Spanish Inquisition, Part Dos – Madrid

Image(Dinner at 7? What are we, savages?)

If Barcelona was a failed first date that makes you question whether there will be a second, Madrid was an inscrutable beauty who revealed just enough of herself to leave you lusting for more. One week was hardly enough time to get to know her seductive neighborhoods, and hidden delights, and as with her rival city, we barely scratched the surface of her culinary wonders. But, as we do with most large cities when first we experience them, we sought out the new and the old, the better to get a sense of the restaurant scene. But before we dove into the Spanish new wave, we thought it best to start with a sense of history. And aside from Botin (the oldest restaurant in the world, which we will get to), dining in Madrid doesn’t get more historical than at Horcher.

Gustav Horcher started catering to the carriage trade in Berlin in 1904, but a small disagreement between Germany and the entire western world caused him to re-locate to Madrid in 1942. During this little dust-up, Nazis used Spain as a playground, and Horcher became their favorite canteen, retaining its cache (and customers) from its Berlin days, and staying afloat partly due to the largess of the Nazi High Command. After they were Nuremberg-ed, it remained a haunt of the rich and famous, despite the ghosts of some of its more infamous patrons continuing to haunt the premises.

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Not being one to let a little Hermann Göering get between me and some jugged hare, appointments were made for our first dinner in Madrid, and it was a doozy.

A meal as irrepressibly old school as Horcher was just the antidote to the inventive gastropubs and formulaic Catalan food of Barcelona.  Walking in felt like entering a time capsule. The thick linens, baroque place settings, and decor straight from the days of “continental cuisine” felt almost like a stage setting for women in Lillian Russell bustles and men in muttonchops.

The surroundings may have been dripping with old money vibes, but the  tuxedo-ed staff was a mix of old salts and eager youngsters, and from gueridons to the duck presses, you knew you were about to be as coddled as a Faberge egg. Those staff were warm and welcoming, everyone with a twinkle in their eye; and the menu couldn’t have been any less modern if it had a tassel attached to it.

Terrine of goose foie gras kicked things off, as did some “Russian style” marinated salmon. From there it was on to two soups, each superb: a sherry consommé and Consommé “Don Victor” — the latter utilizing a press to extract every bit of beef juices from a couple of roasted cuts.

Artichoke hearts were suffused with mushrooms and lobster, and our main courses ran the gamut from beef Stroganoff in Pommery mustard sauce, to the Horcher hamburger (which single-handedly revives the glories of the “Hamburg” steak) to my “Hare a la Royale” — this version being thick rounds of rabbit sausage, so enriched by blood and wine they should’ve been served with their own tax return.

The pommes soufflé were flawless and the baumkuchen (resembling a small tree of layered pancakes, sliced and served mit shlag), was a showstopper — every bite a study in old world richness matching the setting.

One must be cautious in overpraising Horcher. Its style is about as hip as a pillbox hat, and the menu more geared to the stolid appetites of a German trencherman than to those seeking pointless pointillisms or culinary cartwheels. There are no chef visions at work here, and zero tweezers in use. Only classic recipes rendered with care and top-shelf ingredients. Horcher has been doing the same thing so long it would be easy to dismiss it as a culinary relic, but when the food is this toothsome, the service this precise, and the setting this elegant, you would be denying yourself one of the great restaurant experiences in the world.

It’s also a relative bargain, our dinner came to $447.00/couple including three bottles of wine from a list with plenty of great Spanish selections for under a hundred euros.

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Horcher was just down the street from our palatial digs (Hotel Wellington), which, perched between the tony Salamanca neighborhood and the museum district, provided the perfect jumping off point to stroll the city from the El Retiro Park to the Plaza Mayor. It was also convenient to the far trendier Calle del Dr. Castelo, where the joints were jumping (and crowds spilling onto the streets) late into the evening, which is how we found ourselves shivering on an outside table at La Castela late one night to see what the cool kids were noshing on these days.

Image(You…lookin’ at me?)

