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Trip Report: Madrid - Seville - Granada - Barcelona

b
bjk81 Jul 8, 2012 09:05 AM

After much pre-trip planning on Chowhound, my girlfriend and I just spent two weeks in Spain. We decided to return the favor with a trip report. As quick background, we are a young professional couple who (obviously) love food but are also value-conscious. We’ve been known to splurge on a meal, but decided against doing so in Spain. So this post is definitely geared less towards the Can Roca/Con Gracia level, and more towards great tapas eating on a relative budget. Between the two of us we had passable tourist-level Spanish, although the majority of places had English menus.

MADRID: Our best eating experiences here came either from tapas, from the San Miguel market, or from buying our own delicacies. We ate very well in Madrid, and found some solid deals, but our experiences here were subsequently overshadowed by Seville’s excellent dining scene.

We tried a few tapas places in the La Latina neighborhood:
- Juana La Loca was, in our book, the most consistently creative and high-quality. The pintxos were massive and four dishes were enough to feed two for lunch. Many of the dishes are ready-made, and can be previewed at the bar, but others must be ordered. Our favorites were the butterfish, and the duck egg with truffle. The place is a notch pricier than many of the other local tapas places, but it shows.

- Txirimiri was the most hip, with the youngest clientele. We thought their pinchos/tapas were very good but not quite the same quality as Juana la loca. There’s a small back dining room, which we tried on another night. We found the dinner to be solid but nothing exciting, with the exception of the melt-in-your-mouth grilled foie.

- Tempranillo, which came at the end of a tapas crawl, seemed solid though not amazing by the looks of dishes. We only had one tapa before we called it a night.

Other places:
- Platero & Co: This was a good-quality restaurant in Ibiza, just to the east of Retiro park. We went restaurant hunting there with an (outdated) list of tapas recommendations from Chow, but took a chance on this newish place based on the menu. We were not disappointed. It’s far from tourist hotspots, so be prepared to deal only in Spanish. The food was creative fusion (lots of Asian influences) made with high-quality ingredients. The seafood risotto was especially tasty. It’s probably not worth a special trip, but check out the menu if you’re in the neighborhood. If I remember, dinner with 2 drinks came to about 50€.

- Public: More of a consumer-driven place, but packed with locals. It has an eclectic menu, and while it has no particular food vision or creative genius, it does all of its dishes very well. Best of all, this place was an excellent value. A salad, cod stew, lamb tagine, dessert, and bottle of wine for 40€. A solid choice if you’re in the Chueca/Malasaña neighborhood and hungry.

- Taberna Maceira: This place can be recommended for a solid meal of traditional favorites. The fried pimientos were very well cooked, and the seafood risotto special was good and filling. Nothing creative, just well done classics. A good value too.

- Estado Puro is an ‘upscale’ tapas place near the Prado Museum. If you’re hungry and nearby, it’s not a bad choice, though you’d do better to walk in a few blocks towards Sol. We were generally underwhelmed by the food given the prices (including the surcharge to sit on the terrace). That said, they did a very good fried eggplant with honey.

- El Brillante: We stayed near Atocha and so we tried the calamari sandwich here. Not really culinary genius but worth it if you want to say you tried what is putatively the best calamari sandwich in Madrid.

Random things:
- The San Miguel Market was fun, but if you go during peak meal hours you will feel swamped. Many others have recommended places here; let me just say that as New Englanders we found the oysters there to be fine, but nothing special. The olive bar, on the other hand, was delicious, as was the vermouth tap.

- Chocolate con churros are tasty, but if you are silly like us, and try to eat them after a meal, you will get a tummy ache.

- We really wanted to try bellota ham on a budget, so we went to a jamon shop and had them slice up 100 grams of the stuff for us. (We got the bare-bones bellota for about 80€ a kilo.) This was probably the single most delicious thing we ate in all of Spain, and well worth 8€ for a snack.

