Monday, September 14, 2009

The Salaryman's Guide: the Flaming Lips (Inaugural Edition)

About two or three summers ago, we had bought two tickets to see the Flaming Lips which, for a variety of reasons, we couldn't use. Instead of letting the tickets go to waste, I asked around the office to see if anyone could use them. I sent one email out to various co-workers that were around the same age; I sent another email out to the entire office. No one had heard of the Flaming Lips.

This blew my mind.

Granted, it's not like the Flaming Lips are the biggest band in the world: my parents would acknowledge that they've at least heard of U2, but I would never expect them to have heard of the Flaming Lips. Conversely, however, it's not like the Flaming Lips are a little garage band playing open stage hours at the pub: the show was at the Malkin Bowl, in Stanley Park (this summer, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders and Cat Power played the same venue). How does that large a phenomena in popular culture go unnoticed in an office of over a hundred, wherein the majority of people are in the 20 to 40 age bracket?

Over the past few years where I've gone from carefree student to indifferent workerman, I've noticed this happen on multiple occasions, be it with bands, movies, restaurants or some other trend or fad. It'd be easy to laugh at this in some sort of self-righteous, holier-than-thou kind of way, but it's not like these folks were some sort of backwater hicks or Stepford Wife suburbanites. Many, if not most, were simply people that spent a good chunk of their youth working extremely hard to make a career for themselves, found themselves with families to support and just plain didn't have enough time to spend surfing the web or reading magazines. (And, of course, a handful were just plain lost.)

If and when they did find time to seek out new things, I've inevitably fielded questions on all sorts of things. What's that crazy band you're listening to in your office? What's a new restaurant to go to? What movie should I take my wife to? I've always loved answering these questions, and I've found much more earnest and sincere music/movie/food/etc fans than I'd ever met in all the various circles I've been in that have purportedly been bound and formed by mutual interest.

And so, I thought I'd start this: the Salaryman Guide. A user-friendly service that will hopefully skim over the surface of the grand iceberg known as popular culture. It seemed obvious to have the Flaming Lips as the inaugural post.

The Flaming Lips
Who is This, and Why Should I Know About Them? Well, as college/art rock bands go, weird doesn't get more accessible than the Flaming Lips. Anyone that remotely listened and liked the Beach Boys beyond "Help Me Rhonda" or heard half of any prog rock album should be able to connect the dots.

When Would I Have Missed This? In 93, the Flaming Lips had a modest hit in "She Don't Use Jelly." It's one of those songs with diminishing returns; it just gets less and less amusing the more you listen to it... and, in 93, you had to listen to it ALOT.

Shortly thereafter, the Flaming Lips generated buzz with a handful of odd experiments. With their Boombox Experiments, the Flaming Lips would arrange up to 40 friends play boomboxes loaded with music that they had composed, each playing the tape, adjusting the volume, messing with the tape speed, etc. at varying times. With
Zaireeka, they released an album spread over 4 CDs that were meant to be played simultaneously. So: weird for the sake of being weird. But in a delightful sense.

In 99, though, the Flaming Lips released
The Soft Bulletin, which took them from weirdo art band to mainstream success (as in graduating from Conan to Leno). This saw the Flaming Lips end up in countless tv shows, movies, commercials, etc. This continued on in 2002 with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and, to a lesser extent, with War With the Mystics in 2006.

Where Should I Start? Just skip past the mid 90s output and start with Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi.
Both are honest to God
albums, as in need to be listened to start-to-finish, odd for our current times where the single reigns supreme. Plus, these are the ones that Justin Timberlake latched onto, and who's to argue with that guy?

"Race for the Prize" from
The Soft Bulletin

The Flaming Lips - Race For The Prize from Phil Bebbington on Vimeo.

Uh.... If this ain't your cup of tea, don't worry. I'm not sure the Lips have that much traction with the kids nowaday, either: 3 years is a long time to go when the collective attention span grows shorter and shorter, and there's been a lot of Animal Collective albums that have come out since then. But they do have a new album, Embryonic, that comes out this month, which will hopefully change that.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 3 - Chorizo Cornbread

After a week off from the cornbread trials, we got back into the swing of things full force this weekend. We had poured through old issues of Gourmet, and came across an obligatory Thanksgiving issue that featured a chorizo/cornbread stuffing. We didn't really have any use for stuffing, but thought it might not be a bad idea to have a chorizo stuffed cornbread as a standalone side in itself.

I assumed this would be pretty straightforward - iterations of bread stuffed with meat feature high in all cultures, and figured the chorizo/cornbread combo would be pretty big in Southern fare. The stuffing seemed popular enough as it is, so it's not a huge revelation to flip it up the way we wanted. It was surprising, then, that there was a pretty limited array of recipes online for this, and we finally opted to make it up as we went along.

After looking at a few cornbread recipes now, it isn't hard to figure out the main ingredients: cornmeal, all purpose flour, milk, eggs, baking powder, and some sort of fat, be it butter or oil. It's really just about the proportions (we'll get to Michael Ruhlman's magic ratios eventually), or the extra bells and whistles: in this case, chorizo.

We bought some pork chorizo and took the meat out of its casing for a closer look, and figured the fat from the sausage in itself would probably negate having to use much butter, and found that other recipes didn't use butter at all. Instead, then, we opted for canola oil, which keeps the cornbread moist without imparting too much of its own flavour. In the end, our concoction went something like this:

dry ingredients: 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 tbsp baking powder, 2 tbsp sugar;
wet ingredients: 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, 1/4 cup canola oil
chorizo: 2 links, which ended being about a 1/2lb. Brown it first, obviously.

Mix the dry ingredients together, and mix the wet ingredients together separately. Combine the two, mix it until it gets to that cornmeal/grits look to it, and then mix in the chorizo so that it's evenly distributed.

It might seem odd to add that much sugar at first, but, depending on the spice of your chorizo, it takes some of the bite out and balances it out. A 1/4 cup of canola oil might seem like a lot too - we probably used a bit less - but, again, it depends on the chorizo: the sausage we got didn't really have too much fat (thanks Whole Foods!), and, because you'll have to refrigerate any leftover cornbread because of the meat, you'll need just a tad bit more than you'd think in order to keep it from drying out in the cold.

12 more days to go! Here's the accompanying song for this trial:
Calypso King & the Soul Investigators (the same Soul Investigators that back up Nicole Willis) - "Greasy Pork"

Here's a Mos Def related track as well to recap the week. Truly one of the best hip hop shows I've seen. The guy's an ENTERTAINER.

Fela Kuti - "Fear Not For Man"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 2 - Food & Wine

After this, my sophomore foray into the world of cornbread, I felt a general buzz of confidence. I've messed up my fair share of pies, pastries, etc., so a 2 & 0 for edible product might have gone to my head. That, of course, didn't last long.

The day after I made this second cornbread, from a recipe in Food & Wine's February 2008 issue, a co-worker of mine showed up with a gigantic loaf of red pepper/cayenne cornbread that pretty much made me weep. Moist, spicy, light...sigh. It's just more proof that these cornbread trials may have a ways to go.

Here's the Food & Wine details:

Toasted Cornmeal Corn Bread
2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
1.5 cups whole milk
2/3 cup honey, warmed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350. Oil a 9x13 inch pan. In a medium skillet, toast the cornmeal overly moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk with the honey and eggs. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and whisk until moistened. Add the butter and whisk until smooth. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 30 minutes until golden.

The opening blurb to the recipe reads: "Toasting the cornmeal first gives the corn bread a heartier flavour." Well, if it did, I didn't notice, 'cause a 2/3 cup of honey IS A LOT OF HONEY. Well, at least for a cornbread.

For the most part, the sweetness caught us a bit off guard, and this cornbread really ended up being alot more like a loaf than anything you would have as a side. It would go well with a spicy main, but probably too filling to be a side in most meals. Unless, of course, you can pack that shizz away (hot dog eating champ, I'm lookin' at you). I'd either cut the honey by a half next time, or use the recipe for cornmeal muffins.

The coarseness of the cornmeal does take abit of getting used to. I gave my co-worker a sample, and the bite-i-ness of it took her aback. It does make the cornbread more dense and substantial, so changing to a fine grain might be another way to make this cornbread a bit less of a grandstand on the table.

