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Eating report: Madrid y Barcelona

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Hi there --
I'm still glowing from my five-day trip to Madrid and Barcelona. I got so many helpful tips here on Chowhound that I thought I'd come back and post a report. I fell in love with Spain and now crave tapas incessantly!

Part I
MADRID

We were with friends most of the time, so didn't get to profit much from CH recs. A few standouts that I haven't seen mentioned much here:

Estay (calle Hermosilla 46, tel: 91 578 0470, Tapas for three, including three glasses of rioja, water and coffee: €48.55)
An elegant bar in the swish Salamanca district that’s a favorite of my friend. At 4pm on a Saturday, the place was packed with Madrilenos sipping wine or beer, smoking, and tucking into tiny bites of food. We had pimientos txang, red peppers stuffed with tuna (I think?) in a creamy sauce, taco buey, like bruschetta topped with a savory pimiento sauce and tender chunk of beef, croqeutas jamon, with a crunchy shell and creamy, smooth center of minced ham and bechamel sauce. Also, boqueron anchoa, the center, white fish was tangy and tart, the other, darker two were salty, strong anchovies. And, calabacin relleño, a hollowed courgette stuffed with minced shrimp and squid, and cooked until meltingly tender in a delicate sauce of courgette.

Cacao Sampaka (Cacao Sampaka, calle Orellana 4, tel: 91 319 5840, Breakfast for two: under €10 (lost receipt — sorry)
Ideal for brekkie, the hot chocolate like a warm pudding, all milky-chocolaty, soothing and not too sweet (honestly!). We dipped in cookies that were soft like ladyfingers, and came attached to a strip of parchment paper. We also enjoyed one tiny cheese sandwich and another of the ever-present ham on a soft corn roll studded with sunflower seeds.

Taberneros (Taberneros, calle Santiago 9, tel: 91 542 2160, Dinner for 5-6 (including lots of delicious wine): €250)
Finally, in Madrid, one last rec , we enjoyed a festive and fun tapas meal in the historic center at Taberneros. Within spitting distance of the royal palace, this cozy wine bar offers superb food — highlights included the warm cheese salad with its tangy-sweet dressing, a casserole of meltingly tender squid and white beans, grilled steak sizzling to order on a hot plate, perfectly rare within, and a very thoughtful list of Spanish wines. Sitting here at our table in the window, eating, drinking and chatting with old and new friends, we almost felt like Spaniards (though we started our dinner at the early hour of 9pm).

Coming soon: Tapas in Barcelona!

Pictures on my blog here: http://annmah.net/2009/02/06/dining-o...

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  1. Thank you for the detail post. Would love to hear your experiences in Barcelona .

    15 Replies
    1. re: PBSF

      Thanks for your response and all your VERY helpful advice. I am so grateful to you, PBSF, as well as Barcelonian for your terrific, detailed restaurant suggestions in Barcelona. My trip would have been much less delicious without you!!!

      Okay, here we go...

      PART II
      BARCELONA

      Restaurant Sant Joan (Passeig Sant Joan, 65, Tel: 93 265 7189 Lunch for two, including 1/2 bottle of house wine (which itself was only 1.85€): 20.80€) --

      A HUGE thank you to Barcelonian for this rec. This is a simple, Catalanian establishment, a barebones joint, lunch only, cheap, family-owned, lots of locals — in other words, right up my alley. The menu was on a chalkboard in both Catalan and Spanish, which caused some problems. Luckily, the waiter (owner? Joan?) spoke some English. We started with lentil soup, laced with slices of chorizo sausage, which gave the potage a smoky perfume. Another soup, sopa de caldo, described as “chicken,” was pleasant but not outstanding — the noodles were too soggy and that slice of meat, which was kind of like pâté de campagne, was frankly a little bit gristly-scary.

      Main courses: escalopa solomillo de cerdo, essentially chicken-fried pork, with a side of fries. The pork was lean, tender and juicy within, the crust crisp, the fries cut from fresh potatoes, everything piping hot. It was good — not the most adventurous choice — but, hampered by language, we didn’t know what it was when we ordered it. I also ended up with pork — loin of, that is — very simply browned, but expertly done, the meat still tender and juicy. I enjoyed the accompanying roasted red peppers with a drizzle of excellent olive oil.