SEVILLE: This town gave us our most wonderful food experiences, and best bang for the buck. The city seems to be just cosmopolitan enough to offer excellent, globally-influenced cuisine, but not so developed so as to have an extensive high-priced dining scene (see Barcelona). Tapas here are generously portioned, and pinchos are relatively rare. Many places avoid the distinction between a tapas menu and a dining menu, rather just offering two or three sizes of each dish, often served regardless of whether you sit at the bar or in the dining area. Here were our favorite spots:

- La Azotea: An absolute winner, this place had the most consistently high-quality and creative cuisine we tried in Seville. The owner is a native Sevillan who lived in San Diego, and if the place isn’t too crowded he’ll offer you extensive, personable service. Most dishes are available as tapas, ½ racion, or full racion portion, although if you reserve a table you won’t be able to order the tapas-sized portions. Speaking of which – either reserve a table, or come close to opening and sit at the bar, as this place gets packed. Our favorites came from the daily specials: a tuna tartare with beetroot sauce and grilled strawberries; and a duck carpaccio with parmesan and summer truffles. From the regular menu, the rice paper triangles with cheese, prawns, and leeks were also excellent. Locals seemed to order mainly from the specials. A lunch of five tapas, dessert, and two drinks came to around 30-35€. If you have one meal in Seville, go here.

- Eslava: The owner at Azotea recommended this place, and we’re glad he did. It was the best “traditional” seafood-first tapas bar we tried in Spain. It’s normally packed, we hear, but we went early and during a EuroCup game, so it was practically empty. The gregarious Pepe behind the bar speaks some English, and there is an English menu, with just a few specials in Spanish only. I put the “traditional” in quotes because some of our dishes definitely had modern influences, especially the runny egg. The tapas were less memorable individually than at Azotea, but all were of excellent quality – especially the whole fried anchovies (boquerones), the best we had in Spain. It’s tapas only, with portions small-to-medium in size. But they’re all priced at 2.50€ or below, so order with abandon! We had about 6 tapas, three drinks, and a comically oversized dessert sampler (only try if you are 4 ppl or more) for around 30-35€.

- Vineria San Telmo is another very high-quality tapas restaurant more in line with Azotea (modern, creative) than Eslava. It’s definitely in the same culinary league as Azotea, if perhaps a quarter-step below. It’s also in a more touristy area, and is #1 on TripAdvisor, so either reserve, show up early, or be prepared for a wait behind other tourists. Menu is available in English. Our favorites included the salmon tartare; a tuna tataki with seaweed; foie with wild mushrooms & poached egg; and a really great flan. Very reasonably priced, in line with Azotea.

- Zelai is aiming for the modern, young, and hip crowd. We sat at the bar and felt a bit rushed as all our dishes poured out of the kitchen in minutes (i.e. in traditional tapas style), as opposed to some of the other, more slowly-paced places in Seville. Its cuisine was less consistently impressive than the other places above, although we had one very good dish – a pungent Idiazabal cheese risotto, and one outstanding dish – charred hake with black tempura, asparagus, and romesco. Prices in same range as San Telmo or Azotea.

- La Bulla was probably a quarter-step below Zelai: it was more consistent in its quality but had no dishes that left us in awe. It was also a bit pricier than the other places above. The menu is all on the chalkboard, and in Spanish only, although our Portuguese waiter spoke good English when we needed it. We had a very good salad with cabra cheese, and a dish of (fried) ravioli filled with duck. Perhaps worth trying if you’re in Seville for a while.

- La Cava del Europa was in turn a half-step below La Bulla, we thought. We did have a tasty duck breast with a berry (cranberry?) sauce, but on the whole it was not memorable.

GRANADA: After Seville, Granada was a letdown. It’s a grittier town, and definitely poorer, marked by large numbers of students and immigrants. While Alhambra was amazing, we’re glad we didn’t stay much longer than necessary in the city. Don’t expect creative cuisine here. That said, there are restaurants we didn’t hit up where you can (from the looks of the places) get quality classic seafood dishes – such as Bar Kiki and Restaurante Bar Oliver.

The best food we had was free, i.e. included with drinks. This is an old tradition that a few places in Granada still adhere to. We tried:
- Bar Poë: Run by a British expat, the tapas here are quite passable for being free. We only tried two, but especially liked the salted cod.

- Los Diamantes: We came for a pre-dinner drink and ended up with grilled gambas and fried anchovies (head removed) for free. Good quality but not spectacular.

Other than these places, we tried to replenish our low vitamin count by eating some vegetable-friendly cuisine, with varied success:
- Om-Kalsum was a Moroccan-style tapas bar. The food was just average, certainly not foodie-worthy, but the prices were at least good for the quality (1L of beer + 8 tapas for 12.50€). Packed with students.

- Samarkanda, a Lebanese place, was overpriced and seriously subpar. It was probably our worst meal on the trip.

I should add that Los Italianos Gelateria had the best ice cream we had in Spain. Our favorite flavors were the sherry, pistachio, and candied chestnut (marrons glaces). And, although this is a food board, I cannot resist making a plug for Hostal Rodri. It was the best budget hotel I have ever stayed in, bar none.

