minutes by bullet train), but it felt like we had been transported back in time. Narrow streets and ancient buildings form a shadowy cobblestone maze navigated by grandmothers carting home the day’s groceries. Schoolkid chatter echoes across the plaza. But the Hollywood reverie was soon interrupted by the tourist masses, most of whom were headed to the same place: the Catedral de Toledo.

Begun in 1227 and built during a 250-year span, the cathedral is awe-inspiring — dim and cool, cavernous and soaring, with a marble tomb or gated chapel at every turn. The echoing interior drips with intricate carving and gilded altarwork; the sacristy houses a museum’s trove of paintings by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and Carvaggio. Eyes heavenward and mouthes agape, we explored. Stunning.

After a couple of hours, the heady combination of hills and holiness got our appetites up, so out we went in search of sustenance. We landed at Restaurant Alcazar, whose terrace perches delicately on an incline. J started with gazpacho, which slanted in the bowl; I had to slurp my espeguettis before they slid off the plate. Frankly, the starters were the best part of the meal, but the fried fish and sauteed pork loin entrees were satisfying enough after an eventful morning, especially accompanied by a refreshing Spanish Rueda.

After lunch, we spent another hour hiking the slopes of Toledo before we made our way down the hill and back to the train station. The trek was definitely worth the effort if only for a few hours and a decidedly tilted meal.

Local Color

April 26, 2011

Fruit stall

Fruit stall at Mercado de San Miguel

Amid the grays, buffs, rusts and other muted tones of old Madrid, cherry red tends to catch the eye. Exiting Plaza Mayor through the northwest gate, cherry red is what you encounter — actual cherries, truth be told, and plump, gorgeous ones — beckoning from behind the glass walls of always-mobbed Mercado de San Miguel.

The market, a sleek food and drink bazaar, occupies an airy iron-and-glass structure that dates to 1916. Everything tempts — fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pasta, meats, seafood, wine and beer, cheese, olives, pastries, tapas, flowers — all lovingly displayed. If the tumbler of piquant gazpacho and glasses of crisp white wine we devoured are an indication, they’re all delicious too. We’re hoping to eat a full meal here before we leave.

Mercado de San Miguel — one more delightful surprise.

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Pan, Pan, PAN!

April 25, 2011

Simple, delicious.

In the weeks before our holiday, J and I largely avoided bread, pasta and other simple carbohydrates. Now, anyone who knows me is aware I have a weakness for noodles, making this current diet a hardship (and making me cranky) at times, but I stuck with it nonetheless. And, except for the travel day which presented bland in-flight versions of the starchiest kind — chicken and white rice for dinner, egg on an English muffin for breakfast and a dry ham and cheese sandwich for lunch — we have, for the most part, been able to avoid overloading on carbs. That is, until yesterday when I may have met my match: the warm-out-of-the-oven, crusty exterior/pillowy-soft interior baguettes served in some restaurants and cafes.

Our first encounter with these treats was at Hontanares. While we consumed none at the time, the bocadillo (sandwich) action behind the counter caught my eye: a woman toasting fresh baguettes on the grill, then assembling the most simple, but delicious-looking, subs with jamón, queso, sausages or vegetables.

My friend agrees: No pasta, no happy.

An hour or so later, during our meal at La Finca de Susana, the waitress came by with smaller, pointier versions of the baguettes. Without ceremony, she placed them next to our plates. To break into one is something for the senses: The crust is crisp, but not too much so; the interior is soft and steaming, and neither the word chewy nor spongy fully describes the consistency, though those qualities exist. It’s soft, light and dense all at once. No homemade bread has ever matched this.

Today, after several hours touring the Reina Sofia and haunted by the assemblage of the sandwiches, we headed back to Hontenares. I ordered a Baguette Alemán — a toasted baguette topped with nothing more than halved sausages (frankfurters, really) and melted cheese. It was a good 12 inches long, and I halved it so J could try. (I gave him an inch and he took four or five!) Moments later, like a wisp of silk scarf disappearing around a corner, it was gone. Panicked, I contemplated ordering another, but I came to my senses. There is always mañana.

