Trip Report: Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian
DAY 1, Museo de Jamon, Chocolateria San Gines, Casa Lucas, Giangrossi:
After wandering around Gran Via, Plaza del Sol, and the Plaza Mayor, my stomach was calling to me. We accidentally stumbled upon one of the Museo de Jamon locations. Of course, a bocadillo de jamon was required. How can you pass it up, with all those hams hanging in the window?
Ate standing up at the counter, across from the retail area, with some Spaniards on their lunch break (love how these fellows stand up drinking beers and eating jamon sandwiches while in three piece suits in the 80 degree weather).
The bread was not that great, but our first real meal in Madrid being a jamon sandwich? Not too shabby. The bread was better on subsequent visits. The price was right and it was extraordinarily convenient to the some of the main tourist attractions.
What next? I not to subtly steered us towards the famous Chocolateria San Gines for some churros and hot chocolate. My preference is for the ridged churros and these did not disappoint. The hot chocolate is hot, thick, and barely sweetened (they provide a packet of sugar if you like yours sweeter). The churros were obviously made fresh, because they were too hot to touch when placed upon the table. Delicious, and a great destination, popular with locals and tourists, for sure. (Many places do not make their churros to order, and they sit around, becoming heavy grease bombs by mid-day.) We returned to San Gines multiple times during our stay.
After some more wandering around and sightseeing in the hot sun, dinner was on the Calle Cava Baja in the La Latina neighborhood, a short walk from our hotel. The first stop was Casa Lucas, a place I'd read about on some blogs. We lucked out and scored a table towards the back. The server gave us an English version of the menu, and recommended about one pincho and one racion per person.
Our dinner consisted of started with some very good chorizo on toast (complimentary if you order a drink I think). Next up were some "pinchos caliente" that looked good on the menu. Essentially we ordered a bunch of meat and onions on toast. The Madrid pincho consisted of scrambled egg, blood sausage, onion, and sweet tomato jam with pine nuts -- sweet, meaty, savory, and delicious, but heavy. The Alella pincho was described as chicken in soy sauce with red onion, and corn mousse with sesame oil. The chicken was served as one big piece (probably breast meat), and a bit dry and bland in the middle, but the combination of chicken and onion was very good, if a little heavy on the onion.
Croquettas of Jamon Serrano were excellent and freshly fried. They were delicately crisp on the outside, the breading wasn't too thick, and they were moist and creamy on the inside. Definitely one of the better specimens of croquetta we tried (the best probably being Paco Meralgo in Barcelona and the worst probably being the thickly breaded grease bombs from La Cepa in San Sebastian -- though their other food was excellent). They also included 6 croquettas per order (quite generous) and shoestring fries on top.
Creamy rice with wild mushroom, foie, and poached egg was also excellent, and from the raciones portion of the menu. The portion was a bit too large for us, but I loved the combination of mushroom, egg, and foie together with the rice. Nice meaty chunks of mushroom were scattered throughout, and who doesn't like a poached egg or some foie gras? This dish would have been wonderfully satisfying in the winter, but felt a bit out of place in the hot Spanish summer (this would soon become a common theme).
Dessert was a scoop of dulce de leche at Argentinean ice cream shop Giangrossi. It boasts free wireless Internet, air conditioning, a modern interior, and was set up more like a cocktail bar with a counter and lounge than what we would consider to be a typical ice cream parlor in the USA. The dulce de leche was good and they had both regular dulce de leche and "homemade" dulce de leche, which was a little bit chunkier and sweeter. We stuck with the regular. Not the best ice cream ever but it certainly hit the spot.
DAY 2, Chocolateria Valor, Cafe Prado, La Camarilla:
Breakfast at Chocolateria Valor: churros and chocolate, again. Valor is a Spanish chocolatier whose bars and bonbons that I spotted in supermarkets and other places during our trip. Their hot chocolate was very good: thick, creamy. Their hot chocolate is a little bit sweeter than San Gines' version, which I appreciated since that's my preference. But their churros were only so-so. Thick round tubes that appeared to have been fried and sat around for a while. Oh, well. The chocolate made up for it.