One note: the butter. Oh, man: the butter. There's just no understatement of how far a bit (or a lot) of butter can take any type of baking, and we really noticed the difference with this cornbread. It was just perfectly moist, but after hearing that my co-worker puts sour cream in her cornbread, I'm curious to see how much further I can take this.

Anyway, here's what I was listening to when I made this:
Ballin' Jack - "Found a Child" (specifically, that break at 2:11, which I could put on repeat all day)

As an endnote, it's funny to compare issues of Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Gourmet through the past two years. Has anyone else noticed how skimpy these magazines have gotten? Eat Me Daily has. Ad pages were down in the latter two magazines by 40% and 51.9%, respectively. That's a huge drop, and not a good sign for an industry that's been at a crossroads. But why the heck is Conde Nast running two competing magazines, anyway? Just sayin'. 'Course, if Bon Appetit continues to run awesome pieces like this David Chang (Momofuku) comic, I'd be really disappointed to see it go.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Cornbread Trials: Pt 1 - Saveur's Texas Issue

My sister's in the midst of planning a full-tilt barbecue for my nephew's first birthday. A barbecue is not something we take lightly, having been indoctrinated in the world of all-things-smoky during our parent's tenure in Texas. When she asked me to be in charge of the cornbread, I took this task to heart: I've got a little less than a month to produce the perfect product.

I love me some cornbread. It's not quite the same as having a dinner roll or baguette to accompany a meal. Cornbread is a feature unto its own. It's got its own heartbeat, enough to straddle the line between main and side, and not to be treated as an afterthought. Anyone that's had it warm, either fried in bacon grease or with a pat of butter will attest to that.

The first version we tested was from Saveur's July 2009 Texas issue:

Jalapeno Cornbread
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups flour
1.5 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp and 1 tsp baking powder
2.5 tsp salt
2 cups milk
0.5 cup corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
0.75 cup fresh/frozen corn kernels
0.75 cup sliced pickled jalapenos
2 tbsp butter

Heat oven to 425. Whisk cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt in a large bowl. Whisk in milk, corn oil, and eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in corn and jalapenos. Heat a 12" cast-iron skillet; grease with butter. Pour in batter, bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.

I made a few variations to the ingredients. First off, I'm not a huge fan of overly sweet cornbread, and prefer mine to be on the savory side. 1.5 tbsp of sugar seemed like an awful lot to me, so I reduced it to 1 tbsp, particularly as I wasn't sure how sweet the corn would be. For the corn, I picked up a few fresh ears of 2 colour corn grown locally, which didn't end up being nearly as sweet as I thought it would (an ear of peaches and cream corn or yellow corn probably would've been sweeter). One medium-sized cob turns out to yield roughly 0.75 cup.

Pickled jalapenos also ain't the easiest to fine, or, moreover, I was way too lazy to look for it on a Saturday afternoon and thought fresh jalapenos would work out just fine. My brother-in-law also has a heightened sensitivity to spice, so I cut that amount down to 2 jalapenos, which I assume would be about a third of a cup, tops.

If you've never made cornbread before, it bakes quick. 35 minutes is probably a bit on the high side; mine was probably done around the 25 to 30 minute mark. I didn't have a 12" cast-iron skillet - those bitches can be mad expensive - so I just used our standard 9" square baking pan.

Going over the recipe, you'll notice one thing: there's little to no butter involved. In fact, the only butter that is used is really just to grease the pan. This cornbread relies mostly on the milk and corn oil for its moistness, which is why you'll want to opt for milk with a higher fat content than usual (I went with 2% as we mostly drink skim; bachelors/husbands with tolerant wives will want to opt for homo).

We bought a little cornbread from Whole Foods just to have a frame of reference (it's the little round one in the picture above). Their's was definitely more in the sweet variety, and had little niblets of corn. For a cornbread that's probably been sitting on the shelf for at least a day, Whole Foods does a good job of keeping it moist.

Overall, ours ended up alright, though I'd probably add in that missing 0.5tbsp of sugar that I skimped out on, particularly next to the Whole Foods one. It might not be the most health-conscious decision, but I'd probably also add in a little butter for that added umph, but the fact that it didn't really have any certainly kept the missus happy. I'm also a bit curious to see what the skillet adds to the whole thing, so I'm off to go get one today...maybe.

Here's a Gaturs track to accompany: "Gator Bait"

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Madrid Eats: Dassa Bassa

For our last night in Madrid - and Spain - we really wanted to go all out and go nuts, and where better than in the land where molecular gastronomy has entered the household vernacular? We searched online for some quality nouveau Spanish cuisine, and Dassa Bassa seemed to be a popular choice.

Dassa Bassa is the home of Dario Barrio, whom NY Times calls one of Madrid's "five disciples of the haute cuisine guru Ferran Adria," which only emphasizes what an enormous impact Adria has had on an entire culture. It's hard to over-exaggerate just how famous Adria is in his native land, and even harder to think of any one chef that has so much impact on any one culture save for, perhaps, Escoffier. In any case, Barrio is a young, rising star in Madrid, and host of Todos Contra El Chef, a Spanish version of UK's Britain versus Chef, where spectators challenge Barrio to a duel. It doesn't hurt matters much that Barrio's one handsome dude:

We found Dassa Bassa on the outskirts of the Salamanca district, which is where the posh and glamorous reside in Madrid. If you've ever wondered where the beautiful people roam in Spain, this is it. We visited the restaurant the day before to ensure we could get reservations (note to the wise: just ask for a reservation at 9:30. It's late for us N.American folks, but too early for the locals to entertain). It's not the easiest place to find, and it looks like a tiny lounge from the street level. However, the actual restaurant is below the street level, in a maze of old cellar rooms that have been completely modernized and redone. The manager, proud of just how gorgeous the space is, wanted to give us a tour of the restaurant that afternoon, and who were we not to oblige?

It's always somewhat unnerving when you arrive at a place close to 10pm and the only other table in sight are seniors, but that's Madrid for you. We sat to an serving of olives and yucca chips, which turned out to be the first course of the tasting menu without us having even ordered it (we did). The place slowly filled up, mostly with other tourists in the know, with locals following close behind.

Once we had ordered, the next item really set the stage: the gin fizz. I've never had a tasting menu where a cocktail is one of the courses, but I can't say I'm opposed. The shot glass was filled with seltzer water, with the gin encapsulated in this bubble sphere floating at the top. Meant to be downed in one gulp, the orb of gin bursts in the mouth with the rush of seltzer water to mix.

A little espresso cup of a chilled ginger and leak soup followed. Soup in shot glasses isn't exactly a new thing, but this one was more like a foamy drink than a pedestrian chilled soup, and refreshing after a day in the summer sun.

After four starters, the actual courses commenced with a gazpacho. Instead of the usual tomato soup that college kids serve at their first few grown-up dinner parties, this gazpacho had a healthy base of strawberry thrown into the mix, which made it much more of an interesting flavour combination than expected.

I've only ever known bonito as those little dried flakes that adorn so many Japanese dishes, but here we were served an actual piece of bonito, which is similar to a tuna. Bonito is a dry, firm fish, and it would be pretty easy to overcook. This bonito, though, was well-prepared, and served with a citrus sorbet of sorts, and a bed of peppers. This gave a great dose of sweetness to the dish that would have otherwise been on the meat-y, protein-y side.

To keep the dry fish theme going, the next course was hake, which, of course, was also perfectly prepared. I remember this as being served in a bonito broth, which had the right amount of saltiness that the traditional dried and salted hake has.

I cannot and will not cease in extolling the virtues of suckling pig. Every culture has some version of the suckling pig, and for good reason: there's very few dishes that are more perfect. Dassa Bassa's version had layers of suckling pork sitting atop a cornmeal type base, which in itself was in a slightly sweet sauce. On top, the most crucial element: the crackling (oh, GOD, the crackling!), with another citrus-y glob that was reminiscent of that atop the bonito, but at room temperature. Simply perfect.

I don't remember much about dessert number one - it has been almost two months - but I do remember a good dose of gin, tying it to the gin fizz served at the beginning, a layer of sweet ice, and feeling like I needed to take a picture of all the layers involved. There you go. A good palate cleanser to transition.

I do remember slightly more about dessert number two, a chocolate fudge. It doesn't look like much from the picture, but underneath the surface of chocolate fudge pudding was an array of nuts, chocolate, cake-y goodness underneath.

