Archive for February, 2010
When the door to La Venencia shuts behind me, I am transported to another Madrid. Dust covered bottles hanging behind the bar, large ancient barrels holding Jerez wine (sherry), a cat passing through customers’ legs, wilted posters hanging on yellowed plaster walls…. Through the puffs of cigarette smoke, I can’t spot a single tourist. One possible expat, but I suppose the rest turned around at the entryway. I feel as if I’ve landed in the 1950s, or possibly earlier… the 1920s when this bar served it’s first glass? The decor is decidedly unfussy, with a staff to match (the female bartender is wearing a moth-eaten turtleneck) and, strangely enough, I love it! I order a fino (your only options are manzanilla, fino, oloroso, amontillado or palo cortado) and sip it slowly while munching on garlicky olives. The gal behind the bar keeps my tab in chalk on the old bar, and later declines my tip with a nod, “no.” The people-watching is unreal, and the sherry is top-notch. Sherry, unlike other wine, doesn’t benefit from age in a bottle, and is better closer to the source… so Madrid is a perfect place to sip this product from nearby Jerez de la Frontera. Grab a glass and take a trip in time before catching the flamenco show at adjacent Cardamomo.
La Venencia, Calle Echegaray, 7 | Sol | +34914297313
“We lunched upstairs at Botín´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.” The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Well, I can’t say that I drank three bottles of rioja alta, but I did have a very big meal at Restaurante Botin on Calle De Cuchilleros. To call it one of the best restaurants in the world is also a stretch, but to call it the oldest restaurant in the world… that would just be fact. The restaurant, opened in 1725 in a building dating back to 1590, holds the certificate from the Guinness Book of Records to prove it. How’s a foodie on holiday to resist? As you can imagine, the place has become wildly popular with tourists trying to scout out Hemingway’s seat; but it’s worth mentioning that when I dined there, there were several tables of spaniards enjoying cochinillo asado, the roast suckling pig they are so famous for. And of course, that is what I had as well.
The portion was laughably large, but so much of it was fat and bone, that I only got a small fists-worth of meat. The pig is roasted in the Castilian style with a mixture of onion, garlic and parsley, tomillo (thyme), some bay leaves, dry white wine flavored with fermented fish, and pig’s fat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the meat as flavorful as expected, and the potatoes that accompanied it weren’t exactly inspiring. I did, however, end the meal with the most incredible flan de queso I have ever tasted!
With light spilling in through ancient window frames, waiters in white jackets flying by, a nearby elderly madrileno enjoying a taste of her childhood, azulejos (ceramic tiles) dating back to the 1700s (and others in the cloisonne-like style of the 1500s) surrounding me, I found the ambiance sort of infectious. The menu is headed with an etching of Madrid in 1561, around the time the first cutler’s shanty was put up on this very spot. If you come at lunch, the crowds are sparse enough to sit back and contemplate all of the generations that have passed through these arches. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Restaurante Botín. Calle de los Cuchilleros, 17. 28005 Madrid, Spain. 91 366 42 17
In celebration of our 1 1/2 year anniversary, belated Valentines Day and our Broadway debuts, David and I recently treated ourselves to the tasting menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se! I have many updates before I get the “Apple Slices” of these past few weeks, but I thought I would give you a peek at the menu in the meantime.
The Castelo affords the best views in all of Lisbon. After spending a week gazing up at it, David and I finally made the trek up the hill, through the Alfama, to the shaded courtyards and fortified walls. Nowhere else is the history of this city so palpable…. from the Moors in the 9th Century to the crusaders of the 12th Century, these grounds were central to Lisbon life for over a thousand years. The walls protected kings, housed prisoners, you name it. And the view, of course, is breathtaking!
This entry concludes our adventures in Lisbon. Although not featured with individual entries, David and I also had lovely meals at the pricey Conventual, the chic Sacramento de Chiado, and the airy Restaurante Mercado de Santa Clara (mentioned in Frances Mays’ A Year in the World). I still have to post updates from three days in Madrid that followed, and I fear I’m terribly behind! But stay tuned, because these past few weeks in New York have been wonderful (and delicious!), with trips to Le Cirque, Mercer Kitchen, and the crown jewel… Per Se!