Lunch was a simple bocadillo of jamon iberico at the museum cafe at the Prado. Simple, tasty, good. The jamon was excellent and the bread was definitely better than what Museo de Jamon served. Oh, the many bocadillos of jamon we would eat on this trip.
Dinner: back to La Latina. This time to La Camarilla. Our aching feet warranted table service, yet again, although the bar area did have some people enjoying drinks and bites. We chose to order from the tapas menu, instead of the regular menu.
The croquettas de jamon were good, although a less generous portion than Casa Lucas. My husband was craving fish, so we ordered salmon tartare with avocado on toast. The salmon was soft and silky, as was the avocado. This was tasty but didn't feel especially Spanish to me. The beef carpaccio served with parmesan and baby arugula was unbalanced. It seemed excessively citrus-y, so much that it overwhelmed the other flavors on the plate. We didn't finish it, and instead focused on the excellent cheese plate served with warm goat cheese, a nicely stinky blue cheese, and what I think were Majon and Manchego, and accompanied by walnuts and golden raisins. Simple but really satisfying. A less successful meal than Casa Lucas but reminded me how good Spanish cheese can be.
Coming up: lunch at Casa Lucio, more tapas at Tempranillo and Txirmimi, a partially disappointing meal at Cerveceria Cervantes, cocktails at Del Diego and Makita, and more churros with chocolate.
Day 3, Casa Lucio, Taberna al Tempranillo, Makita, Chocolateria San Gines:
A late lunch at Casa Lucio. Famous. Popular. We were kept waiting about 15 minutes after our reservation for a table but given the number of people lingering, I wasn't surprised. We had a decently sized lunch of their specialty, huevos estrellados, and shared a portion of roast suckling pig. This was perfectly the right amount for two people. Any more, and there would have been too much food. The huevos estrellados are "broken" (scrambled) eggs served with melted cheese over french fries. I was pleasantly surprised that the french fries retained their crispness under the eggs and cheese.
It should be noted that when I read the descriptions online of "scrambled eggs" I was expecting eggs that had been beaten beforehand, but apparently in Spain the style is to cook scrambled eggs sunny side up on the griddle, and then break the yolks while they are still runny. Not really better or worse, just different.
Dinner was a series of fabulous toasts at Taberna al Tempranillo, a marked level up from Casa Lucas and La Camarilla. Cecina (air dried beef) drizzled with good, fruity olive oil was perfect. We also enjoyed fried egg topped with asparagus, pate topped with a sweet onion marmalade, blue cheese topped with endive and jamon, and zucchini with a white cheese melted on top. I think the pate and cecina ones were my favorite but they were all delicious. We also ordered one of the daily specials: juicy tender, sweet chipporones a la plancha, with fresh tarragon, and grilled artichoke hearts. The artichoke hearts were a little tough and stringy, but can be hard to avoid. Our server was also quick to guide us with menu translations and recommended a delicious Rioja for my husband. The atmosphere is a bit more modern and sleek than some of its neighbors, and it has a stunning wine rack that takes over the entire wall behind the bar.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Taberna al Tempranillo based upon our meal there and look forward to returning. (It would have been my favorite tapas place we tried in Madrid but then we tried Txirimiri the next night.)
Following dinner we had some nice drinks at Makita, a short walk away. The atmosphere was quite charming, as was the solo bartender working. Based upon our two drinks (something with whiskey and coffee and a Kir Royale), I would say that the style tends towards the sweet. The menu had a number of sweet dessert-ish concoctions. Nowhere near the mixology you'd find at, say, Death & Co in NYC, but a pleasant excursion nonetheless and it is very near the Royal Palace, which is stunning at night. Guests also appear to receive a complimentary cookie plate with their drinks.
Fed the chocolate and churros addiction at Chocolateria San Gines (just as good the second time), then off to bed.
Day 4 Bar Majaderitos, Cervecería Cervantes, Txirimiri, Del Diego:
An OK breakfast, a not so good lunch, followed by a very good dinner and cocktails.