Things ended off with a selection of petite fours, which I feel should really end all dinners around the world, everywhere. These included a selection of truffles, passionfruit marshmallows, and cookies.

After dinner, we headed upstairs and chatted with the manager, who had remembered us from the day before. It's great meeting someone that is so obviously proud of his establishment, and he took his time in asking us for our opinion of the meal. We signed the guestbook, and found ourselves checking onto our flight home a few hours later, knowing full well that it'll be a long, long time before we find another place that matches all of the culinary treats we found in Spain.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Madrid Eats: Estado Puro

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for style over substance. I'll be much more forgiving of a mediocre meal if I'm eating it in an impeccable environment, 'cause let's face it: a great dining experience ain't just about the food.

For example, when we sat down for a quick snack at the Rene Sofia addition, it really wasn't about the food, but about the incredible Jean Nouvel-designed room that we sat in.

Of course, it helps when you order something as brilliant as a lomo sandwich. It's pretty hard to fuck up a grilled pork chop sandwich, and I really haven't had a bad one yet. Eating it in that room just elevated it to a higher level than it probably otherwise would've been at.

When it came to Estado Puro, however, style wasn't all that there ever was. The restaurant is one gorgeous place, tucked in one of the NH Hotels a block away from the Rene Sofia, and designed by local architects James and Mau - it's a pretty fun and stunning room. But more importantly, Estado Puro is the brainchild of Paco Roncero, one of the upper echalon of Spanish chefs.

Roncero was one of Ferran Adria's El Bulli proteges from the late 90s, and probably one of the more famed non-Adria chef to come out of the renowned restaurant. Since then, Roncero has made a name for himself in Madrid, chiefly with the Casino de Madrid and NH Hotels. Estado Puro is Roncero's stab at re-thinking traditional tapas.

We sat down outside in the sidewalk patio during an intense summer afternoon, watched British tourists cut the line and steal our table and one of our adjacent tables lose a purse to a petty thief. After the drama settled, we went with the "Meat Bombs": a take on the traditional meat and potato croquettes. These weren't so brilliantly conceptualized so much as they were brilliantly executed (and plated), with there being a great balance of meat and a delicate, crispy potato exterior, miles away from mere average croquettes that end up being a mash potato nightmare.

Throughout our visit, we noticed that Russian salads were a ubiquitous option on every menu, which didn't seem overly obvious to us. As far as I can gather, the Russian salad is really all about the mayonnaise, with the rest of the contents being a toss up of egg, meats/seafood and the quality dependent on freshness and balance. I can't remember much about this version, but probably mostly because I'm not sure what the attraction of the Russian salad is to begin with.

We also got the Cantabrian anchovies with tomato and basil. Cantabrian anchovies are highly sought-after, and probably a bit politically incorrect to order as their numbers are now quite low (we didn't know until, um, today), and are cured longer, giving them a bit of a firmer, drier taste than the typical oil soaked fillet one sees in grocery store tins this side of the Atlantic. Roncero is apparently also known for his mastery of olive oil, and these simple two/three bite anchovies saw amazing compliment in the olive oil, basil and tomato that they sat on. Probably the best anchovies I've ever had.

The true star, though, was this dish: pig trotters with cuttlefish "noodles." The pig trotters were, quite simply, one of the most memorable items I have ever eaten. The meat, fat and skin of the trotters simply melted in the mouth, into an incredible mix of all-things-pork that dwelled in the outermost points of extravagance. The cuttlefish 'noodles' might seem unnecessary, but they gave a good contrasting balance to the richness of the trotters, despite being resolutely rich in themselves. This was a dish that exuded pure substance, and rendered the surrounding stylishness a non-thought.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Madrid Eats: Mercado de San Miguel

Quite often the simplest thing can be the hardest to write about. Despite the fact that we tend to visit markets wherever we end up in the world, I tend not to write about them, so as not to reduce an awesome experience into a shopping list. I would be remiss, though, if I didn't tell you about the Mercado de San Miguel.

My shitty internet research reveals that the Mercado is housed in a late 1800s/early 1900s building, which probably is true, but the powers that be have updated the place into a modern miracle. Nestled on the outer boundary between La Latina and Los Austrias, just a few minutes away from Plaza Mayor, the Mercado isn't the largest market, or the most exotic of markets, but simply one of the best conceptualized market I've seen in awhile.

I love me some Granville Island, but imagine if they got rid of everything extraneous, and concentrated all the great parts of the market into one medium-sized venue that (drumroll) SERVES BOOZE. I'm no lush, but Lord knows I hate all the restrictions the Man has placed between alcohol and my consumption of it. To add that extra proverbial cherry on top, the place is open late, which works out gangbusters for everyone.

The market generally works much like a cafeteria. There's a stall that serves fine wines of all sorts, another for tapas and other cooked items, one for cheeses, a vermouth bar, etcetera, etcetera, and one simply collects whatever they feel like for dinner/post drinks grub/whatev.

Most of the stalls stay open through the night, but there's a few that close up. There's not a lot of people looking to eat dried bacalao right at the market, but there's always an audience for little sausages in every corner of the world.

One of the more popular stalls was the oyster one, which was serving an array of oysters on the cheap: it was something like 2 euros for 6.

Another was a dessert stall, with fresh macaroons, gelato, chocolate, name it.

What was it about the Mercado that makes it work? It's not the design, and, despite how awesome each stall was, it's not any particular item that they sell. Instead, it's a market planned around a different idea: the market as a communal space or a venue, rather than simply one of commerce. Contrasted with a more traditional market, each stall was more geared towards selling items one could enjoy right then and there, as opposed to produce, meats or other groceries. The net result, and one that works, is a place where people gather and stay, rather than a place where people just shop.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Madrid Eats: Mom n' Pop Stylee on Calle de la Cava Baja and at El Mollete

Our hotel was just a bit north of the La Latina district of Madrid, which apparently is a more culturally-mixed area (read: more immigrants). This, of course, means that there's a ton of food to be had, and the area is known for its plentitude of restaurants, both tapas/pinxtos and full out ones (word to the wise: if you order a drink without ordering food right away, most places will give you a free tapas dish to nosh on until you order). On our walk there, we passed by a confectionary with basically a huge window box full of potato chips they were making on site - always a good sign of the destination ahead.

One major street for eats is Calle de la Cava Baja, which is lined with restaurant after restaurant for a good stretch. Of course, it being Spain, most of these restaurants were closed during our mid-afternoon stroll: as much as some may say that the siesta is disappearing as a norm, there's more than enough places that observe it to prove them wrong. There were way more places closed for siesta in Madrid than in Barcelona, but given the much hotter temperatures in Madrid, it's not hard to understand.

For the life of me, I can't remember the name of the place we went to and didn't write it down, probably a result of sunstroke and sheer forgetfulness. But we did find a cute little place next to La Camarilla, one of the well-known tapas places in Madrid (we didn't go sheerly because we didn't know). This was a small little wine bar, with the owners busy watering the plants in the restaurant as we walked in. A little cupboard shrine had odd memorabilia that we figured were family keepsakes. It was kinda more like eating in someone's living room, which was fine by us.

As with most places, the daily menu on the chalkboard featured just as many (if not more) choices than the permanent menu, and we chose a few raciones - basically appetizer dishes for 2 or 3. Given our immense love of all things starch and cheese, we got this cheese toast with grapes. It should be no surprise that it came, of course, with olive oil drizzled on top, y'know, cause it needed it.

You can't be in Spain and not eat at least one sausage, and I ain't saying that in a euphemism-sense. This was an amazing chorizo or similar type sausage, drowned in oil, and served with enough bread to sop all of the goodness up.

I was also super curious about squid served in its own ink. As common as it is, I'd never had it before, and had kinda built it up in my head. This didn't quite live up to it, mostly because the sauce was thickened to the point of being a syrup, and kinda had this sweet/starch thing going that just seemed bland. With that said, it came with rice cooked in milk, which was by some of the best rice I've ever had (and, trust me: I've had a lot of rice in my life), so much so that I had to take a picture of it.

To be honest, I didn't think of the place as being much other than a good afternoon break out of the sun. I could probably characterize the majority of the places we went to in Madrid like that. Apart from a few highlights, I'll probably remember the city more of its museums and the posh Salamanca district than for its eats.