 We were freezing, but still wowed by the attentiveness to detail in the dishes flying forth from the kitchen to an eager gaggle of customers waiting patiently for the cooks to catch up with them. Keep in mind, entering these cacophonous tabernas at peak times (which seems to be the millisecond they open their doors until well after midnight, is like trying to order food in a rugby scrum on the floor of a stock exchange. Catching someone’s eye and begging seems to be the way to order, and woe to the tourist who doesn’t know exactly what they want they moment they get their seat.

Image(Not seen: me waving frantically)

Somehow we managed to corral a waiter,  and the plates that finally appeared were pretty nifty….such as this asparagus/bean stew (lower left) which was so dense with flavor it missed not a thing by containing no meat:

Image(Bean there, done that)

Others also held our attention: teeth-testing chicharrónes (bottom center), croquetas bursting with béchamel (not pictured), the mandatory anchovies, the best clams of the trip, and an octopus paella (top row right) which were just the rib-sticking ticket on a blustery night.

All of it enjoyed in an atmosphere resembling a subway car at rush hour. La Castela convinced us that Spaniards must love crowds the way a Swede loves solitude, since jostling to get served seems to be their favorite indoor sport.

Our late night snack, which ended up being at least six courses plus wine, ended up costing $80/pp.

Image(Spaniards enjoying lunch, at dinnertime)

By the time we got to lunch at La Maquina Jorge Juan we were firmly acclimated to the Spanish gustatory customs — which, in winter, treats the midday meal as something to enjoy as the sun is going down. So it was late one afternoon when we whisked to a corner table in a restaurant packed tighter than a conserva tin, and started eating around 3:00 pm.

Unlike most of our other destinations, there was no advanced planning for this meal; we were simply hungry and it was right in front of us and looked good. And boy was it. La Maquina is part of a local chain of “The Machine” restaurants specializing in fresh seafood, and we were happy we stumbled upon the crispiest pan con tomate of the trip:

Image(This delighted me from my head tomatoes)

Among other things like extraordinary olives and anchovies, spicy sobrassada chunks,  gorgeous, fork-tender artichokes, those langoustines (below), and a snowy halibut fillet quivering between slightly underdone and perfection. It was our most unexpected meal of the trip, and serendipitously one of the best.

Image(p.m. not a.m.)

All served by a harried staff who nevertheless were friendly, helpful and on their game. As a side note, over two weeks of eating in Spain, in establishments ancient and trendy, large and small, cheap and wallet-bending, we didn’t have bad service, anywhere.

When the dust settled, the damage was $191/couple, the tariff mainly increased by those scrumptious, fresh-from-the-sea Norway lobsters.

 

As you can tell from these travelogues, when we are in any gastronomic capital, we tend to toggle between the newfangled and restaurants dripping with tradition. Which is why we booked it later to that night  to Botin  since it can lay claim to being the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world.

Botin’s cooks have been slinging roast pork and lamb at customers from the same antiquated ovens since before the United States was even a twinkle in Ben Franklin’s eye.

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The food is very simple and mostly pretty good. The star of the show — roast suckling pig — comes out as crispy and meltingly soft as you’d expect from some place that’s been doing it for three-hundred years. But the bread is pretty basic (the Spanish have nothing on the French when it comes to baking); the tripe stew was gloppy, gummy and bland; and the roast lamb more bones than meat. The garlic and egg soup and scrambled eggs (Revuelto de la Casa) were nothing to shout about, either, and as we repeatedly found in España, salt, pepper and spice seem to be anathema to these kitchens.

In retrospect, we had a ton of fun, the wine was reasonable, the servers were great, and a bucket list check-mark was dutifully applied. But I wouldn’t return for the food.

Our bill (with sherry and two bottles of wine) came to $165/couple.

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After dining among the ghosts of Goya and Hemingway, it was time for a youth movement. And a tasting menu (something we swore to avoid on this trip). Which is how we ended up sampling ten courses of Canary Island-inspired cuisine at Gofio – an envelope of a space tucked into a narrow street (C. de Lope de Vega) in the Barrio de Las Letras (Literary Quarter) neighborhood, a few blocks west of the Prado.

