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.
Day 8, La Granja/Xurreria, Hisop, Escriba:
Breakfast: churros from a nameless xurreria and hot chocolate from a cafe a few doors down. I'd found some tips online that La Granja had some of the best hot chocolate in town, and they were right. Thick, delicious, and you could order it spicy, which my husband enjoyed. And there was a xurreria just down the street!
The xurreria was a little hole in the wall, operated by a single fellow, and fried fresh xurros on a regular basis. (They are located right next to a bookstore on Carrer Banys Nous, 8). They also had chocolate covered churros in the window, but I bought two packets of the fresh ones and ran back to La Granja to order some thick Spanich hot chocolate. A quite satisfying breakfast.
Our lunch at Hisop was to follow. Given that nothing could have lived up to the sensational tasting menu at Cinc Sentits, we were a little lighter and ordered a la carte.
First amuse: Raw oyster, vodka tonic foam, horseradish. This was interesting and refreshing but the horseradish was a little overpowering when you found it, as it was not really smoothly integrated into the foam.
Second amuse: sardine, with a spicy strawberry sauce and drizzle of soy reduction was excellent! I always forget how much I like the use of strawberry when applied as a component in a savory dish. The flavor combinations sounded odd but ended up being delicious.
Appetizers: My husband ordered a cherry "gazpacho" with tuna. The tuna component was a few generous, luscious chunks of barely cooked tuna belly (like big toro chunks), with some fresh and sweet red cherries. And the gazpacho was also very good - fruity and cold. My appetizer was also excellent. A modern take on shrimp with garlic. King prawns "al ajillo" -- firm and meaty shrimp with what I believe were chive blossoms and charred spring onions, in a complex sauce of many components: garlic, onion, and more. And the crunchy shrimp heads were presented on a separate plate, hot and filled with gooey innards.
Our mains did not fare quite so well. My husband's Iberian suckling pig with wild mushroom and perigordini was fine, but very heavy and just couldn't live up to Cinc Sentits' version. I'd warned him this might happen but he didn't see any other mains on the menu that he was interested in.
My scallops were interesting but ultimately disappointing because the flavors just didn't meld. Thinly sliced raw scallops placed upon a pile of carmelized onions, with caviar and chives sprinkled on top, surrounded by a lemongrass broth and pieces of fennel. With big pork belly chunks also in the mix. The raw scallops were meaty and delicate but overwhelmed by the taste of carmelized onions. And there was far too much caviar on the plate -- the briny caviar also threatened to overwhelm. Overall, there was just too much going on between the raw scallop, onion, caviar, lemongrass, fennel, chives and pork belly!
The portions were quite generous, and neither of us finished our places. We decided to skip desserts and go straight to the petit fours, which turned out to be pretty good. Toasted hazelnuts, grilled watermelon with a citrus powder, tonic jelly with gin spritzed on top, and chocolate truffles. There was also a tube of non-alcoholic gin and tonic. My favorite was the grilled watermelon.
Overall, our lunch at Hisop was good, but not great, mostly because our mains just didn't live up to the amuse and appetizers (which were excellent).
Afterwards, we wandered around the neighborhood, gradually making our way over to Escriba which I found to be very playful and overall, a delightful place of sweets and ideas. We were a little overwhelmed at first, but decided on a handful of bonbons to try. Our favorite was a mint leaf surrounded by a ring of dark chocolate. High quality, fresh mint plus good quality chocolate. We had 3 a piece because having the wherewithal to stop ourselves. I wish my language skills had been better because there were a good number of bonbons that I had no idea what was going to be inside.
Next up: an awesome dinner at Inopia.
As a fellow nyc area resident and somebody who respects your posts, I am reading your trip updates with great interest. My family and I are spending a week in Barcelona starting at the end of the month. Shame you didn't care much for Tapac24, as we will be in an apt. about 5 blocks from there.
If you don't mind, I have a few questions:
Is there any place in particular that we need to book right now, and if so, is it better for just the adults or will my 14 and 10 year olds enjoy it as well?
Did you get to La Pedrera at night for a drink? If so, can you just walk in or do you need to reserve/buy tickets?
Anything not in your reports that is just a must eat? Especially in L'Eixample.
Anyway, tyvm for the great report(s).
