Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

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San Sebastian, Spain is one of the major food meccas of the world: wonderful shops, pintxos (tapas) bars, and some of the top restaurants On earth, all on the north coast of Spain in Basque country, off the Bay of Biscay, just a stone’s throw from the French border.

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Pintxo bars are everywhere, especially in the old part of town where the narrow streets are for pedestrians only, and many bars specialize in just a few prepared foods, like the beautiful sautéed fresh mushrooms, above.

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Some joints, like Cuchara de San Telmo, jam every night until they literally run out of food.

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Clearly, we couldn’t get enough of the mushrooms!

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No shortage of fantastic Basque cheeses and charcuterie in local San Sebastian shops, either.

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Not all the best pintxo bars are in old town. This one, Restaurante Ni Neu,  is just across the waterway from the classic Hotel Maria Christina.

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Need a break from all that rich food? Craving a burger, a salad and a beer? Head down the boardwalk on La Concha Beach for the Wimbledon, a tennis club that has a great pub open to the public.

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Many great family-run restaurants. Often, like with Munto and Egosari, you’ll find the first floor is all about the pintxos, and the second floor has a more formal dining area where you can sit down to a wonderful meal. Others, like Astelena, are finer dining experiences. And Narru has indoor dining as well as al fresco dining with a view of La Concha beach.

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San Sebastian is home to many of the world’s finest restaurants, including Arzak, rated the #8 restaurant in the world. Here’s the gazpacho at Arzak…

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And an incredible plate of fish, served on a clear dish so you can see the video of ocean waves crashing on the shore on the iPad the dish is served on!

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The talented Elena Arzak was named best female chef in the world in 2012.

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At the #3 spot on the top restaurants of the world, there’s Mugaritz, another amazing dining experience.

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One incredible dish after another. An experience hard to put into words, but I tried. Read about it here: http://wp.me/p1c1Nl-vn

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The “Linking Dish,” one of the most memorable moments of the evening at Mugaritz.

And no evening was complete without a tour of the kitchen…

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Just a short drive from San Sebastian, we visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a day trip I highly recommend. Even if you’re not an art fan, the architecture of this building is out of this world.

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And the bistro at the museum, where we had a wonderful lunch, was worth the price of admission.

On the way back from Bilbao, we stopped at the small village of Getaria, where we visited the hard-to-find mountaintop vineyard of Bodega Elkano. The Zimmerman family has made the wonderful wine known as Txakoli here since 1830, and we visited with Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman, neither of whom spoke any English. Fortunately, my Spanish was up to the task! (They do have a son and daughter, both of whom do speak English, but they weren’t in the area at the time of our visit.)

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They welcomed us with open arms, and it was one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had in my travels.

We had dinner back down by the waterfront, at the port of Getaria, at Restaurante Kaia-Kaipe. Excellent seafood.

Back at San Sebastian, we spent our days burning calories at La Concha beach…IMG_9451

…and visiting what is considered the oldest hilltop water ride in the world at the park at Monte Igueldo, just a short and fun funicular ride up the mountain.

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Of course, the view doesn’t suck, either.IMG_9453

Amazing food and drink, a beautiful beach, wonderful friendly people, world-class dining, down-and-dirty bar hopping, art appreciation, a world-class aquarium…San Sebastian has it all. This was our second trip in 10 years. And one of the very few places I’ve ever been to where I started talking about coming back while I was on the plane going home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No trip to Madrid is complete without visiting a couple of food markets. The quality and selection of foods, ready-to-eat on location or packaged to go, is mind-boggling!

Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel

On our recent trip to Madrid, we sampled foods from two food markets: Mercado de San Miguel and Mercado San Anton.

Mercado de San Miguel

Mercado de San Miguel

Praised by many as the best market in the city, Mercado de San Miguel is near the tourist center of Madrid, by the Plaza Mayor, a plaza featuring open-air restaurants, outdoor concerts and loads of street performers looking to make a few bucks. The choice of foods at Mercado de San Miguel is incredible, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an empty seat.

My not-so-adventurous daughter found happiness in a personal pizza.

My not-so-adventurous daughter found happiness in a personal pizza.

It’s worth the extra effort to elbow your way over to your own private corner of the market to enjoy everything from olives to oysters.

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House-made sangria and little salamis served up like french fries.

House-made sangria and little salamis served up like french fries.

Grilled sardines.

Grilled sardines.

Sweet as well as savory bites.

Sweet as well as savory bites.

If you’re lucky enough to have a place to cook, you can take home some fantastic seafood…

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…including swordfish and squid!

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Though the Mercado de San Miguel clearly has it all, its large size and huge crowds can be a challenge to those not wanting to stand in long lines. The Mercado San Anton across town, meanwhile, is funky, smaller and a more manageable market.

Pork heaven at Mercado San Anton.

Pork heaven at Mercado San Anton.

 

Mercado San Anton has five floors. Three feature food shops and tapas bars. Grab a bite and a drink right there or take it with you.

Our favorite tapas when in Spain: a skewer of olives, peppers and anchovies.

Our favorite tapas when in Spain: Gilda de Boqueron y Anchoa (a skewer of olives, peppers and anchovies.)

And on the top floor: a great restaurant that you shouldn’t miss: La Cocina de San Anton. If for no other reason, you need to dine here to experience the magnificent plate of Iberico ham and other meats they offer, sliced to order. This is truly a situation where more is more.

Acorn-fed Iberico ham: there's nothing like it!

Acorn-fed Iberico ham: there’s nothing like it!