El Mollete, though, was one of these highlights. The place was only two streets over from our hotel, and yet the concierge hadn't heard of it. The ol' World Wide Web, however, had: it had made the NY Times' "36 Hours in Madrid" list as one of the places to go to:

"Don’t head to El Mollete without a reservation. The restaurant, set in an old charcoal cellar, has space only for 26 diners and is always full (Calle de la Bola, 4; 34-91-547-7820). Put yourself in the hands of the owner, Tomás Blanco, and hope he will serve you mollete (fried bread in oil), Gorgonzola croquettes, artichokes and scallops, and, of course, huevos rotos. No credit cards."

Other reviews I'd read basically agreed that the place lived up to the hype. It is a tiny, tiny restaurant, and the earliest dinner reservation (they're open for breakfast too) one can get is 9pm...not that anyone actually eats dinner that early in Madrid. With the after-opera crowd, it is next to impossible to get in unless you show up way later or have the patience to line up. There's a few larger tables on the top floor, maybe two small ones on the bottom, but basically you're sitting on stools or its standing room only.

We didn't order the mollete as they either ran out or only serve it during breakfast - not that I didn't pout about it for a split sec. We never went for breakfast either - our hotel had free breakfast - but apparently El Mollete is known across the city for having one of the best tortillas around. We couldn't read the menu or the daily chalkboard, but did as the NY Times suggested and let the owner/manager pick for us. The dude is as charming and down to earth as it comes: the staff is basically just him serving tables, a bartender, and (I'm assuming) one lady we saw come out of the kitchen. One picture of Francis Ford Coppola adorns the wall, and that's it. There's no fuss or muss here: it's about the food.

The crappy thing, then, is that our photos just don't do it justice. The place is dimly lit and small, and we didn't want our camera flash to annoy everyone. Don't hold our crappy pictures make your mind up for you. Particularly when it comes to this Galician octopus dish, which is quite simply one of the two best octopus dishes I have ever had (the other being at Cibo in Vancouver). The octopus sits in a lake of olive oil with potatoes, paprika sprinkled on top. The octopus was cooked to perfection, tender, juicy and brilliantly flavored with just enough saltiness to contrast the natural sweetness of the potato. The immense quantity of olive oil might put some off, but when you're using olive oil of this quality, you can learn to love it.

El Mollete is apparently known for eggs, so we had the huevos rotos too. Huevos rotos is kind of a broken egg (scrambled isn't quite right, but it's in that vein), cooked with potato. It might just sound like your standard eggs/hashbrowns breakfast combo, but there's something that just differentiates it. It's either the paprika or immense quantity of olive oil (a constant theme), but it's just different. And great. I love breakfast enough to think that eggs should appear on the menu at all times of the day, and the people in Madrid tend to agree. It's hard not to when it tastes as good as this.

The last dish we had was a grilled pork chop. I had picked up the Spanish word "lomo" earlier in the day, mostly because of my fondness for a Spanish pork chop sandwich. I'm not even 100% sure that "lomo" translates to "grilled pork" in Spanish, but heck, people understand. I'm also not sure what it is about every other country and their relative expertise with pork, but we have a pretty steep learning curve ahead of us here in Canada/US (I'd say North America, but a carnitas or el pastor taco are evidence that the Mexicans get it). Anyway, this was perfectly grilled, nice and salty, and a perfect end to the meal.

I really loved El Mollete, which was certainly the best mom and pop/traditional place we went to in Spain. I'd almost advise people to go there first, and work your way down to La Latinas if necessary. There's just alot of labour and love that goes into El Mollete, and it shows, both in the service and in the food.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Madrid Eats: Casa Ciriaco

After the awesome-ness known as Bilbao, we flew down to Madrid for a few days. By this point, we were getting pretty tired of early morning flights, and weren't ready for the 35-plus weather in Madrid either. All of Madrid appears to be under construction as well, while the city prepares itself for an Olympic bid. For the most part, it's true what they say about Madrid: compared to Barcelona, the pace is more hectic, and the people more abrupt. Not necessarily in a rude way, but Madrid definitely seems to thrive more on chaos, and the people reflect it. So - I'm ashamed to admit it - we actually tried to rest a bit in Madrid, even if only to get out of the intense heat.

With that said, I had half decided that I wanted to go traditional in Madrid, and had a craving for the roast porks, bulls tail, and other meats that I had heard so much about. Our hotel was right outside the Opera House, which faces the Palace, and surrounded by restaurants that have been around for the past century.

One of these places is Casa Ciriaco, which has been around long enough to witness an attempted assassination of King Alfonso XIII in 1906, and forms part of the setting for Valle-Inclan's novel Luces de Bohemia. We figured its longevity must have been well founded, and had read that it tended to be the least touristy of the grand dames of the old restaurant scene, being a bit further from Plaza Mayor and the Huertas district, both tourist centres. The place looks its age, an old neighbourhood restaurant that's been in need of an upgrade for awhile, long enough so that it would be a shame to do so now. Pictures of famed bullfighters, the royal mum, and other celebs from yesteryear decorate the walls, with the servers having probably worked there longer than I've been alive.

I'd read a few reviews, and the consensus was to try the Castellian soup, try the roast pork, try the bull's tail. As luck would have it, none of these things were available that day, so we tried a few other dishes that I'd read about.

One was an egg drop soup with bits of bread in it, which had an interesting mix of salty and a hint of sour to it, seasoned with healthy amounts of oil to make the medicine go down. It was good, but definitely far too much for one person to be able to finish it in one sitting.

The other dish was artichokes, which were cooked, tossed in olive oil, and topped with bits of jamon. Again, a good dish, but something one would have to share lest you get sick of it.

Without a digital SLR or good lighting, most of our food pictures are underlit and kinda look yellow. These pictures, though, pretty much capture what the dishes looked like. We both ordered chicken (in hindsight, I should've ordered the tripe): one roast, one stewed. I can remember the roast chicken being cooked perfectly, and the stewed chicken in one of the thickest gravies I've ever ingested. Beyond that, there wasn't too much more to make it memorable, but one can definitely see how the restaurant would be a Sunday family dinner fave.

We ended with a traditional Spanish flan or creme caramel. I don't think I've ever had a bad creme caramel, but this one seemed extra good, rich and caramel-y.

Overall, I can understand the nostalgia that would sustain a place like Casa Ciriaco, but honestly, I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless you were traveling older folk.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bilbao Eats: Restaurante Guggenheim

As museums go, the Guggenheim Bilbao is pretty incredible. The place is something to behold from inch to inch: the Gehry building, the artwork outside (including this Koons flower pup), the artwork inside... it's really overwhelming, and a good example of how an institution that makes that large of an artistic statement will eventually mould a city's identity.

When it comes to Basque cuisine, most will tell you to make the drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian, which has more Michelin stars per capita than any other place on earth (for example, one of the fathers of new Spanish cuisine, Arzak, hails from San Sebastian). But when Food & Wine magazine calls Josean Martínez Alija, the chef at the Restaurante Guggenheim, "Europe's most thrilling young chef," you know you gotsta check it out.

The restaurant, located on the second floor of the museum, features a more standard bistro out front, but with the formal dining room in the back looking over the river. The place is posher than most museum restaurants; I can't remember chilling out at the Glenbow while sitting on Gehry designed chairs.

We both ordered the tasting menu, which we try to do in order to really get a sense of where the chef is coming from. This started with a chilled cranberry juice or tea, spiced lightly with cinnamon, which was just sweet enough to have flavour, but just neutral enough to serve as a palate cleanser. At the same time, the server put a huge aspirin pill in front of us, and poured a touch of water on top. After a minute, the pill grew into a wet napkin (the picture shows it just after the water was poured on it). If this was the opening act, we were anticipating some really crazy shit to go down next.

As an amuse bouche, we were served a small piece of bread that had been infused with herb oil (can't remember which herb). When I say infused, I don't mean that it was merely soaking in herb oil: this bread tasted as though it had been completely made out of herb oil, but with nary a drop appearing on the plate. And yet, at the same time, the bread wasn't soggy at all, but light and chewy instead.

Alija is known for emphasizing on local, with the menu spotlighting certain 'slow food' dishes. This white asparagus dish exemplified this: the white asparagus is lightly grilled, eaten with your hands, and accompanied by a juniper and chevril 'gel' dipping sauce, which really helped to heighten the natural flavor of the asparagus without over-complicating the mix of flavours.