In Barcelona, the only meals we booked ahead were Cinc Sentits and Hisop, and we went for lunch, and the places were nearly empty since it was a weekday. Both seemed upscale but casual, not sure how teens/pre-teens would feel about them or what the atmosphere is like at night. Maybe the teens/pre-teens would be more comfortable at the tapas bars, the ice cream parlor/cafes at Escriba or Cacao Sampaka or the Boqueria food counters?
A lot of the "bistronomic" restaurants are in and around Eixample, so I would look up the competitors to Cinc Sentits/Hisop. Also in Eixample is Paco Meralgo which is a place I would definitely return to!
I had a few other destinations in Eixample that we never got around to were Jamonisimo, Ideal Cocktail Bar, Cerveceria Catalana, and Cremeria Toscana. I found the Time Out Barcelona and unlike.net spots very good for looking up reviews.
Unfortunately didn't get to La Pedrera for a drink! It was on my list but we only had a few days in Barcelona. I would LOVE to go back for a drink.
I've heard Tapac24 is good for breakfast, so maybe that would be better? There were some nice scrambled egg dishes coming out that I didn't get a chance to order. I would study up on the menu in English at home since I was so fried, I could barely translate from the Catalan in my addle-brained state...
Completely and utterly fabulous to have this guide and to come upon it just after you wrote it! I can't wait to spend some time perusing it for an upcoming trip. Thanks so much for sharing!
Did you hear of any towns outside /nearby Barcelona that are great to visit for food experiences?
We knew that we didn't have much time in Barcelona but I've got a detour to El Celler de Can Roca on my to do list for next time!
My husband is far more interested in the preserved seafood by the Espinaler he saw on No Reservations, located about an hour outside Barcelona. We might go to Vilasar de Mar to visit the Bodega on our next trip.
Day 8, continued: Inopia.
Inopia, Inopia, Inopia. How I love thee. How I hate the wait. The long lines. The crowd control barriers. The chalkboard of names that never seems to diminish. They are only open for dinner. They close off the chalkboard some time between 9:30pm and 10:00. The wait for two can be endless. But the food? Was it worth waiting for? Yes, yes, and yes.
The menu doesn't look like much, but when I turned and saw what others were eating, there was no denying the level of skill in the kitchen. Fried rabbit ribs and alioli. Salad of tomato and anchovy and onions. Single servings of warmed gooey cheese with a big jar of honey provided for drizzling. Sardine sandwiches. Skewers of lamb. Fried shrimp with the heads still attached. Where was my second stomach? How are we even supposed to choose? I did the best I could and still feel like we barely scratched the surface at Inopia.
First, an assortment of olives. Nutty. Briny. Salty. Delicious. Simple. I remember when I was a kindergartener, our teacher had us taste black olives (canned, boring, black olives) and green olives, and vote which tasted better. I hated both. I refused to vote. They didn't know what to do with me. I went for years thinking all olives tasted foul like those vile specimens. But Spanish olives? Really good Spanish olives? I'm in heaven.
Then some Gildas on toothpicks: anchovy (the good, Spanish kind, not too salty or fishy), wrapped around a green Manzilla olive, with some mild pickled Guindilla peppers. Simple, but the flavors meld together effortlessly.
Preserved Spanish Mussels in escabeche. Again, simple, chewy, delicious. The flavors might not be for everyone, but I could make a habit out of eating seafood out of cans, really.
And a buttery toast with herbs and fresh diced tomatoes on top? Majorcan "torrada" that was divine. So simple, it veers into obviousness, but it was magic in my mouth.
Pimientos de Padrón were next. Blistered and piping hot, charred to the point of near blackness, my husband and I swooned over these. Possibly the best version we ate in Spain. I have to believe these were deep-fried.
Pulpo a la Gallega served on a wooden board, swimming in olive oil, with generous amounts of paprika on top. Tender and juicy, it slid down our throats with surprising ease. My husband usually does not like octopus, but has become a convert after tasting it in Spain.
And patatas bravas at Inopia? Out of sight. A pile of fried potato pieces, topped with a generous amount of smoky, mouth-tingling hot sauce and garlicky, creamy alioli. Mix it all together. The smokiness of the hot sauce pulls it all together. Their version makes every other plate of patatas bravas look like a joke.