The common denominator in every Portuguese meal we had was, strangely enough… custard! Pastelerías occupied every corner, and round the clock, we found ourselves sinking our teeth into the most incredible custard-filled pastries. In the morning as a vehicle for our bicas (espressos), as a late afternoon pick-me-up, as a post-dinner dessert. I became particularly addicted to the delicias ovos (layers of puff pastry sandwiching a mixture of sugar and egg yolk) at Pasteleria Suica in Rossio square, and David made a habit of trying a new pastry at each sitting. None, however, compared to the now world famous Pastéis de Nata at Pastéis de Belém. I suppose they should hold the title, and enjoy the deserved hype… This was the first place that the pastries were sold in 1837, shortly after the Monesteiro dos Jeronimos closed. The monks, left to their own devices to make a living, decided to sell the pastries that they had been making for years, for a profit. All of the recipes created by these Portuguese monks revolved heavily around the egg yolk, as whites were used in large quantities to starch clothes and (if you can believe it) to make wine, such as Port. They managed to find a very delicious solution to the overabundance of yolks! Shops all over Lisbon attempt to recreate the recipe, and all are delicious (though we were disappointed by those at the renowned – and beautiful! – Confetaria Nacional in the Baixa), but none have as creamy a custard, or as flaky a shell. Sprinkle the still warm pastry with powdered sugar and cinnamon and your sweet tooth will be chattering for more and more…
Determined to uncover more of Portuguese seafood than salt cod and sardines, David and I sat down to lunch at Baixa fixture Martinho da Arcada. Once a haunt of poet Fernando Pessoa, they are known for their Cataplana, a seafood stew from the Algarve region that is similar to bouillabaisse in France. The waiters scurried around us in white jackets and brought our starters of cabbage soup (another Portuguese staple) and asparagus, because I was feeling starved for greens. Sadly, when the asparagus dish came, it was pickled white asparagus that tasted only of vinegar, but the folly was forgotten when the Cataplana came! Named for the clam-like copper shell that it’s cooked in, the instrument was unclamped at our table and the stew was served table-side. Steaming inside were sea bass, salmon, prawns, lobster, clams, mussels… we eventually stopped counting! After soaking up some of the flavorful broth with our bread, it was easy to see why Pessoa would loiter here…
Martinho da Arcada, Rua da Prata, 2-8 1100 – 419 LISBOA, ph. 218879259
Belem, located a few miles west of Lisbon’s city centre, is home to a handful of tourist must-sees, among them the Torre de Belem dating back to 1515 and the lacy show-stopper Monesteiro dos Jeronimos built in 1501. The area immediately surrounding the Tejo is crowded with souvenir shops and overpriced cafes, so in an effort to find something more authentic, David and I meandered through backstreets with quaint pastel houses and took lunch at a no-fuss eatery, Estrela de Belem. We were the only out of towners in the joint, and entered just as a slew of leather-faced locals were finishing their beers. However, we were far from being the first to wander here, as it’s mentioned by both Lonely Planet and and the foodies over at Chowhound. We sipped cold Super Bock, the Lisboeta brew of choice and munched on sausages from a local butcher and grilled sardines. David proved infinitely more skilled at de-boning them! It’s worth the walk to escape the maddening crowd…
Estrela de Belém-Restaurante e Cervejaria Lda, Lisboa – Santa Maria de Belém, R Embaixador 112-r/c, Lisboa 1300-217 LISBOA
Lisbon gifted us an impressive array of culinary treasures, but Eleven was not one of them. Every food find that I write about here is, theoretically, in the three to five star category. However, I’ll make an exception to put of the red flag for unsuspecting visitors entertaining a meal here.
Eleven gives a nice first impression, with its sleek dining room overlooking the Park Eduardo. Until Tavares Rico stepped up its game and earned the recognition of Michelin tasters, Eleven was the sole restaurant in lisbon to boast such an honor. Indeed, this is just what the eleven partners were aiming for; Chef Joachim Koerper’s resume boasts Girasol in Alicante (two Michelin stars), L’Ambroisie in Paris (three Michelin stars), Moulin de Mougins (three Michelin stars), Guy Savoy in Paris (two Michelin stars), Hostelerie du Cerf in Marlenheim (two Michelin stars), and Au Chapon Fin in Thoissey (two Michelin stars). So I ask you, WHAT HAPPENED?
When we were seated, we were hounded by the juvenile sommelier several times before we ever saw our waiter. The 15 minute mark hit, and we still didn’t have menus, though we were expected to order wine blindly. When the waiter finally arrived, I found his hurried attempt to get us to order the truffle or lobster menu annoying. We decided on the menu digestion, and prepared to restart our engines when the food arrived. A pricy but well deserved feast was coming our way after so many anniversaries apart this year!
The 12 courses rolled out at a strange pace, and each was so heavy I found myself dreading the next. The only dish with any brightness or acid in it was a Seared Scallop with Curry Foam over a Lemon Risotto. It was lovely, but even so, the garnishes were very bizarre. The centerpiece of another dish was a beautifully cooked fillet of John Dory slathered in a heavy, nondescript sauce. Scattered around the dish were beautiful, pillowy chestnut gnocchi, so I was still slightly intrigued. However, the meat course says it all; David and I ordered the Lamb and the Duck, respectively, and both came out over potatoes and overcooked vegetables with the exact same indecipherable brown sauce. With endless possibilities waiting to be unearthed in the food world, a Michelin-starred chef phones in the meat course? I don’t buy it. And that’s how I came to the conclusion that Chef Koerper has been in absentia for quite some time, leaving the kitchen in the hands of a novice chef de cuisine. It doesn’t help that the sommelier was out of his mind. Not only did both of our wines taste like someone had poured sugar in them, the champagne he doused our intermezzo sorbet with made the concoction taste like glass cleaner.
At well over 100 Euros per person, it’s upsetting admit that the dishes were so forgettable, I can only vividly remember elements of three. While the dinner ended with some lovely confections courtesy of a very capable pastry chef, it didn’t rectify my opinion. As far as dollar value for quality is concerned, it was the most disappointing meal of my adult life.
Phew, now that that’s over, I can get back to relaying all of Lisbon’s incredible eats! Meals that cost (quite literally) a tenth of our dinner at Eleven and lingered in our minds for days afterwards!
Restaurant Eleven. Av. Marquês da Fronteira Jardim Amália Rodrigues, 1070 Lisboa, Portugal. ph 213 862 211