Tapas Crawl – Madrid, Spain

•May 18, 2011 • 1 Comment

You could say our trip to Madrid last year was one extended tapas crawl. Most meals, we found ourselves trudging up and down the city in search of tasty little bites. These were among our favorites.

Estado Puro by Paco Rancero

Having just arrived the evening before, we are still getting our bearings around the city and happily chance upon this trendy spot just around the corner from our hotel on Paseo del Prado.

Manitas de Cerdo Iberico (front).

This slice of pig’s trotter is suitably gelatinous and the cuttlefish noodles remind me of a similar dish we had in San Sebastian. Corte de Foie Gras con Pan de Especias (behind) is a thick slice of foie gras smeared with membrillo and sandwiched between two thin slices of crispy spiced bread.

Callos a la Madrilena.

Classic Madrid fare consisting of tripe, chorizo, morcilla, and garbanzos in a tomato sauce. Best version we had this trip.

Pastelleria Mallorca

The ubiquitous pastry shop is our favorite lunch spot. It’s fast and cheap, allowing us to quickly get back to sightseeing. I can’t get enough of their dainty little sandwiches individually wrapped in waxed paper. There’s an assortment of fillings like crab, tuna, smoked salmon, etc. At 1 EUR each, it won’t break the bank to try them all.

La Mallorquina

On one corner of Puerta del Sol is La Mallorquina, one of Madrid’s oldest and most popular bakeries. The ground floor is the bakery and coffee shop while the top floor houses the restaurant.

It’s a zoo this Saturday morning. Nevertheless, I’m not going to come way empty-handed so I join the frenzy inside and make out with a giant empanada de atun con pimiento (tuna with red pepper). It doesn’t matter that we were off to meet friends just a few hours later for lunch.

Teitu

Asturian food in the Tetuan area of the city. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures since I was meeting my husband’s colleague and his wife for the first time. He orders quite a spread: jamon iberico de bellota, chorizo, a calorific roto juevos con patatas jamon y pimiento de padron (fried eggs, ham, small green peppers on a bed of fried potatoes), fabes (short for fabada, an Asturian stew with salt pork, morcilla, chorizo and beans the size of my thumb). And these are just the starters!

Cruz Raciones

Upon learning via text that we were in Madrid, a friend from Manila who counts this as her favorite city instructs us to “look for the bar that serves really great grilled sardines, pimiento padron and calamares. They only open on Sundays. It’s at the top of the Rastro in front of a belt stall”. We think she was referring to Cruz Raciones except that it is open all week. Oh well. Two out of three ain’t bad.

In addition to the grilled sardines and pimiento de padron, we also have a plate of setas ala plancha (wild mushrooms) and a dozen really fresh navajas ala plancha (razor clams). Only a squeeze of lemon and some minced parsley as garnish. We eat on the counter standing up (no chairs or stools) and curiously point to what looked like a phyllo pastry twisted around a stick.

It’s lamb stomach, we are told.

Taberna Tempranillo

It’s only 8:30 pm. That must be why we’re still able to get a seat at Taberna Tempranillo, one in a string of tapas bars along Calle Cava Baja.

Ventresca de Bonito con Pimientos Asados (Ventresca tuna with Roasted Peppers), Panecillo de Chorizo Iberico (Iberian Chorizo Muffin), Lanchitas de Jamon de Pato Curado con Berenjenas (Slices of Cured Duck Ham with Eggplants), Mousse de Pato con su Mollejita (Duck Mouse with Gizzard)

Salteado de Lomo Fresco de Bacalao con Trigueros (Bacalao with Asparagus). I have no idea how they reconstitute this center cut dried cod, but it’s as good as fresh. The meat flakes with a fork but retains its delicate texture.

Revuelto Tempranillo (Scrambled Eggs with Porcini Mushrooms). A specialty of the house.

Jamon Julian Becerro

Across the street from Taberna Tempranillo is Jamon Julian Becerro, a specialty store selling various permutations of jamon. They have several legs ready on display and they’ll carve off thin slices according to your order. While the price per kilo can be rather scary (most expensive one was about 120 EUR/kilo), their minimum order of a 100 grams is about 12 EUR and that is plenty of jamon for two people. As the guy prepares our Jamon Iberico de Bellota, we learn that the best ones come from the Extremadura region of Spain. We take our 100 grams vacuum-packed to go. It’s tomorrow’s breakfast.

Txirimiri

There are three branches in the city. The one we visit, along General Diaz Portier, takes reservations. It’s a narrow storefront space that’s already packed, but we are led downstairs to a slightly larger room with dining tables and chairs. The menu is written on a blackboard at the far end of the wall.