Easter Sunday in Madrid

April 24, 2011

Pate and gazpacho at La Finca de Susana.

In stark contrast to Saturday, today (Sunday) was near-perfect: Yesterday dawned cold, rainy and dreary; this morning was crisp and sunny. Yesterday’s walk along the Paseo de Prado began amid lush greenery but veered into the harsh concrete of Nuevos Ministerios; today’s expedition through the Parque del Buen Retiro was idyllic start to finish. Yesterday’s afternoon meal was a hastily chosen, overpriced, mostly bland filler on the Plaza Mayor; today’s main meal was sophisticated, delicious and affordable.

After our now-habitual breakfast buffet, we set out to erase yesterday’s shortcomings. Our walk led us to Madrid’s well-manicured version of Central Park where we spent several hours amid the maze of rose bushes and trellises of the Rosaleda (rose garden), the peacock party in the Jardines de D. Cecilio Rodriguez, the park’s central lake thronged by families and brimming with rowboats, and surrounding neighborhoods. Afterward, we ambled west in search of a friend-recommended restaurant: La Finca de Susanna near the Sevilla metro stop. La Finca had a line forming at 2 p.m., so we added our name to the hour-long wait list and headed around the corner to a cafe with a pastry-laden front window.

Hontanares has a coffee-shop vibe but a taberna menu. We sat at the counter, ordered wine and olives from the genial tabernero and recounted our walk. We were tempted by toasted bocadillos, meat- and cheese-filled pastries and more tapas, but did our best to avoid filling up before our scheduled meal.

At 3, we returned to the bright yellow awnings that mark the exterior of La Finca de Susanna. The interior is a study in bustling efficiency. Putty-colored walls, oversized black-and-gold barrel chandeliers and wall of wine are markedly contemporary, while rustic wood floors, crisp linens and palm-flanked windows give the space its namesake country-house feel.

The menu’s hearty Mediterranean and Spanish dishes make ordering a challenge. We started with a refreshing gazpacho laced with minced onions, red bell peppers and crunchy croutons; and a creamy chicken-liver pate enhanced by fruity olive oil. Hot fresh-baked bread did sopping duty as we awaited our entrees. J’s succulent braised pork ribs arrived accompanied by perfectly cooked couscous. My lamb shoulder, falling off the bone and bathed in a earthy pan juices, was complemented by sweet caramelized baby onions. We finished our two rather large plates, but dessert was out of the question — though a rich-looking wedge of chocolate torte sent to neighboring tables flirted with us briefly. Next time.

A beautiful day capped by a satisfying meal — a perfect Easter Sunday. We dedicate today’s meal to Julia y Pedro, the patron saints of the weekend “linner.” Mwah.

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Los Perros de Madrid

April 23, 2011

Un perrito wants ice cream.

A remarkable thing about Madrid is the concentration of little dogs. Sure, there are larger perros about, but everywhere we turn we run into some diminutive fuzzball on the end of a lead invoking awwwws from me and eye-rolling from J. (It could be that he sees his future in those bitty perritos, but is loath to admit it.)

Green space abounds in this metropolis but not in old Madrid. And, as any city dweller knows, when nature calls, los perros answer without hesitation. So along the streets in this part of town, it’s not unusual to see a little guy squatting on the cobblestone until the terrible tether tugs, pulling him off balance. Unable to set anchor for a bit of relief is a great burden.

It’s clear Madrileños love their pooches, but to call our hotel pet-friendly would be an understatement by the looks of the room-service “Menu para Mascotas”: vegetable risotto with rice, chicken stock, carrot, onion, asparagus and spinach, 16€; sliced filet mignon with steamed potato, olive oil and “a little salt,” 25€; suckling pig with couscous, 21€. And of course a dessert of petit fours.

La familia.

All approved and guaranteed by a local animal hospital.

We thought he world should know, but por favor … do not let Chance and Ernesto hear. We would have a revolución on our hands.

