Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Open to the unknown in Barcelona

Besides being fun, traveling could also be very stressful if the travelers do not possess at least a bit of that happy go lucky spirit. Plans often don't work out and accidents, well, they often happen. Besides missed flights and lost luggage, we also encountered our fair share of failed fooding attempts on this Barcelona trip. But despite it all, we ate incredibly well, perhaps better than if my plans work out.

On our second night, fresh from a nap and shower, we headed out to the much raved neighborhood nook Bar Mut for dinner at the prime Spanish dinner hour of ten PM. After a brisk walk through the chilly air to arrive at the very adorable, but incredibly small dinner spot, we found it packed to the hilt with locals and no one seemed in any hurry to move. Hungry and cold, I requested that the waitress suggest a place nearby. She immediately recommended what sounded like "cupid," which she described as a "white house with windows" a block and half away.

The place turned out to be Qvid. It didn't look particularly white, but it did have windows, just like all the other buildings along the street. It was clearly a place for locals. Everyone looked up in surprise when we burst in the door. The owner spoke no English, but we managed to get seated after a bit of confusion. We further thrown him off by requesting an espresso with our cava to help one of our companions combat jet lag. We then encountered more issues when I tried to order langostino as a part of our starters. What I thought to be prawns turned out to be a two foot long live orange fish, which he brought to the table on a platter to show us. (I still haven't figured out where we went wrong) All this may have been too much for the man, as he soon suggested, as much as we could make out through gestures, that we trust the ordering to him and he will make sure to include the big orange fish as a part of the deal. We were happy to do so in hope of getting an authentic meal.

The tapas came quickly. We were in awe of the above perfectly grilled plump squid. They were tender, naturally sweet, and not at all rubbery like their counterparts tend to be on this side of the pond.
I had also asked for some mussels, having seen them disappear quickly at a nearby table. Pleasantly salty and garlicky, these little guys were addictive.
What impressed everyone were the salt cod fritters. Tame in salt content, the salt cod flesh was milky, flavorful, and almost greaseless. The chef had done right by this Portuguese specialty.
We all went quiet when our orange monster fish came to the table presented as small fillets atop slivers of fried potato and garlic chips and adorned with hot grease-crisped basil. It smelled awesome. I regretted so much not snapping a picture early for a before and after. The flesh was much more creamy than flaky. A bit of condensed balsamic glaze seriously kicked the flavor up a notch. We stopped talking for the duration of this course. It was terrific!
It's hard to top the fish with the dessert course, so I went for interesting instead. This typical Catalan dessert is essentially bitter orange marmalade topped with a fresh farmer's cheese drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnuts. It was good in the way that my Greek yogurt similarly treated back home is good. My companions were not terribly impressed, but no one was disappointed sipping a complementary Muscato with it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

First day of awesome eating in Barcelona

A trip to Barcelona is, for most food lovers, a pilgrimage. With all the buzz surrounding the city, it's almost impossible to scale one's expectation to any realistic level. It's then perhaps a great thing that I brought along with me, on this sure to be food filled trip, a man who eats hardily, but cares very little if at all about what or where to eat. We have learned, through our years of traveling together, that as long as I don't stress him out with too much talk of food or what appears to be active food seeking, he would happily ingest whatever we "happen to discover" along the way. :)