Bar Majaderitos for churros with chocolate. This was recommended in a Rick Steves guide. The chocolate was pretty good but not as good as other places. The churros were being batch fried by an older gentlemen in the back. So they had definitely been made within the hour but were not freshly fried to order. An OK breakfast, but you can do better at San Gines if you crave churros.
For lunch after the Reina-Sofia museum, I took the advice of a Maribel's guide and went to Cervecería Cervantes. Fine atmosphere, filled to the brim with people, but the food left something to be desired. Peel and eat shrimp with heads on were far too salty. Basically inedible. And I like salty food! We did not finish our plate and left about half the shrimp remaining. (Was the excessive salt hiding something, like less than stellar quality? Hard to tell.) A platter of chorizo was good but nothing special. We also ordered a tostada of solomillo which was a little overcooked and not all that flavorful (again, nothing special). Our final dish was the salpicon of mariscos which looked great (a cold salad of cooked shrimp, mussels, other shellfish, and red bell pepper chunks) but was far too acidic to eat on its own. Every single dish seemed a little out of whack in terms of seasoning and balance! Service was fine but rushed given the sheer number of people dining and it had a nice atmosphere, but I would not return to Cervecería Cervantes.
Dinner was a far, far better experience. Txirimiri was loud, crowded, and buzzing with energy when we arrived. No tables were to be had without a long wait, so we squeezed into a corner of the bar area. They had a number of preassembled/cooked pinchos on the counter under glass for people to order, but I was far more interested in their menu of Basque food, written on a chalkboard. We snacked on tiny pitted green olives and studied the menu, filled with creative dishes like hamburger with wild mushroom salsa, spider crab cannelones, mini vegetable rolls with soy and honey, black lasagna with broccoli rabe and langostines? Something I crudely translated as Iberico "secret" with potato confit? We pondered and ordered, and wondered why we'd left this spot for our last night in Madrid.
Our dinner: seared foie gras on toast was excellent and served with a fig marmalade. Rich and creamy, hot and sweet, an excellent start. Croquettas of wild mushroom with truffle were also crisp, rich and creamy, and served right out of the fryer. A salad of lettuce, tomato, and carmelized goat cheese was amazing. Perfectly dressed. Wonderfully sweet tomatoes. A crispy top to the round of goat cheese that hid a mountain of creamy warm goodness beneath. I sincerely believe that you can make friends with this salad. The duck confit cannelones were also quite good but heavy due to the gravy-like sauce that it was swimming in. Good but a bit much as our last dish, however, I couldn't help dunking my bread into the sauce afterwards. Creative and delicious! Txirimiri looks like an ordinary bar but ends up being quite gourmet.
Our last stop for the night was the Del Diego cocktail bar. Also loud and crowded, with every available bar stool and lounge seat taken, in addition to people standing anywhere they could. Only waiter service despite having so many patrons standing. Although I guess it helps with people having to wade through the crowds to get to the bar. Husband had what he described as the best caipirinha he's had since our trip to Mexico a few years back, whereas I had an excellent gin fizz. The menu is populated mostly with the classics: . The bartenders there are fun to watch as they mainly use wooden mallets to crush and crack ice, and muddled drinks seem to be their specialty. (Cocktail nerds should note that they mostly freepour in Spain but fresh citrus is the rule, not the exception.) I could see myself returning time and time again, especially since we were staying on the Gran Via, only a short walk away.
Next up: through the foodie gauntlet of Barcelona. Paco Meralgo, Dry Martini, Boqueria, Bar Pinotxo, Quimet i Quimet, Cinc Sentits, Cacao Sampaka, Tapac24, Hisop, Escriba, Inopia, La Granja, and Cafe Viena.
Day 5: Random travel eating and dinner at Paco Meralgo
We took a short flight to Barcelona from Madrid and while waiting, noshed upon more bocadillos de jamon iberico at the airport. I also noticed a plethora of tapas bars inside the terminal, as well as multiple espresso counters and orange juice machines. I can get a freshly squeezed juice or a plate of paella or a jamon iberico sandwich at the airport! Instead of a prepackaged, lifeless salad or sandwich. The food options at so many US airports already leave much to be desired, but this is just shameful.