Day 1: Madrid

April 22, 2011

Tapas in the window of a taberna, Plaza Mayor.

Tapas at Plaza Mayor.

Having survived the near-coma induced by 17 hours of travel and a nine-hour time difference, our first full day in Madrid called for on-foot orientation. As every road trip requires fuel, we descended to the lobby of our hotel in search of fresh fruit to counter the unfortunate but unavoidable transgressions committed en route. The hotel restaurant, Midnight Rose, features a sleek dining room abutted by a swank tapas lounge. (More on that later in the trip.) Confronted with the choice of breakfast menu or buffet, we chose the latter — half-price if you join the hotel chain’s loyalty club — and started the day with fresh orange juice, coffee, sliced citrus, pineapple, eggs, pork in various mouthwatering forms and the like. My favorite: a table devoted to assorted cheeses, lox, cherry tomatoes, salchicha and jamón ibérico. Delightful.

Thus fortified and dressed for whatever weather might develop, we ventured west through narrow cobbled streets toward historic Plaza Mayor, which presented the first of many statues whose subjects were either 1. Master astride mount or 2. Steed en solo, having ditched master. The statuary of Madrid has a decidedly horsey flavor.

Restaurants surround Mayor, not surprising given the plaza’s tourist population even at 9 a.m. rivals the number of bronze caballeros in the city. What did surprise was the freshness of the shrimp, octopus, sausage, peppers, croquettes and other enticements artfully arranged in taberna windows. It was all we could do not to re-indulge. But no — onward to visitor-crammed el Palacio Real, through the royally trim Jardines de Sabatini, up to the Plaza de Espana, along the perimeter of Parque de la Montana and through the tranquil rose garden there, up the hill to Plaza de la Moncloa, back along the Gran Via toward Puerta del Sol and our home square, Plaza de Santa Ana. We walked for four or five hours, and though clouds threatened, not a drop christened us.

Ravenous now, we explored Santa Ana in search of a bite. Last evening, in our sleep-deprived haze, we bumbled into the modern Vinoteca Barbechera for croquettas, gambas y tortilla before succumbing to weariness. Today, we opted for Cerverzería Aleman’s terraza seating (outdoor, on the square) where we enjoyed a basic but welcome ensalada mixto, delectable aceitunas (olives), a crusty bocadillo de jamón ibérico y queso manchego (ham and cheese on baguette) and patatas fritas (addictive potato chips served at every taberna). Beer and wine in hand, we were set to linger — but alas the sky darkened and finally discharged. Relatively warm and dry beneath our terrace umbrella, we ate, drank and heartily sympathized with the luckless souls around us as they ducked, scrambled, scattered and otherwise fled the deluge. Many were unsuccessful, but most accepted the drenching with good humor, including our waiter, who warmed up to us as the temperature fell. “I am sorry so much,” he said. “This crazy weather.” We paid our tab and headed up for a siesta.

At 11-ish, our appetites spurred us out into the night with the rest of Madrid and its tourist onslaught. Holy week or is this typical? The cervecerías ringing Santa Ana overflowed, so we cut up a side street and happened on Guru, a quiet Indian restaurant with an open table. We started with a prawn flatbread called a puree and buttery vegetable pakura accompanied by a spicy-salty chile paste, a creamy mint sauce and sliced onions. Sizzling chicken tikka and a mild, savory aloo gobi rounded out our modest midnight meal and sent us home satisfied if not raving. We’ll happily try this place again, but for now it’s back to the pork — and whatever else awaits.

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Pork roast and farro, arugula salad.

After our decadent weekend of dining out, Sunday dinner was a welcome break.

Just before we embarked on our afternoon walk, J rubbed pork leg roast with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and a generous sprinkling of granulated garlic. He first browned it on a hot grill, giving it a nice crust. Then it went into the oven with a can of beer to maintain a bit of moisture. Four hours at 250 degrees yielded flavorful, tender meat (J thought it was overcooked, I thought it was delicious).

To accompany, we improvised a earthy, peppery salad of farro, mushrooms and baby arugula.