The next dish played on the same theme, but took it to a whole other level. The menu listed it as "roasted aubergine flavoured with 'makil goxo', based on a yogurt emulsion* 'Farga' olive, a thousand years [sic] old olive tree)." As far as I can tell, this was an amazingly slow braised eggplant, cooked to the point of ridiculous tenderness but without having the eggplant fall apart, with a licorice flavoured glaze, and plated like a painting with the yogurt emulsion on the side, which helped to balance the strong licorice taste.

I can't overemphasize how beautiful this dish was plated, and wish that the picture did it more justice. At the same time, I'm not usually a licorice fan, but the level of thought and care put into this dish really elevated the eggplant above it, and it is, by far, one of the most memorable things I have eaten in my life. Here's a video of Alija speaking at a Pecha Kucha night: I don't understand a lick of Spanish, but if you forward to 3:35 or so, you can see the plating of this very dish, and the thoughtfulness involved.

The crazy flavors were toned down for the next course, which worked well as a bridge to the meat courses coming up. I could just describe it as a roast avocado in a squid broth, but the menu listing does it alot more justice: "vegetarian foie. (avocado), with a juice of baby squid, acidulated and coriandered." If you've never done yourself the favour of putting an avocado on the grill, do it: it brings out an incredible butteriness and sweetness to an avocado that can't be beat. You almost can't go back to having it raw, and it works well in guacamole too. This avocado was lightly salted, but the squid broth really took it somewhere else, adding an immense richness to the dish that made it something quite special.

A fish course came next: steamed hake resting on a wild garlic and caper sauce, with a touch of lemon and herb. Hake can often be quite dry, but this came out as moist as a halibut.

My meat course was "Thoughts of lamb grilled over a fire of dried vine cuttings, on a base of Tolosa beans and hints of hot spice." Or, in other words, lamb brains. For the most part, brains taste alot like sweetbreads (which are other glands), but these seemed to be even softer and mushier. In other words, they're certainly not for the squeamish, and the light foam in the sauce probably ain't gonna help either. I do remember this being quite amazing, but I probably remember it more as the time I ate brains.

My lovely companion, quite understandably, wanted to sub in another option. Instead of brains, she had a course of Iberian pork. I can't remember what this was served with, but take note of the colour: this pork was served medium rare. Again, not for the squeamish, but the rareness of the pork did help to keep the natural taste of this dish intact, and made it quite a rich, wonderful thing (well, the one piece I tried, anyway).

As a pre-dessert course, we had slices of pear with hazelnut, poached in a "Garmillas" cheese "serum" (whatever that is) with elder flower. This was a good touch of sweetness to bring us to dessert, but without being a diabetic, syrupy nightmare than many poached pears end up being. Nice, delicate and light.

The dessert continued on the licorice theme from the eggplant course, with a licorice ice cream, black olive ashes, and a "casein" of aromatic herbs. The casein is an amazingly rich cream, which was pretty necessary considering how strong licorice can be. I remember this dessert as being mostly about those two flavors, and don't remember much about the black olive ashes.

If there's one thing I love about getting a tasting menu, it's the free stuff that you're often served as well. Post dessert is an amazing thing that can bring tears to my eyes. This was either a berry-flavored mousse or a pannacotta of some sort, with a nice little Pocky-style breadstick thing topped with pistachio. By this point, we were full to the point of obscenity (considering this was a late lunch), so I can't say too much about it.

After years of having Adria and molecular gastronomy re-make Spanish cuisine in their image, it's interesting to see Alija and what he's doing in the wake: where do you go from such a notorious movement? If the tasting menu is any indication, Alija emphasizes the "naturaleza" elements of what both Adria brothers have been doing, but in a way that, despite all the technique and complexity that must go on behind it, showcases simplicity, or, as Food and Wine put it, "aggressively purist." The odd thing of it is, Alija also makes it seem completely decadent.

Bilbao Eats: Victor Montes

After Barcelona, we took a quick flight up to into Basque country and landed in Bilbao. I didn't know too much about Bilbao at first, and really only knew it for the Guggenheim. Guidebooks on the country don't help much: most have a quick paragraph about Bilbao and move onto the bigger cities. We weren't expecting much else, and planned for a quick trip in and out: land, go to the Guggenheim, have dinner, wake up and leave.

For the most part, our trip pretty much went as such, given the short amount of time we had, but Bilbao ended up being one of my favorite points of our whole trip. The city's picturesque, an old port town that, when in need of an upgrade, went to the ends of the spectrum and became an architecture wet dream. When your city's main tourist feature is the Guggenheim, that has its effects, and the city seemed like the perfect mix of quaint and modern.

Case in point: the picture above is a good overview of what central Bilbao looks like. A grand river flowing through, with downtown and the Guggenheim on one side and the more historic part of the city on the other, with one of the main bridges designed by Calatrava (who also did the airport, one of the prettiest I've ever been in) and the other framed by the museum. Smattered around the city were these tile pieces by famed French graffiti artist Invader.

We stayed in a little boutique hotel at the edge of Casco Viejo, the historic quarter. At the heart of Casco Viejo lies Plaza Nuevo, which is a giant square courtyard with various tapas restaurants lining the perimeter. In contrast with Madrid's Plaza Mayor, which is a tourist nightmare (when we were there, various Disney mascots were baking in the 35C plus weather), Plaza Nuevo feels like a local heartbeat, certainly what one would imagine when "public space" or "communal space" gets bountied about by urban planners. Heck, the only thing missing were accordion players.

One of these restaurants is Victor Montes, a classy old traditional Basque joint that exemplifies all that is good in an old, established neighbourhood bar/restaurant that has stuck to its guns for eons.

For that added touch of familiarity, the 'decor' at Victor Montes worked wonderfully. Generally, the whole place is lined with aged wines and spirits of all kinds; this picture is only one small fraction of the whole place. The only area of wall space that didn't have shelves of bottles had legs of jamon hanging against them.

We stumbled into Victor Montes early in the morning, which in Spain is about 11am. The main bartender/manager was busy slicing jamon for the day, but gave us a warm invite and asked us to help ourselves to a slice of tortilla, a Spanish omelette. Instead of the Spanish omelette you might find in diners here (ie an omelette with peppers), the tortilla is more of a deep dish affair, with layers of potatoes baked in egg. I ate a lot of these in Spain (thanks, hotels with free breakfast!), but this one was the best: seasoned perfectly, with just the right amount of savory playing against the natural sweetness of a good egg, and topped with a slice of jamon.

Later that night, we tried out other tapas (or pintxos, as they're referred to in Basque) places, including Wallpaper's pick Irrintzi (just okay). Most Basque places simply leave them lining the bar: grab what you want, and they count the toothpicks stuck in each tapa afterwards. This system works fantastic, because it basically felt like a glutton's dream come true - an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord with little guilt involved. Afterawhile, we found ourselves back at Victor Montes. For starters, we really just wanted to go to a great bar, and this place was an easy pick. In most places, when you order a glass of wine, your choices are basically just red, white or rose if you don't speak any Spanish. Our fave bartender was kind enough to give us different pours of wines from Rioja, explaining each one despite the place being packed to the gills. Also, based on the tortilla, we figured they would have great classic tapas.

We weren't wrong: Victor Montes had some of the best classic tapas we had in Spain. We had every combination of small bun/croissant, jamon, baby eel, cheese, sardine, anchovy, crab, egg, you could think of. My fave was the one that looks like a sunny side egg in the picture; instead, it was cheese with a fig paste and bits of jamon sprinkled on top, playing on the egg appearance. If the tapas aren't enough, there's a full restaurant as well, and an offshoot deli/wine store located at the other end of the square.

For the most part, I knew enough not to get too sour grapes in comparing all the grand features of Spain to the limits of home. There's no sense in bitching about the relative lack of street life in Vancouver (I won't even begin to think about Calgary), because there's just not the same type of population density or history...let's wait another hundred years before we compare. But these tapas places really do put our after-work drinks places to shame, don't they?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Can Ros

After a few nights of nouveau Spanish cuisine, we were hurtin' for a paella. We asked a few locals where one can get a good paella in Barcelona, and the inevitable answer was always "go to Valencia." That just plain wasn't helpful, Spaniards.