Image(From the sardine can school of restaurant design)

The room is tiny (see above); and the food as modern as the streets are ancient. A succession of small plates,  each highlighting a series of flavors central to the islands’ identity which frame the chef’s oeuvre. But to Chef Safe Cruz’s credit, there was little pretense, most things worked, contrivances were few, and the meal proceeded seamlessly from one course to the next, with a palatable amount of preciousness and explanation.

One website described the menu as envelope-pushing. There certainly was a fair amount of twee this, gelled that, and small plates where a lot of punctiliousness was employed. Gofio stands for the stone-ground flour used in tortillas on the island(s), but we didn’t see a lot of that, or carbs for that matter. That said, most of our dinner was a delight.  But if you’re looking for a course-by-course dissection of the meal, with dishes described in granular detail, you’ve come to the wrong place. (Besides: by the time you read this, everything will have changed. To a bite, though, everything clicked, the flavors were suitably bite-sized, compelling and vivid.)

Image(So. Many. Small. Bites.)

And the Canary Island wines were a revelation: a white Malvasia Volcania — aromatic, bracing and citrusy — a perfect foil for the small bites of seafood, while the red — a Taganan Tinto blend — was elegant and ripe, putting one in mind of a slightly herbaceous Central Coast Pinot Noir .

Restaurants like this is rely on so much plating and technique, you leave slightly dazzled but also dazed: What did I have? That seafood soup (bottom center above) was intense, but what was the seasoning? Oh yes, remember course number four….was that the little pasta in a dashi-like broth? The skirt steak draped with crispy jamon (bottom right) was fabulous, especially with that dusting of what was it? And what were those mojo sauces came with the raw tuna?  Where did they come from again? And what was that orange jelly made of? And so it goes.

Slowly but surely, you lose the plot on everything from the sauces to whatever was in that exquisite little dumpling.

So it goes, for a couple of hours and then you’re done with nothing but a blurred memory of tastes which lose their uniqueness in the blizzard of flavors before and after they hit the table. Of course you loved those starters (the crunch, the freshness, what was that?) but four plates later, who remembers them? Tastes memories quickly fade when faced with savories in rapid succession.

Do people eat like this anywhere but precious, Michelin-chasing restaurants aimed at bored gastronomes and award whores? This is chefs cooking for chefs, like jazz musicians playing for each other. The hornswoggling has to stop sometime, but in Spain,  in 2024, it remains in full flower, and if you insist on eating slightly exotic food in tiny portions, Gofio is the way to go.

There are two tasting menus (95 and 125 euros_ and we opted for the larger one, which, for cooking this precise of ingredients this special, is a flat-out steal. Not to sound like a broken record, but the wines were a bargain, also, and the kids running the joint were a treat.

Image(“Oh no, there’s a Boomer approaching!”)

Arima Basque Soul is one of those taverns catering to an in-the-know clientele in a trendy neighborhood (Chamberi) jammed with bars and restaurants, all of which are far too hip for silver-haired Boomers simply looking for a good plate of grub. Its owner is from San Sebastián and the inventive tapas are firmly rooted in the Basque catechism which holds there is not limit to what you can do with small bites of finger food.

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A long, narrow bar leads past a wall of pickled vegetables to a modern, spotless back room with a giant photo mural of an elderly lady overseeing the proceedings at only five tables.  We didn’t order the txuleta (T-bone) steak and probably should have, but the small bites we did get (charred, piquant piquillo peppers, Beasain black pudding, and some intriguing anchovies served with a green chili emulsion and olive oil beads (below), which is basically a de-constructed “Gilda” — the ubiquitous olive-pepper-anchovy pintxos named after a Rita Hayworth movie  – wherein she plays a character who is by turns salty, spicy and sassy.

Concluding with some beautifully aged Manchego, hauntingly subtle cheesecake) were probably the closest you can get in Madrid to a San Sebastián tapas crawl.

Image(Deconstructing Rita)

It was also where more reverse sticker shock over sherry occurred: when what we thought was a glass of expensive manzanilla resulted in the entire bottle being placed on the table. As we were waving to our well-meaning, it slowly dawned upon our non-Madrileño brains that the price (around 25 euros) was for the whole bottle. And with that, we had no choice but to congratulate ourselves and polish off the whole thing.