      I really enjoyed this restaurant because it felt simple, genuine, authentic. But we were seriously hampered by language barriers here. The food was good, but nothing out of the ordinary — and that’s totally my fault — I had no idea what to order. Other tables were eating bits of fried fish, or piles of cauliflower and potatoes doused with olive oil. Looked delicious, but what are they called? Next time I’m going with a dictionary.

      El Xampanyet (El Xampanyet, Carrer Montcada, 22, Tel: 93 319 7003, Drinks and tapas for two: ca 15€ (no receipt) --

      Thanks again to Barcelonian for this rec! Famous for their canned fish products, this is a stand-up tapas joint (few real tables). Though I didn’t sample the xampanyet (a type of sparkling wine — it looked sweet), I can report that the beer was nicely chilled. As for the tapas… well, as the saying goes — when at El Xampanyet, eat little fish!

      We ordered up some anchovies, which our waitress plucked from a giant pile, rinsed under cold tap water, and arranged on a plate, with a light drizzle of vinegar. We enjoyed them on some tomato bread, or pa amb tomaquet, which is toasted bread rubbed with tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil. Eaten straight the anchovies were strong, too salty and fishy. Combining them with the tomato bread softened the flavors. The vinegar added a nice tang.

      Paco Meralgo (Carrer Mutaner, 171 (xamfra Corsega), Tel: 93 430 90 27, Dinner for two, including three glasses of wine: 57.80€) --

      Thanks to PBSF for this rec, including specific dishes. Loved this elegant sit-down (there are counters and stools) tapas restaurant in Eixample. The tomato bread here had a thick, crunchy crust and chewy crumb and was drizzled with a buttery olive oil.

      Clams were briefly cooked, small and sweet, tasting just like the sea air, prepared very plainly with only a drizzle of olive oil and squeeze of lemon. Chicken croquettes, or croquetes de pollo – crunchy, yet slightly creamy, salty, savory — are croquettes not the perfect food? Grilled vegetables, or variat de verdures, had a haunting, charred flavor and were drizzled with lashes of that delicious Spanish olive oil. Breaded baby lamb chops, or costelletes cabrit, were by far the weakest link. The breading was too thick, heavy and overwhelming, while the meat was tender, yes, but also too gristly. Also, the waiter upsold us on the lamb, suggesting we order two plates, when one would have sufficed. Perhaps we seemed extra hungry? Anyway, the lamb was a blip on an otherwise lovely meal.

      Cal Pep (Placa de les Olles, 88, Tel: 93 310 7961, Lunch for two, including 2 glasses of wine and 1 small bottle of water: 53.87€) --

      Cal Pep doesn’t have a menu, which I found intensely aggravating, particularly as a non-Hispanophone. Instead, they want you to do a “chef’s tasting,” where they bring you food until you say stop — a one-way ticket to A) overeating, and B) over-charging, in my opinion. (Also, how come none of the locals do this “chef’s tasting”? It’s all very fishy.)

      Thank goodness for poster Barcelonian, who tipped me off to this scheme, and then helpfully suggested specific dishes to order. I ordered EXACTLY what you suggested: taillarines, or teeny-tiny baby clams, sauteed quickly in butter and a salt-pepper-sugar mixture (I think) that my dad also uses on shrimp. The tortilla, cooked to order, possible the best of the trip — it was soft and slightly runny, “like a pudding,” said the waiter, studded with potato, perfumed with bits of chorizo, and quite simply decadent. And ternera, or steak, lightly grilled until rare, was tender, juicy with an intense beefiness.

      The steak was also 19.85€, and if I had known the price I probably wouldn’t have ordered it (especially since it was lunchtime), but since there are no menus at Cal Pep, I had nary a clue.

