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?

 

 

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.

LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

Well, this could be a problem.

Just months after Bunk Bar opened up next to Salt and Straw, Little Big Burger moved into the space previously inhabited by Flywheel skate shop on Alberta and NE 21st. Painted ketchup red with the brief menu and appealing prices printed in white lettering on the exterior, LBB is hard to miss, and harder to resist.

Located 500-ish steps from our front door (not nearly enough to cancel out any inevitable calories)  we headed over on a recent Friday night to welcome the new burger-focused inhabitants to the neighborhood. We ordered at the counter and had a seat at the bar to watch the staff hustle to fill dozens of orders with systematic efficiency.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

"This ain't made in Salt Lake City."

“This ain’t made in Salt Lake City.”

Quarter-pound, burgers –not quite skinny patty, but not thick either — are cooked on the flat-top to a caramelized crust and ever-so-slightly pink interior. The perfect proportion to the toasted brioche bun on which they’re served, burgers come with what I consider essential burger toppings: pickle, onion, shredded lettuce, and your choice of cheddar, Swiss, chevre, pepper jack or blue cheese, should you swing that way. On the side, you’ve got one heavenly choice: truffle fries. Still sizzling from the fryer, they’re tossed in salt and truffle oil, pretty much transforming into crack. And though the Camden fry sauce bottle clearly and defiantly states “This ain’t made in Salt Lake City,” it does the hometown stuff proud.

Greedily thinking one burger each may not be enough — LBBs are deceivingly petite — we ordered three, plus two orders of fries, all of which turned out to be way more than we needed. Poof. It vanished nonetheless.

See what I mean by “problem?”

So, LBB, welcome to the neighborhood. We are glad you’re here and look forward to indulging in more of your skinny-patty, fry-sauce-laden goodness.

 

 

White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

Tucked away in a snug corner within Thai comfort-food restaurant PaaDee lies a hidden gem. Or, rather, it used to be hidden. Lang Baan has enjoyed more exposure recently than Justin Bieber’s recreational pursuits, so while no longer undiscovered, it remains a jewel.

Upon arrival, you are led through PaaDee’s bustling dining room, toward the kitchen and around a corner where a second diminutive dining room is concealed behind a false bookcase. The greeter tells you which lever to pull to re-enter should you leave. The room is rustic and welcoming, with rough wood paneling and a small counter cook space. The staff, possibly the friendliest and most accommodating we’ve encountered in a while, adds to the warmth.

We dined here on a Saturday night in May with friends and fellow food lovers Lauren and Shawn, oohing and ahhing over beautifully crafted Thai dishes served family style.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

The May tasting menu featured dishes from the northern part of the country, and the fireworks started with the first bite-size taste of pork belly, a salty-sweet mix of pineapple and coconut folded in a betel leaf. The second of our 12-course tasting menu featured pork stew scented with roasted coconut and spooned onto crisp crackers fashioned from sticky rice. A soup of quail, wild mushroom, kabocha squash and dill exploded with spice-laced flavor, belying the clear broth’s delicate appearance.

Twelve courses went on like this, culminating with head-on white prawns in lemongrass-scented curry; fork-tender Carlton Farm pork collar; and grilled halibut with a zingy chile dipping sauce. For dessert, Thai red rubies and jackfruit floating in a refreshing chilled coconut jasmine soup, mildly sweet with a focus on silky, chewy textures.

Lang Baan is like an amusement park for the senses, unlike any other Thai cuisine we’ve experienced in Portland. With two seatings a night, Thursday through Saturday, this place is bound to be booked solid as food-loving Portlanders flock to it. But that’s OK: Put our names on the list — we can’t wait to return.

 

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Thirty years ago, or even 20, if asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I would have surprised no one with my answer: “Noodles.” Little has changed. However, if you had told me that for my 45th, my wish for the perfect birthday dinner would also have included corn dogs in a sultry cocktail lounge setting, I would have suggested you have your noodle checked.

But living in Portland does unexpected things to a food lover’s perspective and cravings, and on a soggy end-of-March Friday, I could not wait to get over to NE Killingsworth and 30th for my fix.

As we did the first time we visited Expatriate, J and I took a seat at the window facing Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast, the site of other memorable feasts.

Expatriate is a collaboration between Pomeroy and husband Kyle Linden Webster, lauded former bartender at St. Jack. (Also the site of other memorable meals. Sensing a trend here?)

On paper, this lounge, with its Asian-inflected bar-snack menu, already has a pedigree, but Webster and Pomeroy’s devotion to balanced flavors and hospitality makes it special. Indeed, Webster has a gift for making people feel welcome. When he stops by to check on patrons, it’s not a typical obligatory manager drive-by. Instead, he looks you in the eye and, despite being clearly busy, he lingers to chat. I’ve seen him run out to the sidewalk to talk with and offer suggestions to people who had come inside but couldn’t find a seat.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

We started with cocktails, the No. 8 for me and the Precariat for J, sipping while we perused the menu, trying to narrow it down to an order that would not overwhelm our intimate corner of the window counter. On this visit, we skipped the deliciously simple onion and butter sandwich, an ode to James Beard on crustless white bread. Last time we were here, a fortuitous kitchen mixup brought us two orders, so we felt OK passing it over this time.

Not pass-up-able, however, were the aforementioned corn dogs, like the corn dogs of your childhood, stick and all, but made so much better with delicately sweet Chinese sausage in place of the standard hot dog. They are served with a potent sinus-cleansing mustard.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Following that was dungeness crab Rangoon: crispy wontons filled with local crab meat and cream cheese. New to us this time around was the most craveable salad: caramelized brussels sprouts, butternut squash cubes, Napa cabbage and ground lamb, every bite a delicious crunchy balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory. And from the “Hungrier” part of the menu, we ordered the tempura cod sandwich and, of course, the noodles: a generous bowl of coconut-scented broth and noodles with fried duck confit, topped with a beautifully soft-boiled egg.

By the time we had finished, the crowd had filled in behind us, and it was time to relinquish our coveted seats to some other lucky couple. We walked home feeling lucky to have so many delicious options in our neighborhood and grateful for another year.

 

Radishes, radish greens and compound butter.

Radishes, radish greens and compound butter.

In a break with tradition, we ventured out of our kitchen this Sunday evening to Old Salt Marketplace on NE 42nd Avenue. Sister restaurant to Grain & Gristle, Old Salt is rustic and neighborhood-friendly, a spot for a casual meal: spring radishes with miso compound butter; tangy beef tartare with thick-cut potato chips and piquant aioli; wood-fired duck egg on toast with chèvre; smoked half-chicken, roasted new potatoes and fiddlehead ferns; lamb, chèvre, sliced sugar snap peas and mint over linguini. Oh, and a couple of biscuits with sweet cream butter to sop up that chicken jus. Welcome, May, and happy Sunday.

Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Portland is twitchy for summer.

For the past few weeks, a wet gloom has settled in, granting only brief merciful glimpses of warmth and sun. Then, June 1 dawns, and with it a glorious Saturday.

After a walk around the neighborhood, a drink or two at one of our favorite wine bars and dinner on Alberta Street, a sweet treat beckons. On the stroll home we duck into Pine State Biscuits for this beauty: Two biscuit halves topped with fresh, sweet strawberries and whipped cream.

SOS: summer on a shingle.