 

The window at Cocina de San Anton.

The window at Cocina de San Anton: it’s all about the pig!

We’d go back to the Mercado San Anton in a heartbeat. Located in the colorful Chueca neighborhood full of art galleries, it’s a place where you can easily spend hours and hours over lunch.

Madrid has many fine restaurants. But tapas are a great way for any self-respecting foodie to explore the markets for a real taste of this beautiful city.

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Restaurante Botin, in the great old city of Madrid, Spain, is a must-visit. At first, I thought it might be more of a tourist trap. But this establishment, which holds the Guinness Book of world records for oldest restaurant (it opened in 1725), has some fantastic dishes that you just can’t get anywhere else.

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The suckling pig at Botin is world-famous. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll probably be freaked out to see the row of little pigs on plates, waiting to be placed in the almost-300-year-old wood burning oven. These suckling pigs were only 20-something days old when they became dinner, and the slow-roasted flavor of this pork is like nothing you’ve ever had before. The roasted baby lamb, a gamier lamb than most Americans are used to, thanks to its grass-fed upbringing, was also exquisite.

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imageCroquettes are big in Spain, as popular with the kids as nuggets are here in the states. And the croquettes at Botin, breaded and fried to a perfect crisp on the outside, with an oozy, creamy cheesy center, are addictive.

The servers, handling three levels of dining rooms, are fast and efficient, but also have time for a sense of humor.

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Just around the corner from the Plaza de Mayor, the city’s best people-watching location, Botin is my kind of attraction: a food museum where they still create many dishes like they did hundreds of years ago. In fact, the famous artist Goya was a dishwasher here in his youth, back in 1765.

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Walk around the restaurant, and check out the different rooms that have been renovated over time…and the ones that have been there all these years. It’s a fascinating trip through history.

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We were in Madrid at the end of August, 2014…still vacation time for most of the city, so our restaurant choices were somewhat limited. The concierge at the Westin Palace Hotel, where we stayed for 3 nights in Madrid, suggested Ten Con Ten. We were told that despite this being the place where all the so-called “beautiful people” hang out, it is a legitimate foodie destination.

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We arrived: my wife, my 7-year-old daughter and I…and immediately were the center of attention as we were clearly the only people who ever even considered bringing a child into this place. We were spoiling the vibe of the party. (We’ve taken our daughter to fine restaurants all over the world and never had a problem. She’s better behaved than most of the adults in the room.)

We sat down at our table, were greeted gruffly in Spanish by our server, a young woman who clearly disliked us from the start, and were asked if we wanted a drink before ordering dinner. I had vodka on the rocks, served promptly. My wife ordered cava, a sparkling wine, and it was forgotten. However, that didn’t stop 3 separate managers from coming to our table and asking what we wanted to eat…all in a span of 4 minutes, before I even had the chance to take a second sip of my drink. When my wife commented that she’d like to enjoy her drink first (which still hadn’t arrived), they left in a huff.

A lovely elderly couple from Denver, at the table next to us, told us that they were completely rushed through their dinner and plates were removed from under them before they even had a chance to finish…like a scene from a bad Chinese restaurant. They complained loudly as they paid their bill, in part I think, to set the stage for us to at least enjoy our dinner at a more leisurely pace. I wish I knew how to get in touch with them to thank them for that!

When a fourth manager asked for our order, that’s when we politely said we were hoping to have the table for the night. He rushed off to confer with the reservations chick with the clipboard, and he finally agreed with a sigh that it would be alright. When we told him we had eaten at 2 of the top 10 restaurants in the world, Arzak and Mugaritz in San Sebastián just a few days earlier, I think he finally understood that we were there for the food and not all the posturing.

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All this was so unlike any dining experience we had in Spain, that it really caught us off guard. But once we established that we were staying and taking our time–kid and all–they relented and started serving us with a different attitude. In fact, the manager that was assigned to us (our grumpy server now relegated to simply clearing our plates) was great, and soon we were able to establish a fun and friendly dialogue with him that really made the evening special.

We wanted to try many dishes, but obviously couldn’t eat them all. Our new manager friend specially ordered smaller portions for us. When we couldn’t decide which plates to choose from, we let him do it, much to his delight. A white wine we ordered was not available at the proper temperature, so he chose another for us–excellent. Our bottle of red came from a private stock that wasn’t even on the menu–again, his choice.

And when our daughter a hand wrote a small thank-you card to the staff for a wonderful meal, you could’ve knocked them over with a feather. The staffers literally made a receiving line toward the door as we left, shaking our hands and thanking us for dining with them…our manager friend being the very last to say goodbye.

The food was excellent and seasonal. The menu changes all the time. We had toro tuna tataki, pasta with a morel sauce (featuring a touch of foie!), pasta with a sea urchin sauce, veal scallopine, what they call “yellow” fish (it commonly is caught alongside tuna), oxtail hamburgers, and more…and wonderful desserts.

Dining in Spain starts at 8PM for the most part, and it was clear in the beginning of our night (we had an 8:30 reservation) that they planned on turning that table over a lot. Our manager friend told us that, despite the fact that the restaurant was already full, the party “really” only started at midnight! So rushing people in and out was the way to make some serious coin for these folks. And he said it got even worse once the vacation season was over and everyone was back to work in Madrid!

The secret to enjoying Ten Con Ten is to stake your claim: don’t let them push you around. Make it clear that a rushed meal is not acceptable. The staff may grumble at first, but eventually let you have your way. And then… it can be a great experience.