I just got back from another visit tramping across the whole north of Spain – my fourth trip this year! This was a mixed trip of both Chefs and managers, and it was the first time Barcelona’s Culinary Director, Adam Halberg, and I co-hosted the journey. At the last minute Sasa decided to join; he said he couldn’t miss out on all the fun with the “A team,” which consisted of Helton Da Silva (Fairfield Sous Chef), Scott Quis (Stamford Executive Chef), Herman Allenson (Stamford GM), Eyhab “Happy” Hatab (SoNo’s Executive Chef), Adam and myself.
Spain’s culinary hotspots are located in its extremities and it would take 2 1/2 weeks to literally “see it all.” Adam and I planned a tour through the north to northeast, the area of Spain with the highest concentration of high quality wine appellations, and a big swing in cuisine styles. The day we landed, jet-lagged but excited, in Bilbao, we ate at a traditional “sideria” – a place known for serving Basque apple cider and simply grilled steaks and fish.
We decided to walk our way there and go past the famous Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao’s most important landmark. It was amazing to see how this museum transformed the neighborhood around it, once an industrial city without much decorum, now with modern art sculptures poking around every corner. Otherwise, all my experiences with Bilbao show that it is the quiet city of Spain fueled by hard-working citizens running on a more traditional family schedule, leaving the weekends free for dining out, and the remainder of the week for time at home.
Traditional neighborhood eateries, like Asador La Gabarra where we ate, are the most reliable and enchanting places to dine in Bilbao, unless you want the opposite end of the spectrum with a place like Zortziko with fancy, modern food served in precious little portions. Although we would have loved to dine there, that food does not correlate to the Barcelona style, so the sideria was the perfect spot.
The next morning we awoke bleary-eyed and headed to our first winery: the Ulacia winery in Getaria, a small family owned bodega that makes refreshing and fizzy Txakolina. Learned a lot here, it was my first visit to a producer in Txakolina! The winery was established in 1940, fifty years before the D.O. of Getariako Txakolina was established. Needless to say, they were a benchmark producer when the appellation was creating its regulations.
The real treat in Getaria, though, is a seafood lunch on the pier overlooking all the fishing boats. Once seated, bottles of Txakoli hit the table immediately (water is an afterthought in this country) and the meal consisted of a few ensalata mixtas and three types of whole fish grilled on the outdoor wood burning grill – monkfish, turbot and hake. All were prepared with garlic, olive oil and lemon, perfect compliment to the dry white wine.
That night, we drove the 20 miles down the coast to the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian. San Sebastian is “famous” for having the best pintxos in Spain, but is awash with many mediocre eateries that heavily abuse mayonnaise; Because this is my ninth trip, and because we have eaten at well over a hundred of the tiny “tascas” – tapas bars – that line the streets, by now we have a game plan.
La Cuchara de San Telmo was by far the best place for tapas in the old part of town. This was not a pintxos bar, it specialized in hot tapas that were ordered. Our favorites were “Queso Ahumado” – baked Caña de Cabra goat cheese with a crisp caramelized sugar cap and pesto sauce; Fried pigs’ ears pancakes with jus; braised beef short ribs and plancha grilled Foie Gras (with unknown sweet sauce). Everything was simply prepared, minimal ingredients, but managed to be decadent and satisfying, exactly the kind of food we like to serve at the restaurants.
A few other highlights of the night were La Cepa, known for cheesecakes, oddly, but the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. We also had their manchego and jamon croquetas, that were super creamy like little béchamel balls. Lastly, after several wrong turns wandering around, finally found Sasa’s favorite, Ciudad Contal where we sampled a rustic tomato and tripe stew.
On the next day, our most ambitious day of the trip, we went over the Sierra Cantabria mountain pass and down into Rioja where we visited the properties of CVNE including Vina Real, Contino, and the Cune winery in Haro. We enjoyed a traditional roasted lamb lunch in the afternoon at the Cune winery and hit the Calle Laurel in Logroño that evening for tapas. Calle Laurel is famous for tascas that specialize in making only one tapa, like grilled mushrooms served on sliced bread. Our favorite was a tiny bar that only made fried pig’s face, both greasy and delicious!
Day 4 was the big traveling day, from Rioja to Priorat. We stopped in Zaragoza to visit one of our goat cheese producers, that showed us around the cheese making facility and made us a fabulous lunch with different cheese tapas and roasted baby goat as the highlight. Had our top meal that evening in Falset at Celler l’Aspic, an upscale restaurant that makes ingredient driven Catalan food. I coaxed Sasa into ordering a bottle of 1996 Vega Sicilia Unico…it was only 160 euros! We paid over $300 a bottle for that vintage in the US, so it was a bargain, not to mention, deliciously breath-taking.