      My final verdict on Cal Pep? Very good, worth a visit. The tasting menu would even be fun if you’re very, very hungry. Though I did see several tourists looking quite simply overwhelmed by the parade of dishes that kept landing in front of them…

      Restaurante Cherif (Carrer Ginebra, 15, Tel: 93 319 6984, Soupy lobster paella for two: 40€) --

      Thanks once again to Barcelonian for suggesting this seafood eatery in Barceloneta. Here we tucked into paella, or rather soupy paella, arroz caldoso: rice and unshelled lobster swimming in a rich, seafoody, saffron-y, stock. The broth had a deep, warm flavor, the rice was tender, the lobster sweet, the soupiness soothing — another unexpected yet delightful taste of Spain.

      Photos on my blog here: http://annmah.net/2009/02/12/dining-o...

      1. re: Cookingthebooks

        Thanks for the great posts. You ate well in Barcelona. Too bad that the baby lamb at Paco Meralgo was too heavily breaded. It was like that the last time I had it but before, it was always very light and crispy.. Seems to be a bad trend. Thanks for pointing that out; will have to cross that item from my ordering.

        1. re: Cookingthebooks

          I'm so glad you liked my suggestions! You chose some of my favorite places. The language barrier surely exists at many places in Barcelona and you do tend to miss out on some of the best dishes when you can't communicate well - I do think you made some great choices though! I'm amazed by how cheap your meal was at Cal Pep - it would have been around 100 euros or so easily had you gone with the "guiri" menu - or "chef's tasting menu for tourists." I'm glad you took my advice and had a great time (eating at least) in my favorite city (and husband's hometown).

          1. re: Barcelonian

            I'm using this list as my Barcelona shortlist for late April, so thanks to CTB for writing it up all in one place

            1. re: mr_gimlet

              Barcelonian -- thanks again for the wonderful suggestions! I loved your suggestions so much, I think we are "foodie kindred spirits!"

              Mr Gimlet -- thanks for the kind words. I can assure you that you won't go wrong with PBSF or Barcelonian's suggestions. Also, lots of other great tips on this thread, including places I didn't get to... Next time...

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585898

              1. re: Cookingthebooks

                Cookingthebooks - Thank you so much for your posts. Especially about your experience in Barcelona. It looks like we may be there in the middle of April and without much notice to do research. We will be driving from France/ Languedoc where my brother lives. I am a bit worried about the language barrier for ordering in restaurants also. I am looking for hotels right now and would love to have some good choices for reasonable food.
                We will probably be there 2 or 3 nights. I am hanging onto every post I can find on Chowhound. Barcelonian and PBSF are good resources and I love hearing about your recent experience. If you have any more advice, I am watching for it.

                1. re: HTP

                  Check out Frodnesor, too; he just returned with very detailed posts. He also has a blog, which he mentions in his posts. I'll be there in a week through April 9; maybe we'll run into you!

                  1. re: Shooley

                    I appreciate that you included the costs of your meals in your reports, CTB. When I was researching for my way-too-short weekend in Barca, it was sometimes difficult to ascertain if some places would fit into the budget or not!

                    Also, definitely check out Frod's reports as he is one of the most well respected hounds on the Florida boards and is a great food writer.

                  2. re: HTP

                    Thanks, HTP. I hope you have a wonderful trip. We loved our hotel, the AC Diplomatic -- very quiet, yet poised perfectly between Las Ramblas and Eixample. We ate breakfast almost every day at Ciudad Condal -- sort of an all-day "diner" affair, where people come and go, from breakfast to midnight snack. I hope you'll report back with your experiences!

                2. re: mr_gimlet

                  Also check out Bar Pinotxo at the Boqueria for a great, quick snack. We had two really great meals at Can Culleretes as well. Man, if only I could bring back with me that Caneloni stuffed with cod-fish mousse and spinach-cream-cheese sauce with their 6 euro liter of sangria. Superb!

                3. re: Barcelonian

                  Barcelonian,

                  Thanks so much for your food recommendations in Barcelona. I went this past September with my boyfriend and Restaurant Sant Joan was the best. We went there twice on our trip and were lucky enough to have their Thursday special which was paella for 6 euros I believe. I only wish they opened for dinner as well. We met the owner Joan and his daughter who made the wonderful desserts. They were both lovely. We basically deferred to their recommendations and were not once disappointed.