That’s the thing about Madrid; Everything was delicious and quite the bargain. I won’t concede gastronomic supremacy to Spain over France and Italy, though, since it cannot compete with Italy’s breadth of ingredients or France’s depth of technique. But there is no doubt that the gourmet revolution of the past thirty years has taken firm hold here, and Madrid is a playground of traditional tabernas holding their own with cutting edge cooking.

When I  mentioned this to several fellow gastronauts (who bought into “Spain is the next big thing” gastronomic mantra of twenty years ago) they were quick to point out to me that “You didn’t go to the right places” and “Wait til you get to San Sebastián.”

Fair enough, but from where I stood, as wonderful as they are, you can’t build a great culinary legacy on anchovies, ham, potatoes, bread, Manchego and Tempranillo.  Perhaps the Basques will change my mind. In the meantime, there are no real losers here, and the delectable debate will rage on.

Viva España!

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Spanish Inquisition – Part One

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As a first-time tourist in any country, I’m usually an easy lay. Buy me a drink of good, indigenous hooch and I’ll lift my skirt. Seduce me with the tastiest local vittles and I’m yours for the asking. Show me your historical sites and I’ll show you my…er…uh…you get the idea.

With Spain though, I left my roll in the jamon not so much begging for more, but rather, wondering if what we ate was all it had to give. It did not sweep me off my feet as much as leave me feeling that our first date might be our last.

Which is another way of saying I liked Spain but didn’t love it. Not the way I’ve fallen numerous times for countries as diverse as Germany is from Mexico.

With Japan it was love at first sensory-overloaded sight. China captivated me with its gritty, cacophony, as did London with its starchy-sexy stiff upper lip. Hell, occasionally I even catch myself lusting for Canada, in all its bland, whitewashed politeness. And Jamaica still inspires bamboo levels of turgidity, even though I haven’t seen her coconuts since 1975.

But Spain was different, and maybe my expectations were to blame.

You see, I’ve been trying to get to España for thirty years and through three wives, but something has always derailed me: lack of funds (the 80s) or lack of time (the 90s), divorces (also the 90s), terrorist attacks, Great Recessions and Covid shutdowns have all conspired to thwart my plans. So when the stars finally aligned late last year, we were off on a trip I hoped would have me swooning more than a flamenco dancer in full vuelta quebrada.

Alas, twas not to be, and therein lies a tale as to why I wasn’t hoping for a return the moment I left — the way I always feel when boarding a flight home from Paris or Rome. Was it the cities themselves? Hardly, as they are fascinating and immaculate. The people? You can’t blame them, as Spaniards may not be Mexican- or Italian-friendly, but they’re darn close.

The wine? Well, it doesn’t come close to the polish of French or the varietals of Italy, but it’s a perfect fit with the food. And cheap! More on this below.

Nope, when all my ruminations were done, it came down to the food, which, for all its savor, failed to stir my soul.

Let’s take our Spanish gastronomic capitals one by one, and try to figure out why…

BARCELONA

Image(El Palatial)

We started in Barcelona, a city I’ve been enchanted by (from a distance) since 1994, after seeing the Whit Stillman movie of the same name.

(Actually, we landed in Madrid, grabbed and excellent eclair and coffee at LHardy, and then bombed around Mercado San Miguel for an hour or so before catching the very fast train to Barcelona the same day, arriving just in time to check into our palatial digs at Hotel El Palace (above) and freshen up for dinner on-premises at the Michelin-starred Amar.

The hotel was everything its name suggested: expansive, old and grandiose, with an eye-popping lobby and solicitous staff, we couldn’t have been happier with our choice. It is also a bit off the beaten track (a half-mile or so from La Rambla), but in a nice neighborhood full of sights and sounds of the city, but also quiet, with a couple of hipster coffee bars on the block, and good shopping just minutes away. With this kind of overture provided by the hotel, Barcelona’s opening act would have to be a showstopper, and unfortunately, Amar, for all of its performative appeal, was not.

Amar checks a lot of boxes: the room is as comfortable and modern as its surrounding hotel is classic. Service was exemplary and there was no faulting the provenance of the seafood.

Image(Amar you ready for some Spanish shade?)