Dinner was at Paco Meralgo (a pun in Spanish, apparently, "pa comer algo," get it?) one of the few spots in Barcelona open on Sundays. A bit of an upscale, modern, sleek tapas place with very high quality seafood that also took reservations. We arrived and claimed two seats at the counter in the non-smoking section, and soon enough, a line formed behind us.
Croquettas of jamon were hot, delicate, light, crisp, and creamy. Perhaps the canonical example of what a croquetta should be. Just perfect, having exited the fryer moments before. Not greasy or heavy at all, which surprised me. The Padron peppers were also excellent, sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, and blistered. These also arrived steaming hot to our seats, too hot to eat at first.
Next up was an excellent specimen of pan con tomate. These weren't on the menu, but I saw order after order come out of the kitchen and knew we needed a portion of our own. Good, crispy, toasted bread, rubbed generously with a sweet, fruity tomato, and glistening with olive oil. Soaked enough with tomato goodness, it turned orange. The party next to us inquired about the dish in Spanish and one of the staff brought out the secret: really good tomatoes, still on the vine. From what I could overhear and understand, they use only the juiciest part of the flesh, with the tomatoes at their peak.
Then: La Bomba. A spicy potato fritter that looked like a giant, round croquetta. Also excellent and not overdressed (which was a problem of other bombas I saw and tried at other restaurants). Then, razor clams a la plancha with a squirt of lemon and drizzle of good olive oil. These were hot, sweet, and meaty. We also tried an excellent seared foie gras on toast, drizzled in what I think was a balsalmic reduction, but wasn't quite sure. In any case, it was good but not quite as good as the Txirimi version we'd had the night before.
And to finish, two excellent Spanish desserts: a crema Catalana (like a thinner creme brulee but not as sweet) for me and a torrija (similar to a thick French toast, crisp and creamy with a touch of cinnamon) for the husband. Both were good, if a little rich, but thankfully not too sweet. Overall, an excellent meal, and I would gladly go back to try more of their seafood wares.
I forgot to mention that on Day 5, we stopped off at Dry Martini for some cocktails.
Day 5: Dry Martini
We loved the atmosphere and service at this old school cocktail bar. The menu situation kind of flummoxed me at first. Printed booklets at every table had lists of specialty gin and tonics and specialty martinis, with no other drinks listed. Our wonderful server recommended two different gin and tonics. My husband had an excellent one that was heavy on the mint, whereas mine was more of a straight up gin and tonic with lots of lime.
Apparently for mine, the process is that the drink is built in the glass, piling on many layers, and then the drinker is expected to stir everything together.
The drinks came in giant cocktail glasses. Far larger than the 4-5 oz. coupes and highball glasses I'm used it in NYC's premiere cocktail lounges, and they were startlingly cold. Almost too cold! Too cold to hold. They got easier to drink as the giant ice melted a bit. But a single drink was more than enough alcohol for me.
Nice place that I liked a lot, just not what I had expected, which was something more like Del Diego in Madrid.
Day 6, brunch at Bar Pinotxo, wandering the Boqueria, dinner at Quimet i Quimet, dessert at Gelateria Pagliotta:
First tourist stop: the Boqueria. I had my eye on two stools at Bar Pinotxo. Despite the crowds and hot weather, the cheerful owner was full of winks and smiles for his waiting patrons. Luckily, there were seats to be had within 15-20 minutes. A bottle of cold water for me. A freshly squeezed orange juice for my husband. And to eat? A delicious pile of garbanzo beans with blood sausage. Perfectly cooked. Meaty. Savory, and a bit salty. Two kinds of croquettas: mushroom and what I think was squid. Delicious! And a pile of scrambled eggs sauteed with tender zucchini, sweet tiny wild mushrooms, meaty shrimp and clams. A wonderful breakfast of fresh ingredients, with a charming owner to boot, who happily greeted visitors and took photographs with them.
Our hungers sated, we wandered the market, pushing past the throngs of people near the fruit stands in front, boggling at the variety of fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, seafood, candy, nuts, chili peppers, a feast for the eyes, with hanging jamon legs everywhere.