1 pound mixed mushrooms (crimini, shiitaki, oyster and enoki) sauteed in leftover soffrito oil  until softened. Cooled.

1 cup farro cooked in 5 cups broth for 50 minutes until al dente. Drained and cooled.

1 package baby arugula. Washed and dried.

Lemon vinaigrette (fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper, pinch of sugar, minced onion, fruity olive oil.)

In a large bowl, I mixed the cooled mushrooms and farro, salting to taste. Then I tossed in baby arugula until there was an even balance, half and half-ish. Spooned on some vinaigrette, then using a veggie peeler, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano into the bowl and tossed. Garnished with more Parm on the plate.

A simple recipe with balanced textures and flavors.  This one’s a keeper.

Farro, arugula, mushrooms, lemon vinaigrette and cheese.

Pork belly and braised cabbage.

You might be thinking, “Really. Out to dinner two nights in a row?” Believe me, it’s not the norm. But after having moved to the neighborhood, J and I feel a responsibility to contribute to Alberta Street’s success. And if that means eating out two nights in a row, so be it. It had been a few months since we visited del Inti, our neighborhood Peruvian bistro, and we could not stand the guilt if, god forbid, it closed its doors.

Not that it needs our humble contribution. By the looks of the steady clientele, this spot is a local favorite. Del Inti’s welcoming patio with its piped-out Latin tunes and roaring fire pit mark the spot on Alberta and 23rd. Inside, the open space contains a bustling exposed kitchen, a lively dine-in bar, and a comfortably spaced dining area. Colorful artwork, globe lighting, cork flooring and a garage-type door that opens from the bar onto the patio complete the sleek neighborhood vibe.

A half-dozen colorful ceviches open the menu, and choosing presents a challenge. We selected the ceviche mixto with cubed mahi, whole shrimp, thin-sliced octopus, red onion and a fiery rocoto leche de tigre sauce, all capped by a jaunty dime-size slice of habañero. Sweet potato provided textural contrast and cooled the palate.

From the small plates, we chose the empanada, a flaky, deep-fried turnover stuffed with beef, potato, raisins and olives served atop a mild, nutty ocopa sauce. Next, the “chancho,” a pork belly confit, crisped top and bottom, served atop braised purple cabbage and finished with crunchy green apple chimichurri. The cabbage and apple provided sweet-tart crunch to contrast the salty pork, which disappeared on the tongue. Beautiful.

For entrees, J’s soy-glazed hangar steak cooked to a tender, pink medium rare, complemented by portobello mushrooms, fried potatoes and rice. For me, a pan-roasted corvina with manila clams, pork sausage, tapenade alongside buttery carrot “pasta” cut into pappardelle-like ribbons, cooked to al dente. All delicious.

Apple crisp with carrot-lemon ice cream (yep, I said carrot and lemon) rounded out our Saturday night meal, and we walked home, satiated and so grateful to be living in this neighborhood.

Del Inti, you continue to surprise us with your flavors and unexpected contrasts. Nos gusta mucho y hasta pronto.

50 Plates in the Pearl

April 15, 2011

Pan roasted halibut, fiddlehead ferns, black trumpet mushrooms.

A dank spring Friday in Portland. The rain-flogged daffodils cower. It’s the kind of evening that begs for a cocktail and comfort food to properly usher in the weekend.

Big bro James suggested dinner at 50 Plates in the Pearl after having met one of the owners through work. The hunt for a parking space frayed nerves a bit, but it was nothing a vodka martini couldn’t smooth over.

The vibe of this spacious corner place combines clubby (sleek wood-paneling, high bar tables and textured white quartz wall tiles) with old-school diner (comfy booths and banquettes, smooth-top white dining tables). The menu features a cross-section of comforting American traditions. Our first bite was a petite California date stuffed with Vermont cheddar, wrapped in bacon. Sweet, salty, not too crisp — we could have eaten a bucketful. Next was a half dozen oysters spiked with beer, a drop of hot sauce, lime and cilantro. Hola, mis pequeños amigos.