Their pan con tomate was simply okay in comparison. The bread was hearty, some sort of multigrain, sliced thick, and grilled. I appreciated the grilling but the texture wasn't what I look for in pan con tomate.
To finish: another game changer. A quartered pineapple, sliced, stem remaining. Oodles of lime zest sprinkled on top, and a a few generous squirts of molasses. The scent was intoxicating. The pineapple was sweet and fresh, and contrasted nicely with the molasses. I thought I was full but we wound up fighting for every last scrap. I probably could have eaten another portion, or at least tried to.
I could have spent all week here. But it was not to be, as the next morning we needed to wake up, pack up, grab something on the go (it ended up being the jamon sandwich at Cafe Viena that Bittman had hyped up in the New York Times), and drive to the final city on our itinerary: the gastronomical feat of Basque Country, San Sebastian... and yes, there would be more jamon. There would always be more jamon.
Day 9: Road trip and a very late dinner at La Cepa.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel (we loved that breakfast was included for all guests at the Casa Camper), I made my way to the Boqueria to gather some road trip supplies: a vacuum sealed packet of jamon iberico, some toasts in a bag, some cheese, and pre-cut fruit salad. Most of our picnic items were from La Masia de la Boqueria, who were very helpful. (Sidebar: Jamon Iberico is good road trip food, except for the part where you get that luscious jamon oil on your hands and you have nowhere to wash it off.)
Our quick lunch before grabbing out rental car was the jamon iberico sandwich from Cafe Viena on Las Ramblas, hyped by Bittman in the New York Times. Yes, it is a fast food joint, and yes, it's a little cheesy, but, hey, it's a good sandwich. Very good sandwich, decent bread, but maybe a little over-hyped by Mr. Bittman. Still, not bad.
After a long and scenic drive north to San Sebastian (punctuated only by stopping in Zaragoza at the Spain equivalent of a Best Buy called FNAC wherein my husband insisted we get an audio cable so that we could connect our iPods to the car stereo, then getting lost in Zaragoza, then failing to understand how to return to the highway in Zaragoza, sigh), we arrived late, a bit after sun had set.
Our late dinner at La Cepa was a few larger plates from their menu, ordered at their peculiar table set up. Each table had various snack items (like corn nuts?), in dividers, preserved under glass. Octopus Galician style was quite good, very fresh, and a generous portion to boot. I also enjoyed the squid cooked in its own ink with white rice. Simple but tender and juicy. The other two dishes stole the show, though. Jabugo ham, sliced, and draped over a big wedge of sweet honeydew melon. And a pile of eggs scrambled with dark and meaty wild mushrooms. Hearty, and satisfying.
We stumbled back to our hotel for a good night's sleep, conserving energy for the foodie gauntlet that was to come.
(The Hotel Maria Cristina is supposedly a five star establishment and the service was amazingly gracious and helpful. But the facilities are not as well-kept as they should be, and despite having requested a non-smoking room, smoke crept into our room from the hallway slowly each night we were there. I found myself with a slight sore throat each morning, which magically disappeared when we left San Sebastian! Figures.)
3-4 hours of kind of repetitive countryside, then all of a sudden beautiful, moist basque country, with confusing signage (some in Spanish, some in Basque). I think it took 5-6 hours total with the last hour being absolutely stunning.
Driving around Basque country was gorgeous but at sometimes it got kind of foggy so it becomes a bit more dangerous, especially at night. Especially when the GPS unit got confused by recent repaving in San Sebastian or lost its satellites near Extebarri. We definitely got lost trying to get to Mugaritz and to Extebarri. Arzak was very easy in comparison. We were going to try to get to the Guggenheim Bilbao and restaurant inside but my poor husband, who did all the driving, didn't want to drive any more on our fourth day in SS.
Trains seemed absurd because everything seemed to be routing through Madrid on the day we needed to travel. I didn't want to travel at night either on the overnight. And the RENFE site is a horrible rabbit hole that hides the ticket links if you browse it in English! I think they have redesigned it since.
I think next time we may fly into Bilbao if we need to get there from Barcelona. Either that or start in Barcelona, then go to Madrid, then go to Bilbao from Madrid, as you have so many more flight options out of Madrid.