Dinner was a tour of delicious preserved seafood at Quimet i Quimet. We arrived just in time to claim a few square feet at the bar, near the entrance, and I asked for a selection of montaditos from the efficient barman. (Strangely the menu is not posted at the bar, but behind you if you're standing there.)
What followed was a wonderful tour through their beautiful selection of ingredients on crispy toast, wonderful drinking food.
Goat cheese with luscious tomato and caviar, shining with olive oil, and herbs (looked like tiny bits of arugula flower) on crispy toast. A thick smear of pate on toast, topped with mushrooms, olive oil, and a drizzle of thick, sweet balsamic vinegar. A mountain of bacalao, tomato, and olivada (a gooety paste of black olives, oil, and garlic), topped with chopped green olives. Tiny baby squid on a bed of carmelized onions, with more balsalmic on top. Boquerones (white Spanish anchovies) with a dried tomato paste and chopped green olives. Dark anchovies with sweet red bell pepper and more chopped green olives on top. All fantastic combinations of tastes and textures.
The friendly barman inquired if we wanted more. I spotted some cecina in the prep area and ordered a wonderful montadito of cecina, onion, balsalmic, and more dried tomato paste. Fabulous.
Next I knew I had to order one of their most popular items: a montadito of smoked salmon, yogurt cheese, drizzled with honey and more balsalmic vinegar. Reminded me of New York's smoked salmon on a bagel with a cream cheese smear. My husband liked this montadito so much, we ordered another, then another. Then another toast of pate with onions and balsalmic, and sadly our stomachs could take no more although I was eyeing other people's cheese plates and plates of preserved seafood. We stumbled out of Quimet i Quimet into the darkening sidewalk, full and happy.
We ambled back towards the direction of our hotel but took a detour into the Barri Gothic to sample some gelato at Gelateria Pagliotta. We wandered inside and a very friendly staffer there let us know that the indoor gelato counter contains only those flavors that are prepared without added sugar. Instead, we wanted back outside, and ordered from the sidewalk (the counter is really an opening to the sidewalk). My melon sorbet was cool and refreshing, tasting of fresh honeydew, not too sweet. And my strawberry gelato was outstanding -- quite intense. My husbands hazelnut chocolate was also very good, but I enjoyed my fruit flavors more.
Day 7: Breakfast at Bar Pinotxo, the Sensations tasting menu at Cinc Sentits, and dinner at Tapac24.
Back to Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria for breakfast. This time we were treated to veal stew alongside our garbanzo beans with sausage. It was a little difficult to communicate with the owner, who kept pressing us to get jamon sandwiches, but eventually he asked if we wanted seafood or meat. Our answer of "meat" lead to a rich, hearty veal stew with potatoes and peas. Tasty but a little unseasonal given the heat and humidity of the Barcelona summer!
We kept lunch light so that we were ready to experience the Sensations tasting menu at Cinc Sentits, which was excellent overall.
Olives, olive breadstick, marcona almonds to start. Nicely crisp olive breadsticks. And of course, high quality Spanish olives and almonds.
The first amuse was house marinated, pimiento-stuffed "gordal" olive. Savory, fruity, all in a great looking oversized olive package. I used to dislike olives. No more.
Then the Cinc Sentits shot. Maple syrup, chilled cream, cava sabayon and rock salt. Tip it into your mouth and wait for the salt to float down. Then boom! An explosion of sweet, salty, creamy deliciousness. This shot is for anybody who's ever dipped their bacon into their maple syrup at breakfast. My husband was on Cloud 9 after trying this.
The first real course was their "Pa amb tomàquet" -- a take on pan con tomate. Heirloom tomatoes, toasted peasant bread, arbequina olive oil, garlic air, "fuet." The tomato component was a soft, subtly delicious tomato sorbet which contrasted nicely with the foamy garlic air and crispy croutons. I loved this almost as much as regular pan con tomate. Clever and delicious.
The foie gras "coca" was also heavenly. A creamy fatty strip of foie gras, glued onto a crispy layer of pastry, topped with charred leeks? Yes, please. The pastry bottom was excellent and stayed crisp throughout, and textural combination of the soft foie gras and pastry shattering in your mouth was unbelievable.