Now that we live in The Age of All Info All The Time, a quick search landed us at Paella Professor. If you've got a whole blog devoted to one dish, I figure you gots to be a pro. Dr. Paella assured us Interpeeps that good paella does indeed exist in Barcelona, and mostly in Barceloneta. It's no coincidence, then, that this was the second most popular answer when we asked other locals.

Barceloneta is basically the port and beach part of Barcelona. The port side is a hop, skip and jump from Born, and features a big mall, a museum, and, uh, boats. The beach side has a W hotel under construction that looks like it could easily have been in Dubai, clubs that line one end of the beach, and the Gehry fish.

The contemporary architect that gets bagged on most seems to be Gehry. Fair enough, but he's payin' the bills, which is more than most people can say. Dude took this fish to Tiffany's and has enough cash to buy the Elephant Man's bones from the Estate, so there ya go, haters. This fish is in the middle of an odd mini-mall complex that has mostly nice nightclubs/lounges as tenants.

As you'd expect, then, the whole area features high with seafood joints, and that inevitably means paella. The one tricky thing about finding a good paella in Barcelona is every single place has one, mostly to draw in the tourists. There's a lot of crappy paellas: it's common to find a paella with exactly two shrimp, two mussels, two clams, two blah blah get the idea. It takes the soul out of it, and a good paella is a pretty soulful thing. Can Ros was recommended on a few different lists (including Paella Prof). It's located on a quiet side street that takes you from the port side to the beach side, and it feels more like being in a small beach town than in a bustling world city.

We got to Can Ros at 8pm or so, as we didn't want to miss the sunset on the beach, and we were still one of the first tables in. The place is old school traditional, and you get the sense that they've got their act down and don't mess around much.

With a paella on the way, we didn't order too much else. But, in keeping with habit, we ordered the tomato bread. It wasn't much to rave about, and the picture shows it all: two slices of good bread, two tomatoes, and a jar of mayoaioli. I really just wanted to show this so that you get a sense of how amazing the Inopia and Bubo versions are.

I also had to get the razor clams, cause I just can't get enough of them. I've never had razor clams this fat and meaty, and that's not even an inappropriate pun. Apparently a lesser family of razor clams are avail in the Pacific NW, but I've never seen them in Vancouver. People, we have to get on this.

To forewarn you, the picture of the paella doesn't seem like much. What we didn't realize was: (i) Can Ros does table-side paella service, meaning that they bring out the gorgeous paella pan to show off, and then serve it for you, and (ii) yours truly is too slow to take a picture once he's got a day of sun and a glass of wine (or two) in him.

What I can say about the paella is that it indeed was THE BEST PAELLA I HAVE EVER HAD. I've tried to make paella at home, thought I did an okay job, but I'm going to toss our pan out now. The rice was perfect: flavorful, with just the right amount of saltiness and acidity, soft but still slightly chewy. The rice's importance in a paella cannot be overstated: fuck it up and you've ruined the whole thing. Make it amazing, and you serve it in the heaping portions you see here.

This was the "Fisherman's Paella", and chock full of seafood. When I had first asked our server as to its contents, he had explained that it only had fish, but we soon realized that "fish" included "shellfish." This paella had everything, including giant crayfish, which isn't a usual thing. The key part of it, though, was that the seafood wasn't overcooked, which tends to be a common problem with run-of-the-mill paellas.

Can Ros has a lot of other seafood features on the menu, many of them non-paella. If I were that Japanese hot dog eating champ, I would've ordered the whole frigging menu. Instead, I had to take a picture of what the table across from us ordered, which was a seafood feast. I took this picture after they had already taken a few items to their plate: when it originally came out, it was probably closer to a 7 inch high seafood bounty of everything one can find underwater. Another table ordered a fish baked in sea salt. It might take an unhealthy amount of gluttony and envy to be eating the best paella ever and still crave every other dish around you in the whole restaurant, but I defy you to not feel the same way. It ain't weakness, it's instinct. After Can Ros, I can only imagine how amazing Valencia must be - now that we're home, I'm trying my damnedest not to think about it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

MJ Sleeves

(1) I remember being in grade school when the red MJ Beat It jacket went retail. It was full of zippers, and you could detach the sleeves. This is not a good feature when you are 7 or 8. Soon, the playground was littered with red (or black with red trim) sleeves. The lost and found was full of 'em.

(2) I loved the Moonwalker video game for Sega Genesis. LOVED. Even more than I loved Golden Axe, which it clearly ripped off. Instead of the little gnome/elf thing coming around with sacks of extra magic or health points as in Golden Axe, Bubbles the Chimp would come out and you had to pick him up. Instead of magic thunder bolts killing your enemies, you could make MJ dance and the bad guys would (assumedly) die of exhaustion copying his moves. Sheer brilliance.

(3) Without disputing the indisputable fact that MJ was, by all accounts, nuts, the dude was acquitted on charges that had a shaky evidential basis in the first place. I still remember the bit from Mos Def's "Mr. Nigga":

"You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna/ Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter/ Same press kickin dirt on Michael's name/ Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holdin hands/ Sit back and just bug, think about that/ Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?"

(4) Here are a few of the mixes from the Japanese Soul Source series, which never made it over State-side. I have posted the DJ Spinna mix again and again - still one of my faves - but here are others:

J5 "Get It Together" (4Hero rmx)

J5 "Hum Along and Dance" (United Future Organization rmx)

Monday Michiru "I Wanna Be Where You Are" (J5 cover)

J5 "Darling Dear" (Muro rmx)

J5 "Ben" (Hiroshi Fujiwara & KUDO rmx)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Bubo and Bubo Bar

Nestled in La Ribera, east of La Rambla, is the neighbourhood of Born, which is apparently a revitalized neighbourhood with a rougher past. One wouldn't be able to gather that from the neighbourhood as it is today, which is hopping with tourists visiting the Museu Picasso and with locals working their way through a myriad of boutiques, designer shops, bars and restaurants. This is a hipster neighbourhood, with the new Disseny Hub Barcelona featuring exhibits on contemporary urban planning/architecture/design and the Vitra showroom within a stones throw of each other, but also where dessert reigns supreme.

When I say dessert, I'm not talking about dessert as we know it. Instead, it's dessert in a contemporary, tastemaker context, where cookie/chocolate shops like Demasie can win graphic design awards for packaging while serving amazing dark chocolate/orange biscuits.

Our favorite of these places, hands down, was Bubo. Bubo is the brainchild of Carles Mampel, who had once been at the famed Espai Sucre. Bubo is tucked behind the Santa Maria del Mar, along a boulevard lined with tapas joints, a cooking school and other boutiques.

When you enter Bubo, it's automatically clear that you are in a dessert shop operating at a completely different level than most. The fact that you can sip on champagne with your sweets doesn't hurt, either. Presentation is key: these gellies, which look alot like coloured sugar cubes, were just one minor assortment of sweets that gave the place a great technicolour appeal.

Other corners featured chocolates with hints of curry, chocolate lollipops, and so on.

We ordered two desserts, each amazingly intricate to the point where I can no longer remember all of the details. The one on the left had a mandarin orange layer with green tea caviar on top, and the red cherry looking orb on top of the one on the right was not a maraschino, but instead a molecular gastronomy type orb with a dark cherry liquid inside. Lesson learned: carry a notepad at all times, because all I can remember clearly was being in candyland heaven.

As a general rule, I never go back to the same place twice when traveling, mostly because I want to ensure that I've been to a wide array of places. But we had to go back to Bubo. To change it up, we went to Bubo Bar, which is their tapas/savory restaurant two storefronts down.

If Bubo (proper) re-conceptualizes dessert, than Bubo Bar tries to do the same thing with traditional tapas fare. For instance, the usual tomato bread that we always ordered came out as amazing bread sticks with a tomato mousse of sorts. As with all places in Spain, this version of the tomato bread also reminded us of the virtues of a good olive oil, and not to spare on its use.

We also had croquettes, which I remember being a bit different but great, though the picture we took turned out like crap. That was followed by jamon/cheese finger sandwiches with fig paste, which were again a good re-interpretation of the classic jamon tapa sandwiches we ate at more conventional Basque-fare tapas bars.

This was a bocconcini-type cheese/tomato salad nestled on top of pastry. The tomato was slightly roasted. I don't remember alot about this, mostly because we were in anticipation for the next dish.