Just wanted to say thank you for putting in the time to share this review with all of us. I have read it repeatedly as I make my own restaurant itinerary, and it has been exceedingly helpful. Thanks again.
figured i'd add to this now that we are back from a great week in spain/france:
arrived in barcelona and our room at the hotel claris (which is very nice, near everything and pretty reasonably priced) wasn't ready so we walked over to the boqueria market. what a spectacle. jamon's hanging everywhere, skinned rabbits, crazy looking seafood, lots of gummy candy. great on the eyes. passed up on eating at bar pinotxo because even at 9 am there was a mob about 5 deep behind each seat so we found a tapas bar in the back and had a pretty bad reheated and soggy spanish omelette with vegetables and very very soggy pan con tomate.
room still wasn't ready so we headed over to the picasso museum and after walking around, decided to go to Cal Pep for lunch. we got there about 30 minutes before it opened but since there was already about 6 people on line, we waited around until it opened. incidentally, if you do not want to wait more than an hour to sit here, make sure to get here at least 30 minutes before it opens or you will just be hovering in a very cramped room. anyway, the food was very good, waiter offered up a sample of tapas for 39 euros so we took it: pan con tomate (good, but not the best we had, not enough tomatoes or olive oil), pimientos de padron (excellent, blistered, salted, beautiful), clams with jamon and olive oil (#2 dish to get here, very very good), squid with garbanazo beans and jamon (eh, ok, not great, the squid was very mealy), spanish omelette with jamon (#1 dish to get there, this was perfect, made to order, creamy, delicious, potato-y, awesome), and frito misto (don't get, too many boney fish fried up which made it very difficult to eat). we also ordered the fried artichokes which were very good. all in all, a great lunch to start the trip but just be warned that Cal Pep is a factory and they will rush you in and rush you out. This was easily the quickest meal we had on our trip.
went back to hotel in a daze, napped, and woke up to get dinner at Inopia. Again, do yourself a favor and get there about 15-30 minutes before you think you should be eating. We arrived at about 8:20 and "only" waited 30 minutes. People who got there at 8:30 waited over an hour and those who got there around 9 didn't sit down until past 11. but is this wait worth it? Yes, Yes, Yes. If not for Etxeberri (more on that later) this would have been the highlight of our trip. Amazing patatas bravas, amazing olive mix to start, good pan con tomate (not our favorite since it's served on some type of multigrain bread), very good fried shrimp with the heads still on, absolutely amazing pimientos de padron, fantastic cheap cava, unreal creamy, juicy, perfectly fried croquetas with jamon iberico, and the highlight: a quartered pineapple, sliced and topped with lime zest and sugar liquor. So good.
next day, lunch with nothing special, just a focaccia place on the way to park guell, and then dinner at Paco Meralgo. Again, get there at 8:15 and you won't wait. Get there at 8:30 and you will wait an hour. Service here was brusk and actually some of the worst we had in Spain and France. We didn't have a reservation but they still sat us and then made it pretty clear they wanted us to leave as quickly as possible. Food was very good though: easily the best pan con tomate we had in the entire city, fantastic pimientos de padron, blistered to almost blackness and salted nice, a great platter of jamon iberico de bellota, fantastic razor clams, meaty and juicy, a weird tuna and squid meatball thing that was so so, mostly breadcrumbs, awesome awesome awesome fried long stem green onions, and great steamed clams. if we had had better service, i would have highly recommended this place.
day 3, again, light lunch, and then dinner at tapac24. had to wait about 15 minutes because we got there at 8:30 but it was worth it. pan con tomate was excellent, tomato-y, garlic-y, olive oil-y, awesome. pimientos blistered perfectly, almost looked like they may have been deep fried, fantastic black squid ink rice with jamon (tasted just like the sea), great oozy croquetas, great patatas bravas, and an awesome bottle of cava. this is simple (for spain) food cooked expertly. definitely try and give it a shot.
day 4, drive through the pyrennes and to Saint-Pee sur Nivelle to stay at L'Auberge Basque. The revamped farmhouse is gorgeous and the main attraction is definitely the kitchen. the food is outstanding. there were delicious macarons from Maison Adam waiting in the room for us (we ended up buying some more when we found their store in St. Jean de Luz) for 48 euros you get a beautiful custardy foie gras topped with pamplemousse gelee and toasted croutons in a yogurt cup, an excellent salad to start (ours was basically a deconstructed salad nicoise), an amazing main course (in our case, young yellow chicken paillard with a gazpacho sauce), a ridiculously beautiful and delicious cheese plate, and a fantastic dessert of poached granny smith apples, pistachio nuts, and crepes. it was so good we decided to eat there a second night and the food was just as good, if not better (my cochon with jamon crisps was so piggily delicious i didn't want to stop eating it).