What it seemed to lack was sense of place or warmth, or anything evoking the city it claims to represent. As sparkling as our oysters, and as flawless the fish, it was a meal that could’ve been served in a thousand restaurants around the world. Indeed, we’ve eaten such a meal, a thousands times. The only things that change are the accents of the waiters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Michelin stars are more reliable in Europe than anywhere else, but still need to be taken with a bit of brine. A Michelin one-star in a European capital will have a certain standard of accoutrements and service, and often a menu more predictable than a Waffle House.

Carpaccio to crudo, caviar service, innovative (?) oysters; a little crab here and a free-range there — the progression of courses (straight up the food chain) is so similar they might as well be AI generated. This is not to say the food wasn’t top-shelf, only predictable. And we didn’t travel 5,000 miles to feast on the familiar.

Image(Don’t go to the truffle)

To be fair, certain dishes did command respect: Peas with cod tripe and Catalan black pudding (above, adorned with truffles which brought nothing to the party); white beans with tuna and pancetta; and red prawns tasting like they had leapt straight from the boat onto our plates:

Image(Shrimply irresistible)

Most of it felt like gussied-up peasant fare, and when the formula progressed into high-toned gastronomia, it wasn’t for the better.

Our classic sole meunière —  was draped with the weirdest, whitest beurre blanc we’ve ever seen; spider crab cannelloni proved, once again, that pasta should be left to the Italians; and the most impressive thing about the cheese course was the expandable trolley it came in.

Perhaps is was the jet lag, but we wanted to be blown away by our first bites in Barth-a-lona and weren’t. We left thinking of it as just another exercise in generic dining, brought to you by the Michelin Guide.

Image(Searching…for…selfie wall)

Things got better when they turned less formal the next day.  The better parts of two mornings were spent at La Boqueria, with its sensory assaults tempting us at every step and testing our resolve not to spoil lunch by chowing down on everything in sight.

Be forewarned: in the age of Instagram, half of the hoi polloi is there not  for the food, but rather to photograph themselves filling their little buckets of narcissism. It becomes a madhouse after noon, so get there at 8 am, so you can cruise around (and chow down on your own, personalized Spanish food crawl) for a few hours before the selfie crowd shows up.

The good news is: this being Spain, no one will bat an eye if you want a cerveza at 10:00 am:

Image(Beer o’clock)

On day one, we stuffed ourselves silly with jamon:

Image(Hamming it up)

By day three, we strapped on the blinders and made a beeline to El Quim before a hundred other vendors could tempt us with their wares.

Think of the world’s most hectic lunch counter, located in the middle of one of the world’s most famous urban markets, and you’ll get the sense of Quim’s cacophony. Only in this case, they’re serving patas bravas and croquetas instead of pancakes and hash.

Quim has been called the best Catalan tapas in Barcelona, high praise indeed from no less an expert than Gerry Dawes. What seems intimidating at first (you hang around the counter waiting for a seat(s) to open up) becomes less so as soon as you catch one of the waiters’ eyes and are directed to a stool, then are handed a one-page menu which will fight for your attention with all of the prepared foods and signboard specials tempting you.

We settled on a pork loin sandwich with asparagus, toothsome deep-fried artichokes, eggs with foie gras, and patas bravas for breakfast, forgoing other egg and potato dishes which looked heavenly, but also would have filled us up for the day. Each bite packed a wallop – seriously succulent pork on incredible bread, seared duck liver atop eggs (a belt-and-suspenders approach to richness which will ruin you for bacon and eggs forever), while the fluffy-crisp potatoes were lashed with two competing mayos — one, creamy white, the other possessing serious kick.

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Quim is the sort of place you need to go with a group and order a dozen things. Two people and four items don’t make a dent in its delectation. But it is the first place I would recommend to go to any first time visitor, and the one locale I wish we could’ve returned to.

Which is probably something we should have done instead of cruising through the Gothic Quarter  to our next venue.

Image(Can they be less welcoming?)

Dinner at Can Culleretes (the second oldest restaurant in Spain) was punctuated by a surly teenage waitress and a hostess with all the poise of a hemorrhoid. But the historic rooms were a sight to see and the tariff soft – especially wine, where bottles cost what a glass does in Las Vegas. (This held true in both Barcelona and Madrid, in restaurants both humble and hi-falutin’.)