                  I posted my reviews of my favorite Barcelona food picks on the blog link below.
                  http://youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.c...
                  Shortlist was restaurant Sant Joan for the Catalan meals, La Pallaresa for the chocolate and churros, and Kiosko Universal (in La Boqueria) for the seafood. Apart from the Kiosko Universal, there's a big bakery in the heart of the La Boqueria (two parallel glass cases filled with goodies) that has a delicious muffin filled with custard and topped with thin slices of baked apple. If you get there first thing in the morning (8am, I think), the muffins come fresh out of the oven. My boyfriend also stopped by Cafe Viena to get the flauta iberico (iberian ham sandwich) hyped by NYT Mark Bittman and found it well, over hyped. Place was crowded even first thing in the weekday morning and not cheap (8 Euros) for a few flimsy pieces of iberico ham slipped into a baguette.

                  Overall, we wanted the best food for the buck and managed to get to around 8-15 euros per entree at Sant Joan and Kiosko, which in Barcelona was tough to accomplish given the weak US dollar and how much prices were inflated for tourists. Especially coming from Los Angeles where we're spoiled with a range of great food choices from 5 star to hole in the walls, we couldn't justify grossly overpaying for something that would cost us the price of a plane ticket, so we gravitated towards any places that offered soulful, authentic local cuisine which we generally prefer anyways.

                  1. re: chungking

                    Thanks for this post! Kiosko Universal is a real gem. Went there for my first lunch in Barcelona. We split a mixed grilled vegetable plate, which included nicely-charred eggplant, red and green peppers, mushrooms (WOW! so good!) and (I think) carrots. Fantastic. We also had the calamares al la plancha, which were grilled and doused in an addictive garlic sauce and served atop fried potato or yucca (not sure....leaning toward potato). Two glasses of white wine as well, and the bill came to 21 Euro with tip. The service at the counter was brisk but patient and good-humored. The chalkboard menu is also translated into English, for those who may be wondering.

                    The other dishes, from razor clams to whole fish, looked fantastic as well. The only slight turnoff was that they do use the microwave to reheat some things. This was fine for our grilled vegetables, but I felt bad for my neighbor whose fried fish filet in gravy (lunch special) got zapped. He seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

                4. re: Cookingthebooks

                  On the basis of CTBs listing, I hunted down a couple of the recommended places in Barcelona. I couldn't get into most of the tapas places due to poor planning so this review is solely about Sant Joan.

                  Arrived at 1345 and waited about 15 mins for a table to be cleared. Menu is up on a board and is easily decoded with the help of the Chow spanish food spreadsheet. No shellfish (mrs_g can't eat it anyway) and amongst the meat and fish dishes were a couple of offal dishes (fried brains, tripe with chickpeas).

                  We ordered a plate of artichokes which were in season, a sliced pork loin with caramelised onions, and a superb piece of hake. Dessert was cheese for me, and orange pudding (a sort of spongey tart) for mrs_g. Half bottle of wine and water. Total E32, chesse and hake were comparatively expensive so easy to keep under 30. All were just superb - a great meal at a great price. Someone came out of the kitchen later on to take the dessert orders and practice their english, so I was asked to translate membrillo which came with my cheese.

                  We were thinking about cherif, but as mentioned mrs_g can't abide shellfish. We ended up in gracia on one of the plazas for sunday lunch and looked for the busiest place - grilled veggies with romesco sauce, the salt cod salad with the xs in the name, and an arroz caldosa with rabbit and artichokes. (Hence the cherif link in my mind). No dessert, we went to plaza de la revolucion and had ice cream in the sun. Bottle of wine, total E50. On leaving we were complimented by an adjacent table for our selection of the restaurant and our ordering. Not sure why.

                  1. re: Cookingthebooks

                    Paco Meralgo is excellent. Thanks so much for your report, which is helping to guide us in Barcelona this week. Here's my run down on PM: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5858...

                    Question: I'd like to try another one of your recs, since you haven't led us astray once. Do you think there's enough food at El Xampanyet that someone who's avoiding gluten could eat? I cannot eat bread, flour, or breadcrumbs...any clues as to whether I can eat things on the menu there?

                    Thanks in advance for the advice.

