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.

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.

Four Nights in New Orleans

January 26, 2014

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There you have it, from a master indulger: Happiness is a raw oyster and a bracing white wine. Lucky for us, then, that almost a year to the day after the commencement of the Grand Gavage, we pilgrims of the palate found ourselves reunited around a table, sipping, slurping and smiling deliriously amid the fray of Bourbon Street.

Our time would be short, our mission focused: venture out into beautiful, historic New Orleans in search of edible bivalves and other delectables. Our base was the quaint St. James Hotel on Magazine Street, far enough away from Bourbon to comfortably decompress, but near enough when the spirits moved us to quickly get back in the game.

Day 1 — The Arrival

J and I arrived in New Orleans around 8pm, checked in and met up briefly with our accomplices. Bob and Dorothy had enjoyed an early dinner with James and Zandra and were ready to tuck in. So after a quick reunion in their suite, the four of us bid them goodnight and set off for Bourbon Street in search of oysters. Our first stop: bright, bustling Bourbon House, one of several Dickie Brennan-owned establishments in the French Quarter. We took seats at the curved bar and fell into conversation with the gold-toothed oyster wrangler behind the counter. He was making short work of the iced pile in front of him. “Stick it in and wiggle,” he said with a smile, holding up his knife.

Two dozen to start: one dozen plain, the other topped with two kinds of caviar — catfish and choupique — which lent the oysters a salty richness and a textural pop. Next, alligator boudin served with a piquant chipotle aioli; and shrimp and crab gratin, a creamy, cheesy goop irresistible on crostini. A second dozen oysters with caviar appeared, apparently a mistake by the kitchen. We slurped those down too and ambled out into the night.

Lucky Dog

Lucky Dog, happy man.

We detoured for a drink in the dimness of the famed Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop before heading to Frenchman’s Street, where the sound of music enticed us into raucous Cafe Negril. The room was gyrating under the supervision of a tight blues band and its priestly looking frontman. After a set or two, and one or two beverages, we started back along Bourbon toward Poydras Street. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs carts for a couple of juicy franks on steamed buns, a tasty introduction to the late-night options available. Found-beads around our necks, bellies full and happily weary, we made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2 — Exploring

Canal Street streetcar.

Canal Street streetcar.

Wednesday. A quiet knock at our door announced the arrival of coffee, orange juice and croissants — a delicious start to the morning. The six of us met in the lobby and headed out for the day. We walked up to St. Charles Avenue and caught one of the vintage streetcars bound for the Garden District for lunch and a walkabout.

At one of the stops along St. Charles, the driver shut off the engine, shouldered her purse, exited the car and trotted across the street into a Wendy’s. We and the dozen other passengers looked at each other, puzzled. We chatted. Mostly tourists, folks from Illinois, folks from Iowa. We waited.

Sitting in the rear of the car, one of the few locals aboard began flirting through the window, shamelessly, in a fetching Cajun accent, with a pretty, exceedingly polite brunette waiting for the streetcar going the other direction. “You quite something,” the man said. “Thank you so much,” the girl answered. We learned from her reluctant responses that she was Canadian. “Is cold in Canada, yeah?” the man said. “I’ll keep you warm.” The girl laughed self-consciously. She was finally rescued by the arrival of her car.

In our car, it began to get stuffy. Our resident Casanova rose and sauntered to the front and switched on the engine, activating ventilation. Smirking, he dropped languidly onto a bench. When our driver reappeared — it seemed like 20 minutes but was probably closer to 10 — he welcomed her with a slow clap, to which she responded: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear no diapers to work!” And off we went.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Fried chicken sandwich.

Fried chicken sandwich.