The food, however (a decent mixed seafood grill, lots of stewed proteins), was one b-flat sensation after the next. Anchovies and olives are everywhere (by day three we decided there must be some kind of law against not serving anchovies with every meal); they put a fried egg on everything; and seasonings are remarkably mild. Anyone who tells you there are similarities between Mexican and Spanish food needs to have their head examined. Mexican food is to Spanish what a habanero is to a bell pepper.

The charms of Culleretes’ famed brandade-stuffed cannelloni also escaped us, and with every bite we kept thinking how traditional Catalan must be the three-chord rock of Spanish food.

But I digress.

Can Solé 1903 redeemed Old Barcelona in our eyes with sparkling paella served by friendly folks who seemed genuinely happy to have us. We arrived a few minutes early for lunch and there was already a crowd outside, pretty much split 50-50 between hungry natives and tourists:

Image(Olé Solé!)

We booked on-line about a month earlier, and, as soon as the doors opened, were shown to the best seat in the house, right under the curtains in the picture above. From there we could watch the steady stream of patrons and various dishes flying forth from the kitchen — all of it washed down with pitchers of white sangria:

Image(Sangria – the official drink of “just one more glass”)

Can Solé is only a block away from the marina so the scents of the shore permeates the food the way it does in all seaside seafood restaurants. (Whether this is an objective fact or simple sensory suggestion is debatable, but briny creatures always seems to taste sweeter when consumed within eyesight of an ocean.)

Our seafood paella was so infused with the sea it was like breathing a spray of salt air with every bite. A steal at 43 euros:

Image(I’m on an all-seafood diet: when I see food, I eat it)

What you’ll find in these old school Barcelona establishments is sticker shock in reverse. The most expensive Spanish wine on the Can Solé list was 34 euros. At Can Culleretes it was 29.50 for a very good Priorat red. Even in fancy joints, the pricier offerings were often well under 100 euros. It didn’t take long to figure out what a bargain wine is in Spain, so our group made no apologies for overspending like a bunch of drunken sailors, since even at their highest, the prices were a welcome respite from Las Vegas’s eye-watering tariffs.

Keep in mind, Barcelona, like Vegas is definitely a tourist town too, but we saw little evidence of price-gouging anywhere, and once you get a few blocks off the tourists paths, you can eat like a local and feel like one too.

Image(Gresca at lunch)

Such was our experience at Gresca — a gastro-pubby hallway of a space so narrow even the vegetables have to enter in single-file. A few blocks west of the tony Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, this shoe box houses a row of four-tops along one cramped wall, and an open kitchen which straddles a second parallel space. The few waitstaff scramble between tables, while in the kitchen, a half-dozen cooks toil away, churning out small plates (not really tapas, despite what the interwebs say) that were the most compelling dishes we had in Spain. Of course, all of the usual suspects were there on the menu, but with a little guidance we crafted a menu of dishes that showed both ingenuity and restraint. A rarity in “modern” restaurants these days.

Rabbit kidneys, sweetbreads, bacon-thin bikini cheese toast, cod “gilda” pintxos, grilled quail, all of it so toothsome we were fighting over the last bites:

Image(Itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikinis)

Image(Thymus be in heaven)

Everything washed down with excellent wines from regions we barely know made by producers we’ve never heard of — which is why god invented sommeliers.

WINE GEEK ALERT: These wines were some of the best of the trip, and we quickly learned Corpinnat is the new Cava. Much as Valdobbiadene has replaced Prosecco, these premium Corazón de Penedès sparklers were tired of being lumped with mass-produced plonk, and have re-made and re-marketed themselves into world-class bubbly.

Image(Life is too short to drink bad wine)

 If Gresca made us feel like an in-the-know local, Lomo Alto brought out our inner carnivorous connoisseur.

What resembles a slightly antiseptic butcher shop upon entering, leads up a stairway to a second floor of capacious booths designed for one thing: to showcase the best beef in Spain. Before you get to your dictionary-thick steaks, you’ll first plow through some beautiful bread, three kinds of olive oil, “old cow” carpaccio with smoked Castilian cheese,  and some of the softest artichokes known to man.