BARCELONA: We enjoyed Barcelona, but we think the challenge for any visitor is to escape the tourist infrastructure. In summer the place was so flooded with tourists that many places recommended on Chow or TripAdvisor were simply swamped with non-natives. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but at times the atmosphere was lacking, and many establishments felt as if their soul was in the money-making rather than in the food.

- Cerveceria Catalana embodied our Barcelona dilemma. From older reviews it seems this place used to be solid, but now it excels only in mediocre classics for the tourist throngs. The atmosphere was corporate chic without the slightest charm. The food was inoffensive, but that’s about the best that can be said.

- Paco Meralgo felt like a slightly more authentic and upscale version of Cerveceria Catalana. It was full of tourists and the place felt like it catered mostly to them. The food here was solidly better than Cerveceria Catalana, but also slightly inoffensive, and nothing stood out as exceptional. Our local mushrooms were good but overpriced; the best dishes we had were the ‘bomba’ and the cuttlefish ball.

- We did a Born pintxos crawl our first night, at Euskal Etxea and one other forgettable place. Our conclusion was the that the pintxos excelled at looking better than they tasted. They’ll add all sorts of colorful, and often flavorless, adornments to draw your eye. Maybe we just picked the wrong things. Euskal Etxea had a few quality seafood pintxos at the bar, but I couldn’t help notice that the waiters came around to tables with trays only hawking the highest margin items. Perhaps we should have tried the “real” tapas from the menu at Euskal Etxea and avoided the pintxos? In any case, I’d have a hard time recommending Born-area pintxos to any visitor.

- Tapeo: When we ate lunch here our second day, we finally felt some moderate success on the food front. We were far from blown away, but this place sees to put out solid, slightly creative tapas fare. Our favorite dish (also the chef’s, apparently), was the pork feet. The beef cheeks were also good but less impressive. Although also packed with tourists, this place a better vibe and one felt it was a restaurant driven by passion for food over profit.

- Quimet & Quimet: This place is the real deal. Packed with locals when we came, it’s a standing-room only bodega with walls lined by alcohol bottles for sale (at excellent prices for many liquors.) All of the tapas dishes and montaditos (i.e. pinchos) are served cold – there’s no hot food in the place. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop this from being far and away our best tapas meal in Barcelona. The ingredients are all of exceptional quality, and combined with just enough originality and simplicity to bring a smile to your face. Our favorites were the pate with onions, the foie gras with chestnuts and mushrooms, and the cabra cheese montadito with anchovies. Be prepared to deal in Spanish.
- Sesamo: A vegetarian restaurant of exceptional quality. It’s run by an Argentine expat sporting the most charmingly hybrid English accent you’ve ever heard. Although vegetarian, it’s not necessarily light. Our favorites were the mushroom croquettes, the goat cheese salad, a special tomato-cheese tart, and (above all) the gorgonzola-filled gnocchi with beetroot-hazelnut sauce. They also have a seven-course tasting menu, including two beers/wines per person, for 25€. Their gin-tonic menu was fine, but the drinks were a bit too subtle for our tastes. We didn’t expect anywhere reasonable to match the sophistication of the American cocktail scene.

- 10’s: The owner of Sesamo, a professed foodie, steered us to this new tapas establishment at the Park Hotel in Born run by Jordi Cruz, the chef of ABaC. We were sorely disappointed. The portions were tiny, which is absolutely fine if the flavors are exceptional. But they proved dull to our palates. We tried a foie with figs and Szechuan peppercorn ice cream: we couldn’t taste the figs, and we experienced none of the mala (numb-spicy) of the peppercorns, not even a hint. It could have very well been vanilla ice cream to our taste buds. We also had a slow-cooked egg on a parmesean-potato concoction, served with a single leaf of rocket; this dish also lacked any punch. After three tapas we decided not to get any more. We left hungry and, out of ideas, went back to Sesamo for another meal.

- We passed through the Boqueria a couple times, but didn’t consume anything there besides fruit juices, which were very good and an exceptional deal. Quim, covered extensively elsewhere on Chow, looked like it had the best prepared food at the market.

Overall we had a wonderful, if vegetable-deprived trip. We’re now going through jamon and carb withdrawal as we slowly return to our healthier eating ways. As a final note, we really enjoyed drinking in Spain – not just the cheap and delicious wine, but also the vermouth, and the orujo de hierbas. We wished we had tried even more liqueurs, and urge you to do the same. Please feel free to respond with comments or questions!