After little bites, we moved on to small plates. The four of us shared two chopped Cobb-esque salads from the specials list: addictive with bay shrimp, avocado, cherry tomatoes, egg, croutons and a crunchy mix of lettuces tossed with buttermilk blue cheese, lemon anchovy dressing.  Zandra opted for the Knuckle Sandwich, a buttery mini lobster roll. She reported it as tasty, her only gripe being that the bread overwhelmed the lobster. James ordered, and we all dipped into, a steaming bowl of pan-roasted mussels in a verdant broth of IPA, green tomatoes and chile paste.

For entrees, James, Zandra and I were unable resist the much-hyped pan-roasted halibut atop fiddlehead ferns, black trumpet mushrooms and an herb butter sauce. The rich flavors and textures bolstered the raves from our server, and we were converts. And when she declared that 50 Plates is known for its burger … well, you can guess what J ordered. A perfectly juicy Cascade Natural patty dressed up with Amish gorgonzola and thick cut bacon. “Best burger I’ve had in Portland so far,” he said. High praise, indeed. On the side, perfectly crisp hand-cut frites  (twice fried in beef fat, no less) from the snacks menu. We polished off one serving and ordered another.  God bless America.

We briefly considered splitting another burger for dessert, but level heads prevailed. James and Zandra went for the recommended key lime tart, a smooth-textured beauty topped with plump fresh berries and raspberry sauce. J and I ordered the cheese board — a trio of teleme, ale washed aged goat and that haunting Amish gorgonzola, complemented nicely with a drizzle of unfiltered local honey, fruit mince and crackers.

50 Plates: You transformed a gray, drizzly day into a mini road trip across America. Top down, wind in our hair, refreshed. We will see you again soon.

Mushroom Swiss burger and tomato, bleu cheese soup. Damn. Good.

I’m feeling sentimental.

It’s Sunday night, and J and I are in different cities. With our schedules you’d think we’d be used to separation. But we are seldom apart on weekends. So I am thinking about weekends past, and one in particular: last weekend and our Saturday-night burger fest at The Mash Tun.

Conveniently (and temptingly) located two blocks  from our house,  The Mash Tun is an Alberta Street brew pub with free pool, darts, a full bar and house-brewed suds.  It’s the first restaurant we went to when we moved to the neighborhood, and is usually the first place we think of on nights that we’ve made the effort to get dressed, but can’t muster any more energy than that.

Two giant brew kettles mark the entry on NE 22nd Ave and Alberta. Inside, the feel is casual and convivial with wood paneling, a central pool table and a jukebox that spins everything from 80s pop hits to downtempo jams. TVs hang in three corners for those with an eye on the game, and a pooch-friendly patio beckons in good weather. Most tables are filled with friends out for a casual night of conversation, pool, board games or tasty food.

The menu lists a range of pub favorites — fried apps, sandwiches, mini-pizzas, salads and the like. In an attempt to mask this as anything but an indulgence, J and I typically start with the big, beautiful beet salad. The greens are fresh, the beets plentiful, a little goat cheese adds tang and hazelnuts crunch it up. After that, it’s on to the entrees, and we’ve tried a few: the bratwurst is one tasty, tangy dog with sauerkraut; the BLATO (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato, onion on sourdough) is a good bet, always. But, truth be told, we’re here for the burgers. Big beefy patties are juicy and flavorful enough to laugh in the face of the tabletop condiments — I go without. My top choice is mushroom Swiss. J switches it up, but last weekend, it was the bleu burger with bacon. (Specify your burger temperature when you order or you’ll get medium.) Fry fanatics, listen up: the frenchies here are hit and miss, and it breaks my heart. But too often they are tepid and mushy. I now avoid them in favor of crunchy tots. A handful of house-brewed beers on tap wet the whistle, but there’s a full bar if your whistle cries out for a cocktail.

Sweetie, I miss you. I miss The Mash Tun. Here is to many more almost-lazy Saturday nights in our neighborhood haunt.