If there's one type of seafood that I remember most fondly from Spain, it's the squid/octopus. Perfectly cooked octopus is a force to be reckoned with: juicy and tender, instead of bland and rubbery. This was a take on Galician octopus, which is usually served with a host of potatoes and swimming in olive oil, with sprinkles of paprika on top. This didn't have as much olive oil excess as other places, which was a pleasant change.

You see egg dishes alot more prevalently in Madrid, where a traditional fave is the huevos rotos, basically fried eggs mixed up with a host of potatoes. Here they had a fried egg nestled on top of a hollandaise/gravy type sauce, and it wasn't until you dug into the bottom that you realized it was resting on a bed of potatoes.

The one thing to forewarn about is that Bubo Bar has a smaller dessert choice than Bubo, mostly because they bring over what hasn't sold in that day from Bubo, which is usually very little. This was a chocolate-raspberry mousse. I remember the sticks being raspberry flavored as well.

The other dessert we had was a chocolate affair, which the website describes as a "guanaja sponge cake, guanaja cream, guanaja chocolate mousse, and guanaja chocolate crunch." I'm still not quite sure what guanaja is, but I remember this being a layer of chocolate mousse on top of a denser peanut butter cake of some sort, all resting on top of a crunchy layer.

With Bubo and Bubo Bar anchoring the area for us, we found ourselves in Born again and again each day that we were in Barcelona. North of the Santa Maria is an old market that they're tearing down, which the neighbourhood is none to happy about. So, to protest, they organize occasional concerts at the square in front of the cathedral facing the market, with graffiti artists doing these one/two hour exhibits where they made a little shack where each wall was rotated/replaced with the hour. That's the type of protest I can get behind (and I apparently did: they took my picture for some blog for their protest).

And with a small mom n' pop place that only serves hot chocolate and churros, Born is a neighbourhood I can get behind.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Barcelona Eats: La Bodegueta Provenca

North of Las Ramblas and the Placa de Catalunya lies the Passeig de Gracia, which features a couple of Gaudi-designed private residences. One can probably assume that these were posh places at the time, and that descriptor still applies to the area. High end shopping features extensively in L'Eixample (Chanel, Gucci, etc alongside cheaper faves like Muji, the ubiquitous Zara and Mango), which brings with it plenty of fine eats.

After a day of walking for hours on end, there's nothing quite as appealing as a busy local eatery in a well-groomed neighbourhood, and La Bodegueta fit that bill. The restaurant's main location is on Rambla de Catalunya, and known for its wine/vermouth selection and charcuterie. The place is small and cramped, with patrons lining up outside amidst the smokers. The overflow goes to their second location, which is kitty corner to it on Provenca.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love, love, love to drink outside. Which means I love, love, love to eat outside. The strict bylaws/zoning/bullshit that limit sidewalk cafes, restaurants, etc. in Canada don't seem to have any historical root in Europe, so wtf? Is it the cold? We gots to get right with that shit. Anyway, we ate outside, with the daily specials board behind us. Again, as with many places, the daily specials almost outnumber the items on the regular menu, so it's always hard to narrow down our choices.

Not being able to read Spanish is definitely a handicap: we really should have brought a Spanish/English dictionary with us, and there don't seem to be any good (read: free) ones on the iPhone apps. We told our waitress that we wanted sardines, and had picked something out on the menu. She explained that most of our picks were from the 'non-fresh' (ie canned/preserved) menu, but recommended these sardines (out of numerous choices) to us. It's weird eating canned food that's just as tasty as fresh food, but there ya go.

We also picked a few things off the dailies list, figuring that they were probably the freshest items for the day. Our waitress took time to attempt a translation: apparently the different kinds of clams have different names in Spanish. These were the meatier, juicier type of clams with a darker and thicker shell, lightly tossed in olive oil and cooked over the stovetop or grill until they opened. Simple and great, with just the right amount of char on the shells to give a great scent and taste to them.

I also knew that I really wanted some squid or octopus. Perfectly cooked squid or octopus is a holy wonder to behold. Tender instead of rubbery, these baby octopus were sauteed in red wine, garlic and olive oil, with a hint of smokiness to them. Probably among the best octopus we had in Spain.

We also hadn't tried any suckling pig yet, which seemed totally wrong and needed rectification. This was a more contemporary take on it, with candied pineapples to pair. I cannot emphasize how great the skin was on the pork: nice and crispy and salty. I seem to remember the sauce being apple-y or pineapple-y.

After days of eating as much as humanly possible, we toned it down for this one. Probably because we had dessert, chocolate and churros and tapas midway through the day, or maybe not. Overall, this was a great casual place for when you still want great food but without much fuss, instead of mere sustenance, and a good no hassles pick out of a neighbourhood of higher end dining.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Dos Palillos

I wouldn't normally go all the way to Europe just to have Asian food, but when we passed by Dos Palillos, I had to give it a try. It had been one of Food and Wine's travel issue picks as one of the top places to go in Barcelona, and it was on the way to Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. And continuing from the Inopia vein, it is the home of former El Bulli executive chef, Albert Raurich.

Dos Pallilos isn't the most obvious place to find: it is the restaurant in the Camper Hotel, as in Camper shoes. The hotel in itself just features a bright sign that reads "Hotel," and Dos Pallilos has a bright sign that reads "Bar." It isn't until you notice Raurich's old El Bulli chef whites displayed on the street until you realize that this is indeed the place, with a subtle sign located to the left. What's more, when you walk in from Elisabets, it looks like any other neighbourhood bar, until you realize that there's an Japanese style bar in the back, in the same color scheme as L'Atelier Joel Robuchon. Certainly a marked difference from El Bulli.

When you walk in, it's just dark and red. Only after your pupils adjust do you notice the cute little Asian affects decorating the walls, like the little rice hat jars on the wall, or the wood squids, etc. in the window boxes.

Instead of going for the fixed lunch menu, we opted to pick a few things ala carte. The chefs are also the servers. This is also novel, considering how many people travel from around the world to work with Raurich. One of our servers spoke fluent Spanish through the thickest Scottish accent you could imagine. The menu features Raurich's take on traditional Asian (mostly Chinese and Japanese) small-dishes, all of which he lumps under his co-opted usage of the term "dim sum". We tried these Chinese glazed walnuts, which you can generally find in any Asian market, sweet/spicy glazed with sesame, although these ones seemed less chemical-y than the store bought ones. It wasn't too far from the usual.

What came next, then, totally set the tone. An "Onsen Tamago," which was a slow-poached egg, cooked at 63C to emulate an egg cooked in a Japanese hot spring. The egg is then drained from the water, and placed in a dashi/bonito broth, served with shiso leaves and soy sauce crystals. Once you crack the yolk, the whole thing mixes up into something amazingly broad in flavour, though light at the same time.

We also ordered the tempura cherry tomatoes. A completely simple idea, but not one that we'd ever seen in any Japanese restaurant in Vancouver. The tempura batter was tremendously light and delicate, far better than many Japanese places we've been to.

Next came the steamed shrimp dumplings, which I don't remember much about. I do remember that they made the dumpling wrappers using "de farina de patata," which meant they had a perfect texture to them without being as doughy as in some Chinese restaurants. They were stuffed with pork and shrimp, and some other bloggers claim a bit of foie gras. I don't remember much about it, apart from being a decent dumpling, so perhaps that says it all.

My uncle in Hong Kong always claims that any good Chinese chef ought to be able to make a good char siu bao. He's somewhat right: it's hard not to overdo the bun, so as to make the whole thing too doughy, and it's even more difficult not to fuck up the BBQ pork, so as to make it too saucy or sweet. So, I had to order the BBQ pork buns at Dos Pallilos, which were completely different than anything you've ever had before.

For starters, it's completely savory, without any hint of sweetness. This is why, I suppose, they also serve the buns with a side dish of Chinese mustard, which I though was a bit unnecessary. There are also pine nuts in the mix (or was it peanuts?), which completely took it out of the ordinary. In a way, it was almost shocking.

We had also ordered a grilled Chinese braise pork belly, which took 20 minutes or so to slow grill. It's not too often that you see an executive chef actually do any of the cooking, but Raurich actually came out to handle the grill with his chef de cuisine for most of the time (his wife was busy entertaining other guests). It was probably the furthest thing I assume El Bulli's kitchen to function, so it was a pleasant surprise.