Tapa de Rabo con Crema Trufa y Huevo de Cordoniz. Similar to a ropa vieja but with shredded oxtail. And that’s fried quail’s egg on top. Very hearty and delicious.

Mercado de San Miguel

Near the Plaza Mayor, this enclosed market is more a collection of food stalls than a true market per se (even though they do have a fish monger on premises). It’s packed during lunch hour, and we’re lucky to find a corner to park ourselves and eat standing up.

A sampling of croquetas from a food stall selling nothing but that. My favorite is the negra which is flavored with squid ink.

Juana la Loca

Named after the first Spanish queen, Joanna, who went mad after the death of her husband (or perhaps it was due to his numerous extra-marital affairs), this tapas bar on Plaza Puerta de Moros at the end of Calle Cava Baja is anything but stuffy. In fact, it’s got a really funky downtown vibe to it.

Tortilla de Patatas & Cebolla Confitada. A specialty of the place, the caramelized onions make this a rather sweet version of the tortilla espanola. Crepe de Espinacas con Gulas al Ajillo & Esparragos Trigueros. The spinach crepe is stuffed with baby eels.

Kokotxas de Bacalao Rebozadas Crujentes. Cod cheeks lightly breaded and fried.

Tallarines Caseros con Muselina de Yema & Trufa Negra. Tagliatelle with egg yolk and black truffles. This one’s outstanding.

La Camarilla

Also along the Cava Baja, La Camarilla’s menu is more slanted towards raciones.

Huevos Estrellados con Jamon Iberico. This looks like breakfast fare, doesn’t it?

La Baracca

This isn’t really a tapas bar but a paella restaurant recommended by the same friend who told us about the bar by the Rastro.

Carabineros al Ajillo. I’ve seen raw carabineros at the market and their shells are an angry fire engine red. They are definitely more flavorful and assertive than the frozen/thawed ones we see in the Northeast US.

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DiverXO – Madrid, Spain

•March 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Asian inspiration meets Spanish execution. That sums up DiverXO neatly for me.

Shortly before our 2pm reservation, we arrive via cab at a short squat building in the Cuzco area of Madrid. The frontage is painted black and the windows are coated with a dark tint such that passersby can only make out the shapes and vague movements inside. Only the restaurant’s name rendered in gold Asian font lettering hangs beside the double black doors and discreetly announces its presence.

It’s much less gloomy as we step inside. Sunlight spills into the dining area from an inner courtyard filled with greenery. We are handed a menu with only three choices: Express consisting of a mere 7 courses, Degustacion with 9, and the full-blown DiverXO Degustacion with 11.

Apparently, the chef, David Munoz, guards his privacy with equal fervor as no photographs of the food are allowed. As a result I had to resort to using the voice recorder on my phone (ala Matt Damon in The Informant) as well as taking copious notes to memorize our meal.

First to arrive is edamame liberally sprinkled with sea salt and black sesame seeds. It is  served in a white ceramic container resembling a giant Dixie cup crumpled on one side. With it is a bright citron colored ajada (garlic and oil emulsion) flavored with Peruvian chile. The heat is subtle and manifests itself at the back of the throat.

While there is no wine pairing, they do serve a pot of Chinese green tea with lime, raspberry, lily and other herbal flowers to go with the next few dishes:

An asymmetrical teardrop shaped glass holds a parfait of sorts — breadcrumbs on top followed by layers of béchamel, minced chives, tiger mussels brined in kefir lime, flying fish roe in soy. The flavors get sharper and more intense as you dig deeper.

Puntillo, egg white fried to a lacy crispness, rests precariously on top of a single siumai in an equally diminutive bamboo dim sum basket. The siumai’s translucent skin is made of wheat flour and, instead of the usual pork filling, it’s stuffed with morcilla (spanish blood sausage) and a tiny egg yolk (quail or pigeon?). This is meant to be eaten in one bite, but that’s only half the dish. Underneath the bamboo basket is a nice surprise — a piece of pig’s ear (about the side of a Ghirardelli square chocolate) is soft and gelatinous all over but slightly browned and crunchy on the edges. It’s served with a little spicy duck sauce and thinly sliced red onions.

A mini-siopao bun is stuffed with minced trumpet mushrooms and coated with a ‘milk skin’ all over. A translucent slice of Cecina ham is impaled on a metal flagpole that sticks out from the plate. It’s meant to be eaten together, providing a salty counterpoint to the  slightly sweet bun and the savory richness of the mushroom. As for the kumato tomatoes lying below the bun, I don’t think they add anything to the dish since they’re out of season and quite tasteless.