Having survived the mad Thanksgiving crowd and a two mile trek to get our messed up tickets reissued in Madrid, we finally found ourselves in Barcelona sans luggages, which are chilling somewhere else in Spain. Ravenous from the ordeal, we strolled to Cerveseria Catalana near our hotel for a drink and some snacks. J ordered a local beer from the extensive international beer list, while I secured my first glass of cava. For nibbles, I was compelled to ask for the sampler plate of Iberian ham, having read and heard so much about it. You know what, the ham did not disappoint. Salty and lip-stickingly fatty, the ham went equally well with J's beer and my cava. My favorite of the bunch was the soft type on the far left. We happily sat around for a few well-deserved leisurely hours nibbling and people watching.
With all that salt on our lips, we craved something sweet and cool to round out the simple meal on this first night. We had no destination in mind (truly for once), but harbored hopes of running into a gelateria, having read that the people of Barcelona are rather fond of this Italian import. Sure enough, we walked right into one within five blocks. It's amazing that J and I never have trouble making a decision in a gelateria when faced with a dizzying range of selection. He always goes with the chocolate and coffee, while I invariably pick dulce de leche, pistachio, and some sort of caramel. The small shop had no seats inside, so we ducked into the glitzy department store across the street to lick our little cup of indulgence in warmth, while ogling at stylish houseware designs.
Jetlag knocked us out early the first night and then rudely drove away the sleeping bug the next morning well before dawn. Unable to rest more, we set out to explore the famous Boqueria market. We found Juanito holding fort at the tiny, but must raved about Bar Pinotxo near the entrance. We snuggled up to the bar to watch Juanito expertly brewed up two hot coffees for us. He also handed me a cute little croissant to nibble on and insisted on snapping a goofy picture for us. Unfortunately, Pinotxo doesn't start any real cooking until an hour later, so we bid goodbye to look for more substantive munchies. We found what we were looking for at the much bigger Bar Central towards the very back of the market. The husband and wife team were already working on the final stage of a fragrant stew when we approached around 7:30 am. The kind faced husband immediately offered up thick pieces of freshly fried bacon for us to taste, while the wife poured two beers for themselves. How could I help but love a good old couple who believe a cold beer is the right way to start a busy cooking day on a chilly morning.

We gladly accepted the wife's suggestion that we share a seafood plate composed of the fresh catch just arriving at the stall. As we watched, the husband tossed an assortment of squid, razor clams, prawn etc. on the sizzling flat top. A few minutes later, we were handed the above beautiful platter of just cooked through seafood, loving arranged and lightly drizzled with a green olive oil. As unconventional a breakfast as this was, it was the most tasty in recent memory. Each piece of seafood tasted so well-seasoned, it's hard to believe that it is dressed with nothing more than salt and a little lemon juice. Much varied in texture, no single piece was overcooked. Simply magnificent.
Very very satisfied, we strolled through the market to check out the fresh fruits. I could not walk pass a large tray of wonderfully dewy figs without taking some back to the hotel. They were a bargain at 2 Euro for a half kilo. Look at that ripe garnet flesh! Can you really fault me for being greedy?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wonderful nibbles around ATL (Part II)

4. Chicken Liver Appetizer from Shaun's - I have been telling anyone who would listen about this appetizer from Shaun's for months now. I was rendered speechless the first time I laid eyes on this pair of monster rustic country toasts overburdened with the chunkiest chicken liver concoction imaginable. The dish made no apologies for its extremely creamy mayo-centric southerness. I imagine Paul Deen would have let out a giggle upon tasting it. Although I suppose she would have topped the creamy chunks with her favorite green onions as opposed to the high-brow micro greens.

Again, I must go back to the hugeness of this "appetizer." Even J, who I swear has an easily dislocatable jaw, had trouble fitting the whole thing into his mouth. Being the nibbler, I felt, for once, quite normal dissembling the elements and then reassembling my own smaller, but no less complete, version. The taste is incredible, hitting the salty, creamy, even the iron note that's unique to liver at the same time. I loved this dish! It imprinted in my mind the kind of taste memory that I shall use to comfort myself with the day I lie on my death bed with hardened arteries.
5. Oyster with pearls from the now closed Element - Chef Blais may be too edgy for this town in which people flock to the newest glittery dinning room to people watching as much as to eat. Even with all the foodie hype, the oddly decorated Element, where Blais put in a brief stint, never managed to fill the modest-sized dinning room. While the turn out was sad, the food that Blais turned out at Element was some of the most exciting I've seen anywhere in this city. For this early tasting course, the same technique for making Dipping Dots, the less than tasty mall ice cream, was use in creating the bright citrusy pearls. Like a shot of fresh lemon juice, the pearls gave the briny oyster a puckering jolt. Unlike some richer creations that satiate within a few bites, this course left me yearning for more more more.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Not done with the best bites compilations yet, but...