                    1. re: Cookingthebooks

                      reading your above post (Barcelona Part 2) is like reading my itinerary that I am putting together for our trip the end of March, my only concern is we will be there Easter Week, so I am not sure the schedule of establishments and expect starting on Good Friday to Easter Sunday things might come to a hault.

                  2. Thanks, everyone, for these posts. We're traveling to Barcelona in May and will definitely bring a print-out of these recs. And if anyone has any add'l recs, I'm all ears. We're mainly interested in dining where the locals eat, with perhaps 1 or 2 splurge restaurants. We are both fluent in Spanish, so language shouldn't be an issue. We also plan to take some short road trips to the coast and to some of the outlying towns; any recommendations for good dining options within a couple hours' drive might just help us decide on our itinerary! We particularly love good seafood (we live in coastal Florida and have pretty high standards when it comes to seafood).

                    On a side note, any recommendations on good, moderately-priced hotels in Barcelona and environs? Also, if you were a tourist, which part of town would you stay in?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: laurie

                      Barri Gotic or El Born/Sant Pere for sure. Barcelona is a large city, so you can end up doing lots of walking if you stay too far out. check Tripadvisor.com

                    2. Here are a few more recs/warnings for Barcelona, in addition to comments I made above.

                      1) Avoid, avoid: Margarita Blue (in the Gothic Quarter). This Tex-Mex joint won positive reviews on various travel websites ("best mojito"; "good food"), but it stank. I should have known better than to eat anywhere where the house cocktail is a swimming-pool colored frozen margarita with blue curacao. We had a hard time flagging down a server, and the drinks she brought were just OK (daquiri and classic margarita). They were kind enough to accommodate my gluten-free needs, but the food was just so lackluster and disappointing. My ropa vieja was a soupy, obviously-reheated-in-the-microwave mess served with basmati rice. DH had an awful, tiny chicken enchilada that did not taste fresh at all. The chicken was large slices of flavorless breast meat, and the enchilada sauce tasted, he said, like doctored ketchup. The cheese was definitely of the gouda rather than jack or cheddar variety. Portions were also tiny, and after paying the overpriced bill, we both concluded there was no love going into any of the food.

                      2) Also rather bad: a little wine bar/cafe down the block from the wonderful Harlem Jazz Club. This place specializes (again) in overpriced "Mexican" food. Two bad glasses of cheap red wine and an overly-generous plate of bitter, cumin-spiced (!) olives later, we were done. The tomato bread was also not to be recommended. Too bad the food sucks, because the atmosphere is fun; the walls are plastered with paintings by local artists. But 6.95 Euro for chips and guacamole? I don't think so. I'll update with the name of this restaurant when I find it.

                      3) Finally, a positive review: Props to Let's Go Guide for leading us to a wonderful seafood restaurant in the Porto Vello (Barceloneta) area. Kaiku is a moderately-priced restaurant with paper tablecloths, a terrace view of the beach, and a spastic, opinionated head waiter. After we ordered, they brought us a small pile of fried yucca, dusted with fresh oregano, to whet the appetite. DH was pleased with his Menu del Dia (smashed potatoes with cabbage, garlic, and bacon to start, main entree of tiny fried white fish). I ordered the "black rice" AKA squid-ink paella with seafood. The server tried to discourage me from ordering it because it took 30 minutes to prepare, but I was not deterred. It was worth the wait for perfectly tender rice, juicy bits of fresh octopus, whole mussels, and a few shrimp. That said, I did not appreciate the server's overly dramatic refusal to bring me hot sauce. I understand pride in traditional foods, and I appreciate that paella is a subtle dish, but ultimately, lecturing someone on how to eat a particular food "properly" is just rude. Go ahead and give me your two cents, but please, let me eat what tastes good to me. It's about enjoyment, no? He also made a big deal of pointing out how he accidentally-on-purpose "forgot" to bring me hot sauce when he brought the check, which was off-putting. Enough already.

                      All that said, we had a nice lunch with a beautiful view, a glass of wine and a lemon soda for 35 Euro, including tip. I've had better service, but I've had worse, too. Overall, it was worth it.

                      1. I'm delighted you found Taberneros - I recommended it on another thread; fab isn't it!