At Washington Avenue we got off and strolled a bit before lunch. Our initial destination, Commander’s Palace, turned us away — a couple of us were wearing shorts — but offered a recommendation for nearby Coquette, a sweet corner bistro with a smoker billowing on the curb. At our sidewalk table for six, we started with wine and a tangy pickle plate (okra, cucumbers, shallots, green beans) with fresh potato chips and ranch dressing. Entrees included a spicy mushroom gumbo, crisp Russian kale salad, shrimp and grits, tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread and, for James, a massive fried-chicken sandwich with fries, the table favorite. Dessert was, for most of us, chocolate beignets and mini banana milkshakes.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Sated (stuffed, really), we started our tour of the Garden District, beginning in Lafayette Cemetery, with its crumbling, time-stained vaults and distinct air of the supernatural. Our guide proved to be a font of information about the city, seasoning his stories with references to long-dead Confederate officers, Louis Armstrong, Katrina, Anne Rice, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Mr. and Mrs. Angelina Jolie, the Manning boys, and on and on. Out into the neighborhood we wended amid the twisting, towering live oaks and the enormous wrought-iron-frilled mansions. Once again, we were the beneficiaries of Dorothy’s knack for finding interesting people, places and things to do.

Spicy, sticky duck wings.

Emeril’s spicy duck wings.

That evening, we had reservations at Emeril’s, a large lively space with a small army of waiters for each  of the white-linen-topped tables. For openers, sticky-spicy duck wings, one of our favorite dishes of the evening, and of the trip. Among the refined clientele, we felt a little out of place sucking sauce from our fingers, but it couldn’t be helped. Hot wet towels appeared, restoring decorum.

Entrees included baseball-size filets for James and Zandra; a mountain of crisp fried chicken and sweet-potato fries for Dorothy; buttery sea scallops served in a steaming oversize escargot plate for J; and for me, squid-ink fettuccine Nero laden with shrimp, mussels and cheese. The dinner was memorable, but the highlight was the shared desserts: fluffy chocolate soufflé, and a delectable wedge of banana cream pie. The pie stood 6 inches tall and featured thick-sliced fruit suspended in custard.

We waddled down the street for a nightcap at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans), a newish-concept wine bar with vending machines that dispense tasting-size (or glass-size) pours of dozens of wines from around the world. There we toasted the close of our first full day in New Orleans.

Day 3 — Halloween

Bob and Dorothy steppin' out on Bourbon Street.

Bob and Dorothy steppin’ out on Bourbon Street.

Halloween started blustery and overcast. We headed out on foot toward the river, where an enormous tanker glided gulfward. We browsed through the French Market — Cafe du Monde overflowed with patrons — and in and out of several art galleries on our way back to Bourbon Street. As the costumed crowds and street performers started to converge, our appetites prompted us into Royal House Oyster Bar for sustenance. Our waitress, a very friendly witch, brought us the day’s first installment of oysters: two dozen on the half-shell, one dozen Rockefeller, a half-dozen grilled and a half-dozen Royale. These, a couple of redfish beignets, a cup of seafood gumbo and two bottles of white wine, and we were content. Onward.

Next, Pat O’Brien’s, where we took seats in the dim, cavernous piano bar. Despite the small crowd (it was early), the drinks and song requests were flowing. Naturally, Hurricanes were in order — they lubricate the singalong muscles, don’t you know.

Improvised costumes

Who dat?

We hummed our way back to Bourbon Street and into My Bar@635, lured by more live music. After a couple of cocktails and a dance or two — one of the regulars took Dorothy and me for a turn around the floor, to the amusement of the crowd — we realized we were out of place without costumes. Luckily we didn’t have to venture far to find glittery masks, sequin hats and other wacky adornments in the Carnival capital of the United States.

Dozen raw at Acme Oyster House.

A dozen raw under the neon at Acme Oyster House.

After a short respite at Musical Legends Park it was time for an early dinner. Fortunately, the queue for Acme Oyster House was less than half a block long, and we were seated relatively quickly. Our order eerily resembled lunch: two dozen raw oysters, two dozen grilled and a couple of oyster po’boys to share. And, Lord help us, drinks all around.