after a gluttonous breakfast at the inn consisting of a huge pot of coffee and tea, fantastic fresh butter and sheep milk yogurt, beautifully crispy artisanal bread and the best gateaux basque i had all trip, we drove out to Axpe, Spain for a lunch at Etxeberri. If you there is one restaurant in the world you have to go to, please make it this one. This was by far the best dining and eating experience I have ever had.
We opted not to get the 10 course 150 euro per person Menu Degustacion because we thought frankly it would be too much so instead we ordered 5 courses off the a la carte menu (we only saw one couple actually order the menu degustacion and we were happy we didn't). The handmade chorizo plate was spectacular: not too garlicy, perfectly meaty and smokey, and juicy, unrealy; the jamon iberico de bellota was the best jamon I have ever eaten anywhere. My wife only ate 2 slices so I was able to eat the approximately other 10 all on my own. Thanks! The grilled clams with garlic and olive oil were a revelation, smokey and clammy and delicious. The grilled mushrooms were giant delicious mushroom stalks that tasted like the forest.
And the on-the-bone steak. Oh. Dear. God. Conceivably the best piece of meat I have ever had. It came carved off the bone, what looked and tasted to be the strip side of a porterhouse, perfectly rare, with big chunks of sea salt on top and a delicious pool of fat underneath. I did not want to stop eating this. This steak was better than every steak I've had at a steak house. Luger's does not hold a candle to this piece of meat. This was the single greatest dish we had all trip. And for 155 euros for the two of us, we got these 5 dishes, plus 3 glasses of wine, a coke, 2 coffees, and a bottle of water. Best deal.
Since we were in basically a food coma, our late night tapas mean in San Sebastian considered of two expertly fried white asparragus, 4 beautiful croquetas de jamon, and a fantastic jamon iberico sandwich in a croissant, all at Ganbara Bar.
Lunch the next day was at a great place in the Gros area called Bodega Donastierra. It's been there since the 1920s and everything was great: huge delicious red tomatoes covered in high quality olive oil and salt, an awesome smooth manchego cheese sandwich, a great thinly cooked spanish omelette (which everyone seemed to be ordering) and awesome jamon iberico de bellota. Topped off with some red wine, this perfectly hit the spot. Dinner was some more light tapas at Ganbara Bar (fried white asparagus, great blistered guinduilla peppers that rivaled the pimientos de padron in Barcelona, more croquetas and jamon/croissant sandwiches, and a great pintxo with what tasted like baked salmon) and a few at Alona Berri Bar (a very strange calamari dish, an overpriced grilled mushrooms dish, fantastic mushroom croquetas, an amazing fried dumpling stuffed with shrimp and advocado, an awesome pintxo piled high with roasted peppers, and a fried mango dumpling filled with foie gras). Just be warned, Alona Berri Bar, while very good and avante garde, is in the middle of nowhere and there was not much open late at night around to get more tapas.
Sorry if this was too long. We ate so well that I had to document it. Hopefully this is helpful for anyone else traveling to Barcelona and the Pays Basque/Pais Vasco.
Kathryn -- thanks for this report. My husband and I are going to Barcelona later this summer and will keep this report close as a handy tool.
You have always been so helpful on the Manhattan board (we live in Manhattan), and I was wondering if you could tell me what your favorite restaurants were in Barcelona? Sounds like Cinc Sentits and Inopia were two of your favorites. Any others?
You're welcome! I would choose Cinc Sentits for a formal, special occasion meal, with a price to match. Paco Meralgo if you wanted a little more upscale tapas experience, based upon seafood [it doesn't seem like a place to go if you don't like shellfish] + wanted somewhere open on Sundays. And Inopia and Quimet y Quimet for something a little more rowdy, loud.
At Q&Q we had great fun talking to other people at the counter but I find eating while standing to be a bit tiring after a while [also their specialty is really toasts and cured/preserved items, not hot food]]. Of course, Inopia is great and you get a mix of different dishes, both hot and cold, but the wait is crazy.