Then the carving starts and you are transported to a higher level of beef eating:

 

The Spanish way to cook beef is basically to yell “fire!” at the meat as it is leaving the kitchen. Need proof? This is what they call medium-rare:

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Make no mistake, though, it was an aged steak for the ages. We did a side-by-side of two steaks (a vaca vieja chuleta – beef aged both on the hoof and in the fridge), the other a very lean, 60-80 day aged strip of Simmental beef from Germany. Neither was cheap. (145 euros and 118 euros) together amounting to about $300 of European, grass-fed beef split between four people. As compared to an American steakhouse (remember, we practically invented the genre), I’d give it and A- for food (the Simmental was as chewy as overcooked octopus and not worth the tariff) and high marks for service, despite the room exuding all the hospitality of a hospital. But I’ll remember that steak and those starters for a long, long time.

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Was Barcelona worth it after thirty years of anticipation? I wish I could say yes, but nothing we ate was memorable enough to draw me back there.

Not to end on a sour note, but much of the traditional Catalan cuisine left us cold. Bread, stews, olives and anchovies are nothing to scoff at, but when you see them at every restaurant for days on end, the template gets tiresome. Anyone expecting vibrant seasonings, or a little spice with their ultra-fresh ingredients will quickly discover they’ve landed on the wrong shore.

In spite of the gorgeous Gothic quarter, the shimmering seafood, and those steaks, and the tapas of Quim and the precision of Gresca, we left Barcelona feeling there wasn’t much left for us to try.

Before you take me to task, I know all cities are full of surprises, and a single visit barely scratches the surface. Perhaps next time someone like this big guy will show us a range of flavors we didn’t experience.

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After all, some of the world’s greatest romances started with a whimper instead of a bang.

This is the Part One of a two-part article.

The Best Restaurant in Town

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Quality is always inversely proportional to quantity. – Lionel Pôilane

There are passion restaurants and there are money restaurants.

Passion restaurants are imbued with a feeling — a personal connection between staff and client — which is palpable. The people behind them are to the kitchen born, and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

Restaurants in it solely for the shekels betray themselves with a vibe (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so) which says, “you’re just a number to us.”

Ferraro’s is a passion restaurant; Raku is a passion restaurant; Tao is a money restaurant. Esther’s Kitchen began as a passion project but is now about to morph into the Denver Mint.

To be “The Best Restaurant in Las Vegas” you have to treat cooking as a religion, not a job. To be the best at anything, you have to be driven by something other than profit. When you think about things that way, the field gets very narrow, very quickly.

Before you jump down my throat faster than slippery bivalve, no one has to remind me that all taste is subjective and “the best” of anything is a concept more nebulous than a Donald Trump stump speech.

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My idea of what makes a restaurant “the best” are probably far different from yours. By “the best”, I mean an eatery of quintessential excellence, which brings a spiritual intensity and machine-like consistency to the table. Decor means little or nothing to me; service is important, but not primary; and the dazzle factor must all be on the plate.

Your idea of the best in town might be a plush, no expense spared beef emporium, dripping with umami and testosterone. Or it could be an elegant Italian, smooth as Gucci leather, where they always know your name and the pasta is nonpareil. Perhaps you put a greater emphasis on intensive care service, or cartwheels in the kitchen. Some of us seek adventure in eating; others crave familiarity. But there are standards, and we at ELV are here to uphold them.

So, for purposes of this discussion, these are the essentials…

Things it must be:

Singular, i.e., not part of a chain, a group or empire

Chef-driven

Food-focused

Made-from-scratch-centric

Quiet

Comfortable

Seasonal

Small

Serious (but not too)

Things it must not be:

Too big

Too popular

Too corporate

Too commercial

Too many recipes

Too many clowns – as customers or in the kitchen

Filled with men showing off or women whooping it up – but I repeat myself

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Twenty-four-seat Japanese restaurants (with seven-seat sushi bars) are as far from a money restaurant as the Fountainebleau is from VRBO.