"Arroz a banda" was also another riff on a classic dish: paella. You could smell this dish as it arrived from the kitchen. A ball of crispy ball with baby squid, on top of a saffron sauce. The grilled baby squid were tiny, magical, and tender. No rubbery squid here, and paired wonderfully with the fragrant saffron. The crispy rice ball was fun to eat and also delicious, and the crisp crust ensured that every bite had some of the tender rice and some of the breading. Also excellent.
Wild Mediterranean John Dory with fresh spring peas and garlic sauce was, in comparison, merely competent. The sweet fresh peas were perfectly cooked, as was the fish, but the dish seemed a little pedestrian in concept in comparison to the "pa amb tomàquet" or foie gras "coca" or "arroz a banda." Not that it tasted bad, by any stretch of the imagination. Just a little out of place, I thought.
But all would soon be forgiven with the Iberican suckling pig! My heavens. A beautiful, fatty rectangle of succulent, tender pork, topped on two sides with skin. This is one of the tastiest pieces of pork I've ever had the pleasure to eat. Gives Eleven Madison Park and Momofuku a run for the money. Perfectly crispy skin on top! And the fatty, moist, flavorful pork melted in your mouth. What are they feeding these pigs in Spain? How can they taste so good? I savored every last bit of this dish despite feeling quite full by this point. I still think about the pork.
Next were some simple palate cleansers: a refreshing mint sorbet that tasted strongly of fresh spearmint (one of my favorite herbs ever) on a gelee (I think perhaps vodka?). My husband received a small cheese plate with fresh pear and honey and a tiny square of toast. Good but I preferred my sorbet. Simple but does what it does very well.
The first dessert was stewed apricots which reminded me of a very thick apricot jam. The apricots were accompanied by chamomile ice cream, pistachio cake, crushed carquinyolis. Not too sweet or heavy, and the chamomile ice cream was excellent. Overall, a harmonious and pleasing dessert, but not exemplary.
The second dessert was more my style. Chocolate. Specifically chocolate grand cru 67%, done as a mousse. Delicious and milky (though I prefer my chocolate a little richer and darker and not quite so creamy). What really brought the dish to life was the olive oil ice cream and shattered bread on top, and healthy dose of sea salt, with macadamias hidden underneath the mousse. The "shattered bread" didn't do that much for me, but didn't detract from the experience. The salt and olive oil ice cream really came together, and the crunchy nuts were perfect.
We finished with coffee and petit fours. A cortado for me, and a cafe con leche for my husband. The coffee service presents sugar in an interesting way: several varieties, included a vanilla sugar, presented in test tubes. The petit fours were an orange blossom tea cake (very moist and floral), and mango-papaya mousse with whipped coconut cream. These were fine. But the chocolate-olive oil-salt dessert was still my favorite.
After our three hour lunch, we walked around the city a bit until we finally became hungry. For dinner, I had my eye set on Tapac 24.
At Tapac24, we seated ourselves and waited a little bit until the busy servers noticed us (a little annoying). The menu was entirely in Catalan, and I translated and ordered the best I could.
The famous "Bikini Commerç 24" was exactly as advertised. A grilled cheese sandwich with truffle and jamon. A little messily presented, and I thought the bread was a little thin and soft, but overall, it was pretty good.
Pan con tomate was alright, a little too heavy on the olive oil -- could have used more tomato, I imagine? Our portion may have also cooled off too much.
Pimientos de Padron were excellent. Blistered to the point of becoming quite dark, exactly as I like it. We are thoroughly addicted to these little peppers.
The McFoie burger was tasty. I thought it interesting that although it is supposedly a burger, it visually looked more like some sort of non-Western pita or pocket. My husband loved this dish, I thought it was quite good but was expecting a little more due to the hype. Providing alioli as a dipping sauce is quite clever, though.
Croquettas and bombas were fine, although the croquettas were a little bigger than I prefer, and the bombas felt a bit undersized and oversauced. But not bad. Overall, I wish I'd been more impressed with Tapac 24, but it was still a good meal, just not as amazing as I'd hoped it would be.