  1. f
    Fabroni Sep 26, 2012 01:34 PM

    Ate at L'Azotea twice last year...and seriously would consider flying there just to have dinner again.

    1. m
      ManInTransit Jul 9, 2012 02:15 AM

      Thanks for a really interesting and detailed report. Completely agree with all your assessments on Sevilla and Granada. I'm delighted to see someone else championing La Azotea, we had a sensational meal there and I've recommended it many times since. Agree with you on all the others as well.

      Personally I thought Quimet and Quimet was horrendously poor but confusingly I seem to be in a minority there.

      3 Replies
      1. re: ManInTransit
        erica Jul 10, 2012 04:33 AM

        Question: Which branch of Azotea did you visit? (There appear to be two in the city.) Were you able to reserve a table for dinner? (Their website indicates that this is possible only on Saturday night). Many thanks!

        1. re: erica
          m
          ManInTransit Jul 10, 2012 06:13 AM

          The one we went to was on Calle Jesus de Gran Poder. We called on the day and they just told us to drop by. 6 of us ended up waiting 45 mins or so for a table but we drank and snacked at the bar.

          Another point about it was that it was stunningly good value.

          1. re: erica
            b
            bjk81 Jul 10, 2012 11:04 AM

            Yes, the Azotea on Jesus de Gran Poder. When we showed up for a Wednesday lunch many of the tables were reserved, but I think those people just called the same day. If they don't take reservation ahead of time, then perhaps you could just try to beat the local rush? I know they open at 1:30pm for lunch, and I think maybe at 9pm for dinner. I forget which days they are closed.

        2. b
          barberinibee Jul 8, 2012 02:28 PM

          When I was in Spain I just assumed gazpacho was the local equivalent of Ensure.

          1. erica Jul 8, 2012 01:39 PM

            Let me be the first to thank you for a superb report. I will be Seville-bound in a few months so that section is of particular interest--so glad to hear that you thought it an improvement over Granada.

            6 Replies
            1. re: erica
              b
              barberinibee Jul 8, 2012 02:26 PM

              @erica,

              Can't tell from the wording of your post if you've been to Granada and are therefore hoping to eat better in Sevilla, or if Granada is part of your upcoming trip, but I loved eating cold almond soup garnished with grapes at the Parador of the Alhambra. That was several years ago.

              1. re: barberinibee
                erica Jul 9, 2012 03:26 AM

                Thanks, B. I spent a few days in Granada last year and was not too excited about the offerings, although my visit was in winter so I did not see the white gazpacho with grapes. Hope I can find it on a menu in the fall as it sounds wonderful...meanwhile, look ( see recipe link, too)

                http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/din...

                When I visited Quimet about a year ago the place was packed with young Americans, so packed that we left after sampling a couple of tapas.

                1. re: erica
                  m
                  ManInTransit Jul 9, 2012 03:39 AM

                  We had two pretty boorish groups of English/Americans in there. Might not have minded if the food hadn't been awful.

                  1. re: ManInTransit
                    b
                    barberinibee Jul 10, 2012 06:41 AM

                    @erica,

                    It is an incredibly simple dish to make in the blender and wonderful to eat in summer. If you don't want to spring for the marcona almonds it's not necessary.

                    Almonds are one of those foods I think I could live on for the rest of my life. I can't think of a dish using them from any country or culture that I don't enjoy.

                    1. re: ManInTransit
                      b
                      bjk81 Jul 10, 2012 11:08 AM

                      It's interesting to hear the contrasting opinions on Quimet & Quimet. It's very well known (NYT 36 hours and top-ten on TripAdvisor), but when we went for a Tuesday lunch it was us and a bunch of Catalan-speakers. But I can see how it might be packed with tourists. There was nothing stunningly creative about the cuisine, we just thought the ingredients were very high quality. Maybe it's a matter of what you order, or just of taste?

                      1. re: bjk81
                        m
                        ManInTransit Jul 10, 2012 11:22 AM

                        Certainly ordering and taste could play a part, we just felt as though pretty much every ingredient tasted as though it has come from a packet bought from a really bad supermarket.

                        Nothing felt fresh, everything tasted plasticky and the way it was dressed and presented was very poor. Couple of the monaditos were ok but it was comfortably the worst tapas bar I've ever eaten in anywhere in Spain.

              2. s
                SusanB Jul 8, 2012 01:28 PM

                Thanks for the report. We're making our first trip to Spain in October. We're definitely older than you are, but we're also value conscious. We have 6 nights in Madrid and 7 in Barcelona, and I'm definitely taking note of your recommendations. Thanks again.

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