I just couldn't resist putting up a short post for this adorable fella - my pumpkin spice cupcake. This is really not an attempt to jump on the cupcake bandwagon that seem to have finally arrived in this city. This little guy and his friends were the result of some quick thinking when I woke up too late to bake the planned pumpkin bundt cake before work. Thank goodness for the extra sleep. Aside from the wonder it did for my skin, it also allowed me the opportunity to finally put to good use some pretty pretty sugar candy thoughtfully gifted to me.

As for the cupcake trend spreading in this city, I have yet to sample too many as I am no die hard cupcake fan. I never lined up with my fellow New Yorkers in front of the Magnolia bakery at the height of the cupcake craze when I lived there. I have, however, received enough of those famous cupcakes as gifts to know that I don't care for massive amounts of beyond rich buttercream on top of otherwise unremarkable cupcakes. My cupcakes this week had a more reasonable frosting to cake ratio. The mound on top is due more to the natural dome shape of the cake than to the heftiness of the frosting. Though the fluffy stuff did provide a fitting cushion for the cute sugar candies. Based on the good feedback from those who consumed the cakes, there are frosting lovers aplenty out there.

One intown cupcake place I did visit was Sweet Pockets inside the Irwin Street Market. The shop is whimsically decorated with a good size display case lined with darling mini-cupcakes. I couldn't resist buying one of each flavor. Good thing I did because the moistness ranged from rather dry (vanilla) to quite perfect (cookies and cream). The best thing I got, however, was not edible. I picked up a perfect cupcake T-shirt to add to my expanding food shirt collection.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Wonderful nibbles around ATL (Part I)

My recent compilation of best nibbles in the past year seem to suggest that most of the good eating that I have done were all away from the ATL - my adopted home city. This couldn't be further from the truth. My tummy has never been happier anywhere else. Just within the last month, I've sampled some rather memorable eats around town. So while I've still yet to exhaust my list of wonderful nibbles away from home, I'd like to also present a list of great bites in and around town. Again, I list these in no particular order as my mind prefers chaos (my preferred excuse for a lack of organization).

First up is the much hyped tres leches cake from Tierra. Located along a lonely stretch of Piedmont Rd in midtown, Tierra's odd yellow facade always caught my attention, but never looked attractive enough to beckon a visit. After reading much press about the place in the three years I've lived here, J and I finally managed to go for a weeknight dinner this past month.

I wanted so much to like everything about this cozy chef-owned place. Unfortunately, the savory food simply didn't live up to my expectation. My rubbery mussels floated in a rather watery broth, while J's pupusa tasted dry. The turning point of the meal was when the famous tres leches cake came out of the kitchen. The cake had very little adornment and it didn't need any. It was creamy creamy creamy, having soaked through and through with a sticky sweet tres leches mixture. If you haven't noticed, I am fond of creamy things. And that particular night, my sweetness tolerance was way high because this cake doubtlessly measures at the very top of the GI scale. My favorite part was the down comforter looking frosting. It reminded me very much of marshmallow fluff straight out of the jar. If you don't like that concept, then maybe this is not for you. But I happen to find marshmallow fluff quite yummy and very nolstalgic.

I have a weakness for foods exhibiting a savory and sweet combination. Salted caramel, yum. Honey on Stilton, double yum. Adding a stick a butter to this winning combination, hmm, triple yum? You bet! Sotto Sotto's Granny Smith apple sausage ravioli in a sage-laced brown butter sauce is exactly that kind of a dish. The apple note was much more pronounced than in other apple sausages I've experienced. The sweet tart flavor perfectly punctuated the rich flavor of the meat juice and the fragrant butter sauce. Even the nibbler couldn't resist taking more than a few bites.

Few things provide more pleasure than consuming a big plate of slow-smoked bbq outdoors under gently rustling trees. One of those things being also receiving a generous helping of super crisp onion rings with the que. These good sized examples from the much anticipated Fox Bro BBQ on Dekalb Ave. totally overshadowed their plate mates. The slightly sweet crust and addictive crunch will get me to go back even without the que.