Raw prawns pounded paper thin and cut into two translucent disks that are barely cooked by pouring a stream of hot oil over them. Underneath are small tasty mounds of tomalley from the heads. On top are minced chives and sesame seeds. A handful of micro greens dressed in oil and yuzu flank the disks on the right and a cup of hot creamy runny mayonnaise on the left. This is my favorite dish of the meal.

Next is a Spanish take on Singapore’s famous chili crab. In the middle is a txangurro made of buey de mar, a Spanish spider crab, seasoned with pimenton dela vera and chipotle chile. Beside it is a poached pigeon’s egg that is meant to be mixed into the shredded crabmeat. On the the left is a light and airy brioche sprinkled with more pimenton dela vera. On the right is half a fried soft shelled crab with a dab of aioli.

A chunk of wok seared monkfish glazed with soy sauce and five spices reminds me very much of cha-siew (Chinese barbecue pork). Wok searing seals the juiciness of the fish and while glazing is not a technique typically employed with fish since it tends to overcook them, I am told the chef has found a way to do this while keeping the fish still very moist. Sweet fat white asparagus dot the plate like tree stumps. Other garnishes are lotus root chips and small pools of black sesame paste.

Cuchinillo served Peking duck style. An impossibly thin crisp rectangle of Iberico pork skin lies flat skin side down on a miniature metal scaffolding. The skin is bisected by a line of hoisin sauce and topped with salmon roe and little chunks of cucumber competing with it for crunch.

Part II comes in a square yellow styrofoam box. Inside is an iceberg lettuce leaf and a  chunk of steamed Iberico ground pork no larger than a golf ball, sprinkled with fried shallots, basil and mint. It’s served with an adobo flavored dipping sauce made of oregano, rice vinegar, paprika. Since Iberico pork is 80% fat, steaming renders most of it out. It’s meant to be eaten like lettuce cups.

The last savory dish features mounds of ox short ribs cooked in the oven for 24 hours at 80 degrees. Each mound is covered by a rice paper disk and surrounded by a sweet sour demi-glace made from its own jus. Baby (or fetus since they’re so tiny) carrots and mushrooms are strewn over the dish.  Tamarind foam dot the plate like mini volcanic eruptions.

Ceviche of lychee with Thai basil ice cream and a meringue of lychee and roses. Little globes of finger lime from Australia provide bursts of citrus while strands of ito togarashi (Japanese chili pepper) perk up the palate.

A second dessert consists of three small logs of violet, white sesame and nut flavored panna cotta under a cloud of violet cotton candy.

Normally, I’m not a fan of Asian fusion menus nor did I expect to travel to Spain to eat it, but I’m not disappointed because this is certainly a fascinating meal. Each dish provokes a reaction: amusement, curiosity, delight, wonder. In some cases, one or all of the above.

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El Bohio – Illescas, Spain

•March 5, 2011 • 5 Comments

The town of Illescas lies midway between Madrid and Toledo. It’s home to El Bohio, a Michelin star establishment hiding behind an unassuming one story facade in a semi-industrial neighborhood. A 45 minute cab ride from Madrid, the fare one-way could easily have fed us both very well at any tapas bar on Calle Cava Baja.

Inside, it’s spare and rustic. Exposed wooden beams jut out from the ceiling and heavy traditional furniture anchor themselves on the stone tiles. As we are seated, the waiter brings out an extra chair, a miniature one, for my bag!

We initially opt for ala carte but, after much second-guessing, change our minds and go for the full blown Degustacion menu. After all the effort it took to get here, why skimp now. Might as well have the works.

Amuse bouche (front to back): ensalada de pollo, chicken wrapped in lettuce then rolled in rice paper; sobresada, a spreadable chorizo, with a thin translucent piece of fried pork rind masquerading as a tuile; mojete de la mancha, tuna stuffed in a cherry tomato and topped with crispy roe; black olive and parmesan bread topped with anchovy paste; a long rectangular galeta made with tomato and anchovies.
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O Pazo – Madrid, Spain

•December 9, 2010 • 2 Comments

We almost went to the wrong one.

After reading about O Pazo in a food forum, I googled it and made reservations from the US at the first site I found. Well, apparently, O Pazo is a very common Spanish term (much like casa) and there are at least two of them in Madrid. The one renowned for excellent seafood is in Calle Reina Mercedes. Thank goodness for our concierge.

The menu is quite simple and short. One side lists the seafood; the other has line drawings of them and short write-ups describing their provenance so the diner gets a better appreciation for them.  For more inspiration, I go over to the raw seafood display and chat with the wait staff. Somehow, even with his halting English and my minimal Spanish, we manage to connect and I come away with some excellent recommendations for dinner.

Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles)

They look like mini elephant legs attached to flat claws, so why do these homely things cost EUR22 per 100 grams? It’s certainly not for the complex cooking technique since they’re just plain boiled. They’re expensive because harvesting them can be a daunting task. It takes two people: the adventurous perceibeiro climbs down the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a rope tied around his waist as he picks the barnacles off the rocks. Meanwhile, his partner stays at the top of the cliff and yanks him up every once in a while to ensure he’s not whisked out to sea.
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St John’s Bread & Market @ Spitalfields – London

•September 13, 2010 • 2 Comments

We almost didn’t make it here.

Our original plan was to dine at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant/culinary school for underpriviledged kids; however, our long-time friends in London made such a strong case for St. John’s that we decided to go for it. Plus, we already visited Oliver’s alma mater, the River Cafe, at lunch.

So at 6pm, one hour after the tube strike started, we’re on a cab from Grosvenor Square heading to the other end of town in Spitalfields. Our cab driver valiantly tries to squeeze through rush-hour traffic; forty five minutes later, he drops us off on the busy and bustling Commercial Street. The restaurant is across the street from the Spitalfields Market, a cavernous food court that began its life in the 1700’s as a place to hawk livestock, poultry and vegetables.

Inside, it’s simple and no frills, almost industrial. Baking equipment peeks through a high half wall that also lets diners see the chefs at work. A blackboard hangs prominently on the center wall and displays the specials. St John’s has been open since lunch time and so most of the items are crossed out. The menu itself is split into smaller dishes meant to be eaten tapas style and larger ones meant to be entrees. Those unfamiliar with British cuisine will certainly do a double-take at some of the unusual (and outrageous) sounding names.

Ox Heart, Watercress & Pickled Walnut

It may not seem all that appetizing, but, according to our waitress, this is one of the more popular items on the menu. When describing the dish, she starts by making a gesture with her hands like she’s holding a watermelon. Apparently, that’s how massive an ox heart is. It’s sliced thinly, marinated in a sweet and piquant vinaigrette before being grilled. Paired with the slightly bitter watercress, this dish is downright delicious. The ox heart texture is quite a surprise. It’s chewy rather than spongy, more similar to top round than innards.

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L’ Astrance – Paris

•July 8, 2010 • 2 Comments

For our big splurge in Paris, I booked a table at L’Astrance, the restaurant that earned its third Michelin star in 2007. According to the food forums, obtaining a reservation here requires some amount of strategy and planning. It is through the tips of these generous posters that I was able to secure one, so I’m paying it forward:

1. I called 2 months in advance give or take a few days, waking up at 4:30am EST (10:30am in Paris) on a Tuesday to make the call since they are closed weekends and Monday.

2. I persisted even when I got the dreaded answering machine a few times (i.e. earlier than 10:30am)

3. I confirmed my reservation two days before.

We arrive shortly before our 8pm reservation on the day itself. We’re asked to wait outside even though it is insanely hot because the restaurant is not yet ready. It’s a relatively small place, with 8 tables on the ground floor capable of seating about 20 or so. Ordering is simple since there are only two choices: Le Diner Surprise, a tasting menu where the diner has absolutely no idea what he’ll be eating, or Le Diner Surprise with an equally anonymous wine pairing. We opt for the the latter.

Le Diner Surprise:

The meal starts off with an unassuming amuse bouche of brioche with rosemary butter.

What follows next is slightly better — tart green apples and praline sandwiched between two semi-translucent almond wafers

Maybe the chef is just trying to lull the diner into a state of complacency with the tidbits. Then, BOOM. Shock and awe. This is their signature dish, a wedge of foie gras and granny apple slices placed snugly between shaved raw white mushrooms meticulously arranged in overlapping layers like shingles on a roof. This is accompanied by an invisible pool of hazelnut oil on one side and lemon curd on the other.

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Aux Terrasse – Tournus

•July 7, 2010 • 2 Comments

During our last evening in Burgundy, we dined at Aux Terrase in Tournus. It’s a little more than a half hour drive from Chassagne Montrachet and well worth it. Dining al fresco amidst blooms and foliage makes it easy for guests to forget that they are situated in front of a truck stop and a supermarket. Despite earning a Michelin star, Aux Terrasse remains very casual and reasonable, offering a four course menu (that’s really six) for 45 Euros.

We start with two rounds of amuse bouche:

Tiny cherry tomatoes with basil cream and mustard seed. Gougeres (cheese puffs). Carrot cream with pumpkin seed and chive that reminded me of my favorite dish at Lameloise. At this point, I knew we were going to be in for a great meal.
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