Which brings us to a sliver of a space, impossible to see from the street, tucked into an obscure corner of Chinatown. It sits behind a tire shop and to the left of an obscure Persian restaurant. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can be standing right in front of it and not know you’re mere feet away from a gastronomic trip to Japan –without the language barrier or a 13 hour plane flight.

Beyond the noren, the front door at Kaiseki Yuzu leads you into a dark, narrow hallway, decorated in spare, Japanese style, leading to the 30 seat kaiseki restaurant at its end. To your left (inches from the threshold) is a curtain leading to those six seats (above) and the most personally-crafted meal you can have in Las Vegas.

What chef-owner Kaoru Azeuchi (pictured at top of page) and his wife Mayumi have done since moving into this shoebox four years ago is remarkable. Not only have they garnered a James Beard Finalist nomination, but they have raised the bar for Japanese food in Las Vegas in a manner not seen since Mitsuo Endo opened Raku back in 2008.

Group_SabinOrr_014_For_Web.jpg(Soy good you’ll be wasabi yourself)

The kaiseki menu (above) — hyper-seasonal and glorious in its own right — is the main point of the restaurant. For the uninitiated, kaiseki is a very particular form of Japanese prix fixe dining (originally for the nobility), centered on precious ingredients, sourced at the peak of flavor, and fashioned into minimalist, edible art. Kazeuchi is a master of the craft, using the food chain (from the humblest of vegetables to the most exotic beef) to provide him a palette from which he creates masterpieces both visual and edible. If more beautiful food exists in Las Vegas, we haven’t found it.

The sushi bar at Kaiseki Yuzu wows you in a different way. The menu is the same price ($165/pp) as the $165 Chiku kaiseki, with fewer proteins than or the more luxurious Shou ($210) set. The emphasis at the bar is on Osaka-style sushi and pristine fish — an omakase experience where you sit back and enjoy the ride, because each of the ten or so dishes placed before you will concentrate your senses on the sublime expression of each ingredient.

Image(Yuzu need to come here)

 

Image(Osaka to me, John)

Chef John Mau (above) — a Michael Mina veteran — has commanded the sushi space since it opened last August. With a helpful assistant at his side (shout-out to Olivia!) he slices, dices, and explains everything from the five Zensai bites which start your meal to that impeccably chosen sushi to the Kanburi (yellowtail)  in a hypnotic shabu-shabu broth, whose crystalline appearance belies its potency.

Image(Souper douper)

Deceptively simple is a phrase often used to describe Japanese cuisine — where much more is always going on than meets the eye. So it is here with everything from the translucent rice to the immaculate fish. Even something as prosaic as a spicy tuna handroll is given new definition by being chopped before you, and barely folded into napkins of nori — echoing the sea in all its vegetal, sweet and saline glory.

Having a chef  in such close proximity, in the presence of such unsullied seafood, makes this a personal experience unlike any other in town.  The windowless room (very Japanese that) wraps you like a warm hug, and the gestalt of all three combines to make you do one thing: think about sushi like you’ve never considered it before. Every nuance is heightened; every bite attains a higher purpose — a commiseration between the animals which sustain us and the humans who enhance their taste. All done while making food delicious enough to send a happy shudder up my spine.

Image(Ricely done)

There is an intimacy born of a great Japanese dining experience which the West rarely approaches. It is born out of trust and respect between chef and customer. You are placing yourself in their hands (literally), and both sides recognize a bond created by what the chef will hand-craft to please, enlighten, and nourish you. The rawness of the cuisine, and its insistence upon absolute freshness, coupled with the hand-molding of almost every course demands this level of faith.

Japanese chefs make food taste most like itself, all while making it appetizing and beautiful. There is a distillation to the essence of things which informs their cuisine. There is no place to hide in a Japanese meal. If you give yourself over to it, you start appreciating why French chefs in the latter part of the last century flocked to Japan. It wasn’t only because the Japanese were micro-plating food decades before any Frenchman had heard of tweezering micro-greens. It was because this is high amplitude restaurant food in its purest expression. Kaiseki Yuzu is the closest thing we have to a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, and it is right on our doorstep. There is no more unique, delightful, or passionate restaurant anywhere in Las Vegas.

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