While in Priorat we visited Clos Mogador, a legendary winery in Priorat. Although Rene Barbier (owner and winemaker) was listed as our contact for the visit, I half expected someone else to show up, like an export manager or equivalent.
Pleasantly surprised that Mr. Barbier himself appeared, took us on a tour through his vineyards, tasting at his winery, and lunch at his son’s restaurant in Gratallops. The details of this visit will be better explained in a second, follow-up blog titled, “The Second Best Day of Gretchen’s Life” (first being the birth of daughter, Madelyn, but this visit with Rene is a close second).
We unfortunately had to cancel our visit to Clos Figueras because the our 2 hours of allotted time with Rene Barbier became 6 hours and brain functions were way down after that – so down that on our drive to Barcelona that afternoon, our two vehicles got separated, and in an attempt to reconnect, Sasa, Adam Helton and I were doing multiple laps around a round-about just before getting pulled over by the police. We blamed it on the 1997 Clos Mogador at lunchtime (just kidding).
Our trip ended in Barcelona for two full days of non-stop eating. As always, the Mercado de la Boqueria (my number one favorite site in Barcelona) was a highlight.
We ate at Kiosko Universal where items off the plancha are the specialty. Scrambled eggs with fries and shaved foie gras torchon…says it all. Also had wild mushrooms a la plancha, simply prepared with olive oil and green onions, white beans a la plancha with lamb sausage, grilled langoustines, and fresh mussels with salsa verde. Everything we ordered was incredibly fresh – the restaurant gets all its products for the day from the market its sitting in, so everything is beyond the best ingredient you’ve ever tried, prepared very simply. And this was just breakfast!
However it was our afternoon at Vila Viniteca that sealed the trip perfectly, where we sat in a cellar for 3 hours sampling the best cheese, jamon, and chorizo that Spain has to offer. Literally, the most rare and expensive appetizers in Spain! We tried an incredible cured Bonita tuna, fresh Spanish mozzarella (same as the Italian version, but Spanish cows), the best salt cured anchovies ever made (be on the lookout for these to show-up at Barcelona!) and several Gran Reserva Pata Negras, chorizos, lomo, and cured sausages.
As with every meal in Catalunya, we washed it all down with “pan con tomat” which is grilled bread with raw garlic rubbed on the slices, and tomato pulp squeezed on top, plus olive oil and sea salt. At this point Sasa was sick of Spanish wines, so we dashed over to the enormous wine store (also a part of the Vila Viniteca) and I picked out a 2006 Coulee de Serrant Savennières, the pinnacle amongst all the wines we drank with lunch.
We finished the day, as if we needed any more food, at Cal Pep, a famous restaurant in Barcelona for always being packed with a line out the door. We managed a reservation in the dining room that only had six tables, and two waiters hurriedly moving around the tight space. Fun service was the real reason we came here, our waiter was quick witted and kept the pace moving along great.
So what does this all mean for our guests at the restaurants back in the US? Chef Scott plans on featuring more egg dishes in the tapas selection, provided he can find super fresh farm eggs with the bright orange yolks like we had in Spain. He also enjoyed how all the bars displayed their fresh produce for the house specialties, be on the lookout for mountainous piles of wild mushrooms or a leg of jamon at the bar.
Herman plans on bringing the service energy he experienced at Cal Pep in Barcelona to his dining room, not to mention his new found expertise on the wines of northern Spain (I think Priorat is his new favorite). Also, we ALL discovered the value of a well made gin and tonic, or as its called in Spain, a “gintonic,” and Herman plans on making sure all gin drinkers get the full monty experience of the official drink of our trip.
Chef Happy is going to be making some Vila Viniteca inspired Charcuteria, particularly a new house-made Chorizo. He also plans on putting lots of free pintxos at the bar, like in San Sebastian, so anyone drinking at the bar during the early evening will get some special treats. And in true Happy fashion, he’ll be featuring a fried tapa made with pigs’ ears and face, proving he can make scary food not so scary anymore, once again. And for me, be on the lookout for bottles of Laurona to have a “Gretchen Selections” label on the back, as we are now direct importing Rene Barbier’s Montsant property, one of my crowning achievements this year.
Until next time…