By dinner’s end, Dorothy and Bob were spent. We pointed them in the direction of the hotel and off they toddled, soon swallowed by the crowd. The remaining four of us bumped along with the masses, dazzled by the noise, the spectacle, the alcohol and the astonishing number of bustiers. Over the next few hours, we patronized several drinking establishments, watched a Halloween parade materialize on Decatur Street — beads rained from truck windows and from the beds of floats — and wound our way back to Cafe Negril on Frenchman’s, where we briefly escaped the onset of rain. By the time we stepped out of the bar, it was pouring — though certainly nothing four Portlanders couldn’t manage.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

We slogged onward, stopping again at My Bar to watch the Bourbon Street party from under an umbrella on the balcony. Throngs of costumed partiers meandered along the street, unfazed by the downpour: A bubbly pair dressed as Jeannie and Major Tony Nelson from “I Dream of Jeannie” and a school of ephemeral jellyfish under clear bubble umbrellas, cleverly lighted from within, won our votes for best getups.

Having survived upright until the respectable hour of 11, we needed something to buffer the effects of the alcohol. Burgers, of course. Bourbon House had a table but no beef, so the sympathetic waiter recommended Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill on St. Peter Street.

Yo Mama's classic.

Yo Mama’s classic.

We walked the five blocks in a light shower, slid into a booth and ordered massive half-pounders: blue cheese burger for James; mushroom burger for Zandra; the bullfighter, piled with cheddar, salsa, avocado and jalapeños for J; and the classic Yo Mama’s burger for me. Despite its obvious restorative properties, the peanut butter burger with bacon tempted no one. Surprisingly, Yo Mama’s doesn’t serve fries — sides comprise baked potato, potato salad or green salad. Most of us opted for potato salad, with J going all in with a baked potato.

Stuffed after a second but wholly necessary dinner, we plodded back to the hotel and dropped into bed.

Day 4 — Winding Down

Amazingly, we awakened little worse for the wear and set out for breakfast. Friends had recommended Mother’s, a popular cafeteria-style operation nearby where you line up and order your meal at the counter before claiming a table in one of the cavernous dining areas. I had anticipated the famed Ferdi sandwich (ham, roast beef, debris — the bits that fall off the roast when carving — and gravy) but it was not on the breakfast menu. So we all ordered eggs in some form, dense, flaky biscuits, ham or sausage, and grits. Turns out, grits are not beloved by the Weises or the Waltons. Still, the meal was filling.

Thick, rich gumbo.

Thick, rich gumbo.

The rest of the morning was spent touring the massive, impressive WWII museum — a must-see for history buffs like Bob. We then headed back to the French Quarter for lunch, landing a table at Tableau, which with its sturdy dark-wood furnishings and contrasting thick white plaster walls exuded a stately Southern charm. The menu featured classic French Creole cooking, and we ordered a variety: Salade Lyonnaise with perfectly oozing egg; fried oyster salad; rich duck and andouille gumbo.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

The most memorable dish of the day, and for me, of the trip, was the truffled crab fingers — peeled crab claws marinated and chilled in a white-truffle vinaigrette. I could have eaten these all day long with crusty bread to sop the sauce.

After lunch, we walked through the cathedral and Jackson Square, then made a shopping stop or two on Decatur Street before returning to the hotel for a nap. That evening, lacking dinner reservations and competing with a horde of American Dental Association conventioneers for a table, we ended up at Desire Bistro and Oyster House — a large, lively spot with closely spaced tables, a retro tin ceiling and black-and-white tiles underfoot. It being an oyster house, oysters were in order: three dozen to start — a dozen for Bob and two for the rest of us. Another kitchen mix-up resulted in an additional dozen, which, of course, we slurped without hesitation. At that point, the rest of the dinner was an afterthought, but tasty nonetheless. I had a delicious muffuletta half-sandwich, an addictively salty pile of ham, mortadella, salami and provolone with a thick spread of olive paste on crusty bread. Zandra went light with a trio of sliders from the appetizer menu — kobe beef, pulled pork and alligator. J chose a rich crawfish étouffé. A fine and casual dinner to cap off a memorable trip.

New Orleans is a banquet — not only its irresistible cuisine, but also its spicy mix of colorful locals and uninhibited tourists, its weather, its open-container laxity and live music at every turn. The perfect destination for a food adventure, and we were lucky enough to have been invited. Bob, Dorothy, James and Zandra — we couldn’t invent better travel and dining companions. Our minds operate alike: Start with a nice bottle of wine, then get down to the business of eating.

Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

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Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”