In the meantime, the chefs kept asking us if we wanted to order anything (other than booze) to snack on while we waited. During this time, we watched one chef prepare the Thai red curry razorclams right in front of us, so we ordered those as well. These were, of course, incredible. The Thai red curry was more of a light drizzle of red curry infused oil, with sea beans and seaweed to accompany. These were a real highlight: emphasizing the natural flavour of the razor clams, with the red curry notes in the background.

At long last, the Chinese braise pork belly was served. The braise was close to a traditional Chinese sweet and salty one, one that we would probably have at least twice a month growing up at home, and sort of reminiscent of a traditional Shanghainese braised pork hock. Coupled with the fat of the perfectly prepared pork belly, each slice just kind of melted in the mouth.

All in all, Raurich finds an interesting balance of Asian small plates within a Spanish tapas context, and Dos Palillos was one of those places that, while serving Asian food, was still uniquely Spanish. It wasn't so much any one dish that completely floored us, but the sum of the parts added up to what was probably one of the most memorable meals we had in Spain.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Inopia

I'll confess: Inopia was a Gwyneth Paltrow pick, from her e-newsletter Goop. This is a lot to admit to, as we hated every episode of On the Road Again we watched (as did Anthony Bourdain, apparently): the incessant yapping just didn't fulfill the potential that you would have expected from Batali and Bittman on board.

Her Barcelona picks, however, came out on during our first day in the city, which was enough to pique our curiosity. Inopia was one of her top picks for tapas (we couldn't make it to the local pick, Commerc 24), and its location - away from the general tourist areas, east of El Raval in the Sant Antoni/Poble Sec area - was appealing. The fact that it is run by Ferran Adria's brother, Albert, didn't hurt either.

We had heard that it was impossible to get into Inopia if you didn't show up around the 7/7:30 opening time. We weren't sure whether to believe the hype or not, as 7/7:30 is insanely early for dinner in Spain; most people don't seem to eat until closer to 10. It was a good thing we didn't chance it, though, because the place gets packed as soon as its steel gate opens.

As with most places, Inopia has its menu, and then a slew of daily features written on the chalkboard. Many places have English menus, but Inopia does not. We relied pretty heavily on our server's basic English, and he did a pretty good job of explaining the choices to us whenever he could, though the high volumes meant we were guessing most of them. There are also pictures of popular dishes hanging from the ceiling, and little chalk pictures on the chalkboard. To round out the decor, there are guest-book tags in Jiffy marker all over the tiled wall, with pictures of famed celeb chefs (or just plain celebs) posted as well. These ones are of Ferran Adria, and Gael Garcia Bernal/Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu/Javier Bardem; pictures of Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, etc. flanked them, with copies of an El Bulli book were perched above.

As I mentioned in the last post, we always ordered the tomato/garlic bread, mostly to balance out the other tapas dishes.

For instance, the bread goes pretty hand in hand with a plate of nothing but anchovies in oil. As many writers have noted, Spain is one of those odd places where canned or preserved foods are often as appreciated as fresh food, and anchovies are a great example. Inopia had three or four different types of anchovies to choose from, and we picked the higher grade. This meant it was a bit less salty, and less earthy tasting than most anchovies I've had.

We also picked white asparagus which you could buy in jars from Inopia - it seemed like they canned/preserved them themselves. I've seen white asparagus plenty of times here, but never quite as thick as the ones we had in Spain. Inopia served them with a light hollandaise sauce, and they were a great clean counterpoint to the anchovies.

Bacalao is another preserved mainstay. It's basically a salted cod fish, but in many variations. We had bacalao salad with tomato, and as with everything, it was swimming in olive oil... but in a good way.

Croquettes are a universal item on tapas menus as well. We picked a standard, stuff with potato and Iberian ham. These were among the better croquettes we had, where the outer shell was thin and delicate.

The other potato dish that seemed ubiquitous at every table was the patatas bravas, which is potato chunks, cut like larger hash browns chunks, served with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and mayo. I don't really get the appeal, but I suppose it's like ordering fries as a side.

As one of the many daily specials, Inopia featured ribs. Instead of your standard pub food short ribs, though, these were rabbit. They were great: gently fried, moist, and light enough to eat in large quantities. Served with a mayo/horseradish type sauce.

Our server really pushed this cheese dish, and for good reason: the cheese, torta Cañarejal, is insanely creamy, and a gold medal winner at the international cheese competition. The closest thing I could compare it to is obviously brie, but this was much creamier, and served lukewarm instead of the usual oven-hot baked brie. An excellent finish.

While not at Inopia, Albert Adria is the pastry chef at El Bulli. There didn't seem to be anything remotely close to that end of cooking at Inopia - not that I'm complaining - but here's a video of Albert Adria doing his thing, in support of his recent book, Natura (also featured in one of the Bourdain episodes):

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Barcelona Eats: Taller de Tapas

We spent our first dinner in Barcelona at Taller de Tapas, which was tucked away in one of the many squares off Las Ramblas, one of the main pedestrian drags that caters to tourists and locals alike. The place is a real maze, so we picked what looked like the least touristy place. As we found it later, Taller de Tapas is a chain of tapas restaurants, with numerous locations spread around town.

The first thing that we had to order was a plate of jamon. It's hard to critique one plate of jamon to another: not much bad one can say about perfection.

The other thing that jumped out was razor clams. I used to eat alot of these in Texas, but for whatever reason, I've never seen them on a menu in Canada (apparently you can get them at T&T or at Chinese restaurants depending on the season). This is the first of a recurring theme. If you've never had them before, they taste sort of in between clams and geoduck. Here they were just steamed with a bit of olive oil, which I like: most seafood shouldn't be messed around with too much.

This was a plate of tomato/garlic toast, which seemed like a pretty common side order at most places. While the tomato and garlic were pressed into the bread here, many places just give you a plate of toast, a sliced tomato and a bit of mayo/aioli. This version was one of our faves. Again, simple without too much fuss.

Grilled sardines are always great. They have a sardine fest in Vancouver once a year; this seems to happen 365 days of the year in Spain.

There's not much to say about this paella. It had two clams, two mussels, two crayfish, and way too much lemon juice. I wasn't overly crazy about it, especially considering the paella we had later in Barceloneta, the beach/waterfront part of the city.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Overdue Pt 2

I would have to be completely socially isolated not to notice the ongoing early/mid 90s nostalgia. Yesterday I saw someone wearing actual Cross Colors pants. I didn't realize that they still made those. I am assuming (and hoping) that the summer heat will lead to an obvious delay in Eight Ball jackets coming back.

On that note, I am thoroughly enjoying this Royksopp/Robyn track. I do remember making fun of someone in the mid-90s for their fondness of Robyn, and stand happily corrected.

Royksopp (w/ Robyn) - "The Girl and the Robot"

I am also quite enamoured with the production on this track:
Blaktroniks - "Angel"

The Overdue Pt. 1

Every now and then I completely obsess over De La Soul's "Stakes is High," which, in my mind, is one of the better hip hop songs through the genre's history - "Every word I say should be a hip hop quotable". This cycle stated anew when the Mos Def cover starting circulating the web.

One of the obvious highlights of the track is Dilla's production, and it's reliance on Ahmad Jamal's "Swahililand." Trying to find the best version of "Swahililand," however, is always a fun task. As far as I can tell, Jamal recorded different versions over and over again. It doesn't help matters much that much of Jamal's output is still out of print.

The easiest place to start is one of the many Dilla original source/sample comps:
"Swahililand" (from some online Dilla tribute)

My other favorite version is on the out of print Jamal Plays Jamal, which isn't too hard to find online:

Saturday, May 02, 2009


At first I was going to write about the ongoing mindboggle that is known as the principal of Keswick High - or, more accurately, why no officials have come out to speak on the issue or reprimand the school officials - but I'd rather expend that energy on listening to version after version of Ahmad Jamal's "Swahililand," which is what I ended up doing.

There's an endless number of different versions of the song - and that's just out of Jamal's own output - but from what I can tell, the one from the out-of-print Jamal Plays Jamal seems to be IT. Thus:

Ahmad Jamal - "Swahililand"

And, for no real reason, the best cover of any song I have ever heard:

El Michels Affair - "Shimmy Shimmy Ya"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cleanin' the Floors

My dog does not seem to like anything overly bass heavy or club intensive. Siren samples are touch and go.

Terry Callier - "Fool Me Fool You"

Wax Stag - "And How"